'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.
“I suppose I’m doing something useful for once,” he confesses.
It is hard to remember a time when Joe Brolly was not a public figure. A quick and ethereal corner forward on Eamon Coleman’s charismatic Derry team of the early 1990s, Brolly was a splash of flamboyance in Ulster when the province was defined by the colour of gunsmoke grey. He smiled on football fields in a period when smiling on football fields was considered incitement to violence.
He blew those kisses and he scored goals and he spoke his mind. He comes from a well-known Derry family: his father is Francie Brolly, the traditional musician and Sinn Féin politician. His mother Anne is also a musician and a Sinn Féin councillor on the Limavady borough council. When he was 20, Brolly made his debut for Derry, played for a decade and has become one of the most recognisable voices in Gaelic games.
When he recalls the bitter rivalry between his Derry team and the neighbouring Donegal side, his thoughts turn not to the big names but to a former Donegal corner back who was as understated as he was classy. “Barry McGowan,” he says out of the blue, “Now he was an example of a really great footballer who was totally unheralded. For me, he was as good as Tony Scullion. He was in that mould.”
This conversation took place early yesterday morning: Brolly was at once talking on the phone, trying to park his car in a lock-up in Belfast and rushing for court but he was completely enthused by his memories of the Killybegs man. “Och, he knows what I think of him – I’ve said it before.”
And this is the core Brolly trait: he says what he thinks, regardless of where it lands him.
Some of his best observations on the GAA and Irish life appear in his columns in the Derry Journal and The Mail, where he sometimes writes about his experiences in the GAA and of what life is like in contemporary Northern Ireland.
Last May for instance, he described the meeting between loyalists commanders and Ulster Council members organised by Martin McAleese which took place in the Shankill. It was an attempt to foster some sort of mutual understanding and all parties were surprised by how well it went. Ryan Feeney (who has written that Brolly once analysed his match performance by telling him he had a great career ahead of him in administration) found himself met by a loyalist leader, who told him he was welcome.
“Amazing,” Feeney replied as they drank tea in the heart of loyalist Belfast. “What would have happened if we had come here 10 years ago? “We’d have shot you and kidnapped McAleese,” was the considered response.
Four weeks later, the same group attended an All-Ireland semi-final together in Croke Park. It was symbolic but it was a start and Brolly’s thoughts on just how deep segregation runs through Northern Irish society are understated and heartfelt.
But RTÉ has become his pulpit. Brolly is aware of how he is perceived when he sits between O’Rourke and Spillane, agitating and making mischief and peering at his colleagues over the bridge of his spectacles as if he had made a blistering closing argument and Michael Lyster was M’Lud. He was at a funeral a few years ago and met Colm Mulholland, who played for the Bellaghy team of 1971. Mulholland sighed when he saw him and said: “Well, at least you’re not sitting with your feet up on the table today in RTÉ . . . ridiculin’ the country.”
Cause a riot
Sometimes, it is hard to believe that Brolly isn’t saying what he says just to get a rise out of people. At his worst, Brolly could cause a riot in a convent. But he insists it isn’t premeditated. His comments on what he saw as systematic fouling by the Mayo team were aired before the All-Ireland final. It is easy to understand why James Horan, the Mayo manager, voiced his grievance afterwards. It appeared as if an RTÉ analyst had deliberately singled out his team for criticism. Brolly was asked by RTÉ to do a piece on Mayo and it was only when he studied their win over Dublin that he came to his conclusion.
“The RTÉ sports department watched the clips and satisfied themselves that it was technically right because they appreciated that it wasn’t going to go down well in Mayo. There is bad upset and good upset. There is nothing nasty in it and it increases the debate before the final.
“Then, of course, I became a hero in Donegal. Mayo got two yellow cards early in the final for fouling and the word was: ‘that’s down to Brolly’. I had delivered them a title. Yes, I visibly propelled Michael Murphy into the air to catch that ball,” he says drily. “My ability to deliver an All-Ireland to the highest bidder! I am a powerful man and people should be afraid. All those conspiracy theorists can’t be wrong! Look, I don’t go out to be not politically correct. But it is funny the stir it can cause when you say what you think.”
Just a few weeks before that, even the dogs were howling in the Kingdom when word spread like a bush-fire that Brolly had called Colm Cooper a “choker” in his column.
The piece had been written while he was on holiday in France . . he claims to have had no idea of the indignation until he returned home. (And the thought of Brolly breezily denouncing Kerry’s favourite son from some chateau must have been even more galling to Kerry fans).
He explained his comment on television and tried to put it in context – that he believed Cooper was one of the all-time great footballers but was suggesting Kerry won so many games on auto-pilot that there was a question mark over how they responded – individually and collectively – to teams with limitless will and self-belief. His fundamental point was lost in the outcry: he had referred to one of the most revered footballers in Ireland as “choking” and that is all that anyone heard.
On the day of the All-Ireland quarter-final between Donegal and Kerry, Brolly happened to be heading into the stadium just as a crowd of hundreds of Kerry fans had gathered outside. A chant went up – “Gooch! Gooch! Gooch!” and eventually Brolly held an arm aloft to speak and when the group fell silent, he suggested they all meet back at the very spot at 5.15. Donegal won – in keeping with Brolly’s June prophesy that they would prove unstoppable in the All-Ireland – and he was back on the footpath at the appointed hour. “Funny enough, nobody showed,” he laughs. “My son was beside me saying, ‘Dad, can we please get out of here’. But I wanted to come back in case anyone turned up and wanted to talk chat about it.”
The incident proved one thing: the Sunday Game panel has a rapt court.
While the rugby pundits are famous for their chumminess and the soccer panel have entered the realm of legend, the Sunday Game pundits are listened to with a rare intent across Ireland.
A man stopped Brolly on the street a few months ago. He explained that he was a carer for his wife and that she enjoyed watching the Derry man’s row with Tony Davis. They had it recorded and played it every so often. Just for the fun of it. “I suppose it has become a part of Irish cultural life and people do get a kick out of it,” he says.
Some of the other Sunday Game team will be on the field for this afternoon’s charity game but Brolly isn’t sufficiently recovered to take part. But he has been inspired by what Alan Kerins has achieved.
“It is all very life-affirming and he is just the right person to be at it. Most of us would throw a few pound in a basket or go to a charity dinner but he has created all of this.”
As for Brolly, he is still getting used to people saying nice things to him. Secretly, he wants to get back to being the class smartass again.
“The halo will fade,” Joe Brolly promises. He’s probably right. He’d be the first to tell you that he’s right about most things.
NB: Ronnie Whelan, Jack O’Shea and Tony Ward are among those taking part in today’s Kerry v Kildare match for the Alan Kerins Project in Croke Park (throw in 4pm). Mick O’Dwyer and Glenn Ryan will manage the sides with commentary from Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. All players have raised €1,800 to take part on the event. Spectators are welcome. A special gala dinner will take place tonight in Croke Park, with the intention of raising €100,000.