Down minor turned songwriter Dónal Kearney hoping Mournemen can hit right note against Donegal
FOLLOWING in the footsteps of an All-Ireland winning team, Dónal Kearney was lucky enough to live out a boyhood dream by pulling on the famous red and black jersey during his playing pomp.
In 2005, a Down minor side boasting the emerging talents of Marty Clarke, Paul McComiskey and Peter Fitzpatrick swept to the Tom Markham Cup, signalling what many hoped would be a bright new era for the Mourne County.
A shot at a sixth All-Ireland crown came and went five years later but, beyond that unforgettable run, Down supporters have had little to cheer since - and Paddy Tally’s men go into Sunday’s Ulster Championship preliminary round as huge underdogs against Donegal.
For Kearney, though, there are still plenty of reasons to sing the praises of his native county heading into that crunch clash.
Now a singer/songwriter, back then the St Peter’s, Warrenpoint clubman was part of the 2006 Down minor side charged with building on the previous year’s success.
Kearney earned a spot after proving his steel as vice-captain of St Colman’s College in the MacRory Cup – including a match up against a certain St Louis’, Kilkeel prospect whose name was on everybody’s lips.
“I marked Marty Clarke - he was just something else at that time.
“He was tall, lean and just so quick… the most unpredictable player I ever marked. You didn’t know what way he was going to run, he could just do something non-linear out of nowhere and leave you looking silly.
“We ended up going to a replay before they won the second game, but it was an interesting experience coming up against him.”
Although the likes of Ballymartin midfielder Fitzpatrick and Burren’s Gerard McCartan remained, Down still came up short against a Cian Mackey-inspired Cavan.
That may have marked the end of his county days but Kearney’s GAA career continued further afield as he went on to captain the footballers of Cambridge University before leading Madrid Harps to the 2010 Iberian Championship.
And although based in Dublin these days, the connection with home has seldom been as strong, especially after a year in which personal relationships and return visits have been kept to a minimum due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a result, his band TRÚ – whose new album, No Fixed Abode, was released last month - has recorded a tribute to his home county.
Originally released by Tommy Sands in 1992, County Down was covered by Irish traditional group Danú but has got the 2021 treatment courtesy of Kearney and his band-mates, Michael Mormecha and Zach Trouton.
“County Down is a song about leaving home and remembering everything you left behind.
“There’s a really striking verse - the fish are jumping in Clanrye River, the fields are sporting in old Glenvale, my heart no longer can lead the cheering, when you're not playing, it's a different game. Oh, can you hear me? Oh, can you hear me as you roam through lonely London town? When evening's falling, you'll hear me calling: Come on home now to the County Down.
"When I sing it, I think of all the players who emigrated, like me, leaving their family and friends behind. But it also makes me think of the club championship of a summer evening somewhere in the Mournes, taking a shoulder from some mountain lad and feeling it for days.
“That's what the song means to me."
And Kearney believes County Down should become an anthem for followers of the red and black.
“Every time we play it, the response is just incredible.
“I remember a few years back people were talking to us about having short performances before GAA matches, basically a form of pre-show entertainment, which you see in some other sports. It makes sense, especially on big Championship days.
“When you’ve been away from Ireland, you do realise the huge significance of the GAA. I grew up playing football, then you go away you become a part of another community because of the GAA.
"No matter where you are, people play with passion - even if it's a brand new sport for them - but it doesn't matter where on the planet you come from.
“I learned a lot about being Irish from living abroad, from sharing my culture with GAA players who hail from every continent; learning about their cultures and listening to their songs. Many of those stories have ended up on our album."
And, despite the odds being against them, Kearney remains hopeful Down can hit the right note when they run out at Pairc Esler this weekend.
“I’ve been following their fortunes from afar and I’m looking forward to watching the game.
“My son Tadhg is three months old, I recently got him his first Down jersey so we’ll be all kitted out on Sunday. You never know in football.
“Things tend to come in waves, and you see other counties who are moving in the right direction because of years of planning and preparation to get there. I’ve no doubt Down’s time will come again.”