An emotional end to a tough week in Bellaghy

The Bellaghy players went straight to Declan Brown on the final whistle on Tuesday night after they overcame neighbours Newbridge. Declan had buried his father Damian that morning. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
The Bellaghy players went straight to Declan Brown on the final whistle on Tuesday night after they overcame neighbours Newbridge. Declan had buried his father Damian that morning. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

PETER Stuart’s 65th minute winner was just seconds old when Brendan Quinn put the whistle to his lips for the last time.

Bellaghy hadn’t won a knockout championship game in six years. All in, their only victory in their last 12 championship outings was in a group game against Foreglen last year.

Football means so much in a fanatical south Derry heartland such as theirs. Just as it does across the way in Newbridge, where they thought they were building a team ready to scalp their neighbours.

When people say that tragedy puts football in perspective, they often mean it to dilute the importance of chasing a size five around a field.

In small rural towns like Bellaghy, football gives purpose. It magnifies the sense of community. It becomes a leaning post to which hundreds upon hundreds have put their shoulder.

In tough times, football is the renewal of life.

As that final whistle sounded on Tuesday night, the Bellaghy bench emptied. Their players on the pitch turned and sought out the one man that most needed the embrace.

Declan Brown had come off the bench for the final few minutes. Ordinarily, he’d have been first in line for the man-marking role in Bellaghy’s defence.

But on Tuesday morning, he had buried his father, Damian.

Football gave him the strength to stand for the evening. When it was over, his club rushed to hold him up again.

He’d come on in the 60th minute when Bellaghy trailed by a point. Something in the air changed at that moment.

These were two fierce rivals at each other’s throats in a knockout game. Lose and the year’s over. Newbridge were leading by a point.

But as Bellaghy’s number 19 enters the fray, every spectator in the ground, Bellaghy, Newbridge or neutral, breaks into warm, sustained applause.

Having just conceded a goal that threatened to end their hopes, the blue shirts found themselves re-energised.

It’s been a very tough week in the town. Teenager Michael Mulholland, a frighteningly talented footballer in the footsteps of his father John, remains ill following a car accident in Ballymena last Thursday.

Damian Brown passed away on Friday night after a short illness. Bellaghy were playing The Loup in a Thirds football final at the time. Just as normal time ended and extra-time began, the ground began to light up with buzzing phones.

News was filtering out of Damian’s death. He had been as his father was, a devoted family man.

Sean Brown was Damian’s father and Declan’s grandfather.

He was locking the gates of the clubhouse shortly before midnight on May 12, 1997. A committee meeting had just finished and Sean was the last man out.

The following morning, they found his body beside his burnt out car, a few miles out the road in Randalstown. He had been abducted by members of the LVF and taken to a country lane where he was shot six times.

Nobody has ever been charged in connection with the killing.

Sean Brown was a completely, utterly innocent man. He was a GAA club chairman, concerned with getting young lads out on the field and lifting a few pound to keep the show on the road.

The field on which Bellaghy’s youth play now bears his name. Páirc Sean de Brún is a fitting, lasting memorial to the name of the 61-year-old who was taken so cruelly from his family.

Damian Brown had won championships playing on that pitch through the 1980s and ‘90s. He was an Ulster Club winner in ’94, part of the squad narrowly beaten in the All-Ireland final the following St Patrick’s Day.

As his father devoted his life to family and club, Damian devoted his to family and the relentless pursuit of justice and truth.

On almost 30 different occasions, he travelled with Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre to the coroner’s court in Belfast, seeking an inquest into his father’s murder.

All he met there was obstruction and delay and denial of the truth.

It is easy for the rest of us to say let the past be the past. But when Damian Brown spent 24 years, almost half his life, pleading for answers that would give his family closure, he was stonewalled at every turn.

A 2004 report by then Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan described the police investigation as “inadequate” and said that “no earnest effort was made to identify those who had carried out the murder”.

In 2017, frustrated by the lack of progress, Sean Brown’s widow Bridie lodged a claim with the High Court for compensation from PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton and the Ministry of Defence.

The Brown family’s lawyers had at that time just received a letter from the coroner informing them that there was “no chance” of a hearing because of “resource difficulties”.

The legacy of injustice and frustration was one that Damian Brown bore on his shoulders.

His own son Declan took the weight of his coffin on Tuesday morning, far too soon for a man of 51.

By night, the whole community has been dragged back to their feet by the gravitational pull of winning a championship match.

Their first thought was to pull Declan Brown back to his.

It’s an emotional connection like no other.