'It is funny the stir it can cause when you say what you think'
“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.”