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A GAA community in mourning steels itself for Ulster final

The death of Monaghan under-20s captain Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh struck the county’s heart

By the Sunday night after Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh died, his body still wasn't home from hospital. The local machinery that guides a place through these things had long since kicked into gear, however, and the Monaghan Harps clubhouse on the edge of the town was the centre of operations. That had been the way of it since early on Saturday morning when club secretary Nicola Shalvey tied a black ribbon to the gates and laid a single wreath.

Nobody had declared the clubhouse the place to go. It just sort of happened. It’s down a lane off a square, folded in against the hill where the old St Davnet’s psychiatric hospital stands. Generations of Monaghan kids have put down Friday nights necking a few cans in the shadows up on the grass bank before spending their weekends togging out down on the pitch a couple of hundred yards away. Ógie was well fit to handle himself on either patch of grass.

“The little divil that he was, he hung around with all walks of life in the town,” says club chairman Jimmy Croarkin. “It didn’t matter who you were. He was a little rogue, he hung about with the messers of the town as much as he hung out with lads who were serious about football.

“He wouldn’t be afraid to sit up with the boys having a wee drink in Davnet’s and have the crack and everything. But he knew what was ahead of him football-wise. He knew that he was going to play for Monaghan for the next 10 years. That’s why he stayed at under-20 and didn’t go in with the seniors when Banty invited him in.


“Most people who get that phone call are up and ready to go before the question is even finished. But he was loyal to his team and his friends and he knew there was plenty of time to be a senior.”

Down at the clubhouse, the crowds came and they came. Through Saturday and Sunday and into the night. Initially, the club weren’t sure whether a book of condolence was possible or practicable in Covid times but so many people turned up, it felt like the obvious thing to do. So they worked in shifts, wiping down pens, refilling hand sanitiser, parking cars, directing traffic.

On Sunday afternoon, the Derry minor team stopped off on their way back from winning their All-Ireland final in Tullamore. Of the thousands of visitors who came through the place, there was something about a busload of newly minted All-Ireland champions that took everyone’s breath away. They hung a Derry flag on the club gate, paid their respects and got back on the road for home. Young footballers, everything ahead of them.


In the evening, the Monaghan seniors came. They signed the book and hung around. Talking, consoling, being whatever help they could be. The win over Armagh the day before had done more than they could have known to change the mood in the county, even just for a couple of hours.

In the quiet of a clubhouse wake, people weren’t sure whether to keep it totally solemn or pump a discreet fist and murmur a “well done” when they caught their eye. So they did both. It might not have been right but it didn’t feel wrong.

Usually, the day after an Ulster semi-final win is a day to keep the outside world out. Recover, flush out the lactic acid, eat well, hydrate, all that jazz. Standing around talking ball with Joe and Josephine Public isn’t helpful or advisable.

Yet there they were. Among their people, gathering in close. When the crowds began to thin and the late summer sunset started sending people home, club members went around checking doors and closing the place up. At 11pm, the last person to leave the clubhouse was Conor McManus.

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

(from To An Athlete Dying Young by AE Housman)

To get a sense of what Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh meant to Monaghan town, it helps to know about his club. The Harps are a maddening thing at times. A town club with townie players, with all the good and bad that implies. Nearly always a force at underage, never a factor at senior level. The biggest town in the county, the widest pick of players. And yet no senior championship since 1923. Just four final appearances in 98 years.

In a county like Monaghan, everyone moves away. To Dublin, to Belfast, to Derry, wherever. But somehow the country clubs like Scotstown and Clontibret and Ballybay always make sure the elastic doesn’t snap.

McManus spent his 20s in Dublin but still won five county titles with Clontibret. Conor McCarthy was a mainstay of UCD Sigerson teams and could still gather up five titles of his own with Scotstown. Ryan Wylie is a radiographer in the Mater hospital who gets in his relaxation time playing for Ballybay.

Townie thing

For whatever reason, the Harps have never been good at holding onto players. Maybe it’s a townie thing. Maybe the bonds aren’t quite as tight, the relationships that bit more fleeting. The yo-yoing between senior and intermediate – with the occasional nosedive into junior football – probably doesn’t help either. One way or another, it’s a timeless problem.

Ógie Duffy was different. He was going nowhere. Despite being the son of two teachers, books weren’t his thing. He wasn’t wired that way. He wanted to work with his hands and had started in Century Homes. He loved it.

“His father runs the Irish school,” says Croarkin. “His mother is a teacher. In any other house in the country, there’d have been big pressure on him – ‘Why are you not going to college? Why are you not studying?’

“But they knew their son. They didn’t care that he wasn’t academic. He worked out in Century Homes, he had a hammer and a wee bag that he carried around with him and a wee stool and they knew that he was happy. That was what he wanted to do. In their house, it was just, ‘Ógie’s happy and that’s all that matters.’ It was all just pure love.”

In the week that followed his death, some of his co-workers couldn’t face it. Men who were older than him and around a lot longer drove into work, got as far as the front door and turned around and went home again. There was a numbness to the place. Townsmen of a stiller town.

The people were mourning the sundered youth, of course. Grieving for the family. Crying for the sudden, life-altering void in the Ó Dufaigh house out behind the town swimming pool. But mixed in there somewhere too was the loss of what Ógie Duffy would have become. A Harps man on the Monaghan team, possibly a future captain like he had been at minor and under-20. Someone they could push forward and go, “Here. Look. This is who we are.”

“We got messages from all over the world,” Croarkin says. “Monaghan people were so connected by it. There was a businessman in town who went into Fleming’s [SuperValu] and said that anyone who wanted to come in and get a Monaghan Harps flag, he would pay for it.

“One of the nights, I looked at my phone going to bed and counted 198 calls that day. So many people wanted to help and get involved. It brought people together in a way none of us ever would have thought possible. Everybody in the town and in the county was affected.”

Ulster final

In the middle of it all, Seamus McEnaney and his players have an Ulster final to bear down and get on with. An Ulster final against Tyrone into the bargain, the team who have put a sudden and unsympathetic end to any good summer Monaghan football has had over the past decade.

Tyrone beat them in Ulster finals in 2007 and 2010, in All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2013 and 2015 and in their only All-Ireland semi-final of the past three decades, in 2018. Whatever trouble Tyrone have been in, they’ve generally been able to rely on Monaghan to help them up and out of it.

In the circumstances, nobody will hold it against the Monaghan team if the same happens again on Saturday in Croke Park. While most of the senior players didn’t know Ó Dufaigh personally, some of the newer arrivals on the scene had played with him at underage. McEnaney knew him probably the best of all from when he was county minor manager and freely admits that he has found the past fortnight particularly hard to bear.

In that context, it was no surprise when selector David McCague assumed the press duties in the run-up to the final. “It was a massive shock to the GAA community in Monaghan and the players feel that as well,” McCague said on Monday night.

This is the thing. No matter how well or otherwise any of them knew Ó Dufaigh, they have lived through a traumatic two weeks in the life of their county and its people. For almost half of the prep time since the semi-final, it was the only topic of conversation. Pushing it aside to get ready for an Ulster final is no small task.

They were all Ógie Duffy once. In a county of 32 clubs, 18 are represented on the senior panel. They were all the big hope for the future, the best foot forward that their town or village or bend in the road could make. Even if they didn’t know him, they knew what it was to be 19 and a footballer and on top of the world.


“They are very mature and focused individuals,” McCague said. “The great thing about sport is that in really tough times it is a form of escapism, and training sessions and games give you an opportunity to escape from the hurt and the shock that fell upon us.

“In that sense, when we’ve been on the field together it has been a form of therapy in some respect where people can put their mind to something they enjoy and take great satisfaction out of rather than the hurt and pain since we lost Brendan Óg.

“The boys are a very tight group. A lot of new players have come in over the last 18 months or so and you can see the relationships develop, and those relationships are really important at a time like this.

“People can talk to each other and express their feelings, which has been a great help to us. I have to pay a massive tribute to the leadership within the playing group for the way they put their arm around the younger players and supported them through it.”

There is, of course, an easy way out. When tragedies happen, the handy fallback is to say it puts sport into perspective. That the result of a game, Ulster final or not, doesn’t much matter when you’re lowering a 19-year-old into the ground.

But while that is true, up to a point, it doesn’t quite sit right either. If we dismiss football as being inconsequential, we diminish the role it played in making Ógie Duffy who he was. It was what he was best at, what he put the most of himself into, what gave him his greatest form of expression.

Blithely saying his death puts football in perspective ignores the fact that football itself was the perspective through which he saw his life. After all the emotion of the past fortnight, the county will feel they owe him more than that.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times