Kicking Out: Brendan Óg's name will sustain
No matter what way the game may go,
May I part in friendship with every foe.
When the final whistle for me is blown,
And I stand at last at God’s judgement throne,
May the great referee say when he calls my name:
‘You played like a man. You played the game’
- The Footballer’s Prayer
I DIDN’T know Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh. Knew of him. I’d seen him in the flesh once, playing in the 2018 All-Ireland minor semi-final against Kerry in Croke Park, a day when his team-mates played with his own spirit and pushed the grade’s dominant force to the wall.
When news began to break early last Saturday morning that he had been killed in a car crash on his way home from Cloghan after Monaghan’s U20 Ulster semi-final win over Donegal, a cold shiver ran through every GAA house in Ireland.
The image of his sisters Claire and Áine walking him with their parents out of St Macartan’s Cathedral towards his final rest, their hands subtly and gently caressing his coffin as if to say ‘it’s ok, we’re here’, would fill a well with tears.
What we’ve learned about Brendan Óg in the last 10 days is that the thing we knew him for, playing football, was an enormous part of his identity and would have remained so. But it’s never everything.
A table of symbols prepared by his friends and family represented all of what he was.
A family portrait, Brendan in the middle, the centre of the love and laughter that would fill their house, which became the hub after games, when the kitbags would be strewn through the hall and his team-mates gathered.
A hammer, representing his work. When school closed through Covid last year, he went straight to work at Grove Turkeys, and then on to Kingspan. When they closed over Christmas, he took to welding gates, unable to sit idle.
There was the cross and chain, a symbol of his faith that he’d asked his mother Esther to bring back from Medjugorje the week before he died.
His Leaving Cert engineering project, a car registration plate and the three football jerseys of Monaghan, Monaghan Harps and Colaiste Oriel; these were the things that made the young man.
It’s often said now that Gaelic football has come to be an overwhelming factor. That it’s too much, that there isn’t time for it all.
And sometimes that’s true.
But we’re as well to try and hold on, for we’re all identified by something.
There are so many paths to choose from in modern life but still thousands upon thousands of our brightest young people choose the path of sport.
They choose to identify themselves primarily through footballing, hurling, camogie, soccer, rugby, athletics.
It means so much to so many. It is a focus, an outlet, a purpose. If it didn’t exist, what would our purpose be?
Sport, especially GAA, is so important to our identity as a nation.
Hungers and wars and recessions have never been far away but when the ball’s turfed up into the air at half 3 on a Sunday afternoon, we’re able to forget, and be transported to an alternative, idyllic universe where the only thing that matters is beating the shower from up the road.
And then when you meet one of the shower in the shop the next day, he’s not an enemy any more. He’s just the same man as you in a different coloured shirt.
Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh was like so many young men and women in this country. No-one’s entire identity is wrapped up in the game, but the game is what made him so identifiable.
The pursuit of excellence on the sporting field has become our culture. That’s not just the GAA, but sport in general.
At the weekend, you had Emmett Brennan fighting back the tears in Tokyo. The Dublin boxer got into the sport to learn self-defence after a fight at school and dedicated himself to becoming an Olympian.
He quit his job as a pipefitter, gave up his social life and took out a Credit Union loan so he could train full-time to leave himself in the best possible condition to qualify for the Games.
You look at the like of Seamus Coleman, who carries himself with such grace and class that every time you see him on a TV screen, you near burst with pride that he’s wrapped in our colours, that he’s one of our own, out there representing the very, very best of what we see ourselves as.
Ógie, which was all anyone called Brendan Óg, was headed down the same path. That was clear not just from the outpouring of grief but the tales that told of the popularity that matched his ability.
To have been chosen by 24 of his 29 team-mates to captain the minors in 2018; to have been selected to lead the U20s again this year, which he did with such distinction right until the very last, driving the comeback against Donegal.
That this senior captain in-the-making would not make it home from Cloghan that night brought the worst nightmare of every parent to the door of Brendan and Esther Ó Dufaigh.
But you hope and imagine that in the depths of their grief of the last 10 days, they have found strength and comfort from the words of friends and strangers.
And that they may find it for many years because even though his life and football career were cut cruelly short, his 19 short years were full of that purpose.
His family and friends will remember the hammer and the portrait and the cross and the maggots he spilled in the boot of his father’s car before a fishing trip, leading to an infestation of bluebottles that lasted weeks.
We can never all know someone the way a family knows them; nobody mourns the way the family mourns.
No matter how important a sporting figure, it’s always their family that sits down to Christmas dinner with an empty seat.
That doesn’t mean others forget.
The names of Cormac McAnallen, Aaron Devlin, Brian Óg McKeever, Paul McGirr, Johnny Curran and others quickly spring to mind as having been taken many, many years too soon, but never to be forgotten because of the mark they left on the field.
A rock-solid, old-fashioned number six, Ógie played the game like a man.
To quote the line from Macklemore’s song Glorious: “I heard you die twice, once when they bury you in the grave; And the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name.”
Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh’s name will be spoken for many, many years. It will always be associated with football, with Monaghan, with the Harps.
That won’t ease the sadness but the identity he built in life will hopefully help sustain his family and friends in his death.