“Now I’d like to relive
those years of aloofness,
am sorry I didn’t
give and take more
notice and pleasure
each hour of each day.”
For Carlo – Seamus Heaney
My dog Bran, a shaggy old border collie cross, was put to sleep last month.
Technically by this stage he was probably my brother Michael’s dog. After I moved to London, Bran did his own emigration, following in the footsteps of John Carney and Paul King he transferred from Limavady to Glack, where Mick took over ownership duties (of the dog not John and Paul).
- The late Bran McCann, Derry fan and chaser of sticks
You might reasonably think that the fact that I wasn’t the person feeding, walking, or asking Bran “who’s a good boy?” on a daily basis would have tempered my emotions when the news arrived that he’d gone for the long walk in the sky. But truth be told the opposite was the case. When the phonecall came on a Tuesday last month I made a holy show of myself in the office, the tears just started to roll down my cheeks. No sobbing, no wailing just big silent tears, fat and warm like salty summer rain-drops. And they wouldn’t stop. Thank Christ it was lunchtime so I was able to leave the office and go for a walk round White Chapel until I was able to catch a grip of myself.
As sentimental as it might seem, the oul dog actually ended up meaning more to me in the last four years of his life when he was 400 miles away than he did for the 10 years when I could reach down to scratch him behind the ear as he’d lay along the base of the sofa in Knockanbaan.
When you’re living away, every time you come home you notice the place changed just a little. It happens in increments, there’s a new roundabout, someone else has moved away, Hunter‘s butchers is now called McAtamney’s and no longer serves the meatloaf that I would eat by the pound, the nephew that you used to be able to throw over your shoulder is now six foot tall.
The dog was a constant. He’d treat my arrival at Mick’s like I was Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which, to be fair, is pretty much how he’d react when I’d arrive home from work back on any ordinary day.
A perfect Sunday at home would feature a Derry match preceded by walking Bran up on top of Binevenagh mountain. Amazingly for such a stunning location it’s normally pretty much deserted. From the top of the mountain, with just me and the dog there, all felt right with the world. The Roe Valley stretching out below gave a sense of perspective, Binevenagh with the dog was my go to spot in times of stress.
- Walking Bran on Binevenagh was a great escape from the stresses of day to day life
But now the dog has gone and with him another connection with home is lost.
The contradictions that arise from a sense of a diminishing relationship with home are also reflected in my connection to the Derry Gaelic football team.
From 2002 to until 2013 I boasted a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of Derry football and Derry footballers. I watched a ridiculous amount of club football, all across the county.
If a lad had any game in him at all I could tell you about him. I followed the county team across the country, a league game in Wexford I was there, a McKenna Cup game in Lurgan on a freezing January day I was there, playing Offaly in a challenge to open Slaughtmanus‘ new pitch I was there.
The guys at the nationals would ring me up to ask what was happening, who was worth looking out for, anyone we should keep an eye on coming out of the minors.
If a player was in anyway established in the senior panel I’d be on speaking terms with them. If I wanted to talk to a Derry player for piece for a local or national newspaper I’d just give them a buzz, no going through the PRO I’d just ring them up direct.
There’s a load of folk walking round Derry in match jerseys I procured for them from Mark Lynch, Kevin McGuckin, Fergal Doherty, Paddy Bradley, Enda Muldoon and Conleith Gilligan. Players whose entire county careers synced with my time as a local GAA reporter.
On the worst of nights, playing under floodlights with the rain coming in side-roads, I’d be able to identify scorers for the assembled reporters from visiting counties simply by recognising the way the player had shaped up.
- For years I was on first name terms with Derry players like big Joe Diver
In journalistic terms I was embedded, I was the local guy, my stock in trade depended on my relationships with the players. If there was a yarn to be told about Derry football I knew of it, I told plenty but discreetly buried a few that might have had a detrimental impact on the county’s fortunes.
Derry football matches were a constant for me and I was a constant at Derry football matches.
Four years is a long time in intercounty football. The rate of attrition in squads means that the 2018 team is unrecognisable from the one that I used to report on. I know the names, and a few of the faces but they no longer know mine, why should they. Of the team that started against Longford last Sunday maybe Enda Lynn and my own clubman Oran Hartin might know me to say hello to.
I average about three Derry games a year now. In 2017 that meant a league match against Fermanagh, the Under 21 semi-final against Armagh and the All-Ireland minor final defeat to Kerry. As with precious stones, rarity increases value and each game is now treasured.
Like walking the dog, going to Derry games is something I have always enjoyed. Like walking the dog it was also something I took for granted. My day-to-day engagement to the team is no more yet the colours, the sense of identity it provides, more important to me now than they ever were.
Nowadays, wary of Heaney’s regret, I make a conscious decision to take ‘more notice and pleasure’ at every Derry match.
Make sure you do the same this afternoon.