Joe Brolly's altruism sets an example and a challenge to all of us
SITTING in the principal’s office in St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan last August, Colm O’Rourke wore a broad smile when Joe Brolly’s name came up in conversation.
“I like him as a person,” O’Rourke said of his RTE side-kick. “You know, I said to Joe that I liked him far better when he had two kidneys.”
O'Rourke's unexpected quip prompted the most fulfilling kind of belly laughter.
For a while, I’d wanted to interview O’Rourke about his career in football and in the media. Joe was the intermediary.
He got in touch with O’Rourke on my behalf and he agreed to do it.
‘Don’t f*** it up,’ was Joe’s kindly advice.
The hour-long interview with the big Meath man was well worth the journey to rainy Navan.
He spoke candidly about his playing days, the GAA's controversial Sky deal, the GPA, Brian Dooher and Tyrone football.
He also gave a perfect summation of his Derry friend.
With almost fatherly affection, O’Rourke said: “He is RTE’s biggest asset – he’s a liability at times as well, but he does give the show a certain status in GAA society.
“The people who hate him for his opinions all want their photograph taken with him. They all want to chat to him.”
He agreed that Joe crosses the line occasionally in analysing the performances of players and managers in an amateur setting.
“In Joe’s view, nothing he says, to him, is being personally vindictive. He doesn’t see that,” O’Rourke added.
“He can be quite insulting but he couldn’t understand why anybody would be insulted by him.
“But what I do like about him is he is willing to do a lot for people and he doesn’t want anything out of it for himself. He’s willing to give of himself.”
When the interview concluded we stood outside the reception area looking out at an empty school playground.
The kids were still enjoying their summer holidays.
“When he’s signing autographs, I keep telling him: ‘Joe, this isn’t real you know. The Sunday Game will go on long after we’re gone.’
O’Rourke spoke with genuine fondness for Joe…
For a long time I didn’t know what to make of Joe Brolly. The first encounter – via text – ended quite abruptly.
The previous Sunday he’d launched a stinging attack on the-then Armagh manager Paul Grimley for his tactics.
My reason for getting in touch with Joe was to offer him a right of reply as Grimley had a dig back at him through The Irish News pages.
He told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t wish to comment further. And that was that.
I felt Joe had over-cooked his criticism of Grimley at the time, just as he did when Sean Cavanagh rugby-tackled Conor McManus in Croke Park.
He criticised The ‘Gooch’ for his below-par performance against Crossmaglen Rangers a few years ago and, under questioning, blamed it on an imaginary American tourist – the chief witness in his newspaper column - who just happened to saunter into O’Moore Park to be thoroughly underwhelmed by the Kerryman’s perceived greatness.
For a few years he was sore on Kieran McGeeney’s managerial abilities.
I always speculated Joe’s acerbic analysis of McGeeney had something to do with a conversation they had at Eamonn Coleman’s wake when ‘Geezer’ told Joe he never came close to fulfilling his potential as a footballer.
Joe can never be accused of going with the flow.
In an interview I did with him last year, he explained the unconscious process of him becoming an independent thinker.
“One of the good things about me leaving home at 11 and going to St Pat’s, Armagh and ploughing on to university in Dublin, I became an independent thinker.
“I’d to work it out for myself. I was away from home. I was on my own. And that’s when I became an independent thinker. It was probably the best thing about boarding school – maybe the only good thing about boarding school because it was pretty grim.”
Even independent thinkers could use an occasional filter.
Then again, maybe the nation takes Gaelic football and what Joe has to say about it too seriously.
To be consumed by Joe’s views on football is to misunderstand him.
His raison d'être is much more important than that.
Championship Sundays come and go and we’ll always look forward to the next one.
And we will continue to moan and groan – and nod in approval – at him.
Joe’s greatest gift is how he has used his media profile in the most positive, uplifting manner.
He campaigns ceaselessly on numerous fronts, including organ donation, cystic fibrosis and homelessness.
He’s displayed staggering generosity and human decency and sets an example - and a challenge - to all of us, particularly in an age where the individual pushes ruthlessly ahead and the common good gets forgotten about.
In many respects Joe’s altruism has done much more than the vast majority of those holding public office.
And yet, there are many within Irish society and in the GAA community that remain sceptical, cynical even, towards Brolly’s 'do-good' nature.
Brolly’s campaigns, they mutter among themselves, are shows of vanity, of ego.
Is there not a quieter way to do good things?
Gerry Carey, a Down man and the youngest-looking 56-year-old on God’s earth, works tirelessly and far away from the media spotlight in the Newry and District area promoting and celebrating volunteerism every day of his life.
He created the Shining Light Awards – now in its 10th year – where amazing acts of altruism in the community are acknowledged, where ordinary citizens do extraordinary things for the elderly, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed.
I attended one of the Shining Light gala nights a few years back and couldn’t help but be moved by the countless community projects whose common focus was to help their neighbour.
Gerry Carey, currently recovering in hospital after an accident, is a remarkable man. An altruist.
Joe Brolly has one advantage over Gerry. He has a public platform and he uses it judiciously.
Joe is forcing the right kind of philosophical debate within Irish society.
He challenges elected representatives and policy makers.
More importantly, he challenges us to be better people and to think again about those less fortunate than ourselves.
On Sunday afternoons in the summer he might put your head away.
But Sunday afternoons aren't real.
They're escapism, a nation's hobby, where mischief isn't far away on our television screens.
Sundays wouldn’t be the same if Joe wasn’t in the thick of them.