GAA Football

La Salle and Lamh Dhearg's Paul Buchanan - teacher, inspirer, mentor, friend

Affectionately known as ‘Bukey', the Lamh Dhearg clubman insists there were no tears as Claire, his wife of 33 years, picked him up on his last day as a schoolteacher and drove out of the college gates for the last time.

Paul Buchanan who recently retired from De La Salle College pictured at his other love Lamh Dearg GAA club in Hannastown Picture by Mal McCann.

TIME moves on and so too does Paul Buchanan.

No sooner had he danced and soloed an O’Neill’s football down the warm corridors of De La Salle College on Edenmore Drive and officially become part of the school’s celestial past, he was back in St Oliver Plunkett Primary School helping out with the kids’ summer scheme.

You don’t imagine the day ever coming. But it does.

Still only 59, it was his choice to retire from a profession he had a raging passion for. He loved every minute of it.

Thirty-seven years gone in the blink of an eye.

Thirty-seven years moulding, cajoling, inspiring, having fun and nourishing young hearts and minds of thousands that wandered those same corridors and left the place as better people.

It’s impossible to name a half dozen Antrim players without one of them being influenced by this giant of a man.

Affectionately known as ‘Bukey’, the Lamh Dhearg clubman insists there were no tears as Claire, his wife of 33 years, picked him up on his last day as a schoolteacher and drove out of the college gates for the last time.

A few days before he left, he’d noticed some pupils had formed lines down the corridor. He didn’t think anything of it. Ms Wilson, the department head, then invited the popular history teacher to walk down the corridor and enjoy the hoots and hollers of the students, his adoring public.

But Mr Buchanan didn’t walk down the corridor. In true Buchananian fashion, he decided to dance his way down.

Laughing, he says: “I used to do school shows ‘Hey Baby’ and ‘Music Man’ at the interval…so I danced my way down. So that was dead on and about 10 minutes later a few boys started throwing a ball around so I took the ball and I said: ‘Tell you what, I’m going to go down the corridor toe-tapping.’ And I did it in one take by the way.”

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THE ‘Jammy Dodger’ Room (the school’s PE store and resource room) is where it starts every morning. The La Salle gang trundle in one by one.

‘Bukey’ weighs in at 8.15am. Marty Rea’s there. Alistair McGilligan too. Brendy McCarry, Joe McCaffrey, Conor McCashin, Stevie Killyleagh.

The self-proclaimed sporting and cerebral hub of the entire school.

The kettle would be rinsed and refilled.

“Kieran McGourty comes in late. It’s a family trait of being late but he’d arrive in, and the main talk would be sport. That’s what bonded us. It could be the Euros, the Tour de France, GAA, NBA, the Premiership…

“It would start with the clubs – Lamh Dhearg, Rossa, St John’s, St Gall’s – there’d be great, great banter. At times it would get a wee bit serious too! Then at quarter-to-nine you’d get your computer set up, and you’d teach your classes.”

While the rest of the teachers drink their tea and coffee and debate sport’s burning issues of the day, Paul prefers water.

For reasons best known to himself, he’ll have a cup of tea only on Saturday mornings.

A prolific charity worker, he enjoyed playing Gaelic football and soccer.

His father, Bertie Buchanan, was a founding member of the famous junior soccer club St Oliver Plunkett. A big Manchester United and George Best fan, Paul lined out for Barn Youth Club, since disbanded, and had the privilege of playing under the great Jackie Maxwell at Plunkett.

He stretched out his senior career with the ‘Lambs’ until he was 35.

“Well, I could score,” replying to an enquiry into his playing days.

“I knew where the posts were and I didn’t pass the ball too much! Frankie Wilson would tell you that too. I was an out-and-out forward. I would struggle to play the modern game. It frustrates me intensely.”

He carries a driver’s licence but doesn’t drive. He walks everywhere.

He’ll plod the winding road between Dundrod and Hannahstown this morning to help coach the U4s of Lamh Dhearg with Stevie Bunting, Michael Herron, Brendan McCombe and Christopher Nolan.

“It’s four miles there, four miles back. People would stop and offer you a lift, but I keep walking. Nobody ever stops you when it’s raining and you’re getting soaked! I just love walking. It’s my time to reflect and think.

“Coaching the fundamentals at U4 is just pure fun,” he adds. “Keeping them active, keeping them going and doing basic work on their motor skills.”

He discovered a passion for coaching around the age of 17. When Lamh Dhearg floated the idea of building a new pitch around 1984, he reminded the committee that there was no point in turning over a sod with no youngsters to put on it.

“You can’t build anything without foundation, so a number of us decided to build up the whole youth structure at the club and I also believed then that it gave me invaluable experience to teach.

“Coaching, to me, is similar to teaching. You’ve to be a leader, you’ve to motivate, you need discipline, and you must have a rapport."

“He knows what tone to strike with the kids,” says his club-mate and Antrim defender Declan Lynch, “how to talk to them and grab their attention. When he coached our seniors he was able to flip that and speak to the seniors like seniors…I think over the years he got it spot on. And he’s built up massive respect when you see parents dropping their kids off: ‘That’s ‘Bukey’,’ they’d say. ‘No messing about. He taught me.’”

Lynch, who attended neighbouring school St Mary’s, adds: “He was Mr La Salle; he is Mr La Salle. He put his heart and soul into it – not just in sport because you hear so many people saying how he helped them through life.

“He’s respected by all different clubs. I know if you lifted the phone to Domhnall Nugent, Conor Murray, CJ McGourty, Chris Kerr or Daniel Hanna, they’d be saying the same thing.

“He’s Mr Lamh Dhearg as well. He's the MC, he's the fundamentals coach, he’s the DJ and the one getting the kids up to dance at Christmas parties. He is the heartbeat of our club.”

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BORN to Kathleen and Bertie in Cooper Street, he was like any other kid in the district. He played any sport that was going and attended St Gall’s Primary School for the first couple of years of his education.

When the school was closed for a rebuild in the mid-60s, the teachers and pupils temporarily moved to Casement Park.

His P3 classroom turned out to be the county changing room. Each morning they’d be taken out to run around the cinder track with the winners – usually ‘Bukey’ and Michael Seenan.

“If you finished in the first three you got a bottle of Suki orange. In those days everybody got a free bottle of milk and in the crates you got three bottles of orange.”

He didn’t return to the rebuilt St Gall’s school site as he had moved on to St Oliver Plunkett.

His parents were altruists with a moral compass that was handed down like a baton to their four children.

“My mum and dad were always very caring towards the less privileged and less fortunate, and always taught us to respect that what we had was plenty compared to others.

“When my mum and dad died I’d to sort out all their financial affairs which isn’t a nice thing to do. The last Standing Order I had to cancel was Trocaire…

“My father was always interested in working with children and I think that’s what gave me the direction to do the same.”

All roads pointed to La Salle where he received the “best education”. When he graduated from St Mary’s, he took what teaching work came his way.

A couple of secondments at La Salle finally opened the door to a permanent post.

“I was a past pupil and I was so privileged because I was in awe of some of the teachers who, to me, were legends and a huge influence. The likes of Sean McGourty, Danny Fulton, Paul O’Gara, John Allen… I remember when I started teaching there I was in my mum’s every day for my lunch and I thought this was great.”

But it was his history teacher John Allen who influenced him to specialise in the subject.

Fascinated by the First World War, largely because his grandfather fought in it, he also enjoyed teaching the kids about their country’s own bloody past.

“I lived in Cooper Street which was just around the corner from Bombay Street, so teaching about ’69 right up to the Good Friday Agreement was enjoyable.

“I brought Jackie McDonald in, as well as the late Bobby Storey, and Pat Sheehan came in to talk about the Hunger Strike two or three times.

“It made the subject come alive to the children. And more recently I loved doing the Mural Tours through Mickey Culbert where we covered the walls of the Falls and the Shankill. It was just as important for our kids to go on the Shankill as it was the Falls. I just loved teaching the kids about the Troubles and saying that we never want to go back to those days.”

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CJ McGOURTY was a first year in La Salle. A gifted footballer and hurler, he wanted to impress Mr Buchanan more than anyone else in an after-schools game with another first year class.

“You always wanted to beat the other classes, so in this particular game it got a bit heated,” CJ says.

“Probably the individual I was in first year I was ambitious and always trying to win. But ‘Bukey’ had a wee word with me afterwards and just told me it wasn’t an All-Ireland final and that there would be plenty of big games in the school later in the year and over the course of the next seven years.”

In the mid-Noughties, La Salle’s soccer and Gaelic teams were a bit special – not just in terms of raw, natural talent but in mentality and character too.

In 2006, CJ McGourty and Conor Murray were being touted as Antrim’s future stars. The school soccer team claimed a brilliant treble: the league title, Belfast Cup and Northern Ireland Cup – but arguably the biggest feat for La Salle that year was winning their first-ever McLarnon Cup.

It wasn’t just winning it – it was how they won it.

Deemed also-rans after getting absolutely trounced in the group stages by McLarnon favourites St Patrick’s Grammar, Downpatrick, the Belfast students absorbed the harsh lessons and came back to haunt future Down stars Conor Maginn, Paul McComiskey, Jamie O’Reilly and Timmy Hanna in a memorable final at Casement Park.

That year, Bertie Buchanan was seriously ill. What sustained his son in those months was watching the class of ’06 make a friend out of adversity by mounting incredible comebacks to win their quarter-final, semi-final and final games.

“My dad, Lord rest him, went into intensive care and was very ill before the final. The McLarnon run, as an outlet, kept me going,” Paul says.

Despite the looming personal tragedy, the charismatic history teacher, trusted mentor, coach and friend still summoned the emotional energy to help them realise their rich potential on the day when it mattered most.

“Before the McLarnon final ‘Bukey’ reminded me of the after-schools game I got annoyed about," CJ McGourty recalls.

“He said: ‘Do you remember that All-Ireland final you wanted to win in first year? Well, this is the one that we want to win now – the McLarnon.”

La Salle somehow battled back from nine points down and edged ahead by one entering stoppage-time.

Paul McComiskey, however, grabbed a last-gasp equaliser to send the decider into extra-time. But La Salle, as they constantly did that year, found another gear and slayed the Downpatrick lads with four points to spare.

The class of 06 and the winning of the McLarnon Cup, led by Paul Buchanan

“‘Bukey’ was always trying to make you a better person and trying to get you to bigger and better things in life,” says CJ.

“I could probably speak for every past pupil in La Salle, they are indebted to him for the opportunities that he gave us in school and in school sport.”

The class of ’06 left La Salle that summer with a pocketful of medals and memories that never dimmed with time. At his father’s funeral, ‘Bukey’ remembers walking up the hill in Lenadoon and spotting the young legends of McLarnon.

“At that time they’d all left school, so it wasn’t a teacher-pupil thing. That guard of honour they gave my father made me so proud.

“A week before my father died, the boys had gotten a La Salle jersey signed and they came back to me and said: ‘Give that to your daddy.’

“It sits up on the school wall and I’m so proud of it.”

The year of the pandemic was arguably his toughest in 37 years of teaching. Like a parent would for their son or daughter, the teacher grieved for the freedoms the kids lost in 2020.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, he says, it’s the importance of physical literacy.

“I think more people will appreciate sport and its benefits,” says the father-of-four, “being active, your well-being, meeting friends. That was all deprived.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of clubs and there has been an uptake in numbers in terms of children. For me, education has to push physical literacy as much as literacy and numeracy. I think it’s every bit as important if not more.

"Whether a kid is playing soccer, waterpolo, hurling, Gaelic or soccer, if they’re happy at that, they’re going to be happy in the classroom. They’ll bring the same values and work ethic to their school work... there needs to a massive focus on physical literacy from P1 up.

"Some might have said: ‘You’re taking the kids out of school too often…’ it was because in the winter it was getting dark. I can safely say that every child who got out of school to play for the school it never impacted on their academic progress or achievements.

“It wasn’t elitist either because we got many a drubbing but our kids always held their heads up and I always said to them: ‘I’ll judge you when you’re getting beat.’

Marty Rea, who was taught by ‘Bukey’ before becoming a teaching colleague and friend, says the ‘Jammy Dodger’ won’t be the same without the embellished stories and craic of 'Bukey'.

“He was very loyal to La Salle, he was very loyal to Lamh Dhearg, very loyal to his family,” says Marty. “He doesn’t want to take the senior teams, he’ll take the U4s, the U6s. Loyalty is probably the word I would use to describe him.”

“We loved the man,” CJ McGourty simply says.

“We owe him everything. He’s absolutely one of the kind. We had unbelievable school teachers. When I was in La Salle the teachers gave up so much of their time to try and help pupils.

“To last anywhere for 37 years and to enjoy it for 37 years is quite incredible. Teaching is getting tougher, but ‘Bukey’ made it look easy…

“The amount of past pupils that would speak to him on a daily basis shows the legacy the man has. It’s just extraordinary what he’s done in those 37 years, not only teaching children to get an education but also the amount of time he has given to Gaelic Games, to charities…

“I was just lucky to go through the school at the right time and to have him as a school coach right the way through. His legacy will last forever in La Salle and in west Belfast, promoting GAA and charity events.”

As Paul Buchanan walks the road to Lamh Dhearg this morning, he is living proof that one man can be a revolution.

That life can be one of infinite possibilities. As long as you keep striving and keep believing in oneself.

But you must, at all times, enjoy the journey. That is the living, breathing, unrelenting legacy of Paul Buchanan.

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