JOHN RIORDAN: Medal of honour unites community of Breezy Point

Jerry Gilson holds her grandfather’s All-Ireland football medal in her hand and suggests the white background of my notepad will help the picture I’m taking comes out right.

She isn’t sure when the old style pocket watch was attached to the thin chain but I’m less interested in that than in the fact that her grandfather, Timothy Fitzgibbon, was on the Limerick Commercials team which won the first ever football championship in 1887.

The medal emigrated to the US with Fitzgibbon, who is listed by a couple of sources at corner back for the victory over Young Irelands, Dundalk, representing Louth. One Hundred Years of Glory, A History of Limerick GAA 1884-1984 by Seamus Ó Ceallaigh and Sean Murphy describes the game as “wonderfully fast … scientific and clever” with Commercials finishing strongly to win 1-4 to 0-3.

The medals weren’t presented to the players for another 25 years and this one, which I’m fairly terrified of touching, now resides in the Queens neighbourhood of Breezy Point.

It would be easy to fall into a narrative of survival. The house Jerry lived in for 43 years is no more. It had stood there by the beach for 40 more, built in the 1920s and never having been so much as flooded until Sandy destroyed it.

Growing up, Jerry knew early of the significance of this family treasure and it had always been kept in a safety deposit box. In recent years, she had handed it over to her nephew who also lives locally but luckily was unaffected by the storm.

On Saturday, she told the GPA volunteer team who travelled to the area last Thursday for a building project with the Sam Maguire about what her family had in their possession and they implored her to bring it back the following day.

She took along her grandnephew Joseph Fitzgibbon to the grand reopening of the parish hall which had its basketball court relaid and paid for by the Irish government. Joseph and his father, also Timothy, had both worn the medal on their respective wedding days, Joseph marrying Christine in Long Island two years ago ensuring the tradition endures.

“For special events, we bring it out and wear it,” Joseph says, his smiling eyes matching those of his great aunt. “It’s definitely something that we’re extremely proud of. It’s a connection we have with our ancestors and we want to keep it alive. We definitely recognise its importance and significance so we want to have it around on special occasions.”

To put it in crude monetary terms, The Limerick Leader bought another of the medals won that day for €31,000 at Sothebys in London in 2005. It had been passed down through three generations of descendants of that victorious campaign’s star, Malachi O’Brien. (According to Ó Ceallaigh and Murphy, O’Brien played so well in the opening game against Dowdstown, Meath at Elm Park in Dublin that the park’s owner Lord de Frenche invited him to dinner afterwards. After the subsequent final in April, he was carried shoulder-high from the train to the first ever post All-Ireland football final banquet in Limerick.)

Jerry and Joseph et al have all been back to Clonskeagh where that first final was played. They joined cousins who still live in Ireland and had their picture taken by the plaque which commemorates the site.

“An uncle of mine in Limerick, Paddy Lynch, found an article in the paper which had pictures of the team. We knew the significance of it as children. My mother told me all she knew about it and we knew it was important.

“We’ve gleaned some more history over the years from other newspaper articles and our cousins have sent all the information they can find. We always try to keep the communication going with Ireland and our roots. This certainly is something that signifies that.”

Jerry’s husband Phil floats around with a camera, capturing the memory of an uplifting day. Jerry herself has posed for countless pictures, proudly holding the rare treasure in her hand, making sure everyone reads the inscription on the back: “First All-Ireland F Championship” rain-bowing over the clustered “won by Lmck Commercials”.

Everyone in Breezy has something they hold onto but more tangible than any heirloom is the collective spirit that has got them through winter.

“We had a good 43 years out of our house,” Jerry tells me. “It never flooded during all that time so we’re going to rebuild. That’s part of the reason we’re here today: community. When people would visit us here, they’d say how much it reminded them of towns in Ireland.

“They get that same warm feeling. It’s a very nice community and a day like this reinforces the fact we’re all going to rebuild.”

*john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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