McAlarney tribute goes down a treat

McAlarney tribute goes down a treat

5 December 2018

IT has been said that heroes are people who rise to the occasion and then slip away quietly.

Our hero doesn’t make a fuss. He doesn’t hog the limelight – in fact quite the opposite. He stays away from it. His hero status is earned, though, his earning of the status is not a deliberate focus. That is more for others to do. If we don’t have heroes then where do we get our inspirations from? Often our heroes are close to home, and that is true of this one.

It’s early summer 1978 and an eager 19 year-old is anxious to know. “Well, was he there?” The equally eager 15 year-old, deciding to be a wee bit cute, replied: “Who?” A few playful expletives from the 19 year-old and the 15 year-old burst out laughing: “Aye, he was there – there was no county training tonight.:

It was the first Town senior training session the 15 year-old attended. Different times. A 15 year-old nowadays would be a ball-boy at training. “Did he train or was he – like – just there standing about not involved as he was on the county team?” 

A few expletives from me (who at fifteen years old) declared: “Of course he trained – he’s Arkle the county captain, midfielder for The Town”. “Did he pass the ball to you and by the way he’s a Fontenoy?,” the nineteen year-old declared robustly. 

“Yes he did” I replied excitedly. The Town man gave me great encouragement and told me to keep coming back to training. He is our hero. He’s everyone’s hero. I will come back to our nineteen-year old later. 

Over 500 Gaels from Down, all over Ireland and beyond gathered in the Slieve Donard Hotel last Friday night to honour and to pay tribute to one of Down’s greatest ever footballers, none other than the great Colm McAlarney. 

His evening started with a knock on the door at his home in the Town when club chairman, Kevin Sweeney, and event organiser Kevan Owens surprised Colm in his kitchen with those immortal words “tonight Colm – this is your life.”

It was filmed and the first sign of his hero status became apparent – total shock and his humble disbelief. Then came his sudden realisation of what the meaning of the word ‘Omerta’ was – the code of silence. 

He didn’t see it coming or expect it. Colm arrived into the Shimna Suite to a tumultuous welcome – the sort of welcome only heroes get, the standing ovation, the shy bow of the head and of course the irreplaceable smile.

He was among friends and worshippers. He spoke to his adoring audience and we lapped up every word. He spoke of his unease at the individual honours he achieved as Gaelic football is a team game and that he achieved much on the shoulders of giants both in size and sheer ability. They gave him the platform to achieve what he did. 

Colm said It wasn’t about Colm – it’s what others did for him. The unglamorous work, the blocking, the chasing – all the stuff we, as footballers do.

The first video, mist and rolling hills – the early strains from the film many years ago – yip local hero. 

We all can’t be wrong. We’re all thinking the same way. In true ‘This is your life’ style our compere for the evening, the classy one and only Austin O’Callaghan eased Colm into his throne.

He didn’t sit easy. He’s in the spotlight. It’s not like the chair at home from which he was supposed to be watching the Late Late Show (The Toy Show). As Colm said himself, before Mickey Cole got his tuppence in, saying it was about Colm’s level of viewing. 

There was laughter from the hall. Now, like all his years on the field, he is being watched once again. The evening will unfold. There will be surprises. He will forget himself, the nervous tension will go. 

He will relax into the throne – on one which he will wear a virtual crown. There was one thing missing – the big red book. This was duly delivered by Colm’s grandchildren, Eimear and Senan adorned in the Castlewellan and Liatroim Fontenoys colours.

He got his biggest hug of the night from them. They probably whispered ‘we love you granda’ to him. He would have known that. 

And so the story of his life began and it began with family. His sister’s Mary, Nuala, Una and Dympna talked warmly of their brother. They spoke of the early days in Dublin, the near emigration to Australia and ultimately their return to Liatroim.  

In later years one newspaper headlined “Colm McAlarney – Dublin’s gift to Down’ – which we all know now is so fitting and thank God for that. 

The next sign of the hero status revealed itself though not a sporting one. Dympna told of how as a four year-old she misbehaved at Mass. As children we’ve all got the “wait until I get you home” remark from a parent. When she got home, Colm being the big brother. gave her a big protective hug and all was forgiven by her parents. 

Stories of his early playing days were laid out by his friends Tommy Armstrong, Brian Malone, Gerry and Noel McCabe. 

Those days as young lads where they played in a field, set up goals and the youngest (being Noel) told they were in goal. The humorous story of those times set the evening up well. 

We also heard from Willie Doyle and Colm Shields of those days in the mid-sixties when the young Colm was starting to make his mark on the Gaelic field. And so the flow of old playing colleagues from St Patrick’s High School, Downpatrick, with MacRory Cup memories, Down Minors and U-21s of the day. 

In 1966 Colm played for Down in three Ulster finals in the space of eight days — for the seniors, minors and U-21s. A quite unique feat and a sign that perhaps greater things would come. 

Another unique fact was revealed. Colm played in four consecutive minor county finals, one with Loughinisland, one with Annaclone and two with Castlewellan. The great and the good continued to file passed. 

They told their tales of opponent, rival, colleague and what makes the GAA tick – friendship. We all know the headline stories, but it will always be the anecdotal tales behind the stories which give us all the biggest chuckles. 

Of course there was the glory years where we had Paddy Doherty, Sean O’Neill, Gerry Dougherty, Kevin McIlroy, Donagh O’Kane, Barney McAleenan, Liam Sloan, Peter McGinnity, Sean og McGourty, Ray Carolan to name but a few. 

The little story from Liam Sloan, when back in 1979, he received a call from the Ulster Council to see if a trophy Colm won the previous year could be returned to be presented to the next recipient. Liam called to Colm’s house where Colm went looking for it. Imagine the scene, Colm’s backside sticking out from under the stairs, arm reaching back with each trophy saying “do you think it’s that one.”

There were video messages from Kevin Moran, the great Mick O’Dwyer, Sean Cavanagh, Mickey Harte and then of course there was Joe Brolly, who wants to sit down and have a pint with Colm sometime.

Colm could turn his hand to any sport. Basketball was always a preferred past time. What was revealed also was when he was at St Joseph’s Training College was how he became involved in a wee bit of boxing. 

When members of the Immaculata Boxing Club came over from Divis to ‘The Ranch’ Colm took up the gloves. They were impressed by his skills. They wanted him to join the sport and even came to watch him play. 

The young Colm simply did not have the time to fit it in. The one good thing was that, as many of you will remember boxing skills came in handy in the Gaelic football arena back then. Better with the skill than without it.

I cannot tell everyone’s tale but perhaps one of the greatest footballers of all time, the great Kerry’s Jack O’Shea, paid Colm the greatest of sporting accolades by telling everyone he modelled his game on Colm’s. 

The second Gaelic football, box to box player, learning from the first and had Colm been a Kerry man – well you know how many All-Ireland medals he’d have. This comment met with huge applause and nodding approval for our hero.

Another milestone in Colm’s illustrious career, sometimes forgotten, was his foresight back then in 1985 to introduce Saturday morning coaching sessions in Castlewellan for potential footballers between six and eleven years of age, a true testimony this practice is still thriving within the club some thirty three years down the road, all due to Colm McAlarney. 

The most touching tribute of the night came from his daughter Grainne. He’s dad and not the hero we know.

He is the hero that is her dad. It was only in her early twenties she appreciated the GAA star her dad is. Sometimes, whenever she mentioned her surname, through the medium of her work with Danske Bank, there was then the silence and the pause, then the question, “Anything to Colm?” which she would answer with pride and a smile “yes that’s my dad.”  

He’s first and foremost a dad. Sitting quietly and elegantly through the evening, watching the proceedings unfold and I’m sure bursting with pride, was Theresa, Colm’s wife. Along with the family she kept the secret of what was months in the making. 

Her smile and perhaps a quiet reflection on a sporting life which she supported all through the years deserves recognition. Though, I suspect she would be like Colm in that that recognition doesn’t sit easy with her either.

The final video of the night was delivered to the tunes of My Way and Simply the Best. This was a reflection of a career which spanned four decades. Perhaps most poignant of moments was the final montage from the 1995 Down Senior Championship final where we saw a very proud Michael McAlarney with his son Colm and Colm Og with the Frank O’Hare Cup he spoke of bursting with pride of the two men beside him. 

Colm did it his way, but never to the detriment of others and he is simply the best. All the guests rose to their feet, once again, when the red book was handed over. The evening wasn’t over yet. There was another award. One from within his own club. Castlewellan chairman Kevin Sweeney, came to the podium and announced that Colm was the worthy recipient of the Castlewellan Hall of Fame award. 

Some of our previous proud winners were there to see Colm presented the Johnny O’Neill Trophy by Johnny’s son, our vice-chairman, John O’Neill. Colm is now among a special group of people within our club.

Well done to Kevan Owens, Kevin Sweeney, Gerry Dougherty, Liam Sloan and Barney McAleenan. This is the team who put the night together and they deserve our praise and appreciation.

So, there you have it - the word hero – you know by now it’s a big one. 

Kitty Kelley said that a hero is someone we can admire without apology. I use the word unashamedly. By the way, that 19 year-old I mentioned at the beginning was the late Gerry Rush (JR) from the Bann Road. He was a very proud Fontenoy, my friend and a McAlarney man.

JR went to his eternal rest in October 2015, but his spirit was there on Friday night to pay tribute to a very special local hero.