Kicking Out: Gaelic football is a crutch for the broken, a stitch for the wounded, a hankie for the weeping

Tragedy visited Tyrone minors twice in 1997, as TG4's absorbing documentary 'Tír Eoghain: The Unbreakable Bond' recounted. The players used football as a vehicle to go on with life.
Tragedy visited Tyrone minors twice in 1997, as TG4's absorbing documentary 'Tír Eoghain: The Unbreakable Bond' recounted. The players used football as a vehicle to go on with life.

LAST Thursday in McAleer’s was the first time I’d met Kevin Hughes. You quickly recognise that he’s just one of those infectious influences.

Over the course of two hours, the smile seldom left his face. He and Philip Jordan were in top form as one yarn after the other bounced in devilment back and forward across the booth.

They were recounting the craic they had off the field, from starting out with Tyrone minors in 1997 right through until they retired from playing inter-county at the start of this decade.

There were so many stories that had to be left on the cutting room floor.

That group of players had more great days on the pitch than most will ever experience, winning minor, under-21 and senior All-Irelands, and their off-field carry on helped strengthen the bond to the point of unbreakable, as Sunday night’s TG4 documentary hit on.

But that first of Kevin Hughes’ two years at minor was laced with tragedy, with the death of his brother Paul in a car accident and the loss of team-mate Paul McGirr rocking an entire squad that had its eyes minded by creating history.

Hughes also lost his sister Helen in a separate accident four years later, five hundred yards down the same road.

Just days after his brother’s death, Kevin Hughes made the brave decision to play in the All-Ireland minor semi-final replay against Kerry, and turned in a fitting performance on a day that broke down one of the biggest psychological barriers for the senior success that would follow over the next decade.

In an interview with Michael Foley of The Sunday Times in 2003, he said: “I think the football helped me get over it. If we were sitting around the house that’s all you’d think about. So I’d prefer to be playing. But it’s the worst thing that can happen to anybody. You never recover from it; you just learn to live with it.”

In the absorbing documentary which aired on TG4 on Sunday night, you could see the mixture of pride and sadness in his face while recounting how his brother gave him a hug and told him ‘I’m proud of you, our boy’ as he disembarked the team bus after the drawn game with Kerry, just days before his death.

Several players spoke about the profound impact the tragedies of that year had on them.

Brian McGuigan said death had never visited him before Paul McGirr’s passing. The players were only bits of weans, trying to make their way in football, when they were robbed of a team-mate, a friend, and one of the big characters in a squad full of them.

“I hadn’t cried at all, up until that point that I seen Paul in the coffin [at the funeral]. It just hit me, how a man so young could be took. You start questioning yourself, start questioning God,” McGuigan said.

“I mind after we went to Paul’s house, we went up to a bar in Dromore and we took a few drinks, and I mind myself that night sitting crying in the bar, thinking where do we go from here?”

As a team they grew up very quickly. And while they didn’t want to make winning the Tom Markham Cup a crusade to honour the memories of Paul McGirr and Paul Hughes, that team found strength in the nobility of playing and winning for something greater than yourself.

That’s what the GAA is. It’s bigger than any of us, but it is us. Together its people make it what it is.

Football, in its simplest form, is just a game. Just 30 fellas looking a bit of sport. Something to keep us out of the myriad of potholes that dominate the ground beneath our feet now. It’s become very easy to miss your step in life.

If the interview with Kevin Hughes and Philip Jordan was right up there with the most enjoyable, the one which appeared in Saturday’s edition with Danny Quinn was easily the toughest.

He lost his wife Catherine at the cruelly tender age of 42, having fought for nine years with Primary Pulmonary Hypertension, a rare terminal lung disorder.

The esteem in which the Anahorish Primary School principal is held was evident from the outpouring of love that was directed the way of him and his family over the weekend.

As they grieved, Danny and his three children had each other. They had Danny’s family and Catherine’s family, the Murrays, a huge GAA family in Ballinascreen themselves.

They also had the GAA. Amy’s been taking photos for Bellaghy club of late. Conor kicked a very valuable score on Friday night that helped them save their Division One status. Dara is playing his way up through the ranks.

And Danny’s hand has left a strong imprint on the club. He threw himself into coaching, and this year is the first time in almost three decades he hasn’t had a direct involvement with a team.

People looked upon his Derry career in a skewed way after he was dropped for the ’93 All-Ireland final, but he got as much from football as he’s given, and far, far more than it ever took away.

“I hope other people can see that value in it. Sometimes we look too much for the negative. I look back and say I’ve been lucky. It’s great in helping you deal with other things that have gone on,” he said.

Football helped Danny Quinn immensely. It helped Kevin Hughes the same.

What becomes of the man that suffers tragedy and doesn’t know how to find a new way to live? When the only constant in their life is the thing that disappears, leaving behind an empty void and nothing to fill it with?

In an era where mental health issues are finally starting to achieve the recognition they require if we’re to see an improvement in the services to deal with them, sport and exercise have never been more important.

Gaelic football is a crutch for the broken, a stitch for the wounded, a hankie for the weeping. A reason to get up in the morning and get out of the house in the evening.

It’s not, to disagree with Bill Shankly, more important than life and death. But it can be what helps you find the hope of one from within the despair of the other.