'We have to drive on with it, because that's what Damian would have wanted us to do'
THERE isn’t a day when the door doesn’t knock or the bell doesn’t ring. Rain, hail or shine they come – a mug of tea, a chat, the warmest of intentions at all times as a far-reaching community wraps its arms around one of its own.
Tears flow but so too laughter, with stories and situations relived as days become weeks, become months. This is the journey the Casey family has been on since the tragic loss of son and brother Damian on June 17 left an unimaginable hole in their lives.
Nothing will ever be the same again but talking, knowing that people are there, it helps, even in the darkest days.
“The support network has been absolutely second to none,” says Damian’s father, Sean.
“I know the GAA was involved in that, but so were a lot of individuals who all stood together and did their bit in whatever shape or form - and they’re still doing it.
“There’s still people sending cards, wee bits and pieces, people calling to the house and, I’ll tell you now, it’s some tonic. The goodness in people, it’s just amazing.
“We appreciate every bit of it.”
Together - the way the Casey family has always done everything - they are trying to find a way through the pain and the hurt, knowing that is what Damian would have wanted. Because, for all that natural ability, there was a simplicity and a straightforwardness to the way he lived his life, both on the field and off it.
Get up, get on with it. Play the game. It was this approach that made Damian Casey the hurler, Damian Casey the man.
“There might have been features of Susan, features of me, but his demeanour and the way he went about things, that was unique to himself,” says Sean.
“Damian was his own man… his own personality.”
Yet so much of what made him was forged on the fields that surround their home on the Eskragh Road.
You only have to head left out of the driveway, walk a few hundred yards then turn right before reaching the place where Damian’s love for hurling took hold.
“The McHugh’s house,” says Susan, “they have this huge big garden where they’d have goals up and they all would’ve played. That was their Croke Park.”
“Ciaran McHugh would’ve been a stalwart of hurling,” adds Sean, “then his lads Aodhan and Padraig hurled too. It was just a natural thing.”
Sport, in whatever form, came easy. Susan can still remember the purple and green bag from nearby Newell’s stores that was never without a ball when it accompanied her son to St Patrick’s primary school in Dungannon.
Between a fondness for Manchester United, Gaelic football at Thomas Clarke’s - where Sean too had played - and hurling with his beloved Eoghan Ruadh, it became all-consuming. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
But the older Damian got, the more his affection for the caman code grew. And it wouldn’t be long before the Croke Park down the road was traded for the real thing.
“He was there twice with the primary school - the first time was the INTO mini-sevens down at Clonliffe College. He got a Cork jersey that day and you would see him, wee knobbly knees and the big long jersey, beaming from ear to ear.
“You’re only supposed to get there once but he was picked again in P7, and this time he was mad looking the Kilkenny jersey, which he got. That just made him up.
“He wasn’t that tall then, so when all the lads were coming out and you’d have been looking for this wee lad running out of the tunnel. That was his first taste of Croke Park.”
It wouldn’t be his last as, under the watchful eye of Cathal McErlain at Eoghan Ruadh, Damian continued to flourish.
“Cathal was his mentor,” says Sean, “and he’d have been coming looking to take him to all those big matches at Croke Park. Damian just loved it. He loved the buzz, loved the craic along with all the other lads. There was no stopping him.”
Corn na nOg and Dalton Cup successes came his way at St Patrick’s Academy, and there is little doubt the skill and athleticism displayed with hurl in hand would have seen him star on the football field too had he carried on along that road.
As always, though, Damian followed his heart. Tyrone may be football country, but hurling had him from the start. Joan McElroy was a big influence at the Academy, and the Ulster Colleges’ Allstar picked up in 2011 proved a portent of things to come.
As his frame filled out and up, he hit the ground running in county colours when Tom Magill guided Tyrone to the 2012 Lory Meagher Cup. Soon extra attention would come his way, but it mattered not a jot.
“There’d have been boys nipping at him,” says Sean, “he’d come home and I’d be saying ‘you need to get that sorted out, don’t let them cling onto you like that’ and he says ‘da, I’m no good on the sideline’. That was the end of the conversation.
“They might have had the worst referee on the day and I’d be saying ‘I hope he doesn’t go over there and shake his hand’ - you’d look and he’s the first man over. Linesman, umpires, he went round the whole lot.
“He wanted to see fair play as much as anybody, and if something needed said, he would say it. But Damian was a cool head. Me and Susan, we could let go, but that lad… unreal.”
Two years later, still only 20, Damian was captain when victory over Fingal saw the Red Hands claim the Nicky Rackard Cup.
With the county’s scoring burden already strapped to his back, Susan wasn’t so sure about shovelling extra responsibility onto his young shoulders. The wily Mattie Lennon, though, knew what he was at.
“I actually said to Mattie after that I thought there was too much pressure on him.
“But his exact words back were ‘there wasn’t anybody else out there who could’ve brought all that together, only him’.”
“There’s a story about that final too,” says Sean, “about a week before, he had got a bad bang in the eye at training… the ball actually went through the rails of the helmet – you couldn’t do it if you tried.
“They took him down to the Royal and we weren’t five minutes into the consultant’s room before Damian was there, the big size 10 hand out, saying ‘I have a match in a week’s time, will I be fit to play?’ Everybody was looking at each other… you could’ve heard a pin drop.
“Susan was up all night putting drops in his eyes, in case anything went wrong. It was that serious. We met the consultant the next morning, lucky enough the swelling came down… still it was a dangerous enough game to be playing, in the circumstances.
“That was Damian. Could have lost the sight but the match, that was what he cared about.”
Tyrone won by a single score at Croke Park, and Damian finished with 0-8 to his name – four from play.
“Mattie would’ve praised him up and down,” says Sean, “he would’ve said ‘that man’s fit to play on any team in Ireland – and I mean that’. No matter what the level, he believed he would’ve automatically risen up to it.”
It was on days like these when the hearts could have beat out of his parents’ chests with pride, and there were many more to follow on the club and county scene.
For a fair chunk of the years that followed he was travelling back and forth from Liverpool every week to tog out, before an area sales post with CRJ (formerly Matpro Machinery) later saw him ferrying back and forward to Scotland when required.
Through all of that, his commitment to the cause remained undiminished.
“He would’ve flown home on a Friday evening, I might’ve met him at the front door with a kitbag and he went on up to Garvaghey then,” says Susan, “that was the case for probably three or four years.
“Ben McQuaid, one of the managing directors of CRJ and one of Damian’s best friends, was brilliant with him. They couldn’t have done any more to help him on that front.
“All Damian ever wanted to do was play for Tyrone and Eoghan Ruadh. A couple of ones said to me at different times that, because he played for Tyrone he maybe didn’t get the accolades he should have, and I said to them ‘don’t you ever say that to him’.
“He was a Tyrone man. He wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”
And of all the things held dearest, family topped the lot. The joy Damian got from being out on the field himself could only be matched by standing on the sidelines roaring sisters Louise and Catherine to success with the Naomh Treasa camogs.
County titles and victory at the Kilmacud Crokes’ annual tournament came their way, but the best of all arrived days before Christmas last year when they toppled Wicklow outfit Knockananna in the delayed 2020 All-Ireland Junior 'B' Club Championship final.
When the long whistle went, Damian and Sean were first to hop the fence in Kinnegad, the magic of the moment immortalised in a picture that takes pride of place on the mantelpiece.
“He enjoyed every minute of that,” says Susan.
“He came to me in Daly’s after they won and said ‘I couldn’t be any prouder of these two today. I might have All-Irelands, but they have a club All-Ireland – that’s the Holy Grail’.”
“You talk about the thrills and spills, and the delight,” says Sean.
“They’ve given us so much joy, and Damian was top notch on that. He loved it, and we loved it too. I said to Susan many times when we were coming up the road from any of their matches, we have so much pleasure and so much joy from it. It’s second to none.”
Following on from his sisters’ lead, the 2022 campaign was one to be savoured, culminating in another Nicky Rackard triumph. Now 28, and at the peak of his powers, this one meant a bit more.
The de facto semi-final against Donegal marked his 100th consecutive appearance for the county over League and Championship, with an average of over 10 points a game - incredible figures that only came to light courtesy of some number crunching from Tyrone statistician Eunan Lindsay.
“Damian didn’t even know, and he would’ve played all that down,” says Susan.
“‘Sure if the boys hadn’t got me the ball, I wouldn’t have got the scores’. That’s what he would always have said.”
The 1-12 bagged against the Tir Chonaill took Damian to 400 Championship points in 39 appearances – but he would have swapped them all for victory against Roscommon the next day.
Having fallen to the Rossies a few weeks earlier, turning the tide looked a big ask. Yet the man with 14 on his back led the way with a 14 point haul as Tyrone captured the crown once more, the satisfied smile telling its own tale as he clasped hands with Sean in the stand.
“See that picture? That handshake is all about… I was just so glad he had reached that pinnacle, and we had all been with him on that journey, every step of the way.
“The fact was, you can now enjoy yourself Damian, take it nice and easy. Work was going really well, he was shifting some steel, contracts coming in everywhere. That moment was just, honestly, complete and utter awe – thank God for this. You can sit back now and enjoy the rest of it.
“That’s the really sad part of it… he was on the crest of a wave, absolutely loving everything in his life.”
When tragedy struck in Spain less than a month later, the lives of Damian Casey’s family and all who knew him were altered forever. The outpouring of grief that followed serves as a constant reminder of the esteem in which he was held.
Sean, Susan, Louise and Catherine attended the vigil at Eoghan Ruadh days later, drawing strength from the support that came, and continues to come, their way. The hurling and all it brought to the table were a huge part of his life and theirs, but it’s the man he was that makes the Casey family most proud.
“That’s the wrecker,” says Sean, “you have no idea the joy that lad brought to us. He was a great child.
“It never leaves you, that’s being honest. But all the things we do, we do it because Damian would do it. That’s always in our heads. We went and we met people at that vigil because that’s what Damian would’ve done.
“What he’d be telling us now is… you’ve got to keep moving. There was nothing in this world that anybody could do. Things happen the way they happen. The lad was as good and as decent a cub as you’d have got on this earth, he wouldn’t want us to be sitting here with the heads down.
“Everybody’s human of course, we’ll have good days, an odd bad day, but that’s part of life and God bless every family that finds itself in the same situation.
“At times it’s nearly like you’re reading it in a book. There’s the first three chapters - do you leave the rest of the pages blank or do you fill them up with what he would have wanted?
“We have to drive on with it, because that’s what Damian would have wanted us to do.”
* The Casey family would like to thank everybody for their support during this difficult time.