GAA Football

'God knows where I would have been or been doing if it wasn't for Seán Mellon'

Seán Mellon dedicated more than 50 years to not only coaching young hurlers at Na Magha, but of guiding the youth of Derry city towards a more prosperous future.

WHEN Seán Mellon and his five siblings were only bits of weans, as they’d say in Derry city, their mother Peggy had set a dozen scones fresh out of the oven to cool.

No sooner had she turned her back than one had disappeared. So began the inquest. With nobody owning up, the six of them were sent down to the cellar until the culprit showed himself.

Through the blackness, young Tommy’s eyes found those of his brother. Seán would take the fall. It would be 35 years before their father, Tommy, admitted succumbing to his sweet tooth that afternoon.

“Seán was sometimes said to be too soft,” his other brother Pearse said at his requiem mass in St Eugene’s Cathedral on Monday morning past.

“I don’t think he was soft – I thought he was always in control. His attitude was ‘let’s just get this done and move on’.”

When the history of the GAA in Derry is rewritten for future audiences, the name Mellon will darken its pages just as it has for a century and more.

Tommy Mellon was the name of both Seán’s father and grandfather.

The elder had played on the Derry hurling team that won its first two Ulster titles in 1902 and ’08.

Tommy the junior was a former county chairman who sat on Central Council, who had an enormous hand in fundraising for the development of Celtic Park, evidenced by the fact his name is given to the main stand at the ground now.

Seán Mellon passed away last week at the age of 74 having battled with several illnesses in recent years. Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, it was when he hurt his back standing in goals at an U11 training session with Na Magha that scans followed and revealed the full extent of his illness.

He had been one of the founder members of Na Magha club in 1982 and would go on to be an enormous influence not just around the hurling field, but on the young people of Derry city.

When his coffin left his home at Beechwood Avenue on Monday morning, it was draped in the green, white and black flag of the club.

Having returned from De La Salle college in Manchester a qualified teacher, he worked in Brow O’ The Hill primary school before moving on to St Brigid’s in Carnhill and then Lenamore PS, with which he would become particularly synonymous.

A father of six with his beloved late wife Maureen would become a grandfather of six in time, but he would be regarded as a father figure to many of the hundreds that fell under his spell in the classroom and on the hurling field.

There was the odd stint dipping into the senior setup with Na Magha, and as someone who never missed a game he was always on hand to impart advice to the elders, but primarily he was an underage coach.

Seeing the young people of a city mired in the difficulties of the 1980s was where his vocation really took off.

At one stage he took on a bit of taxiing around the city. Another time, he set up a shoe shop in the heart of the Creggan.

“He didn’t make very much money because he was nearly giving the stuff away. That was just the kindly nature, he wanted to help people,” says Breandán Quigley.

The former Derry hurler, like all those that have come through the ranks of the club that will take on Cavan champions Cootehill in the Ulster Junior Hurling Championship on Saturday, was coached by Mellon.

Quigley’s relationship with him was tighter than most though. His own father Brendan got into hurling through Seán’s coaching, and along with Hugh Breslin and a handful of others, the club would be formed as an offshoot of the St Patrick’s team that lasted just two years.

“The Mellon family, the Quigley family and the Breslin families, Seán, my Da and Hugh, were all part of the group that formed the club. They were part of our family and we were probably part of theirs growing up.

“They were like uncles – I don’t think Seán would be too happy if I called him a granda!

“They were in our house for meetings or leaving off gear or picking up gear a couple of times a week.

“You couldn’t not be influenced by someone like him.”

When Seán went up in August to cut the grass on the pitch, the mower was playing up. Unbeknown to him at the time, the filters were all clogged with grass. But he ploughed on.

Patience was a virtue with which he was blessed.

“A job that would usually take three hours must have taken him seven hours. But he sat there and he finished the job,” Hugh Breslin recalled.

“Patient and yet very determined to get the job done. He didn’t leave things half done.”

The Godfather of hurling in the city, he leaned on his father’s connections to build a relationship with Blackrock in Cork, and from the mid-1980s for almost 20 years, the clubs would visit each other annually for games.

There were delegates from Blackrock at his funeral on Monday.

Such was Mellon’s pull and ability to get things done that one particular crop of Na Magha boys played a Kerry select at half-time in the epic 1987 Munster hurling final replay between Cork and Tipperary, held in Killarney in front of 45,000 fans.

You’d never have known it from him.

When he was nominated for Ulster GAA’s coach of the year in 2019, club members had to keep the idea secret from him until it was announced publically for fear he would kibosh the plan out of modesty.

That same autumn they had presented him with the club’s two All-Ireland hurling final tickets at a summer scheme presentation to mark 50 years of coaching service in the city.

“I fear we don’t know how deep the hole he’ll leave is,” says Hugh Breslin.

“It could be the end of next year before we actually realise. From coaching to working to mentoring to advising to counselling, aw, everything and anything – he had it all. Seán was unique, a one-off.”

Na Magha will represent Derry on Saturday as junior champions, in against Cavan’s senior winners Cootehill.

Breandán Quigley gets emotional at the idea of honouring Seán Mellon’s memory with a victory but in doing so, he remembers how the man himself would have viewed that.

“It’s even tough to talk about it now. If you bring up the emotion, it can affect the play, but if he was living, Seán would give you a boot in the hole in you thought that was gonna win it for you.

“The hard work and determination you can put on display would be testament to what you were taught by him when you were younger, and that’s what will get you through.

“The character, that foundation that Seán helped lay is gonna win you the game as opposed to any emotional thought about winning it. It would be great, no doubt about it, for the family to see that Seán’s had that positive influence.”

His life was dedicated to the young people of Derry city and Na Magha.

As one former student Micéal Burns put it: “God knows where I would have been or been doing if it wasn’t for Seán. Reminiscing about Seán with one of the lads and I can’t believe the patience he had with us for all those years. Can’t believe he didn’t kill one of us never mind ever get angry or say a bad word out of anger. He helped us grow into men and give us a direction and a love of a great sport.”

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