His spirit will never leave Kildress... Remembering Matty McGuigan, the Wolfe Tones work of art

Tyrone GAA club determined to honour memory of lost leader Matty after his sudden death in Australia

Kildress clubman Mattie McGuigan "Our shining light"
'Our shining light...' Kildress Wolfe Tones player, manager and devoted clubman Matty McGuigan

IT’S warm and peaceful in the Kildress Wolfe Tones ‘Hub’ where Grainne McGuigan and Clodagh Corr sit side-by-side at their art class.

Painting is a welcome and necessary distraction for them both.

Clodagh adds touches of detail and colour to her work - a tree on a hill, its branches stretching out, filling the canvas.

Just few short months ago her boyfriend Matty McGuigan - Grainne’s son - filled these rooms with his happy-go-lucky personality and his passion for the club.

He’s gone now, taken far too soon, but his spirit will never leave this place.

Matty McGuigan in action for Tyrone against Derry in the Ulster Minor Football Championship quarter-final match at Celtic Park. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Matty McGuigan in action for Tyrone against Derry in the Ulster Minor Football Championship quarter-final match at Celtic Park. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET McLAUGHLIN PICTURES / C)

MATTY was brought up in Cookstown but always felt at home in the wide-open spaces of Grainne’s native Kildress.

With older brother Darragh, he spent weekends with grandparents Matt and Collete Tracey out near Beaghmore where the ancient people built their stone circle 6,000 years ago.

Granny Collete spoiled him every chance she got.

“He was very agreeable and easy to get on with,” she says proudly.

“He didn’t fall out with anybody.”

And granda Matt – a stalwart of the Wolfe Tone’s – brought him along on his regular visits to the club. He watched his grandson grow from boy to man and follow in his footsteps on the field and off it. Weekend stays turned to weeks until eventually Matty moved in permanently.

His bedroom is full of pictures and trophies – the watch he won for his hole-in-one at Killymoon Golf Club, the Golden Boot he won for being top scorer in Division Three in 2020, another for being top scorer in Division Two the following year, the photo of him and Clodagh when they arrived in Sydney…

“Football comes into my head when I think of him,” says his granda.

“But there’s a lot of other things. He was good fun, he had a lot of good friends who all stuck with him. All of us here are big into the football and he was so good, he was able to represent the club and represent us – the McGuigan and Tracey families – so well. You’d always have been proud of him and we have so many memories of him.”

Matt was a fine player in his day, as were his sons in theirs and, although he insists his son “didn’t get the football off me”, Matty’s dad Mel is the youngest of Tyrone legend Frank McGuigan’s eight brothers.

So Matty came from good football stock and he played like a thoroughbred as he progressed through the underage ranks with Kildress, reached a MacLarnon Cup final with Holy Trinity College and claimed a starting jersey with Tyrone minors.

Matty's Kildress Wolfe Tones teammates remember their friend and leader at the top of Slieve Gallion in the Sperrins
Matty's Kildress Wolfe Tones teammates remember their friend and leader at the top of Slieve Gallion in the Sperrins

HE became the star of the Kildress senior team and his teammates didn’t think he’d stay long in Australia.

The lure of the club he poured heart and soul into would be too strong, they thought.

“We’ll see you soon Matty,” they joked, as they said farewell to him and Clodagh late last November.

Maybe it was wishful thinking, but they all expected him to be back in his green, white and gold number 13 jersey for the start of this season.

They wanted him back, of course they did.

Matty was the player we all want to be and we all love to watch. That quick, two-footed, skilful forward with the ability to beat a man and send the ball over the bar, or stick it in the net.

His driving ambition was to make Kildress a force at senior level.

He was made team captain at 21, he was organiser-in-chief of team socials, an enthusiastic fundraiser, manager of the minors… Ten days before he left for the other side of the world he even chaired the club AGM. Anyone who’s been involved in any GAA club - any sports club or any community group for that matter - will know how rare that is.

Yes, Matty McGuigan was the heartbeat of Kildress Wolfe Tones and even though they’d all miss him, even though the place wouldn’t be the same without him, everyone wished him well on his travels.

Matty and Ciara celebrate with the Golden Boot as top-scorer for Kildress
Matty and Clodagh celebrate after Matty won the Golden Boot as top-scorer for Kildress

THEY were childhood sweethearts. Clodagh was 14 and Matty was 15 when they got together and they’d toyed with the idea of going to Australia for a while before they took the plunge and booked the flights. The nearer they got to departure, the more nervous Clodagh, from Galbally, became.

But there was no holding Matty back.

“He used to say: ‘Come on Clodagh, we’ll give it a go’,” she says.

So they packed their bags, said their farewells and made the trip Down Under to Sydney where Matty was looking forward to lining out for Cormac McAnallen’s GAC. They arrived on Thursday, November 30 and ‘The Macs’ – one of several eager clubs who had reached out to Matty - helped the new arrivals to settle in.

“We were going to play it by ear,” Clodagh says.

“We were going to give it to April and then decide (if we’d stay) but, unfortunately...

“We hadn’t even unpacked properly but he had his football boots and the jersey and shorts all sitting out for his first McAnallen’s match - and it wasn’t until February! That’s how excited he was.”

On the Saturday evening they went to the club’s social event but, with jetlag kicking in, went home tired and hit the hay.

Clodagh explained the shocking, tragic events that unfolded then with such devastating speed and brutal finality:

“Matty woke up and told me: ‘I can’t breathe’.

“I opened the door to let the air in and gave him a drink of water but then he just fell and he passed away so peacefully…”

Showing extraordinary composure and resilience, Clodagh didn’t give up. For 22 minutes she performed CPR, working on Matty with one hand and, using the other to phone for an ambulance - she even had to Google the number for the Australian emergency services.

Matty was rushed to hospital and Clodagh, following in a police car, was faced with the horrendous task of ringing home and delivering the news that every family with loved ones overseas dreads.

They were praying for a miracle thousands of miles away in Tyrone as Clodagh went into the treatment room where Matty was surrounded by doctors.

One of them – an Irishman – took her to one side: “We’ve tried everything,” he said.

Clodagh told him she knew they had, that she could see the sweat rolling down their foreheads.

“I just held Matty’s hand as they took away all the machines,” she says.

“And that was it…”

Matty's room. A treasure of keepsakes from a life that ended too soon
Matty's room. A treasure trove of trophies and keepsakes from a life that ended too soon

STUNNED and shocked, Clodagh says she had Matty’s strength with her on that terrible night as she took her phone again to deliver the terrible news that has devastated parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings and friends.

Matty had suffered a heart attack and no-one saw it coming.

“It was so sudden and it still doesn’t seem real,” says Clodagh.

“It’s very hard but, I suppose, looking back, I’m glad I was there – it was just me and him at the end.

“I think back, everything goes on in my head and I think: ‘What could I have done?’.

“I spoke to people he was with that day, people from the Macs, but he was in his best form ever, top form.

“He told them he was very excited to get work and start playing for the McAnallen Club, he talked about Kildress, he was just so normal and if he’d had pains or didn’t feel well he would have said… I don’t think there was anything.”

With the help of relatives who rushed to Sydney as quickly as possible and the Kevin Bell Trust, they arrived home 10 days after Matty had passed away. His funeral was held at St Mary’s Dunamore on a hill across the fields from his grandparents’ home.

Clodagh went back to her job as a primary school teacher a month ago.

“You can’t hide from the grief,” she says.

“You have to try and navigate through it and I know he wouldn’t want me lying around not working and not doing this (talking). I know he’d want me to get up and keep going because that was him, he was go-go-go… He was a very positive person, he didn’t lie around.”

Clodagh and the McGuigan and Tracey families attend a vigil for Matty at Kildress. Picture Mark Marlow

MATTY’S teammates Michael John Connolly, Dean McNally, Adam Connolly, Philip Lennon and Conor Quinn have gathered at the Kildress ‘Hub’. The superb club facility opened in 2021 at a cost of £1.5million. A third of the money (£501,050) was raised through the sale of £20 tickets for what Kildress and Tyrone Gael Mark Conway describes as “an oul traditional GAA club draw”.

“Matty would have been our Cormac McAnallen,” says Mark.

“He ticked a lot of the same boxes including the way they left this earth. Like Cormac, a serious amount of what Matty did was off the field. That draw brought in over half-a-million and Matty was out tramping the roads selling tickets.”

Intrepid Kildress natives travelled from the Sperrins to the Mournes and everywhere in between to sell tickets and one family in Burren were particularly glad they did so. Adam Connolly explained how Matty and a friend called at an elderly man’s door in the rural county Down parish.

Spotting blood gushing from a cut on his leg, their swift actions saved the man’s life.

“They realised it wouldn’t be long until he couped,” explained Adam.

“So they went into the house, grabbed a dishcloth and wrapped it around his leg and rang the ambulance. The man was minutes away from dying because he was losing so much blood and didn’t realise it – he had fell in the garden cutting the grass. The man said later that the Kildress ticket sellers had saved his life.”

Coaching was another passion. It began when his uncle, Sean Tracey, spotted Matty’s natural leadership qualities and invited him to help out coaching his underage team but it wasn’t long before the roles were reversed.

“I got him to help me with the U10s and we went through the age groups up to minor,” says Sean.

“By the end, he was the man - I was helping him.”

Dedicated and thoughtful, before he left for Australia Matty sent the players in the minor squad a message encouraging them to keep working hard.

“The young fellas were devastated when they heard the news,” his granda Matt explained.

The jerseys the minor and U16 teams will wear this season include the motif ‘Matty 13′ in memory of their inspirational mentor.

Matty McGuigan takes on Caolan Martin of Patrician High, Carrickmacross during the MacLarnon Cup Final at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Matty McGuigan takes on Caolan Martin of Patrician High, Carrickmacross during the MacLarnon Cup Final at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET McLAUGHLIN / McLAUGHLIN)

WHEN the club called Matty, an electrician by trade, answered but he came into his own with a ball in his hands.

Adam’s face lights up as he tells me about the day his friend scored 15 points against Stewartstown in the championship.

“That was the best I ever saw him,” he says.

“He could not be stopped over 80 minutes and he was the best player over every single one of those minutes.

“He was a pure, natural talent and a leader. He could dance in and around anybody and he severely improved when he got to 17/18. I played with him the whole way through underage and he was good but he really kicked on when he went to Tyrone minors.

“That bit of experience stood to him and when we went back to Kildress he was a different animal and he improved every year since.”

He was their star man but, according to Mark Conway, he got the balance right between the social side of the GAA and the playing side.

“Life is about craic and that’s something that we (the GAA) have done wrong with football this last while – we’ve taken the craic out of it and made it too serious,” he says.

“We’ve been saying: ‘You can’t drink a bottle or beer, you can’t do this, you must do that…’ The social side is important but it’s all about balance and the football and the club was the centre of it for Matty.

“He was the best player we owned, he was our star man and everybody we played knew: ‘If we houl Matty McGuigan, we’re well on the way to beating Kildress’.

“Most days Matty went out the last six or seven years he would have been six/seven/eight… maybe double-figures of points. He was the supreme footballer and he would have been a targeted man.”

The more teams targeted him, the better he played…

Matty McGuigan homecoming The sudden death of Matty McGuigan shocked and saddened the Kildress community. Picture Mark Marlow (" ")

A COUPLE of weeks ago, the Kildress seniors got together for a team-bonding day. 52 of them – including Matty’s brother Darragh - climbed Slieve Gallion and when they got to the top they sat and told yarns and remembered the friend who wasn’t there.

There’s a resolve about them now, a determination to honour his memory.

Conor Quinn intended to go to Australia himself this year.

Had things been different he planned to meet Matty and Clodagh out there but, after the tragedy, he cancelled his plans.

“It’s not the right time,” he says.

“I want to be with all the lads and try and enjoy the year. You could say what we’re doing is ‘for’ Matty, but I would say it’s more ‘from’ Matty because he would always have asked us to give the extra 10 per cent.

“Now that he’s not here, that extra 10 per cent we give will still be from Matty and we’ll all give it to Kildress whether it’s on the field or whatever. I know there’s more boys involved in youth coaching now because Matty did it and there’s representatives in the committee room where Matty was before. Each and every one of us will give that bit extra.”

Adam says there’s more unity in the team: “We have come together after Matty’s passing and his spirit is with us.”

You can see that.

Kildress won’t have a number 13 this year.

The jersey has been retired as a mark of respect for Matty, the Wolfe Tones work of art.