By Randal Scally
When it comes to attending GAA matches, distance is no object for Mick McDonagh. His commitment and love for the Gaelic games has seen him travel the length and breadth of Ireland for the past thirty years. But sometimes he will travel further as was the case in May 2019 when he jetted across the Atlantic to take in the Connacht SFC opener between New York and Mayo.
While Mick’s appearance at a rain-lashed Gaelic Park added to the carnival atmosphere created by the huge Mayo travelling support, his mind wasn’t on the game but on his mother Nan’s failing health back home. She passed away the following August, leaving Mick and his family heartbroken. “I didn’t enjoy the trip to New York as much as I should have because my mother was sick and died three months later,” he recalls.
“I had booked my flight before she got sick and that’s the only reason I went. I probably got more attention over there than the game itself (Mayo romped to a 1-22 to 0-4 victory over the hosts)! Every second person I met wanted a photo taken with me or to chat. It was a great occasion and I was delighted to catch up with Brian Connor [the former Walsh Island and Offaly footballer] in the pub he works in near Ground Zero the following day. I hadn’t seen him in three or four years. But all that I could think about was my mother.”
The Tullamore man, who is arguably the GAA’s most recognisable supporter, is hoping to return to Gaelic Park next year free of any such worries. “I might be going over again next year when hopefully I will enjoy it better. It doesn’t look like there will be any overseas travel again this year, but hopefully everything will be back to normal in 2022.” Even when Offaly aren’t playing, Mick proudly wears the county’s famous tricoloured jersey which has become his badge of identity.
“I remember it was the second year of the qualifiers and we played Limerick down in Limerick. The following day, I went to the Leinster final in Croke Park. Offaly were out of all competitions, but I decided to wear my Offaly jersey to the Leinster final and even since then, I can’t go to a game without wearing it. I think it’s for the pure love of the game,” he explains.
When Mick – who doesn’t drive – has the jersey on, he is always assured of a lift to and from matches.
“I never drove, so I thumb to games instead. The odd time I would get a bus or train. I’ve thumbed to places like Cork, Wexford and Omagh. Once I’m on the road early and people see the Offaly jersey, they know I’m going to a game and give me a lift. Once I get there, I’ll always get back.” The 53-year-old laughs when he’s asked about his celebrity status. “I find it amusing,” he replies. “It took me a while to get used to it, but it’s nice to be recognised nearly everywhere you go.”
Mick, who lives in Meadow Close near Tullamore Fire Station and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the GAA, enjoys the banter with supporters from most counties. The exceptions are Westmeath and Kildare, despite his younger brother Christy having played senior football for the former.
“I don’t like Westmeath or Kildare, but you meet good and bad (supporters) in every county. I grew up in Durrow, which is on the Offaly-Westmeath border, and maybe that’s where my dislike for Westmeath came from. It’s a bitter GAA rivalry. Having said that, I was proud to see Christy play for St Loman’s and Westmeath after joining the army in Mullingar. He came on as a sub in the 1994 National League semi-final against Meath in Croke Park when Westmeath were unlucky to lose after having a man (Michael Broder) sent off.
“The rivalry wouldn’t stop me from going to games in Westmeath or Kildare. In fact, I have a lot of newspaper cuttings and programmes from county and club games in both counties.” He continues: “People who look upon Dublin supporters as snobs don’t understand the banter. I get on great with them, as I do with most supporters. The GAA is a great organisation for meeting people and making friends.”
Mick has no time for fair-weather fans and would like to see regular match-goers being rewarded for their loyalty. “The GAA should have a system where supporters who follow their county all-year round and in all kinds of weather have first call on All-Ireland final tickets.
They should be looking after the genuine supporters first and foremost. I know you can buy season tickets, but they don’t cover All-Ireland finals,” he says. “Real supporters stick with their county in good times and bad. I see so many fans, in Offaly and everywhere else, who only turn up for the big games and jump on the bandwagon.”
For someone who has seen his beloved Faithful County win All-Ireland titles in both codes, it may come as a surprise to hear that Mick’s favourite game was the 2000 Leinster SFC first round win over Meath – who were the then reigning All-Ireland champions – in Croke Park. “I’ll never forget that game.
We won by four points, 0-13 to 0-9, in the spills of rain. Ciaran McManus was sent off in a club game and was suspended. With all due respect to him, we didn’t need him because of the football we played that day. It was unreal. That would have to be my favourite.”
Mick has hardly missed an Offaly game since being introduced to the GAA in the 1970s and 1980s. “I caught the bug from watching Offaly playing in All-Ireland finals on telly. While I loved all the Offaly players, my favourite was Martin Furlong who was a brilliant goalkeeper and was absolutely fearless. He was like a God to me. He’s living in New York for years and I hope to meet him if I go back there next year.
“Another Tullamore and Offaly player who I admired greatly was the late Noel McGee. I have piles of magazines, programmes and autographs, but Noel’s autograph takes pride of place. You could talk to him all day long when he had the barbershop in town.
“He had a great way with customers and was respected by everyone. I’d say his funeral in 2006 was one of the biggest ever seen in Tullamore.”
McDonagh is always looking to add to his GAA memorabilia and is currently on the look-out for a programme from the 1961 All-Ireland SFC final between Offaly and Down. “I have programmes from every county in Ireland. I even have two from Kilkenny senior football finals and am looking for more.
I swap programmes with a couple of fellas I know in Galway and Limerick on a regular basis. I often call up to O’Connor Park on a Monday or a Tuesday after a game to get programmes that would be left over. I pass them on to the lads and they would return the favour. Collecting programmes is a hobby I’ve always enjoyed.”
Mick has been a familiar face at O’Connor Park since 1983 when he attended the Offaly SFC final replay between Walsh Island and Ferbane. He hasn’t missed a county football final since, while he has only missed one Offaly SHC final since seeing Seir Kieran win their first in 1988. That was three years ago when he was on holiday in Scotland. The Offaly GAA diehard cannot wait for the GAA to return after the latest Covid-19 lockdown. “Usually at this time of the year, I’d be going to league games all over the country. I miss that and the banter that comes with it.
In some ways, I took the games for granted. When you’ve no interest in any other sport other than the GAA, it’s very hard. The games aren’t just games – they’re a way of life. “I would go as far as to say the GAA is Ireland itself. I’ve only come to realise that over the past year. The games are also a meeting point for people and are their social outlet at the weekends,” he concluded.