Brian Mullins was one of the greatest players ever to play Gaelic football for Dublin. Indeed, it can fairly be said that he is one of the greatest players ever to play Gaelic football.
In part, this is something that is laid bare in a crude count of his medals. He won four All-Ireland titles, nine Leinster titles, two National Leagues and two All-Star awards. These were medals won despite the fact that his career as a Dublin player – running from 1974 to 1985 – coincided with the lifespan of a Kerry team that is rightly considered one of the greatest teams of all time. And in the middle of that career, he suffered horrendous injuries in a car crash.
But it is not the medals that define Brian Mullins’ greatness. Instead, it is his defining presence in the Dublin team of the 1970s and 1980s. His mentality and his physical commitment was fundamental to everything that Dublin team did. In this, he came to epitomise the team.
His childhood was one known to many children reared in Dublin to country parents. He spent time with his mother’s people (the Caseys) in Lispole in Kerry where he worked on the farm and with his father’s family near Ennistymon in Clare, again farming. But back in Dublin, he played cricket, rugby and tennis in Clontarf, and played Gaelic football for Clontarf and then for St. Vincent’s.
He was good enough to play rugby and cricket to inter-provincial level, but ultimately he got drawn into the world of Dublin Gaelic football, which was about to be remade by Kevin Heffernan. It was such a fundamental remaking that Brian Mullins went from selling programmes before the 1973 All-Ireland final to starring in the 1974 win.
What mattered in this process was the fact that he joined the first generation of students to attend Thomond College to train as PE teachers. Previous to the early 1970s, the few Irish PE teachers who were trained in that discipline had gone across the Irish Sea to train at Strawberry Hill in London. But when Thomond College opened, he was educated with GAA luminaries ranging from John Tobin to Pat Spillane and Brian Talty.
But the key figure was Kevin Heffernan. In a brilliant interview with John Harrington a few years ago, Brian Mullins said: “I'd be nothing without the GAA. And I'd be a lot less than I am if I hadn't at a very impressionable period of my life come in contact and had the opportunity to avail of an individual who had been through life and understood what it took to make it in life. I'm not talking about earning big money or being very successful in business. I'm just talking about the basics of being the best you can be in life. What he did very successfully with us as a group was he brought us all to understand that we were capable of great things if we all bought into the team theme. And that the sum of our parts were better and probably much better than the parts of the sum.”
He was at his best in the battles with Kerry that defined Gaelic football from 1975 to 1979. These epic matches are part of the lore of the GAA, understood as pivotal moments not just in both counties but in the modernisation of the Association. What is clear is that the level of skill and the level of fitness created spectacles that captured the popular imagination. The background of live colour television coverage, the rivalries that developed between players and between the rival managers, and the enormous crowds that flocked to the games came to define those summers.
The legend of many players was forged in those games, whether as winners or as losers. In the end, an ageing Dublin team was seen off by Kerry and Dublin were then beaten three years in a row by Offaly (1980-1982). In the course of those years, Brian Mullins suffered injuries from a car accident that essentially put him out of football for two years.
The question of whether he would return was part of the national conversation. It was also a conversation he was having with himself: “I was 27/28 and I had to decide whether I wanted to bother my ass going back to what I knew about the hard inter-county training that would be involved. Some part of the madness must have convinced me that it was worth a try, so I did, and the rest is history as they say.”
That history included winning an All-Ireland in 1983 and playing on losing teams in the 1984 and 1985 All-Ireland finals. He then retired from inter-county football at the age of 31.
It says much for his love of football and his dedication to his club – St. Vincent’s – that he played on with them until 1991 when he won a Dublin intermediate title.
Previously he had won five Dublin championships, three Leinster championships and one All-Ireland championship with St. Vincent’s.
His move to take over as principal of Carndonagh Community School in the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal effectively put an end to his time playing for St. Vincent’s. But it says much for his love of football and his physical prowess that he then played football up in Donegal into his 40s, winning an intermediate championship and having the great joy of playing with his sons on a team.
Success as a football manager of Derry (a National League and an Ulster championship were won), as well as success in managing teams in St. Vincent’s and UCD (where he was appointed as Director of Sport in 2000) were testimony to the way in which Brian Mullins kept getting pulled back into Gaelic football.
He was a progressive administrator in UCD. He contributed to the enhancement of the sporting infrastructure of the college with the provision of a new sports centre, the 50m pool, new athletics track, and the development of the UCD Bowl (the stadium for soccer and rugby). Most of all, he was a remarkable presence on campus; he was great fun, fascinating to talk to and endlessly helpful.
In truth, though, it is exceptionally difficult to explain exactly what it was that made Brian so different. He had an elemental sense about him that was perhaps most obvious when he was competing for a ball.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.