GAA Football

Time Out: Why Brendan's magic memories are always worth hearing

Brendan Doyle and his wife Sally have lived in Artane, outside Dublin, since 1963 - but their heart remains in County Down
Neil Loughran

THERE is no set time, nor any specific day when Brendan will call. It’s usually in the morning but it could be twice a week or once a fortnight. On the odd occasion a month or two might even pass depending on what’s happening, or not happening, in the world.

A conversation might last five minutes, it might last 50. There are days it could easily carry on for hours. No matter when the call comes though, it is always welcome, and never moreso than in the past year.

For many, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned everyday life on its head. Daily contact with those outside your own four walls was swiftly and suddenly withdrawn. The sporting outlets that so often dictate a week’s rhythm no longer offered the promise of social congregation, much less a pint to savour special moments.

By his own admission, Brendan Doyle’s lot hasn’t changed a great deal as a consequence of Covid. Over the last few years he has mostly been getting about with the aid of a walker, seldom venturing too far from his home in Artane.

Yet while Brendan’s legs may not carry him as far as they once did, a remarkable memory can instantly transport him back to any place he has already been; his precious archive carefully stored and filed, the key always at hand.

It is still open for business, too. The Irish News, ordered into the local shop, Jay's, is collected by wife Sally in the morning. Upon her return, each page is devoured – back to front, of course - his thirst for information as great at 85 as it was in 1947, the first time he recalls perusing the paper’s pages.

Brendan Doyle has fond memories of playing against the likes of Paddy Doherty, as well as following the great Down of the 1960s on their road to glory

After that, Brendan picks up the phone. Every Wednesday he’ll call Tom O’Hare, his best friend and half-back on Down’s all-conquering team of 1968. Ross Carr is another with whom regular chats are enjoyed.

Some days, presumably when he’s fed up speaking to men with All-Ireland medals, he’ll give the likes of myself or my colleague Andy Watters a shout.

From that it would be easy to draw the conclusion that Brendan loves to talk. This is not strictly true - somebody who loves to talk is often somebody who loves to be heard. That is not Brendan. Rather, he is a communicator and always has been.

This is how we first came into contact. It was a Monday morning in September 2018, a few days after an article appeared marking the 50th anniversary of Down’s ’68 success.

He may have lived in Dublin since work as a surveyor took him to the capital 58 years ago but Brendan Doyle is a proud son of the Mourne county, Hilltown forever home.

Those sides of the Sixties illuminated a generation, mere mention enough to stir the soul still, not least because his two sets of cousins - James and Dan McCartan, Kevin (Brendan’s best man) and Sean O’Neill – were among those to seal immortality on unforgettable days in red and black.

Wembley Stadium, New York, the countless trips to Croke Park. Where they went, Brendan followed as lifelong bonds were built.

Some relationships, though, had already been formed on the field of battle when he was as a nippy right half-forward on the Down championship-winning Clonduff side of 1957.

“We played Cabra in the final - two teams from the one parish. Kevin Mussen was playing for us, Patsy O’Hagan was playing for Cabra. I would’ve played on the same pitch as a lot of them…”

Paddy Doherty is the first name from his lips as his mind races back through the decades, reverence suddenly filling his voice.

“Arthur Doran – your editor Noel Doran’s father - ran a tournament in Annalong and Clonduff and Ballykinlar met in the final. We had a fella to mark Doherty and he did a good job on him for about 59 minutes, then Doherty took a free, it came off the crossbar… there was scaffolding tubes for the post, I remember it so well.

“Anyway it came back out to him and he stuck it in the net. Aww God, he was deadly. Deadly! We used to meet on the corner in Hilltown on a Saturday night, there was one time one of the boys told us ‘Doherty missed a free today’. Everybody was standing, open-mouthed in shock.”

As well as handing out history lessons, Brendan helped create some too as part of the Abbey side that became the first ‘day’ (non-boarding) school to lift the MacRory Cup in 1954. A young Seamus Mallon was part of the CBS panel, while St Pat’s, Cavan boasted the enigmatic talents of the great Charlie Gallagher among many other future Breffni stars.

However, that final is often remembered for reasons other than football after referee Patrick Gallagher tragically collapsed and died early in the second half. The game was abandoned and although the Abbey won the rescheduled decider in Ballybay, Brendan’s thoughts have always remained with the Gallagher family.

“Everybody started to say the rosary but unfortunately he passed away… only 36. God love him. That was awful. Just awful.”

Within days of recounting the story over the phone, his daughter Sinead is in touch with a newspaper clipping from the time, taken out of an old jotter bound in the Abbey colours of black, red and yellow and forwarded at her father’s request.

There are many more like it too. Because for all that Brendan still possesses upstairs, the physical manifestation of a life’s love weighs heavily on an attic floor filled with boxes boasting sepia-tinged cuttings, photos, ticket stubs, programmes and autographs, not to mention shedloads of letters exchanged with the great and the good.

Gaelic football makes up the bulk but boxing is only narrowly overshadowed as Brendan’s premier passion, and any fight fan’s stomach would churn with envy as he reels off some of those highlights along the way.

There was the brutal war between Freddie Gilroy and John Caldwell at the King’s Hall, he saw the majestic ‘Spider’ Kelly in action, was there when John Kelly fell to Robert Cohen in February ’54, the two unforgettable Russell-Larmour showdowns of the ’80s, Jim Watt against his good friend Charlie Nash, McGuigan-Pedroza in Loftus Road, McGuigan-Cruz beneath a desert sky at Caesar’s Palace.

“It was so hot,” he recalls, “Fr Darcy reckons a plastic pen melted in his hand that day.”

Correspondence from Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano, Sugar ‘Ray’ Robinson and Ingemar Johansson remain treasured possessions while, until recent years, he would have often run his eye over Ireland’s up-and-coming talent on amateur shows at the National Stadium.

The all-action style of James Tennyson makes him a must-watch in Artane and the career of another Belfast boy, Carl Frampton, was followed with awe and admiration from beginning to end. When we last spoke Brendan was mulling over his selection for Saturday’s Grand National. I didn’t even know it was on.

That boyish love of all things sport has never left him, nor has the fascination with what makes its protagonists tick.

As another conversation draws to a close, he says his farewells until the next time, signing off in the same modest manner.

“Okay Neil, take care... I hope you don’t mind me calling?”

Brendan - the pleasure is, and always will be, all mine.

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