Joe Baldwin travelling on, carrying the dreams of a child, forever into the light

‘The clot was the size of a golf ball’

Fermanagh manager Joe Baldwin. Picture by David Fitzgerald / Sportsfile
Fermanagh manager Joe Baldwin. Picture by David Fitzgerald / Sportsfile

IT’S approaching tea-time on Monday, just six days out from the Lory Meagher final at Croke Park, and Joe Baldwin is sitting in his car in Kilrea staring down at six hurling sticks in the passenger side.

Looking down at these six pieces of perfectly planed ash stirs something in him.

How is it that ash and stitched leather affect a man so deeply? Hurling is his passion and his salvation.

Deep down, he knows he shouldn’t be anywhere near a sideline.

Try stopping him.

“I had a stroke earlier this year, I live in a beautiful part of the world, I’ve got job security, I’m a member of Castlerock Golf Club – there are so many reasons not to do it.

“I love spending time with my partner Francis, I don’t spend enough time with my son Darragh who turns 21 this year – all the things that you should be doing.

“But then you jump in the car and you see a hurling stick. I remember being in Ballygalget at a match and I was listening to the Ballygalget team warming up.

“That sounds silly, but I was listening and hearing the sound of the ball… There is no better feeling in the world than striking a ball from 60 yards out and watching it sail between the posts – nothing better.”


HE was standing in the street talking to two work colleagues in Portstewart one day in January and, as with all things, the chat turned to camogie and hurling.

“I just didn’t feel good,” Joe recalls. He cut short the conversation and got back to his house.

Being a nurse, Francis recognised the symptoms immediately.

‘I know what this is, Joe.’

They by-passed the local doctors and went straight to Coleraine hospital where he received treatment for a stroke.

He read Feargal Logan’s interview with the BBC last week about how the joint Tyrone manager collapsed at home.

“I read Feargal’s interview, and it was an important awareness piece.

“It could happen to anybody. I was just fortunate I was so close to the hospital.”

Three weeks later, Joe was in the Ballinamore stand mic’d-up to his assistants on the sideline, Daithi Hand and Peter Galvin, as the Fermanagh hurlers opened their NHL Division 3B campaign with a convincing 1-26 to 1-5 win over hosts Leitrim.

Led by John Duffy and Luca McCusker, the Ernemen breezed into a 0-15 to 0-1 half-time lead. It turned out to be a stress-free afternoon for him.

“The stroke was an inconvenience,” he says. “I had to get better as quickly as I possibly could to get back onto the hurling field.

“I almost feel if there was a plane crash you’d just have to survive, you know? There’s something in you that you just have to keep going. You have to be doing something.”

Five months on, and with another appearance at Croke Park beckoning, he still doesn’t feel 100 per cent recovered.

“I went back to the hospital for a review and I actually saw the scan. If I sent you a photograph of it, you’d say, ‘you’re mad’. Maybe we’re all a wee bit mad.

“The clot was the size of a golf ball. You just feel, it’s not going to get me down, it’s not going to beat me, and I keep things as normal as I possibly can and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Joe and Conal Baldwin pictured together in Croke Park.
Joe and Conal Baldwin pictured together in Croke Park.

SOMETIMES Joe finds himself looking at the Fermanagh boys on the field at St Michael’s College in Enniskillen and thinks of Conal, his son who died on Christmas Eve in 2012.

Conal had myocarditis, a rare underlying heart condition. He suffered a seizure and despite the best efforts of the medical staff at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, Conal passed away. He was just 12 years old.

“I probably see a lot of Conal in the boys of Fermanagh – the age profile of a lot of them would be very similar to what he’d be today – 23 or 24-years-old, the prime of their lives.”

You ask if he’s a religious man.

“I would be spiritual, probably not as religious as you possibly could be but when Conal passed away, I prayed almost every day trying to find answers for something that you can’t explain.

“How a young boy with his whole life in front of him... He wanted to be a teacher, he knew how he was going to do it – 12-years-of-age. A very, very humble child.”

He adds: “I remember at Conal’s wake, it was Boxing Night and a nun came to the house and she said my relationship with Conal was no longer physical – it was now a spiritual one.

“And just by her saying that to me, I seen it in a different light. It was almost the realisation that I wasn’t going to have a physical relationship with him anymore. It wasn’t just me – it was Joanne, [Joe’s ex-wife; they remain good friends] and my son Darragh.

“On Christmas Day morning having to go to Daisy Hill and stand with two police officers to identify my son, you feel then that you can face anything in the world after that.

“There is nothing out there – spiritual, physical, mental – for however long you live, that’s going to be as horrendous as losing Conal. It’s just not going to happen.”

Fermanagh's Ryan Bogue and Longford's John Casey during a Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nickey Rackard, Lory Meagher Cup Final media day at Croke Park in Dublin30 May 2024; Lory Meagher Cup finalists Fermanagh's Ryan Bogue and Longford's John Casey during a Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nickey Rackard, Lory Meagher Cup Final media day at Croke Park in Dublin
30 May 2024; Lory Meagher Cup finalists Fermanagh's Ryan Bogue (left) and Longford's John Casey (Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

HE might be a hurling nomad, but Joe Baldwin has Waterford blood coursing through his veins.

His father Pat was a fisherman and decided to lay down an anchor in the village of Kilkeel where he struck up a friendship with Cork man and local school principal Jerry Sheehan, also father to current Down senior hurling boss Ronan Sheehan.

Hurling was Jerry and Pat’s shared passion. Like father, like son, Joe and Ronan were handed the torch, played together at An Roicht and won Feile ‘86, with Joe at full-back and Ronan full-forward.

“Growing up in Kilkeel the same way as I did,” Ronan Sheehan says, “and at the same time as I did - and coming from a hurling family like mine - it was more than just a game.

“It was who we were, it was our identity, a way of expressing ourselves at a time when people didn’t want us to do that.

“Joe probably sees himself on a bit of a mission, an evangelist spreading the gospel, very similar to how our fathers did in difficult times in Kilkeel.”

In 2004, Joe had a tumour removed from his bowel which brought a premature end to his playing career.

Making a full recovery, he coached the Down camogs in 2008, enjoyed a spell with the Antrim camogs, spent the biggest chunk of his coaching career at Queen’s, then later with Loughgiel, Crosserlough, Ballycastle and Cloughmills and currently with Kilrea camogs and the Fermanagh senior hurlers.

Nearly everywhere he’s gone, he’s squeezed silverware out of the players he’s worked with.

He remembers taking a crowd of children to Ballyhale years ago and Conal asking TJ Reid what was his most important medal.

At that stage, TJ’s All-Ireland medal haul was probably in double figures - and the Kilkenny legend replied: ‘The next one.’

TJ’s answer was as instructive to the adults in the room as it was to Conal who’d posed the question.

Joe lost a Lory Meagher final with Fermanagh in 2020 before coming back 12 months later to lift the trophy.

“Joe lives and breathes it, he’s totally devoted to Fermanagh hurling,” says long-serving captain Ryan Bogue.

“Don’t get me wrong, there have been loads of good people involved in Fermanagh hurling before him - but he just gives it that little bit of extra professionalism and enthusiasm that we needed.

“The commitment the man gives is unbelievable. He’d be leaving his home in Coleraine at 4.30pm and not getting home until after 12.”

It’s sadly a recurring theme that when the Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher finals come around every year there’s a sense of them being rushed out the doors of Croke Park as quickly as the finalists have come in.

Just over a week out from Sunday’s Meagher decider with Longford – a side they’ve beaten (Division 3B) and drawn with (Meagher group stages) this season – Croke Park informed them their game was being moved from Saturday to Sunday.

The Fermanagh hurlers already had overnight accommodation booked at Dunboyne Castle, everything was in place, the team’s itinerary nailed down to the nth degree – until they had to go and cancel everything and re-book a different hotel because Dunboyne Castle wasn’t available on the Saturday night.

“You talk about respect? Our game is on Sunday at quarter-past-12 – who’s really going to get down the road at that time to support you? You feel that they just want this done and dusted.”

There was a press call for the McDonagh, Ring, Rackard and Meagher finals at Croke Park on Thursday – only three days out from the games themselves which squeezed the media’s ability to properly cover the respective finals.

Joe says there is no team in any code in the country that works harder than the Fermanagh senior hurlers – their pitch sessions, their gym work, recovery, nutrition, sports psychology, everything.

Only nine of the Erne squad live in the county. Liverpool-based Caolan Duffy has been travelling home for games and even flew back for training earlier this week.

Last Friday night, the county board organised a meet-the-players event in Lissan, the county’s training centre.

Sean Corrigan collected £10 from each of his Fermanagh team-mates to buy sloithars for the kids who turned up on the night.

“To play hurling, you’ve got to be dedicated. It’s a lifestyle choice,” Joe says.

“Sometimes I look at the players and feel they could get a little bit more respect. There was no launch of the competition and my very first fight this year was trying to retain our league status because the CCCC proposal was to do away with the leagues. The proposal was defeated but I feel it’s in the post and will come again.

“You don’t cut away the lowest hanging fruit and expect us to say nothing. You’ve as much a right as anybody else to represent your county whether you’ve two teams in the county or 20.

“People say it’s only Fermanagh, it’s only the Lory Meagher Cup – it’s not, this is our All-Ireland. This is for us. This is what we believe in. This is what we’ve worked for over the last nine months.”

When the Fermanagh hurlers gallop onto the holy ground of Croke Park around noon tomorrow, Joe Baldwin’s work is virtually done.

He will make sure he takes the time to gaze up at the sheer awesomeness of the place, remembering TJ Reid’s words, and he’ll think of the kindly nun who explained to him on that grim night that his relationship with Conal was beyond the physical.

“I do hear his little voice in my head during games and maybe if things aren’t going your way, he’ll say: ‘Sorry, daddy, I can’t help you today. This is sport. This is how it was designed.’

When Conal died on Christmas Eve in 2012, Joe, Joanne and Darragh’s world smashed into a million pieces.

“This could have gone two ways,” Joe says. “I mightn’t have put a hurl in my hand again or I was going to use it, albeit as a coping mechanism and to be true to myself, hurling is a coping mechanism. I felt that Conal would want me to do it.”

Maybe Joe Baldwin is mad. But he’s a good mad.

A hurling evangelist in our midst with a stash of hurls in the car, he’ll keep travelling on the road, carrying lightly the dreams of a child. Forever into the light.

“Would it be selfish to say you had 12 wonderful years and you wanted 12 more? Absolutely not. But we’re so grateful for the time we had with him." - Joe Baldwin on his late son Conal, who passed away in 2012.
Conal Baldwin, Joe's son, who passed away in 2012