The 36 hours that robbed one star of his life and his friend of his playing career

Brendan Dolan, pictured here second from the right in the back row of a Tyrone team of the late 1960s, was killed in a car accident 50 years ago today at the age of just 26.
Brendan Dolan, pictured here second from the right in the back row of a Tyrone team of the late 1960s, was killed in a car accident 50 years ago today at the age of just 26.

BRENDAN Dolan had just stopped on his way to work at St Colman’s in Strabane to pick up his daily copy of The Irish News.

On the inside back page, the news that he already knew. Cavan midfielder Ray Carolan’s injury was getting the better of him. Dolan was to start at midfield for Ulster for their Railway Cup preliminary round game against a combined universities team in Breffni Park.

It was to be the Aghyaran and Tyrone midfielder’s provincial debut, alongside his young team-mate and friend Frank McGuigan.

He never got to make that debut.

On his way to Strabane that morning of January 25, 1973 - 50 years ago today - the PE teacher’s car collided with a concrete lorry that was going around unflagged roadworks at a bend on the Fyfin Road between Castlederg and Victoria Bridge.

Brendan died shortly after his admission to the Tyrone county hospital in Omagh. He was 26.

To that generation of Tyrone followers, his death would later become comparable to the loss of Cormac McAnallen.

The similarities ran far deeper than both being tragically struck down in their prime.

A tall, lean, athletic figure, Dolan had the same versatility. He was full-back on the St Columb’s team that won the Hogan Cup in 1965. He played centre-forward and scored 2-2 for Tyrone in the 1968 All-Ireland junior semi-final win against Kerry, and a goal in the final against London at Croke Park.

Mostly, though, he was a 6’4” midfielder. It was from there he scored 1-2 in the Ulster final of 1972, although Tyrone lost that day to a Donegal team winning its first ever provincial crown.

The Red Hands would go on in 1973 to win a treble of McKenna Cup, National League Division Two (a campaign that had seen them play Louth in his final game in December) where he scored 1-1) and a first Ulster title in 16 years.

Described in print in the days after as “a likeable, self-disciplined and unassuming man who gave faithful service to Tyrone’s county teams through good and difficult times”, Brendan Dolan a dutiful stalwart of Aghyaran as well, making his senior debut while still at school in 1963.

He was one of nine children in the house, six of them boys, four of whom regularly played together for the club.

The last surviving brother is Monsignor Andy Dolan, recently retired after a long stint in Bellaghy. Eugene was also in the priesthood and was mostly around Manchester, where he became friendly with many of the Irish contingent that played for United at the time, leading to a feverish support of the club among the Dolans.

The priesthood and GAA were in the blood, with their uncle Fr Mick Collins serving for 40 years in Ballinascreen, and having his name on the Derry hurling championship trophy.

The Tyrone all-county leagues had only started a few years before his death. When a trophy was donated by the club to Tyrone county board, it was decided to award it to winners of the Division One league. It remains the Brendan Dolan Cup to this day.

He could have turned his hand to anything. He played a bit of soccer. The week before his death he scored 28 points in a basketball game.

Even coaching, in which Art McRory got him involved as they won Tyrone’s first All-Ireland vocational schools title in 1970.

The shock of Brendan’s death was multiplied in the days after.

He’d been team-mates with Colum P Mullan on that St Columb’s team and the pair stayed friendly.

The two were due to play against each other in that Railway Cup game. Mullan followed his brother Mickey and Brian Peter (who was corner-forward on the All-Ireland final team of 1958) in playing for Derry.

He was a year-and-a-half into his ordination in Maynooth and was named full-forward on the Universities’ team to play in Breffni.

Brendan Dolan died on Colum P Mullan’s birthday, January 25.

The following night, Mullan and three fellow seminary students Joseph Devine, Adrian Mullan and John Walsh got the lend of a car off a Christian Brother and drove up for the wake.

On their way back down, the car that Colum P was driving collided with the Derry Express bus on the Emyvale Road, three miles outside Monaghan Town.

The other three survived without serious injury but Colum P was airlifted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, where it became clear the extent of his injuries. He was left paralysed from the top of his chest down and spent the remaining 31 years of his life in a wheelchair.

John Walsh went on to become a priest and speaking at the Buncrana funeral of two teenage boys, Nathan Dixon-Gill (18) and Nathan Farrell (17), who had been killed in a car crash in 2017.

“The next night four of us going back to Maynooth from his wake collided with an express bus when our combined speed was about 120mph. And we were totally without fault in that accident,” said Fr Walsh at the time.

Yet Colum P Mullan managed to make the most of it too, retraining and working as an accountant. He died in April 2004, with Fr Andy Dolan – who had always kept in touch and made regular visits - officiating at his funeral.

Mullan had won MacRory and Hogan medals at school and All-Ireland minor and U21s with Derry in 1965 and ’68 respectively.

A devastating 36 hours that took away the life of one great footballer and drastically altered the life of another.

* Fifty years on, Brendan Dolan will be remembered this evening in an anniversary mass at 8pm in St Patrick’s Church, Aghyaran.