CHRIS Egan could always pick out his mother’s voice.
No matter if there were 60-odd people seeking shelter in the stand, or a couple of thousand at Pairc Esler on county final day, it had a way of finding him while he went to war on the field.
Saturday will be strange, he knows that. For the first time since Dawn Egan passed away days before October’s Down final, her son will run out in Ballycran for the Ardsmen’s National League clash with Kerry.
A much-loved friend and colleague to everyone at The Irish News, where Dawn worked as a journalist for almost four decades, she was often among the first faces spotted upon arrival at McKenna Park – that familiar smile, her gentle manner, immediately putting all at their ease.
The family home is just out the road, so much of life for so long revolving around Ballycran. Dawn put her shoulder to the wheel in any way she could, with husband Mark the current club chairman and a faithful servant to the black and amber.
It isn’t a case of coming back because he never went away but, for Chris Egan, the difference between then and now will be keenly felt.
“Mum would’ve supported me whatever I did, but she was particularly interested in the hurling.
Even if there was a couple of thousand people in a ground, all shouting, I could always hear her over everybody else.
“I don’t know if maybe you’re just drawn to that voice…”— Chris Eagan
His last competitive game was the county final on October 22, 2023.
Just two days earlier Dawn had been laid to rest at St Joseph’s Church, Ballycranbeg after a short illness. Not only did Chris somehow summon the strength to play against Portaferry, he led the line superbly – bagging the best score of the day three minutes in before leaving the field to a standing ovation when replaced with seven minutes left.
“You’re just running on adrenaline really.
“When it came down to it, I had to think ‘what would mum want me to do?’ And that was to keep playing. She would’ve hit me a good cuff around the ear if she found out I wasn’t going to strip out.
“You’re training all year, these guys have given everything, so to not see it out at that stage would be a shame. I knew it was the right thing to do, and that it’s what mum would have wanted.
“There’s a lot of learning from it as well because there’s younger ones in the club who would look up to me and the other boys on the senior team, and if they see somebody wanting to drive the team on, then hopefully it filters down…”
It is a day when parish pride is normally at its most precious, the next year’s bragging rights banked depending on what turn the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup takes on the road back.
Yet the magnitude of the Egan family’s personal trauma far overshadowed the story told on the scoreboard as Portaferry prevailed.
When Chris was withdrawn, Portaferry full-back - and Down team-mate - Tom Murray immediately ran over to shake his hand, while others in blue and gold embraced the 28-year-old on his way from the field.
Ports captain Matt Conlan offered condolences at the start of a subdued victory speech, while joint manager Gerard McGrattan made his way straight to Egan in the Ballycran dugout once the long whistle had blown.
Scores and success are one thing but, on days like these, people and perspective trump all else.
“There is such a connection between the clubs and the communities on the Ards peninsula… you take it for granted sometimes.
Running on adrenaline
“I remember turning round at mum’s wake and there was Noel Sands and Gerard McGrattan standing there in the living room. I was going to be lining out against Gerard’s team on the Sunday.
“Then Tom [Murray], the man I was going to be marking, was there throughout the whole time, texting, right up until championship day when we had to get our business heads on.
“When I saw the board go up to say
I was getting subbed off, it was nearly a relief, because I knew I’d done everything I could. I was actually a bit shell-shocked [by the round of applause]… all I could do was applaud back.
“It was a surreal moment, but one I’ll never forget. It’s unbelievable really the respect that there is. I’ll be forever in their debt for that.”— Chris Eagan
On Saturday, however, it is back to Ballycran and McKenna Park.
Kerry have become familiar foes during Egan’s decade in red and black, and victory would set Down up for the remainder of the campaign following last weekend’s hugely encouraging display in defeat to heavy promotions favourites Laois.
And while his mother’s voice may not be heard shouting from the stand, Chris knows Dawn would be willing him to win every ball – just as she always did.
“We’re all trying to get Down back to where they were in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, up to Division One. Everybody in the squad knows what it will take to get there. We’re very competitive now and we expect a lot of ourselves.
“There’s no big secret to it either – it’s just hard work, honesty and dedication. Hopefully we can turn the tables this weekend and get a win… obviously it would mean a lot if we could.
“Mum was a huge character in my life and, even though she’s not watching in the stand, she’ll still be there in spirit. You just have to carry on and try and do what you think she would want you to do – that’s to keep hurling, and doing what I’m doing.”