THE KIERAN SHANNON INTERVIEW: Erne's Quiet Warrior

There’s some band of warriors departing the battlefield these days. The most capped championship hurler ever, Brendan Cummins. The most-capped footballer ever, Tomás Ó Sé. Another raider on the wing, Noel O’Leary. And then up north, Marty McGrath just handed in his shield as well.

THE KIERAN SHANNON INTERVIEW: Erne's Quiet Warrior

McGrath does not have the war trophies the others do — an All Star, a couple of Ulster Player of the Year awards and International Rules caps can be found somewhere in his house outside Irvinestown but no provincial or Celtic Cross medal — yet no one can display more war wounds or warrior spirit.

Months after winning his first All Star, he underwent two open heart surgeries.

When he was hit on the jaw with the bucket of a JCB while laying down an electrical cable on the home farm; he initially thought the driver had thrown him an apple for lunch; instead the guy had fractured his jaw.

He played two Ulster finals knowing he had cancer, then played for Ireland with the scar wounds from the resultant operation.

And then, just 13 months ago, his brother in law and team-mate Brian Óg Maguire was killed in a freak work accident, the day before his wife — and Brian Óg’s sister — gave birth to their first child.

And all the time he still played on. Until now.

Now that it’s all over, at least with the county, he prefers to remember the good times. He mostly remembers the good times. That’s why he played on, battled on. The inner sense of satisfaction he’d feel after a tough session in the dark and cold in Lissan. Liam McBarron’s big smile and laugh that would then make you laugh. Playing on a county team that had the camaraderie of a club team. Shocking Meath, shocking Cork, shocking Donegal, shocking Armagh, shocking Derry, shaking Mayo, which so nearly gave them the chance of shaking Kerry. All the while still hoping they could once again shock and shake up the world, with a medal and trophy to show for it.

“I truly believed to the very end that we could still win an Ulster title,” he says, just after putting his one- year-old son Dan to bed for the night. “You kept putting in the effort knowing there was no guarantee you’d win it but at least you knew that you’d tried. I’ve suppose I’ve now accepted that I’m never going to win it now as a player, but that’s not to say as a manager or selector I won’t be part of a Fermanagh panel that might win it and get back to an All-Ireland semi-final or final. A part of you has to keep thinking that way.”

It would be a bit remiss of this writer not to declare that I’ve worked with McGrath: in 2008 I was part of the Fermanagh backroom team when the county reached the Ulster final for the first time in 26 years. I’ve since worked as a sport psych consultant with several GAA teams that have played on the biggest day and stage of them all and McGrath and his mental toughness was as impressive as any player I’ve encountered.

The first time I met him was when I would have been introduced to the team for the first time in January of that year. The team had won just one of their 10 competitive games the previous season but with the appointment of Malachy O’Rourke as manager, there was an optimistic feeling and thinking big about ’08.

During our workshop I referenced the importance of each player needing to get better for the team to get better. One of the examples I cited of player development was Nicholas Murphy’s progress with Cork the previous year. Prior to 2007 he had scored only four points in 25 championship games. In 2007 he scored four points in seven games. That kind of invisible marginal gain didn’t happen by accident; though he remained best known for his fielding, Murphy had obviously worked on his shooting and scoring.

Later in the discussion we threw it out to the group what and why and how they wanted to achieve their goals. McGrath piped up, “Put down at least two points from midfield a game.” In 2004 he’d beaten Murphy and Cork in Croke Park. He wanted to get back there, mixing with the big boys, and that was one of the ways how.

That 2008 season Marty McGrath and Mark Murphy would form the highest-scoring midfield in Ireland.

In the Ulster final, Fermanagh trailed Armagh by eight points a few minutes after half-time. You could feel the energy and hope seep out of the huge Fermanagh crowd that packed Clones. Then McGrath got on a ball, burst forward and took a shot at the posts. It went wide. Then he got on another ball, broke another tackle and boomed another shot. This time it went over the bar, bringing it back to 2-6 to 0-5. Before the game’s end he would score his second point and Fermanagh would draw level and force a replay. We probably should have won, virtually owning the ball for the last 20 minutes. But while it had been a heroic team effort, it had taken one man to put the team on his back to get them back into the game.

Yet perhaps his finest hour was the one before that. Fermanagh were playing Derry, the reigning national league champions and joint favourites with Kerry for the All-Ireland. Four times in the previous seven years Fermanagh had reached an Ulster semi-final — losing every time. The county hadn’t won an Ulster semi-final in 26 years, had never won an Ulster title. A week out from the game we spoke about how this was our Rosa Parks moment. We’d come under pressure to vacate our seat and get off the bus and be reminded we were second-class citizens but just like that black seamstress was in Alabama in 1955 this was the time to stand our ground. Our motto was ‘Quiet Strength’, the spirit Parks said she was infused by in triggering that pivotal moment in black history.

That wild wet and windy evening in Omagh, McGrath was the epitome of Quiet Strength.

As team captain he won the toss yet elected to play against the wind, calculating that would turn it into a real battle which he and Fermanagh would thrive in. Ten minutes later Enda Muldoon thundered into him with a ferocious side-to-side challenge that caused both men to fall to the ground and the whole of Omagh to shudder. While it would leave McGrath rattled for the remainder of that first half, their respective performances after half-time would show Muldoon had clearly come out second best in that clash of giants.

With 10 minutes to go, McGrath would kick a point to put Fermanagh into an insurmountable four-point lead.

All the while playing with testicular cancer. Without any of us knowing, without telling anyone, bar the team doctor. The definition of Quiet Strength.

As a wave of humanity and emotion crashed onto that pitch, McGrath just calmly paved his way through to the tunnel underneath the main stand. The TV boys approached him, wanting a few words, and as he obligingly waited for the sideline reporter to finish up talking with Malachy O’Rourke, team trainer Leo ‘Dropsy’ McBride crossed his path. McGrath pulled him aside.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be about for this Ulster final, Dropsy.”

A few minutes later in the quieter surroundings of the dressing room, he also informed O’Rourke of his condition. A few days earlier he had been to the doctor, diagnosed with testicular cancer and told that he’d have to go for an operation any week before it’d get serious. A month earlier he’d noticed that there was “something a bit tender around there”. Now he knew why. He didn’t want anyone getting unnecessarily upset or distracted by any ‘will he or won’t he play’ talk. Prior to the Derry game, only his immediate family, his fiancée, and team doctor Tom Kiernan knew about it. Roisín couldn’t even tell her parents, let alone McGrath tell his team-mates.

O’Rourke and McBride could have been forgiven if the first thing that crossed their minds was the impact this would have on Fermanagh’s chances of winning that coveted Ulster title. Instead their thoughts were centred around the player.

“In fairness to the management, they were saying ‘Look after yourself’ but I said, ‘Well, football is a big thing to me too’.”

The operation was pencilled in for the Wednesday after the Ulster final, win or lose, but then he kicked those two points and Fermanagh drew. The operation was postponed until the week after Fermanagh’s involvement in the championship ended. It would only be after he’d won the Ulster Player of the Year award though that his condition became public. That would prompt a lot of enquiries about his health, especially in the lead up to his appearance with Ireland in the International Rules, but while he’d talk politely away, he’d say in that modest, measured way of his that he wasn’t going to make a big deal of it.

It’s the same when he’s asked about any of his health scares through the years. He even laughs about them.

Those heart operations before the 2006 season?

“The first one was two-and-a-half hours and didn’t work, the second was five-and-a-half hours. The first one went through the groin, second time, through the shoulder and it’s strange looking round and them operating. They have you relaxing at the start. I looked at my pulse and it was 46 and I was thinking, ‘Jesus, I must be fair fit’. Midway through I looked at the pulse again and it was 240. I was glad I got through the second one because it was tough but sure that’s only at the time.”

The same about that “fight with the digger which I lost badly”. When he got the smack, he roared at the driver “What the fuck are you throwing apples at me for?”

When he arrived at the hospital, the doctor didn’t know what a digger was and wasn’t going to do a scan; that would mean calling someone in on a Saturday evening. “Glad he did though,” says McGrath casually, “because it was fractured.”

Thankfully he’s had no health scares since; there’s been no recurrence of the cancer scare. But sadly he’s all too familiar with how delicate health and life itself can be. Last September, just as Roisín was going into hospital to give birth to their first child, they received a phone call. Her brother had been killed in a work accident.

“It was all just a blur after that. It was just such a difficult time for the family. We didn’t make the funeral because we were still in the ward with Dan. We tried to hold out for it but we couldn’t. But the fact a wee boy was being born was a big help for us. It’s been good for the family, though it’s very hard knowing Brian Óg is never going to come back.”

Dan’s second name is Brian. They would have been calling him that anyway, they were both that close to Brian Óg. They would go on ski trips as a group. He would visit the Maguire home place and make his way to “the boys’ room”, where Brian would have some sport on.

“He’s the only Fermanagh man to lift an All-Ireland for a Fermanagh team [with the Lisnaskea side that won the 2011 All-Ireland IFC title]. He was a good leader and developing into a fine player for Fermanagh. The week before the accident, he was man of the match in the county semi-final. It was his dream to win a senior championship with the club. Unfortunately he didn’t get a chance.”

If anything, Brian Óg’s death strengthened McGrath’s resolve to play another year for the county. While it appeared the county’s days of being a real force in Ulster were gone, Peter Canavan was brilliantly and manfully raging against the dying of the light, bringing the side within a whisker of pulling off back-to-back promotions in the league.

“I wanted to get back to being one of the first names on the team sheet before I finished. I’d had a rough few years with injuries but I wanted to try to test myself and get back to being a major player on the team. And I played well enough this year at times, but as you get older, so do the legs. I wanted to be back playing the way I was when I was 24 but that’s not the way football goes.”

When he was 24 he was among the best midfielders in the country and one of the most fearless too. He’d played in four consecutive McRory Cup finals with St Michael’s, Enniskillen, two consecutive Sigerson Cup finals with Queen’s University. For two consecutive years little Fermanagh made it to the All-Ireland quarter-final weekend, and the second time, famously shocking Armagh at the height of their powers. McGrath was irrepressible that summer of 2004. At half-time in the last-12 game against Donegal, manager Charlie Mulgrew told the players out the field to stop carrying the ball so much and let it into the full forward line. What did McGrath do upon the throw-in? Win it, carry it and boom it over the bar. He laughed. And afterwards when McGrath kicked another point to bring it into extra-time which Fermanagh would win by a point, they were all laughing.

A couple of weeks later in Croke Park they’d make the country smile and shake their head with an outrageous win over Armagh. He got the better off Paul McGrane that day but other days McGrane got the better off him. He played them all at some stage in that era of midfield greats — Darragh, Whelan, Cavanagh — and had some real scrapes against the likes of Dick Clerkin and Eamonn O’Hara, but McGrane stood out.

“Paul McGrane would be the one I’d have most respect for, in terms of the package, as a player and a man. On the field he was a warrior. Off it he was a gentleman. We killed each other out on that field. But as soon as it was over he’d be the first man to shake hands with me, win or lose. He was a total class act.”

He’s a bit fearful as well as somewhat optimistic that Fermanagh might challenge the big boys again. There are emerging leaders, like Eoin Donnelly. But the county may not be producing enough players like that down the line.

“We need to be developing players from U12 up. Everything has to be done to keep boys playing football.

“Development doesn’t start at senior or minor level. You have to have a certain mentality and physique before you even come into a senior county setup. In Tyrone they give young players programmes to work on in their own time as well as closed season. Fermanagh has to be looking at these.”

He’ll probably make it down to Cavan tonight. This weekend five years ago he was playing for Ireland against Australia himself. It remains a career highlight; training like a pro for a few weeks, then playing against them. Those days are gone. But some glory days lay ahead. Tomorrow he plays in the county league final for St Joseph’s Ederney. They’ve never won a league or championship before. A win tomorrow could be the platform for more success. He still plans to play for the club for a few years.

But with the county, that’s done, for now. He started out on the scene in late 1999, a schoolboy playing an All-Ireland B semi-final against Louth. He retires as one of only three Fermanagh men to win an All Star. How would he like to be remembered as a footballer.

“I don’t know!” he laughs softly, before pausing. “I suppose someone who could be relied upon. Someone you could depend on, on and off the field. Someone who gave it his all. I maybe came up short but I gave it my all.”

Which is how we’ll remember him. Quiet Strength.

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