Sean Brown and Patsy Kelly’s only crime was that they were very good at helping others: Peter Canavan

Brendan Crossan sat down with the Tyrone legend and reflected on what the GAA has given him

Tyrone Star Peter Canavan who has taken over Canavan’s Bar , formerly Kelly’s with business partners Martin Strawbridge and Stephen Doherty at Garvaghy in Co Tyrone.
Former Tyrone star Peter Canavan, who has taken over Canavan’s Bar, formerly Kelly’s Inn, discusses a life in GAA PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

SATURDAY morning and there’s a stiff breeze as you head towards the back entrance of Canavan’s, formerly Kelly’s Inn, in Garvaghey.

A few people are in for breakfast as the sun splashes its glory on parts of the spacious restaurant at the front of the premises.

Ilona has worked here for nine years – just one of many staff members who have stayed on under the new owners.

She’s quiet and polite. A full Irish, toast and piping hot coffee.

Peter Canavan is running a few minutes late. You browse the drinks menu on the table.

How about a Ballymacilroy Bramble or an Errigal Martina - vanilla vodka, kahlua, espresso and sugar syrup? Or The Gaffer or the Perfect Point?

Canavan arrives. A firm handshake and a smile. There are nods and hellos to a few patrons. The new co-owner makes time for anyone who approaches him for a chat.

He began his teaching career in 1993 at Holy Trinity College, Cookstown and is still there today spearheading the school’s Foundation to raise £1.5m towards a much-needed new build.

He coached the MacRory Cup team alongside Maghery’s Stefan Forker and Galbally’s Ronan McGeary this year. He’s enjoying his punditry work with RTE. He’s vice-chair of Errigal Ciaran and coaches the club’s minor team.

He’s also leant his influential voice to the families of Sean Brown and Patsy Kelly in their ceaseless pursuit of justice and desires a new, re-imagined, safer A5 road.

Over the Easter period, he was out in Zambia with a bunch of school children celebrating the work of the ‘Tyrone School Zambia’ in Lusaka through the Spirit of Paul McGirr charity where, he says, they helped teach the locals how to “jive and play handball” while also improving their sports facilities.

And if all that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, he’s gone into the hospitality business with partners Stephen Doherty and Martin Strawbridge.

“The Kelly family had the business for decades and Patsy was ready to move it on,” Canavan explains.

“The opportunity came, and I was glad to be involved with two business partners, Martin and Stephen. Their background is hospitality. They know the game inside out. It’s a challenge but it’s one I’m looking forward to.”

Before leaving the dining area to show me the bar, Canavan helps Ilona re-arrange a few tables.

The bar area is unmistakably rustic and wall-to-wall GAA memorabilia. Everywhere you look you’re surrounded by encased or framed magnificence and memories of a career that was pure gold.

Canavan gives The Irish News a mini tour of this part-bar-part-GAA-museum. They are the kinds of walls you could stand beside and reminisce for hours on end.

Tyrone Star Peter Canavan who has taken over Canavan’s Bar , formerly Kelly’s with business partners Martin Strawbridge and Stephen Doherty at Garvaghy in Co Tyrone.
Memorabilia on display of Peter Canavan's unique career. The Tyrone man has taken over Canavan’s Bar, formerly Kelly’s Inn, with business partners Martin Strawbridge and Stephen Doherty at Garvaghy in Co Tyrone. PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

One image catches Canavan’s eye.

It’s Owen Mulligan and himself deep in conversation over who would take the last-minute free against Armagh in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park.

Canavan, as it turned out, declined his Tyrone team-mate’s generous offer and from the daunting shadow of Hogan, the Errigal Ciaran clubman arrowed the ball between the posts at the Hill 16 end.

Armagh were finally slayed.

Would ‘Mugsy’ have kicked it over the bar?

Canavan shoots back instantly: “He would have put it over, surely, because I would trust him.”

Overhead, dozens of GAA jerseys are pinned to the ceiling of the bar – all either worn by the great man or swapped with an opponent at the end of battle.

If jerseys could talk...

He points to Sean Kelly’s Antrim jersey from a 2003 Ulster semi-final at Casement Park and a few others above us.

“I’ve a couple of Armagh jerseys,” he says. “There is one on the far side that belongs to Benny Tierney and that one above us here could well be John Rafferty’s.”

Rafferty’s is a heavier cloth jersey – an illustration of how Canavan straddled two eras of Gaelic football before retiring in 2005, aged 35, with two All-Ireland winner’s medals and six Allstar gongs.

“All this is a mixture of family, club and county. There are international jerseys up there too – games I enjoyed immensely playing for my country.

“There’s a hat here that my father wore; he would’ve been regular enough in Kelly’s in days gone by.

“The best nights our club ever had were held here – the night we took the O’Neill Cup back to the parish [in 1993] for the first time in 60 years, we’d a few nights in here that will never be forgotten.

“When Tyrone won Sam Maguire for the first time, the homecoming was in Omagh, but we stopped here because we had meals and meetings in Kelly’s before those games...”

With so much going on in his life, you imagine that at 53-years-old, there’s still another big management job in him.

But you’d be wrong. He left the Fermanagh footballers in 2013 after two enjoyable but challenging seasons. He spent a year with Cavan Gaels alongside Kieran Donnelly whom he describes as a “brilliant coach”.

Together, they won a county championship with Gaels in 2014.

“It’s great to win elsewhere but it’s not the same as winning with your own.”

Ten years on, Canavan has no desire to return to managing a top inter-county team or club side.

“I don’t see myself having the heart for it. I’ve invested a lot of time into the club the last few years, as a player, as a coach, as a manager and now as an administrator and I can see the benefit my own family has got out of playing for the club.

“I see the good that it does for this area. We’ve plans for a third pitch up at Dunmoyle, so the future is very much on making the club as stable and as strong as possible going forward.

“I have two lads and two girls playing for the seniors, so it’s great to see them playing as well.”

He adds: “The level that inter-county football is at now – not only are you managing 30 players, you’re also managing 20 adults in the backroom team. You’re responsible for all those people and that you’re adding value to the whole set-up.

“Everybody is different with pressure. Some people embrace it and relish it but the pressure of dealing with different aspects places a lot of serious demands on you.

“That’s why I have to admire those people who are fully committed, and it helps that you don’t have any other job or distraction because it is time-consuming… From time to time, opportunities have come your way and it’s great to be asked but if you’re not doing it for the right reasons then you shouldn’t be there.”

In explaining his reasons for staying away from the sidelines, by extension, he answers another question, having stated some years ago that he would never manage his sons Darragh and Ruairi.

Darragh has been Tyrone’s stand-out player this season, alongside goalkeeper Niall Morgan, while Ruairi has made some cameo appearances in a decidedly turbulent season for the Red Hands.

Darragh Canavan, left, and Ruairi Canavan of Ulster University celebrate with their father, former Tyrone legend Peter Canavan, after victory in the Electric Ireland Higher Education GAA Sigerson Cup final match between UCD and Ulster University at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

Kevin McStay, the Mayo manager, probably gave the best summation of Darragh Canavan after their Division One meeting in February at Healy Park.

The elder Canavan was absolutely exhilarating on the night, landing 1-4 in a hard-earned win for the home side.

“Darragh is an absolutely superior player,” McStay said. “He’s got everything. We didn’t realise how tough he was.

“In that first half he was fighting for his own ball. He’s a marvellous player. His father before him was a marvellous player. Yeah, he’s different gravy. He sure is.”

Canavan has no regrets about making that declaration a few years back, even though the prospect of him hooking up with Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan again always seemed feasible.

“I just think they have a right to make their own way in life and in sport without the hang-ups, or the baggage or the trappings that go with it.

“A lot of that is nonsense anyway,” Canavan says.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have that; I saw others with it, and I didn’t like what I saw when family members were involved.

“And all the social media stuff. It’s easier for them [without me]…”

He adds: “Football is one component of their lives. Football doesn’t define them. There’s much more to them that people don’t see beyond the football pitch.

“If they wanted to be anything else, they would have had my blessing. They’re doing it because they want to do it and they enjoy it.

“It leaves everything else more straightforward when you’re not as heavily invested in each other. I think I can be of greater assistance by being removed from the set-up.”

And viewers who have sensed Canavan’s discomfort in the RTE studios when anchor Joanne Cantwell asks how his two sons are playing for Tyrone these days would be misreading the situation entirely.

“I’m happy enough,” Canavan smiles.

“Maybe I don’t look happy enough, some people say, and I seem to get uncomfortable. Maybe that’s just me!

“Look, if you weren’t being asked about them, they mightn’t be playing well, and the time will come when I’ll have to speak about that too.

“It’s much easier speaking about them when they’re being commended.”

As Tyrone enter the Ulster Championship arena in Breffni Park on Sunday, they’re a team that carry the vibe of vulnerability.

Their form-line in 2024 has been impossible to predict and are unrecognisable from the team that claimed their fourth All-Ireland just three seasons ago.

Retirements, injuries, a host of rookies in the starting line-up and the keenly felt absence of co-manager Feargal Logan from the sidelines, due to ill-health, are probably factors in Tyrone’s erratic form.

So, where are Tyrone at ahead of Sunday’s Championship opener?

“You’re left scratching your head to be brutally honest. We probably don’t have the physicality of previous teams, there are a lot of younger players in there who are finding their feet too.

“It’s worrying that there’s not the strength in depth when you’re missing a few players, as we found out against Dublin [a 21-point NFL defeat in Croke Park].

“Two years ago, as All-Ireland champions, we played Derry in Omagh and Derry won by 11 points [in the Ulster Championship].

“Now if you look at those two teams, have we closed the gap? Has Derry kicked on? Have we stood still or gone back? Has there been any improvement? You can’t say for certain. Derry have certainly kicked on...

“Coming into this Championship, would it surprise me if Tyrone beat Cavan by five or six points? No. Would it surprise me if they got beaten by five or six points? No, it wouldn’t.”

The GAA means as much to Canavan as it ever did. He believes the association will always be a force for good and from time to time, he feels, it must show courage in areas beyond the playing field.

Prior to Tyrone’s visit to Celtic Park to face Derry in a Division One game in early February, Canavan was one of the speakers at Free Derry Corner, a rally organised in support of the families of Patsy Kelly and Sean Brown who were murdered in deeply suspicious circumstances in 1974 and 1997, respectively.

The UK Government’s controversial legacy act will come into effect on May 1, which will end prosecutions of Troubles-related killings and inquests originating from the conflict.

The family of Sean Brown and legal representives outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast . PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Bridie Brown, the wife of Sean Brown, with his daughters Siobhan Brown (left) and Claire Loughran (front right) outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast . PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

“Sean’s daughter, Claire Loughran (nee Brown), is U14 girls coach in our club. To see the way that family has been treated years after Sean’s death is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t stop them from becoming immersed in the GAA and doing good and helping others.

“Likewise, I’ve a sister lives down in Trillick and since she’s moved there the name of Patsy Kelly has often been talked about and the hardship the Kelly family has endured.

“Two people no different than any other club doing their best. Their only crime was that they were very good at helping others. I would have seen it as an honour to speak out on behalf of the families.

“These things are about citizenship, about right and wrong, it’s standing up for right,” Canavan replies in relation to the GAA becoming involved in political campaigns.

“It is much easier for sport and politics not to mix but from time to time there is a moral judgment to be made and that’s a question for your own conscience. If you hold a position in a club, you have to show strong leadership.”

At different times, Canavan has thought about entering mainstream politics – but those thoughts were always fleeting.

“When you’re playing sport at a serious level, you play to win. I would have been irked when others weren’t fully committed.

“Politics is the same where people dabble in it because it maybe looks the right thing to do and, for me, it looked the right thing to do, but if you’re not fully committed then don’t be in it.

“If you’re not prepared to lift the phone to somebody at 12 o’clock at night... There were times I possibly felt like it, but I didn’t seriously consider it because you could be at football seven nights a week. I didn’t want to be in politics seven nights a week.”

Outside the front door of the newly christened Canavan’s, cars rush by so fast along the A5.

Since 2006, 54 people have lost their lives on this treacherous stretch of road, and many more before that.

Local people are lobbying for immediate changes to make the road safer.

In the mind’s eye, Canavan can still see Annie McGirr’s happy, smiling face.

She was a dinner lady in Glencull Primary School. One day she was serving the kids their dinners – and the next she was gone. The A5 had claimed another victim.

As a seven or eight-year-old kid, Canavan still remembers the terrible commotion of that day, principal Joe McCrory running out and the ambulances at the scene.

“Obviously, that left a mark on you,” Canavan says. “That was the first sign of the dangers of the A5 and since that there have been other neighbours that have lost their lives, no distance from the primary school right along the road to Omagh.

“So, when you’re asked to speak about it, you’re speaking from the heart. You’ve seen the sorrow it has brought to so many families. You want to do something to bring an end to it.”

Now a grandfather of two, Canavan is phlegmatic about getting older. The pupils at Holy Trinity, Cookstown and the club’s minor team keep him young. And he gets a great kick out of watching his four kids play ball.

Grandfather. Father. Husband. Teacher. The Holy Trinity Foundation. MacRory Cup coach. Minor coach. Vice-Chair of his club. The punditry. Lending his voice to the pursuit of justice. And now dipping his toe into the hospitality industry.

Life has never been busier.

“When you attach yourself to energy and to causes and people who are naturally positive and want to do things, it makes you feel much better,” he says wistfully.

“And the older I’ve got, you’re quicker to attach yourself to those people and maybe not so quick to negative people who will always find reasons not to do things.

“If it wasn’t for the GAA, I wouldn’t know what I would’ve done or where I would’ve ended up but I know it gives me a great sense of belonging, a great sense of security and it gives me something to look forward to more than anything else.”

Tyrone legend Peter Canavan.
Tyrone legend Peter Canavan.