Roughly a year ago, myself and my father were sitting with Martin McGuinness at a Derry match in Celtic Park. Before the throw in, his phone beeped.
“Look at this Joe,” he said to me shaking his head. It was a text from someone called Peter. The message read: “Go on the Blues! You’ll never catch us now.”
The Peter in question was the First Minister, an avid Chelsea fan. They had just won a vital Premiership game, leaving Martin’s ‘Red Devils’ trailing in their wake. The title was Chelsea’s to lose.
“He’ll torture me now” said Martin. Things you never thought you’d see!
I thought of Martin with his balaclava and his gun, crouched behind a wall in the Bogside, like a young Chez Guevara.
A solicitor friend of mine from the city told me once that as a schoolboy, he patiently queued in the Creggan for another Martin - Martin Meehan’s autograph. They had to wait until a gun battle with a British army patrol was over. When it was, Martin set down his rifle, drank some tea brought to him by one of the local women, then patiently signed the children’s jotters.
“Who will I make it out to son?” he asked my friend. “To my mother please Mr Meehan.”
I thought of Peter, filled with juvenile bigotry, marching through the streets of Clontibret for God and Ulster. Yet, here they were, in 2010, running the country together and ribbing each other about their favourite soccer teams. Confirmation – if confirmation were needed – that the transformation in northern society is permanent and irrevocable.
On Tuesday this week, I went to Nuala Kerr’s house in Beragh. Her son’s coffin was in the small living room. It was placed against the wall, right under a large portrait of Peter Canavan kicking his famous point against Armagh in Croke Park. “A moment in time” was the portrait’s caption. All the talk was of football. Ronan’s older brother, Cathair, had been on his way back from Australia for ‘Mother’s Day’ when he heard the news. He checked his facebook page after the first leg of the flight, only to find the grim message posted on it.
He plays for Cormac McAnallen’s GFC in Sidney and spoke enthusiastically of the team’s progress. He told me they have a panel of 60 and use three different strategic formations.
“Three formations. What are they?” I asked, intrigued.
“Top secret ” he said. “There’s a fella from your club playing with us now Joe,” he continued, “Benny Reilly from Fermanagh.”
“The Goat? I don’t believe it. Make sure you pass on my regards to him when you get back.”
“I’m a Fermanagh woman myself,” said Mrs Kerr, “I have to take plenty of stick from the Fermanagh side about living amongst the enemy. I tell them at least Tyrone win the odd trophy” she smiled.
At one stage, she gestured towards the coffin and said to me “It’s so pointless.” A nurse and a mother, she knows what she is talking about. There was no drama in the house. No anger. Just a weary resignation.
On the evening after it happened, I rang my father, himself an ex-prisoner. We discussed how the people could respond. Trust the Tyrone men to come up with the answer.
On Sunday, at the Thomas Clarke’s pitch in Dungannon, they held a minute’s silence before Tyrone’s game against Laois. 8,000 Gaels may have stood quietly, but their silence reverberated around the north.
In Dungiven, that same day, the townsfolk had a parade to give our own Paul McCloskey a hearty send-off to his upcoming World title fight against Amir Khan. In a town that is famously republican, where there were two hunger strikers, one of whom died and lends his name to the local hurling club, the universal reaction was sadness.
At one point during the parade, a police landrover appeared on the main street, with two Paul McCloskey flags fixed to the roof, prompting laughter. The landrover stopped and the crew dismounted, approaching the champ.
“Any chance of a photograph with you Paul” asked an officer with a scottish accent.
“No problem boys.” They posed happily on the Main Street until each of them had a photo for the mantelpiece. Then, they wished Paul good luck, shook his hand and got back into their landrover, before driving off, “Dudey” flags fluttering in the wind.
Another one of those things you never thought you’d see. Twenty years ago, when I was courting a Ballymena girl (now my wife), she was shocked to discover that the police weren’t served in Dungiven’s shops. Nowadays, they pose casually for photographs with the local hero and no one bats an eye-lid!
No one has admitted the bombing. How could you own up to something like that?
A few weeks ago I heard a member of the 32 county something or other group complaining in a radio interview that nationalists had been promised a fair police force, but “only 29 per cent” of the officers were Catholic.
There is little point in trying to persuade people like this to stop. There is no scope for rational debate. You might as well have a conversation with Jack Russells!
They don’t live in the real world, instead sticking to small, hateful groups, isolated from reality. When they speak publicly, it is parroted, embarrassing stuff.
St Brigid’s caused a stir when we were the first club to play the PSNI in a Gaelic football match. Every television station in Ireland and England brought cameras. Graffitti appeared in the centre of Belfast soon after “ Shame on you Joe, Shame on you Saint Brigid’s!”
Four years on, 8,000 Tyrone Gaels stand silently to remember a murdered police officer.
A one-time fire-breathing Unionist leader attends Catholic Mass to pay his respects to a young Gael from a Republican family. The Beragh Red Knights senior Gaelic footballers line up outside the Chapel to form a Guard of Honour with the PSNI.
When I got home from Mrs. Kerr’s on Tuesday night, I thought of what she had said about the pointlessness of her son’s death. I thought of the butchered boy in his uniform in his coffin, under the portrait of ‘Peter the Great’ and I wept.
These are things no one should ever have to see.