Football

All about the weans... GAA unites in memory of Glen clubman Francis Lagan

It's all about the weans... Francis Lagan in the thick of it at a football match
It's all about the weans... Francis Lagan in the thick of it at a football match

WATTY Graham’s have had so much to celebrate over the last two years. Their first ever Derry senior championship in 2021, then the second last year, followed by a first Ulster title and an All-Ireland final appearance…

Great days for Glen but amid all the flag-waving and the cheering, the club did something extra special, something truly valuable. It showed what it’s really all about by wrapping its arms around a heartbroken family.

That family belonged to one of their own - Francis Lagan - and ‘Francie’ was a staunch Glen man from the cradle until his tragic death.

A former player, he hung up his boots to study in London at St Mary’s Teacher Training College in Strawberry Hill and worked in England’s capital for four years before returning home to his native sod.

He’d met his wife Louise (nee Hillen) during his time in London. They married in 2010 and were happily bringing up their four children in the close knit south Derry community. Francis’s infectious personality was getting the best out of the players he coached at the club and the kids at St Mary’s Primary School in Maghera where he had been appointed principal.

“I still don’t believe it happened at times,” says Louise, when we spoke about the shocking incident that claimed her husband’s life.

“Sometimes I wake up and think it was all a dream.”

Francis Lagan and Enda Gormley guided Glen to back-to-back Ulster titles and brought through a host of senior stars
Francis Lagan and Enda Gormley guided Glen to back-to-back Ulster titles and brought through a host of senior stars

CHRISTMAS was coming. It was November 26, 2021 and mugs of hot chocolate and treats were planned for the Lagan family’s visit to Louise’s parents in Banbridge. The Late Late Toy Show on Friday night would be followed by a visit to Santa in Rostrevor on the Saturday.

Francis (40) picked up Louise and their two older kids - eight year-old Rose and Alice (6) – in Maghera and they began the drive to meet Louise’s dad Seamus near the International Airport, which is halfway between Maghera and Banbridge.

After the drop-off Francis was due to go back home and bring the two younger children to Banbridge the following morning.

That was the plan.

Storm Arwen was sweeping across Ireland that weekend. A mild ‘yellow’ weather warning was in place. It was shortly after half-three when the Lagan family’s world came crashing in as they drove along the Dublin Road just minutes from the airport.

“I just remember an almighty BANG and the windscreen shattered,” says Louise.

“I thought we had been in a car crash. I could hear the children behind me so I knew they were alright. I didn’t know if they were hurt but I knew they were alive. I don’t know why I didn’t glance at Francis straight away. I think I thought, subconsciously: ‘If I’m alright and the children are alright, then he’s definitely alright’.”

The car was still in motion so Louise, on autopilot, reached across for the steering wheel and pulled the vehicle to the grass verge. She pulled the handbrake and then looked across at her husband.

“If I had looked at Francis first I wouldn’t have been able to stop the car,” she says.

“I think I would have been paralysed.”

She knew immediately that he was very seriously hurt. She clambered out and onto the road, flagged down passing cars and rang for help.

The ambulance came, the Air Ambulance sent a rapid response vehicle (the helicopter was grounded because of the high winds), the police came, the Fire Brigade came…

They all came.

But they couldn’t save her husband’s life.

After suffering irreparable head injuries, Francis Lagan died there on the Dublin Road.

“I knew when I saw him in the car that he was very badly hurt,” says Louise.

“There was nothing they could do, they did their very best and they worked with Francis but he never left the road. And that was it, our lives forever altered in a few seconds…”

It wasn’t until later that someone told Louise how her husband had died. She has no memory of seeing it, but a huge branch had snapped off a tree and fell on the car just as they passed by.

Francis, who was driving, took the full impact. Louise and the children walked away from the wreckage.

An inquest into the incident concluded that it was preventable. The tree had not been properly maintained and because of that Louise was left without her husband and four children - Rose, Alice, Beth and Frank all aged under eight - lost their father.

Read more: 

Another war of attrition awaits - and nobody is more comfortable in the trenches than Kilcoo

Derry's Rogers pips McGuigan to be among 2023 Footballer of the Year nominees

Moneyglass go for Antrim senior title hat-trick against old rivals St Paul's

FRANCIS Lagan was a gregarious people-person. A charismatic giant with a natural confidence and charm, he was a personality who filled a room with chat and laughter. The figurehead in his family and in his community as the principal of St Mary’s PS, Francis spent Easter holidays volunteering with the English branch of HCPT (the Pilgrimage Trust), a charity which takes disabled children to Lourdes for a week. He also had a long connection with SMA Dromantine and spent many happy summers there as a child before becoming a leader at the youth camps.

Watty Graham’s GAC Glen was a constant interest his life.

He was a Forester Cup winner as a pupil at St Pat’s, Maghera and was goalkeeper on the Glen team that reached the Derry minor final in 1999. His teaching career took him off to London but when he returned he linked up with Enda Gormley in the management team that propelled a talented Glen side to the first two of a four in-a-row of Derry and Ulster minor titles in 2011 and 2012.

The young players he helped bring through in those teams included current Derry skipper Conor Glass, county players like Emmet Bradley, Ciaran McFaul and Danny Tallon and many of the stars of the club’s brilliant senior team that will campaign for a three in-a-row (Derry), a two in-a-row (Ulster) and a first All-Ireland this season.

At the time of the fatal incident he was the coach of the club’s U13 side and there were high hopes for his input into the teams that would have included his son Frank, who began P1 this year.

Off the field, he was the driving force behind the installation of a floodlit 4G pitch at St Mary’s Primary School which was developed in partnership with Watty Graham’s and has transformed the sports facilities at the school and in the town.

“Glen was a big part of his life,” says Louise.

“He loved the club, he loved Derry football. I was down at the pitch with Frank (4) when they finished their fundamentals coaching just a few weeks back and it was a green and yellow extravaganza. They had a fire engine there and Frank and his friends were in their element.

“The senior players were there, they spend a lot of time with the young kids trying to enthuse Gaelic Games and get them involved. It’s a wonderful club – exceptionally forward-thinking; community-orientated and inclusive.”

The Derry and Dromantine/Strawberry Hill teams prepare for their match
The Derry and Dromantine/Strawberry Hill teams prepare for their match

IN the weeks and months that followed Francis’s death, a grim realisation gradually dawned on Louise: Her two youngest children – Beth was four and Frank who had just turned three when Francis died – would have no lasting memories of their father.

Her hope was to organise an event in his memory that would involve and also give something back to the community who had been so good to them.

“I wanted something that would be a lasting legacy to Francis,” she explains.

“I wanted something that our children could look at in years to come and think: ‘My daddy was an extraordinary man.’

“It was about embedding his essence and his memory in our children. I wanted to celebrate a life that was short but far-reaching. Francis had the biggest heart, the biggest smile, the biggest hands. He achieved so much and I wanted to mark that and give my own children something they could be proud of in years to come.”

She approached the club and Francis’ closest friends with her idea. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation. A committee, including Francis’s sister Roisin (Watty Graham’s secretary) was formed and the idea for the ‘All about the Weans’ family fun day was born.

“The name was easy to come up with,” said Louise.

“Francis loved children and worked tirelessly to bring out their best.

“What he concerned himself with was that his own children and every child who came through the school gate was happy, secure and well looked after.

“He loved sport and music but family encapsulated the essence of Francis Lagan so we wanted a big family day that would involve the whole community so we could celebrate and remember his life.”

Francis, Louise and their four children Rose, Alice, Beth and Frank
Francis, Louise and their four children Rose, Alice, Beth and Frank

THEY flocked from far and wide to Watty Graham Park on September 9. Fun and laughter all around as the grown-ups met old friends and the weans enjoyed their treats and ran free between games of football and camogie and amusements.

The centre piece was the match between a Derry Select, managed Ciaran Meenagh, and a team of Francis’s friends from Strawberry Hill and Dromantine College who were taken by Mickey Moran, another former Derry manager and friend of the Lagan family.

“It was everything I hoped it would be,” says Louise.

“I know how much Francis would have enjoyed it because everybody he knew, everybody that he loved was there in the one spot. It was just a magnificent day.”

The fundraising from the event went “through the roof” and has surpassed even the most optimistic estimate (to donate go to pro.glenmaghera.derry@gaa.ie).

“Thanks to everyone who contributed to the fundraiser and came to support us,” said Louise.

Half the money will go to the Air Ambulance which needs to raise £2.5million a year to operate a 12-hour service. They aim to extend that service to 24 hours a day and, obviously, that requires double the fundraising effort.

The remainder will go into a Francis Lagan Legacy Fund and will be spent on projects that improve the lives of children in the Maghera area.

“Any project locally that is going to benefit children is the type of thing that we’re going to be supporting,” says Louise.

She is so positive, so driven and determined to make the most of life and do her very best for her children. The moment her husband died she knew what her role was.

“I remember standing over Francis and I promised him that I would rear the children well and make him proud and go on and live my life for both of us” she said.

“And I will.

“He wouldn’t want me to stop because, if I do, the only people who suffer are my children and that’s not going to happen. I consider myself very blessed to have had Francis in my life – it was short but it was perfect and we’ll go on and live as good a life as we can in his name.

“That’s what he would want.”