GAA Football

A tribute: 'Antrim Gael Anto Finnegan scorched humanity in the most uplifting, sensitive way imaginable'

A perfect day in Falls Park with Anto Finnegan, Jim Gavin and Jason Sherlock back in 2018. Anto sadly passed the way on Saturday Picture by Ann McManus.

SUNDAY morning September 23, 2018 was one of those perfect days. Over 1,000 Gaels descended on Falls Park to take part in the deterMND ‘Run for Anto’.

Chief organiser Sean Kelly, Antrim GAA’s press relations officer at the time, had everything off to a tee.

From the powdered paint that was flung high into the air creating gorgeous, endless rainbows to the buzzing drones overhead to the dozens of stewards dotted along the pathway to the jangling silver of charity buckets where runners and well-wishers threw their loose change to the surprise appearance of Sam Maguire.

A couple of weeks earlier, Dublin defeated Tyrone in the All-Ireland final to make it an incredible four-in-a-row.

Jim Gavin and Jason Sherlock could have been in 100 other places closer to home - but they chose the Falls Park to help with another of Anto Finnegan’s prolific charity pushes for Motor Neurone Disease.

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Up to that point, Anto’s deterMND charity had raised over £300,000.

Diagnosed with MND in 2012 and already wheelchair-bound by 2018, Anto wore his indomitable smile that morning – the kind of smile his former Antrim manager and friend Brian White said “reached his eyes”.

“The honesty and the humanity of the guy,” said White. “He’s just your normal 5ft 8in – but what a leader.”

Jim Gavin and Anto Finnegan became firm friends in the lead-up to the 'Game for Anto' at Ravenhill back in 2014 when the Dublin team came to town to play an Ulster Select side.

At Falls Park that day, Gavin rarely left Anto’s side. I managed to drag the Dublin manager away for a short interview.

Leaning against a rod iron fence, Gavin said: “Anto’s a hero of mine. He's such a determined man. He lives life to the full and he's always a smile on his face.

“Anto is raising awareness of Motor Neurone Disease for research and to raise funds for people that have the illness. What a legacy that is – to keep driving on.

“When you look back to the very foundations of the Association in 1884, it was for the promotion and cultivation of Irish culture and games. I think this is a little bit of that vision our forefathers had for the Association - to see so many people out here supporting one of our Gaels.”

I knew Anto Finnegan from afar during his Antrim playing days in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Win, lose or draw, he would always stop outside the Casement Park changing rooms and help this rookie reporter with a couple of post-match quotes.

There were no airs or graces about the man and I always found him to be decent.

I remembered this when deterMND needed a leg up with some column inches in the newspaper.

The average diagnosis for someone suffering from this life-limiting disease is between two to five years. Nine years on from his own diagnosis, Anto seemed to be still going strong.

Well, as strong as you can be in desperate circumstances.

Yes, this truly horrific disease was eroding him bit by bit - but I often thought: could he be the one who defied medical science.

Maybe Anto could live forever with it.

Last August, Ava – Alison and Anto’s daughter – decided to cut her hair and donate it to the Little Princess Trust who use it to make wigs for children and young people with hair loss while she also raised over £2,000 for MND Association in Northern Ireland.

On her Just Giving page, Ava wrote: "In 2012, when I was seven, my daddy was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Since then he has lost the use of his arms and legs. So now, my mum, brother and I do the things for him that he can no longer do.

“My daddy is my best mate, even though his jokes are terrible. We have lots of fun and enjoy taking silly photos together."

In the early throes of the pandemic, when we didn’t quite know what we were facing into, we were forced to adapt and re-calibrate our lives.

I remember thinking of Anto: here was a man who was constantly having to re-calibrate, especially when the disease would mercilessly attack him and steal another precious part of his physical being, a part of him.

“The toughest part is the physical loss,” Finnegan told me in April of last year, “in terms of going from someone who prided themselves on their physical fitness.

“I’m not going to lie – it’s an extremely difficult challenge... For me, going from losing my grip, holding a cup of tea to not being able to hold a cup, to not being able to lift my arm, to not being able to lift both arms, to not being able to walk distances to not being able to walk at all.

“The process is a series of losses and each time that happens there’s almost a re-calibration.”

There was a strong social conscience about Anto too.

Asked what he had learned in the opening six weeks of the pandemic, he replied: “What have I learned? Those people in society we treat like second class citizens in terms of remuneration and how we pay them, the contracts that they’re on, the zero-contracts and the work that they’re doing, the uncivil hours they work, and classing them as 'unskilled' workers.

“It is quite evident that they are quite the opposite, that they are absolutely necessary to a functioning society and the fact that we pay them less than what we pay others in the employment hierarchy.

“One thing that I hope will come out of all this is that we no longer see restaurant workers, takeaway drivers, care workers, nurses, delivery drivers, people in the service industry – as ‘unskilled’ or not worthy of a decent contract, a decent wage, decent holidays and that they be rewarded for the fantastic work that they do.”

We exchanged texts from time to time. In one of them, I said: ‘You know, there’s a columnist in you.’

Quick-witted as ever, he replied: ‘I think you spelt communist wrong.’

Every time I encountered Anto over the last number of years, I felt utterly inspired by him.

In 2015, he was guest speaker at The Irish News Club and Volunteer Awards.

His speech and how he weaved the importance of volunteerism in society through it was simply awesome.

He was an altruist with amazing intellect. We often say good things about people when they pass – but when we refer to Anto Finnegan we say them because they are absolutely authentic and true.

He was a force of nature, an inspiring individual. He was compassionate. He made you think beyond yourself.

He was more than just a Gaelic footballer.

He scorched humanity in the most uplifting, sensitive, vivid way imaginable.

In a moving interview that appeared in the Irish News in 2018, Anto’s team-mate and close friend, Kevin Madden opened up about the loss of their new-born child, Baby Oisin in November 2015.

It was a remarkably brave thing for Kevin to talk about and perhaps it helped him and his wife Maria to come to terms with their loss in some small way.

When the article was published, Kevin received a text message from his friend: ‘Do you know a man is not dead while his name is still spoken.’

Deepest condolences to Anto’s wife Alison, children Conall and Ava and entire family circle.

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