AT the start of the July holidays last year, Damian Brown was out on the bike around the roads of Donegal.
Cycling had become the newest passion in his life. He hardly ever missed a Sunday morning.
Quietly, a fire burned inside him to start a club in Bellaghy.
His son Declan had been drawn in too, heading out loads together during lockdown. The good weather, Lough Fea glistening, the quiet solitude of just each other’s company. Perfect.
Wife Jeanette and the boys, Damán and Declan, had always been the constants. Beyond that there was his work as a joiner, by which he was besotted too.
Football, which he played with such distinction as a wing-back for three Derry and one Ulster championship winning teams, losing an All-Ireland final in which he excelled in ’95. And shooting too.
Then the boys brought the girls, and so followed by three adored grand-daughters. Damán's pair, Tiegan (4) and Colleen (2), and then on July 1 last year, Declan’s first-born Céala.
Sitting in the HomePlace Café in the middle of the town, Declan’s smile broadens the same way as he shows you his screensaver image.
A week old, the sun hits on her furrowed brow as she sits on Granda’s knee.
“Daddy was wile good with them, he just doted on them. A big hard man but you saw a different side to him when the weans were about.
“I loved watching him with them, he was a big wean himself. It annoys me that I won’t get the chance to see him with my own weans.”
Two weeks after that photograph was taken, on July 27, Damian Brown went to see about a persistent headache that had turned to a morning’s nausea and vomiting.
Doctors diagnosed him with a brain tumour that afternoon.
There was talk of operations and treatment. Just eleven weeks after being diagnosed, on October 8, Damian Brown passed away at the Macmillan care unit at Antrim. Nowhere near enough time.
He had been a man of enormous physical strength, but in many ways it paled in comparison to how mentally strong he was.
It couldn’t be lost on you that as you sit with his own son now, it’s the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. You’re drawn to mind the strength of people like Anne Williams, who took on governments, police forces, media, the lot.
Damian Brown fought a very similar battle for 24 years. That he died with neither answers nor justice for the barbaric murder of his father Sean, the Bellaghy club chairman who was abducted and killed while locking the gates at the grounds that now bear his name, brings shame on the establishments in this country.
His crusade to find those answers was how many of us would come to know him, the irony being that he was so determined to protect the rest of his own family from it that he bore almost the whole weight of it himself.
“Granda’s case was the same as his sickness. I’d ask him how are ye today: ‘Aye, dead on’. To the day he passed away, he always protected us and Mammy too. That’s just the way he was. He looked after people.”
Damian's family spent endless hours of great, but very tough, time with him in the last three weeks. And they allowed some day that they give something back to the Macmillan nurses who treated him with such dignity.
“We always said the nurses in there were a different breed.”
The help and support Jeanette in particular has had from Charis since her husband’s passing has been of equal importance.
The family has had to find its own way to go on.
For Declan, a lot of that is wrapped up in football. He’d taken the decision to step back when his father took ill, worried of the consequences of contracting Covid.
They went together to watch a league game against Ballinderry.
“It got the stage after a few weeks where we were going to matches together and watching them, until he said to me ‘right you, it’s time you were back at training’.”
At the wake the night before his father was buried, then-Bellaghy manager John McKeever brought his young son with him. McKeever had lost his own brother Paul through cancer.
“Conan came in with a holy candle and a set of rosary beads, he said he’d wanted to get me something, he’d heard what happened Daddy.”
The pair allowed that if he was up to it, Declan would come and tog out for the championship game the same night as the funeral.
The ovation he received when he came on for the last few minutes, and the way his team-mates rushed to him on the final whistle of a dramatic one-point win were spine-tingling.
But Declan was running on adrenaline and just now, in football terms, feels a bit like he’s running on empty.
“I know it’ll come.”
And so in giving something back, the Brown family wanted to engage the community and try to bring a bit of joy to the town this weekend.
On Saturday, they will host The Big Weekend. There will be 5k and 10k races along with a fun park for the children at the club. Enda Convery will be the afternoon’s compere and Benny McGoldrick will be trying to drown him out with tunes.
A night in the Taphouse Bar, where Damian turned his hand to every piece of wood during the renovations, will hopefully have worn off on the cyclists as they depart for either 20- or 50-mile runs on Sunday.
There are no plans to make it an annual event. They want to do this once and do it well.
“You want to gather up as much money as possible to give back to the charities. But Covid has starved people of these type of events too,” says Declan.
“You just want to leave a mark that when people walk away, they’ve had a real good weekend. We’re hoping that when weans walk away, it’s a memory made for them.
“A lot of people have been affected by Covid too and you just want to put a smile on everyone’s faces.”
* Anyone wishing to enter the run or cycle can do so at www.entrycentral.com/TheBigWeekend.
To donate to the chosen charities, follow the link below: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/the-big-weekend