Resilient Monaghan: pound-for-pound the best county in Gaelic games

Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh will be remembered as one of county’s most outstanding players

You could tell listening to the radio that there was something odd about the commentary from Newry on Saturday. It was a rip-roaring match that Monaghan initially appeared to have settled very early. Hardly anyone could think of when the county might have last scored four goals in the first half of a championship match.

Yet Armagh reeled them back and with less than 10 minutes to go, hit the front. The once dominant opposition sounded as if they were flat, out of puff and ideas. The extraordinary talent and temperament of Conor McManus somehow dug Monaghan out of their predicament with three precise frees – almost disconnected from the turbulent reality.

Armagh must have been shell-shocked to have recovered from a nine-point half-time deficit to lead by two with six minutes left – only to get touched off by a late run of four unanswered points from a team whose spirit they looked to have broken.

What was by any standards a famous victory registered a somewhat downbeat response. The numbers in attendance were limited to a couple of thousand so Armagh had no significantly greater support and yet they made more noise and treated their reviving fortunes ecstatically.

Muted

The Monaghan support sounded muted – their greeting of the victory quieter and more subdued than such an amazing endgame would have merited in usual circumstances.

Of course the circumstances were far from usual.

The previous night, Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh had captained Monaghan under-20s to a terrific win over Donegal in an Ulster semi-final. The team bus had brought everyone back from Enniskillen to their cars, parked in the county GAA centre in Cloghan, and the players dispersed into the night.

It meant that his team-mates were among the first to the scene of the crash that claimed their captain’s life at the age of 19. The awful news rippled out in expanding circles and the force of the loss for family, club and county hit home throughout the GAA on a busy weekend.

In Cork, the under-20 footballers formed an “M” at the end of training and held a minute’s silence.

“There’s not a GAA home in Ireland that won’t be impacted by the news,” said Dublin manager Dessie Farrell, summing up a widespread sentiment.

Former Monaghan player Dick Clerkin wrote in his Irish Independent column about the helpless dislocation he felt on a family holiday in Kerry with his children who had "idolised" Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh, as members of the local Monaghan Harps club.

Anyone who dies so young is going to be remembered for good things but in this case the clichés all had substance. He had captained Monaghan to an Ulster minor title and was spoken of as likely to replicate that role with the seniors in the future. An energetic leader on the field, he was sensible enough to decline a senior call-up in order to concentrate on his own cohort.

Brendan McAnallen, father of former Tyrone captain Cormac – another tragic and untimely loss – recounted that former president Mary McAleese had commiserated with him saying: “He only brought home good news.”

The loss is terrible for Monaghan GAA, which could be described as pound-for-pound the best county in Gaelic games.

With a population of little more than 60,000 – “the size of Drumcondra,” as one native reminded me – it has a couple of Ulster titles from the past decade and a consistent presence in Division One – retained as recently as last month after a fierce refusal to go down quietly despite being outplayed for most of the play-off by Galway.

The resilience on show that day asserted itself again last Saturday when defeat looked certain in the dying minutes of the Ulster semi-final.

Its economic life is also resilient with hardly any multi-national presence – on the upside, no big employers to relocate with big job losses – but a thriving small business sector and a big enterprise like Combilift, which employs 650 people and exports specialist forklift vehicles around the world.

Thriving

It was co-founded by locals Martin McVicar and Robert Moffett in the late 1990s and opened the current factory in Monaghan town three years ago.

Abroad, Carrickmacross man Philip Traynor, who also died last week, made a fortune in flooring buildings in New York, and sent some of it home to sponsor the county footballers.

The GAA is sustained by 32 clubs, most of whom have spectacularly well appointed premises, in some cases separate training grounds.

There is a thriving games development structure, run by Paul O’Connor, which has produced Ulster winning minor teams in 2018 and ‘19 and in the delayed 2020 season, the county this month lost the Ulster final narrowly to Derry, who last weekend won the All-Ireland, beating Kerry in the final.

Women’s football has always been strong and, unlike the men, is on the senior All-Ireland roll of honour with back-to-back wins in 1996 and ‘97, plus a number of narrow defeats in finals since then. That presence is growing and in some clubs there are as many girls enrolled as boys.

The county has produced influential administrators for the association this century, a recent DG, Páraic Duffy and former president Seán McCague who in the 1970s and ‘80s re-established Monaghan football as a force.

Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh made his way in those footsteps. His untimely death is a cause of terrible sadness but he will be remembered as an eternally vibrant heir to that outstanding tradition.

TG4 produced one of the many affecting tributes last weekend. It ended with the dedication: “Leaba in measc na n-aingeal”.

After a celebration of his life, he will be laid to rest today.

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