'It is funny the stir it can cause when you say what you think'
With his co-panellists Colm O'Rourke, Pat Spillane and presenter Michael Lyster on The Sunday Game
The perceived image of the outspoken GAA pundit has changed since word spread of his kidney donation for a friend, writes KEITH DUGGAN
About two months after his kidney donation, Joe Brolly was cycling through Belfast city and had his foot against the kerb while he waited for the traffic lights to change. He was barely recognisable in his lycra and cycling paraphernalia and he noticed a woman staring hard at him as she walked by.
“Are you Joe Brolly?,” she ventured and he knew by her accent that she was from Fermanagh.
“Yes, yes, I am, that’s me.”
The woman shook her head and said with vexation: “I used to think you were an awful shite.”
Then she walked on.
Brolly kept laughing about it as he went through his day as a barrister in court. The woman might as well have been speaking for half the nation because the Derry contrarian had posed a conundrum for the many, many thousands of people for whom cursing Joe Brolly had become a national pastime.
As the most lippy and articulate pundit on Irish television, Brolly has a talent for provoking outrage in entire counties. He has maddened Cork and drew equal indignation across Kerry. He has caused untold annoyance across Ulster in counties still incensed by the memory of his blowing kisses at them after he scored a goal. Last September, he became the Salman Rushdie of county Mayo. So when word broke early last October that he was donating one of his kidneys to his friend Shane Finnegan, with whom he coached the under-10 team in St Brigid’s, people felt kind of tricked.
You don’t pick up The Beano to see Denis the Menace doing a good turn. You don’t go to see Die Hard to see Bruce Willis chair a labour relations committee. And you don’t associate Joe Brolly with sensitivity.
When word of Brolly’s operation spread, it brought to mind Evelyn Waugh’s immortal observation upon hearing that surgeons had removed a benign tumour from his friend, the politician Randolph Churchill: “Trust them to find the only part of Randolph that wasn’t malignant and remove it.”
People joke about Brolly and write online threads about his latest heresy and tweet invective and listen to him in pubs and homes across Ireland on balmy summer Sunday afternoons just so they can passionately disagree with him and, sooner or later, declare him to be nothing but a b***ix. But about his kidney donation, there was national agreement. This was an act of exceptional compassion and not only that, it was bloody typical of Brolly – big-hearted and unexpected and true to himself.
If a gesture could be outspoken, this was it. Four months on and he is still prone to bouts of chronic exhaustion and he is lighter than ever but he is back working full days and goes mountain biking for exercise. But the main after-effect has been the recurrence of what he calls “a deep sadness” that the operation was not a success for Shane.
“Everything looked so good and all the experts were optimistic. And the clock is ticking on him now. It is difficult to explain it – you would have to go to a transplant unit to see how it works. But there is a deep spiritual bond between donor and recipient and your fates become entwined . . . this isn’t to pity Shane or anything like that.
“The bottom line is that Shane needs another transplant and the chances of him getting that are slim. His is a complex situation which is why it is done in Guy’s in London: they are the world leaders in this. The chances of a match are less than 1 per cent and he can’t take a deceased donor; it has to be living. So the chances of someone popping up are slim.
“He is surviving because he is on dialysis four days a week. But Shane is very strong-willed and selfless. His main concern afterwards was how I was. He doesn’t have an ounce of self pity. We were on the Nolan show recently and my wife said that you’d have thought I was the one on dialysis. He looks better than me!”
Tonight, Brolly will be in Croke Park for the Alan Kerins Project match and charity dinner and when he gets the chance, he will be making a beeline for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to “nobble him” about the campaign to change organ donation from the opt-in policy to “a soft opt out”.
In other words, new policy would be based on the assumption that a person is willing to donate in the event of their death – but their next of kin has the final say. The organ donor card system would be eliminated. All parties are behind the campaign in Northern Ireland and Brolly is one of its most energetic and – predictably – outspoken advocates.