Football

Martin McConnell on the fight of his life: 'When I came out of hospital, the whole thing was over. The All-Ireland had been won'

As a teacher at St Patrick's, Maghera, Martin McConnell may have been expecting to wind down a little at the start of June, but as a GAA man on both sides of the Derry-Tyrone border, he was busier than ever. On June 1, all that stopped. Dermot McPeake speaks to him about the journey he has been on since the start of summer and the perspective it has given him on life, family and sport....

Martin McConnell had been manager of Loughmacrory when he was struck down with illness
Martin McConnell had been manager of Loughmacrory when he was struck down with illness Martin McConnell had been manager of Loughmacrory when he was struck down with illness

“To be first on the road, Up with the ground-mists and pheasants. To be older and grateful.”

Seamus Heaney (A Pillowed Head)

No one travelled faster on life’s road than Martin McConnell.

School. Family. Football. Everything done at one hundred miles per hour.

On Thursday June 1, without warning it all stopped.

His brain flooded with blood - the result of a subarachnoid haemorrhage. Everything stopped.

Rushed to Antrim Hospital from an U15 football match between Castledawson and Lissan, Martin’s wife Tracey ordered him to wait in the car as she sought help.

Under the weight of excruciating pain, Martin McConnell attempted to make his own way along the short distance from the car to the hospital entrance.

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He walked forward, got inside the door and collapsed into a coma that lasted 21 days.

“It’s s-u-b-a-r-a-c-h-n-o-i-….”

The old habits of a teacher die hard. Four months on, having fallen into darkness and dragged himself towards the light inch by inch, day by day, Martin McConnell tells his story.

“I know how lucky I am,” he says. His voice is lucid and characteristically energetic.

“A very high percentage of people who got what I got, die, or have lifelong disabilities.”

Having joined the teaching staff of St Patrick’s Maghera in 1999, Martin McConnell has been synonymous with Gaelic football in Derry and across Ulster schools as secretary of the provincial body.

Describing himself as ‘a wee Tyrone man who came down to Derry and stayed’, McConnell’s efforts to better the lives of thousands of young people have laid a lasting legacy.

“I’m so aware of the support I’ve got from the GAA fraternity,” he says in relation to his 50-day journey through hell and back.

"It was just incredible, the support that my wife and family got. I went into a coma on the first of June and when I opened up my phone again in July there were over 650 messages. I’m still replying to them,” he laughs.

Martin McConnell celebrates 2013 Hogan Cup success with St Pat's, Maghera at Croke Park
Martin McConnell celebrates 2013 Hogan Cup success with St Pat's, Maghera at Croke Park Martin McConnell celebrates 2013 Hogan Cup success with St Pat's, Maghera at Croke Park

There was one message he will never forget.

Sent on June 7, six days into his 21-day blackout, it read: ‘Daddy, get well soon. We want you home.’

“It was from my youngest son, Lorcan, who was 12 at the time and it brought home to me how bad things were.”

Martin and Tracey McConnell have three children: Lorcan, the youngest, and twins Cristin and Donnacha.

The family were at that U15 game at their home club of Castledawson to watch Donnacha when the nightmare began.

“I was doing umpire at the game when I felt what seemed like a bang on the back of my head,” recounts McConnell.

“I collapsed. I got up but I couldn’t see as my vision had gone. I remember Gregory McWilliams, the referee, blew the half-time whistle and I started to walk up the pitch not even knowing where I was going.

"But I knew I was going somewhere. I didn’t want to collapse again as my son was playing and my other kids were at the match. I didn't want a scene. I went onto one knee and my youngest boy, Lorcan, who was 12 at the time, came over to me and said ‘daddy, are you ok?’ I said ‘get mummy’.

"Luckily, Tracey was in the stand and got me to the car and drove straight to Antrim Hospital. She was incredibly brave throughout."

[[ge:irishnews:irishnews:3723928]]

Martin McConnell returned home on July 20, 2023 following the fight of his life. He had to learn to walk and talk from scratch. Amazingly, his memory is pretty much intact. He speaks about the intervening time like someone who was an observer. The detail is incredible.

He describes the events of June 1.

“Once they discovered what it was, I had to be taken to the Royal in Belfast for an operation ASAP. I went through the operation the next morning at 8am. It was a five-hour-long operation on June 2. It was successful. I had two more operations on the fifth and the ninth of June.

"Things had gone downhill badly that week due to bleeding in the brain. On the Friday morning before the third operation there was a 20 per cent chance that I would survive.”

Those are perspective-changing odds.

“At that stage, a lot of the Castledawson club kicked in with prayers and rosaries. I was involved with a club in Tyrone, Loughmacrory. I’d managed them. Also my home club of Clogher. The prayer thing kicked in massively and there’s no doubt that I began to improve. People might not think religion is important, but for me it was a massive part of my recovery. I know that. I can feel that. I can feel what people did for me.”

It had been a huge battle to win his fight for life but the war on the road to recovery was only just beginning.

“I was in that ICU for 20 days with attention around the clock. I came out of that roughly around the 21st of June. It was five or six days before I even knew what was going on. I couldn’t walk. I could hardly talk. My eyesight was bad. I was on a diluted diet because my throat couldn’t handle food. I wasn’t in a good place.”

Luck is a word that Martin McConnell uses frequently as he speaks. Luck is also a concept that happens to the hardest working and most positive and forward-looking people, of which Martin McConnell is one.

“I was lucky enough to get a place in Musgrave brain injury unit. It was a process to determine what the rest of your life would be basically.

"Unfortunately, I got an infection and was moved firstly back to Antrim to recover from that. It was there that I began the process of walking for myself. When I say walking, I just mean shuffling my feet at the start. It was really starting again.”

By the time McConnell left Antrim to take up his place at the Regional Acquired Brain Injury Unit, he was able to walk through its doors, something he is immensely proud of. It began the phase of what he describes as preparing for the rest of his life, whatever form it would take.

The statistics were harrowing with many who had suffered similar illnesses now without speech or the ability to walk. His life was daily meetings with physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists. There was also the need to prepare mentally for what were life-changing events.

“My psychologist talked to me about my life afterwards. He made me write down on a page everything about my life prior to this. I talked about school, family and work and football. My life had been crazy.

“He looked at what I had written and he pushed the page onto the floor and said ‘that part of your life is over. Now we’re going to move on'. He took out a page and wrote one word. Family. He said: ‘that’s your new life’.”

Martin McConnell has brought success to St Pat's, Maghera alongside former Derry defender Sean Marty Lockhart
Martin McConnell has brought success to St Pat's, Maghera alongside former Derry defender Sean Marty Lockhart Martin McConnell has brought success to St Pat's, Maghera alongside former Derry defender Sean Marty Lockhart

With his sudden gear change, Martin McConnell appreciates every day. The fruits of the life he led at one hundred miles per hour, helping others to achieve their potential, is growing all around him.

“After the Ulster minor final on the 28th May, I was on the pitch in Armagh with Damian [McErlain] and Gavin [McGeehan] and all the boys. It was unbelievable. And when I came out of hospital again, the whole thing was over. The All-Ireland had been won. I missed everything. It was sad not being there, but I was so happy for those boys. For Fionn (McEldowney) and Johnny (McGuckian).

"I recently learned that Johnny McGuckian had come to the house two days before the All-Ireland final with a Mass offering for me.Those small things mean so much to me because these guys are still children at the end of the day.”

Having been Loughmacrory manager at the time of his illness, Martin McConnell’s close connection with Derry interim manager Ciaran Meenagh was evident.

“The morning before getting the bus for the All-Ireland semi-final, Ciaran Meenagh and Peter Hughes were down here at the house with me. I got a card from the Derry County Board management committee. All those wee things were massive for me. The satisfaction of people asking for me and the correspondence was so great. I couldn't say a bad word about anyone.”

It’s when he speaks about his past pupils that you get a real sense of McConnell’s pride in his work.

“I met Conor Glass there recently when I went in for lunch. It was so great seeing him and all the other lads. The doctor told me ‘when you meet someone, shake their hand and say ‘it’s good to see you’, because for a while I didn’t think I was going to see anyone. You know what I mean?”

“Chrissy McKaigue calls to see me regularly. I think of the Glen boys. Conor Carville and Conor Glass and Cathal Mulholland. I took all those boys to MacRorys. These guys aren’t just good footballers, they’re good people. And their families too.”

The relationships that Martin McConnell developed over his two decades at St Patrick’s Maghera are one of the reasons for the outpouring of support he has witnessed in the last few months.

“I joined Maghera school in September 1999. I love Maghera school and Maghera school is everything to me. The sport is massive. Education is important too! But having sport alongside education is key for me. I look back at all the teams I have taken. Teams that won, teams that didn’t win. You build an unbelievable relationship over that time with so many people, with parents and children in school and out of school. The aftermath of what happened to me showed me how good the people in this area are. It’s a special place.”

Martin McConnell has defied all odds and grows stronger by the day. No longer able to drive, he prefers lots of walks. Having been advised not to participate in large crowds in the early days of his recovery he has begun to dip his toe back into the world of Gaelic football. Just watching a game of football is now a re-remembered pleasure.

“I’m in a good place but I still get headaches,” he explains.

“If I do too much in one day I’ll suffer the following day. I could sleep twenty-four hours a day if I got a chance. The tiredness is sometimes unbelievable but as my wife says ‘It’s better to be tired than not be here’.

“I do miss being involved in sports a lot. Whenever your life is built on sport and on meeting people, it’s hard to adjust. But I’m also lucky to be able to miss it. I’ve realised that every day is special.”

The people of Derry GAA have let it be known that Martin McConnell is very special to them too.