Last Sunday, I spent a few hours out in Spa national school, a beautiful setting overlooking Tralee bay glistening with the bright sunshine bouncing off the water. There were hundreds out there supporting their annual fundraiser in aid of former student Donal Wash. And it got me thinking about him again.
Donal was the young guy from just outside Tralee who was like every other kid his age. He played his football with Kerins O’Rahilly’s and loved representing Tralee rugby club with the oval ball.
In 2008 life changed, he was diagnosed with Osteo Sarcoma (a bone cancer) at the age of 12. Soon after, he endured a knee replacement surgery, and nine long months of chemotherapy before getting back on the field, not as a player - that dream was gone - but as a coach who inspired his teams from the sidelines.
I remember after he got the ‘all-clear’ after his first bout of treatment, there was a big welcome home party at his house on Hare street. A few of us Strand Road guys who played with Kerry at the time were invited to attend. It was a real celebration, family and friends all there to bask in the euphoria of Donal beating cancer and coming home from hospital.
I didn’t really know the kid, but we were delighted to give a call down to shake his hand and congratulate him on winning a bigger game than we ever wanted to play in. I can still vividly recall walking out the driveway of his house that day thinking what a horrific experience for someone so young to have to go through and that some good luck surely had to come his way. But that good fortune never materialised.
In February 2012, the cancer returned, this time in his lung. Another operation and months of chemotherapy followed. Again, he fought back with a stubborn resilience and got himself home. Cycling became his new passion; a release to quell his thirst for exercise as an escape from the captivity of his previous few months in hospitals and treatment room. Towards the back end of 2012, he was diagnosed for the third and final time - the cancer had spread and there would be no beating it on this occassion.
He started writing in his final few months and documented his struggles, from the lack of adequate facilities to his anger at people taking their own lives as he was fighting tooth and nail for every extra hour he could spend with friends and family.
His writings attracted national and international attention, culminating with his appearance on Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday night show which afforded the whole country the opportunity to appreciate how special and impactful this kid was.
There he sat, a young teen, who would be gone to his grave in a few short months displaying little or no apparent concern for himself. He was worried about how his mother Elma, father Finbarr and sister Gemma would cope without him. He was disappointed he wouldn’t be around to see his friends become the great people he believed they would be.
Watching that interview made you sit up and check your priorities. As footballers and GAA people, we would routinely bitch and moan about hard training, we’d give out if the footballs weren’t pumped hard enough or we lock ourselves away in a dark room for a few days if we lose a game… Donal’s attitude to his personal battle made all of that stuff seem pretty trivial and insignificant by comparison.
The really inspirational thing about his story was, at a time when he would have been forgiven for wallowing in self-pity, all he cared about was trying to help you and me and anybody else that he could reach.
His message was a simple one; live life, take joy from what you do because nothing is guaranteed. Last Sunday in Spa was a beautiful embodiment of his vision of how people should enjoy the moment, and his family are continuing to carve out an incredibly positive legacy in his name.
That’s what can happen when you have a platform and a message, you can affect people lives in a most positive way.
Switching gears, and Joe Brolly has created a similarly powerful platform for himself - if not always a positive one - through his TV work, but again at the weekend he chose to cycle blindfolded on board his unicycle across the tightrope between entertainment and irresponsibility.
While I agree wholeheartedly with his general point about the ongoing professionalisation of the inter-county game to the complete detriment of club football is one that needs making and is a discussion worth having, I find his vague caricature of Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney as some sort of poster boy for all the root ills of modern-day inter-county football an incredible narrative to be pedalling.
Maybe he’s not a good manager, I don’t know, they certainly didn’t perform very well against Cavan and he must take his share of blame for that. But when Joe starts using heavily provocative language like players having to “swear allegiance to the cult of Kieran”, it elicits the type of negative connotations that have no place in the GAA. More soundbites over substance. I would suggest that Kieran McGeeney does very little differently to Eamon Fitzmaurice, Jim Gavin or Stephen Rochford.
He lacks the same quality player obviously, but do those guys not also run “ultra- professional” set-ups? Do they not demand high standards of commitment from their panels? Are there not similarly huge sums of money poured into their team’s preparation? Does club football not suffer in those counties also?
You better believe they do… so why not go after those guys as well?
The bigger point is, Gaelic football at inter-county level is headed for a tipping point, maybe not this year or next, but there will come a hard ceiling when players can take no more. Donal Walsh thought us all the value of perspective and that life is something to be enjoyed rather than simply endured. But don’t be fooled by Joe, the current self-destructive path of Gaelic football is not Kieran McGeeny’s fault, he’s just another rat in the race, doing what everybody else is to try and get the cheese.
We’ve got to figure out a way to change the race, not the rats.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved