Oh brother where art thou? Gaelic football's family ties
OH brother where art thou? Has been a constant theme in Gaelic Games since 1884 and the answer to that question has invariably been: ‘I'm right behind you our fella’.
This Sunday’s Ulster Club Championship final at the Athletic Grounds is an unprecedented family affair in which several sets of brothers will do battle for the province’s biggest prize.
Among them are the Branagans – Aidan, Aaron, Niall, Daryl and Eugene - from Down champions Kilcoo and there are also their cousins, the Johnston brothers Jerome, Ryan and young Shealan.
In the opposite corner are the Jones brothers Ryan, Conall and Garvan, their cousin Lee Jones, the other Jones brothers Leigh and Aaron, not to mention the other Jones, Michael, as well as the McGullions (Stephen and Shane) and the McGoverns (Ryan, Ronan and Gavin) who all line out for Fermanagh champions Derrygonnelly Harps.
Family ties bring a shared sense of purpose and a one-in-all-in attitude which is driven by the values instilled by their parents as well as a good dollop of sibling rivalry.
After Kilcoo’s Ulster final victory in 2019, Daryl Branagan captured it brilliantly.
“It’s good oul competition within the house and if you go to training it’s who’s the fittest or who’s the fastest? It helps push everybody on,” he said.
“I would get more nervous going to training if there was a fitness test, knowing where you were going to rank in the house than coming out to play in the Ulster final. It’s good, healthy competition.”
The brothers aren’t always the stars of the team, they don’t always get the headlines, but it’s obviously no accident that their clubs have enjoyed unprecedented success while these lads have been in harness.
Anyone who has played on a team that includes a few brothers, or sisters, will know the value they bring to the cause and how they can set the standards for levels of commitment, craic, effort and of course vengeance.
A clatter of siblings doesn’t always guarantee similar levels of ability and success and there are many examples of talented players whose nearest and dearest couldn’t kick snow off a rope and had absolutely no interest in doing so anyway, but having a group of youngsters from the same family coming through is gold dust for any club.
With their eagle-eyed mother watching on, if an opponents starts on one he has unwittingly started on them all because they are liable to regard even a gentlemanly tackle on their wee brother or big brother (a mindset which doesn’t stop them emptying each other at training of course) as a Mafia-style challenge to the honour of the family.
I played in a team that included four brothers and on one occasion a fella who’d been having a good game against us soon found himself snuffed out. He admitted afterwards: “I was going alright until the Magennis’s started coming after me”.
It has always been the way.
During Crossmaglen’s days of county, provincial and national dominance, the south-Armagh men were able to call on the forward skills of the McConvilles Jim and Oisin, then the McEntee twins, John and Tony, then the Kernans and nowadays it’s the O’Neill brothers Oisin and Rian (nephews of the McConvilles) who are leading the way and are descended from the legendary Sean and Kevin O’Neill who were instrumental in Down’s successes in the 1960s.
A few years ago, Clontibret were the dominant force in Monaghan thanks to the input of the six Greenan brothers (AKA ‘the Gs’) as well as the Coreys (Vinny and Martin) and the Mones (Dessie and John Paul).
St Gall’s momentous run to the All-Ireland club title in 2010 was thanks in no small part to the talents of the McGourtys – Kevin, Kieran and Conor (CJ) and then there are Chrissy and Karl McKaigue at Slaughtneil, the McCanns at Cargin… The list goes on and on.
At county level, Dublin had the Brogans and now the Smalls, Mayo have the O’Connors, O’Sheas and Durcans, Down have the O’Hagans and had two generations of McCartan brothers, Armagh’s McNultys, Tyrone’s Cavanaghs, McGuigans and McMahons, Derry had the Gribben brothers from Newbridge and the Bradleys, Cavan’s Reillys and Bradys, Fermanagh’s Corrigans and Cullens, Donegal’s McHughs and McGees, the Freeman, Hughes and Wylie brothers of Monaghan... Again the list goes on and on.
Who are the best set of brothers to play Gaelic Football? Well that is a tough one but arguably it boils down to a shoot-out between two families from Kerry: The Spillanes and the O Se dynasty.
Templenoe trio Pat, Tom and Mick Spillane played in the great Kerry teams of the 1970s and ’80s and won 19 All-Irelands between them. Pat has eight, Mick seven and Tom Spillane has four Celtic Crosses but can’t even claim to be the best player in his family.
What a GAA bloodline the family has though. The three lads’ dad Tom and their uncle Jerome both played for Kerry and won All-Ireland medals and their mother’s brothers Jackie, Dinny, Mickey and Teddy Lyne all won All-Irelands with the Kingdom throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Tom’s sons Adrian and Killian are on today’s Kerry team.
The Spillanes must surely be Ireland’s foremost Gaelic Football family but they are pushed all the way by the O Se brothers: Tomas, Darragh and Marc, nephews of the late, great Paidi from the An Gaelteacht club. They won 16 All-Irelands between them in the green and gold of the Kingdom and all played different roles. Marc was a man-marking defender, Tomas was a blood-and-thunder wing-back and then Darragh was a graceful and combative midfielder.
It would be a privilege to play alongside them and any of the brothers listed here. Who would you pick out for your team? Another tough question. Maybe the O Se trio? But the Branagans would be handy lads to have on your side if you got into a tight spot…
County Football Brothers XV
1 Darren Hughes (Monaghan)*
2 Eamonn McGee (Donegal)
3 Mick Lyons (Meath)
4 Sean Og O hAilpin (Cork)
5 Tomas O Se (Kerry)
6 John Small (Dublin)
7 Aaron Kernan (Armagh)
8 Darragh O Se (Kerry)
9 Sean Cavanagh (Tyrone)
10 Sean O’Neill (Down)
11 Brian McGuigan (Tyrone)
12 Pat Spillane (Kerry)
13 James McCartan jnr (Down)
14 Bernard Brogan (Dublin)
15 Oisin McConville (Armagh)
*He has played as goalkeeper
On the bench: Paddy Bradley (Derry), Ryan McHugh (Donegal), John McEntee (Armagh), Alan Brogan (Dublin), Neil McGee (Donegal), Mick and Tom Spillane (Kerry), Padraic Joyce (Galway), Marc O Se (Kerry), Cillian O’Connor (Mayo), Paul Barden (Longford)