A fitting tribute to a fallen hero

THE accidental and sudden death of Leitrim inter-county footballer, Philly McGuinness sent shock waves through the GAA community.

It was hard to comprehend that a single moment of impact between Philly’s head and an opponent’s knee could have had such devastating consequences. It was probably a one in a billion chance. One inch higher or lower, one millimetre backwards or forwards or one second sooner or later and the impact wouldn’t have been so tragic. A similar clash occurred between Brian O’Driscoll’s head and Paul O’Connell’s knee in a recent rugby international.

I made it to the funeral in Mohill and even though it was a sad and sombre occasion one had to be proud of the way gaels from all over the country made the effort to attend. Club players from all over Leitrim were there in their club colours. Particularly, prominent were his own playing colleagues from Mohill and the players from Melvin Gaels, their opponents when the tragic accident occurred.

Philly’s Leitrim inter-county colleagues were dressed in their green and gold track suits led by their manager Mickey Moran. The route from church to graveyard was lined with players and school-children and townspeople. Many camogie players and hurlers had their hurleys as a reminder that Philly was a hurler as well as a footballer.

Mohill on Thursday last was the perfect example of dignity in grief, organisation in sympathy and utmost respect and consideration for the bereaved family. The McGuinness family were steeped in the GAA. Philly’s late father, Michael was an outstanding footballer – so good, in fact, that he was selected on the Leitrim team of the millennium. He died suddenly at 50 years of age, 12 years ago, leaving Philly’s mother, Phil, to raise the three boys through their teenage years.

The brave woman did a great job as John, Michael and Philly turned out to be fine fellows and fine footballers. Incidentally, John and Philly were leap year babies – born February 29.

Like most players, their club was their life. Philly was the star of the family. The fact that he was selected on the Connacht U17 squad that toured Australia in 2001 underlines what an exceptional talent he was. It was said that all he ever wanted was to play football and enjoy it. His great moment came when he and his brothers were part of the Mohill team that won the Leitrim SFC in 2006. It was Mohill’s first success in 35 years and so they followed in their father’s footsteps as he was playing in that victory in 1971.

Only two weeks ago, Philly lined out for his county against Limerick in the Allianz League and was as industrious as ever. He was tallish with a light frame – what you might call “wirey” – and the lively gait of an active young farmer.

His dedication to the GAA knew no bounds. It was said that speed ramps were put on the road between his school and his house, to slow down the sliotar as he pucked it before him on his way to and from school.

It reminded me so much of Cormac McAnallen’s funeral. Cormac died suddenly in his bed six years previously. The nation mourned the loss of a great young man. The same dignity in sadness, beauty in grief that engulfed the air at Eglish in 2004 was palpable in Mohil – Philly had achieved a lot but would surely have achieved a lot more only for a most rare accident.

His death also reminded us of the great organisation the GAA is. Philly’s tragedy underlined the Association’s organisational ability and its pride in its heroes. Cork captain Michael Shields remembered Philly in his victory speech on Sunday. A fitting and lovely gesture. Hopefully, a winning Leitrim captain may have a similar honour in the near future. What a fitting legacy that would be to Philly McGuinness.

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