John Arnold: Tears of sadness for pal Paddy - then tears of joy for Jarlath

It was a week of mixed emotions for John Arnold, he explains why in his weekly column
John Arnold: Tears of sadness for pal Paddy - then tears of joy for Jarlath

Paddy O’Connell (in wheelchair) with the restored David Brown tractor in September, 2022

IN the early hours of last Saturday morning, as I laid my weary head to rest in a hotel bedroom in Dublin, I cried. To be honest, I cried an awful lot last Friday and Saturday.

Before sleep came dropping slow, the title of a book I’d never read came into my mind. In 1961, Irving Stone published a famous work on the brilliant but troubled artist Michelangelo, detailing the struggles, conflicts and contrasts in the Italian’s long life. The book is The Agony And The Ecstasy, and to be honest those five words summed up last Friday.

Just a week previously, Paddy O’Connell, of Glyntown, Glanmire, along with his son-in-law Pat Shinnick, were in the haggard at home trying to solve a wiring problem with my 1964 David Brown tractor. It was only something small which prevented the current from flowing properly through the electrical loom but the two lads were perplexed at the cause of the fault.

Darkness fell and they decided to call it a day and come back a few days later. I joked with Paddy as he left - he was driving but I still ‘morya’ offered him ‘a drop’, knowing well he wouldn’t! 

“Next time, John boy, when this is fixed we’ll have it,” and he laughed and we shook hands before he drove off.

In this very newspaper back in the early Autumn of 2011, I mentioned I had never actually seen or attended an old time threshing. Yes, I had seen TV programmes and videos but never savoured ‘the real thing’.

That very Thursday night, Tony Doyle from Glanmire rang me - we’d never met or spoken before. He, along with Paddy O’Connell and others, were members of the Fota Island Vintage Society, he explained. They often staged old-time threshings and if I’d like, they’d arrange one for us.

A few weeks later, Mick O Driscoll brought the threshing machine and Paddy O’Connell the Nuffield Tractor to drive it. Dinny Hennessy, Tony Doyle and Eamonn Walsh arranged the rest. It was a wonderful afternoon, we had 30 or 40 neighbours and friends in.

That was my first meeting with Paddy O’Connell and since then he’s been a larger than life, ever-present organiser, mechanic, and friend.

After the 2013 threshing, he suggested I should get my old David Brown tractor done up, or ‘restored’ to use the correct term! We had bought it second hand in the 1970s. By 2013, we had purchased a bigger tractor with a loader so the 1964 David Brown was kind of redundant. Sad looking, it was ate with rust from slurry and fertilizer.

So, Paddy O’Connell took away our rust-bucket to restore it. I told him there was no hurry - oh lads, we often laughed about that comment over the years! Yes, years, because nine elapsed before our 880 was ready. As I said, there was no rush at all.

Paddy sourced parts for the tractor here, there and yon. He visited dealers in Clare, Antrim and England. He’d often ring me about a part. 

“John, I could get a spurious (copy) part for €150 and the David Brown original part is €250.” 

I might say, “Yerra, the cheaper one will be fine,” but he’d always persuade me to get the original and best!

Over the years, Paddy had his own share of ill-health, culminating with the amputation of his legs - the second just last year. We were devastated last summer when we heard of his surgery. Like a Phoenix, Paddy recovered and within a few months was back driving his adapted hand-control vehicle.

From his wheelchair, he completed the work on our tractor. 

Last September, we had a ‘ hauling home’ for our pristine, gleaming tractor and Paddy was rightly as proud as Punch as Tony Doyle drove the beauty down our boreen.

I’d just left a GAA club meeting on Monday week when I got the news of Paddy’s sudden death. I cried all the way home, and in truth not a tear-less day has passed since.

The restored David Brown is in the grain house and we’re in and out of there several times a day so we can never forget Paddy.

We were at his funeral mass in Knockraha last Friday - a fitting celebration of the life of a brave warrior and great family man. His funeral cortege to Kilquane was led by three of his beloved Nuffields, driven by John Kelleher, Tony Doyle and Tom Walsh. Paddy, thanks for the memories, the thrashings, the beautiful tractor, and most of all thanks for being our friend.

Jerry Grogan, John Arnold and new GAA President-elect Jarlath Burns last Friday night.
Jerry Grogan, John Arnold and new GAA President-elect Jarlath Burns last Friday night.

I left Knockraha for Kent Station to take an early afternoon train to Dublin. It was GAA Congress weekend in Dublin. Thrice ever I’d been to the annual GAA gathering, in Co. Down, in Sligo and in Cork when Christy Cooney took over as GAA President. It was in early 2009 that Christy asked me to serve on the Association’s Awards and Presentations Committee. I felt honoured to do so.

The Chairman of my Committee was ex-Armagh footballer Jarlath Burns. We worked well together as a Committee during our three-year term.

I got on mightily with Jarlath. We loved history and all aspects of Gaelic culture.

Down’ South’, we think we are great GAA people, but as I got to know Jarlath I saw a different side of the GAA and what it meant to live in a society, a State where to be Gaelic, to be Irish, was frowned upon.

I learned how the GAA in the Six Counties meant more than just a sporting body promoting Gaelic games. It was badge of identity and a statement of intent. Despite discrimination, gerrymandering, and oppression, the GAA spirit coursed through the veins of Northern Gaels at a time when ’twas neither popular or profitable to be ‘different’.

Four years ago, Jarlath contested the GAA Presidency and despite being favourite lost out by nine votes. Just as Paddy O Connell refused to be knocked down by ill-health and adversity, Jarlath came back again for this year’s Presidential Contest.

Since last November, we had been in contact every week. My influence within the GAA wouldn’t be great but I still had a few friends in faraway Canada, in Seville, across Europe and in most Munster counties. My canvassing was subtle.

It was nearly 7pm when I arrived in Croke Park on Friday. The workshops were finished and the nearly 300 delegates were having dinner. I ate the Glin Valley Chicken, Stem Broccolli and Chorizo Potato but the grief of the morning was still with me and I tasted little. As I was not an official Congress delegate, I had to watch proceedings on a big screen in one of the Croke Park suites.

Jarlath’s family soon arrived- nervous but hopeful. In a short time the room was full, teeming with blue and gold-clad club members from Silverbridge. I spoke to most of them -they’d been here four years ago and left crestfallen but hoped for a better outcome this time.

We all expected a ‘First Count’ and maybe, when the lowest candidate was eliminated, a Second Count and the result. We saw the delegates voting and then the four Tellers went off to do their work.

A First Count was expected , maybe at 8.30pm, but no, Congress was discussing Motions and Reports. The tension mounted along with our blood pressure.

Then sshh... GAA President Larry McCarthy indicated they had ‘white smoke’ . When we heard ‘On the first and only count’, and then ‘Jarlath Burns 158 votes’ the place went wild. We roared and shouted and lepped in the air, and yes, we cried too.

I hugged people I hardly knew, Silverbridge GAA stalwarts of long-standing and teenagers, and tears of joy flowed freely. In his ‘victory speech’ Jarlath spoke of family and friends, club and county. He was wearing a tie of his father Colman who died last year. He spoke of the Pioneer pin he’d been given he wears with pride.

A first GAA President from Armagh since Alf Murray, who presented the Liam McCarthy Cup to Cork’s Gerald McCarthy in 1966.

We sang The Boys Of The County Armagh better than Bridie Gallagher ever did! Once the result was announced the Congress Hall was open to all and the scenes of jubilation were just amazing. The Armagh Anthem got several more airings both in Croke Park and across the road in the Croke Park Hotel. Raindrops fell lightly as I walked back to my hotel after midnight. Rain mingled with my tears on this day of agony and ecstasy.

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