An Inishowen man in his 80s who expressed a wish that he would live to see the new Brandywell greyhound track as he battled cancer, has said he was absolutely delighted with the new facility.
Robert Bonner, who is originally from Burt, County Donegal, but who now lives in County Antrim, was also able to walk into the Brandywell after regaining the use of his legs in a miraculous recovery that has confounded medical experts.
Robert saw the completed stadium for himself for the first time as he accompanied his daughter Lynda - who has followed in her father’s footsteps among the greyhound fraternity - and their dog ‘Tiny’ to the Brandywell last Thursday.
Robert said he wanted to thank Derry City & Strabane District Council for the work they had done on the new greyhound track. “It is absolutely beautiful,” he said. “It has made the whole place. I can’t believe it, to tell you no lie.
“I would lie in bed at night when I wasn’t able to do nothing and Derry was in my head all the time. I said at the time I hoped to live to see a new Brandywell, and here I am.
“My father [Andrew] used to take me in here, about 1940 or 1941 ,on the bar of the bicycle and we used to watch the football matches. My father was very fond of the football.
“I can’t believe this place has turned out the way it has. They are all out there, youngsters, fathers and mothers, and they are all delighted with this place, the play area and everything. I must thank Derry & Strabane Council for the great work they have done and I know it will prove to be a great success.”
Lynda said her father had trained his dog ‘Skinny Genes,’ the mother of their current dog ‘Tiny,’ and she had raced at the Brandywell not long before Robert became ill four years ago.
Lynda was working in London at the time when she got a call to say her father, then 80, was very ill and had cancer.
“He lost power from the waist down. For a while he had to hoisted in and out of his own bed. He was paralysed from his legs and he had radiotherapy, and a good year afterwards the doctor said he has not regained any of the power in the legs and he would never be able to stand again.”
Robert recalled: “I went out the back to close the dogs in and I dropped at the door. I didn’t remember nothing for maybe a year after it. The doctor said to Lynda, ‘Your father is very poorly, he will never walk again, he has cancer in the spine.’ My daughter said to him, ‘My daddy’s alive and I’m going to try and keep him walking’ and here I am!
“I went into the Model in Ballymoney, a nursing home, for a while and there was a wheelchair and I had to use my hands. I was in there six months or so and my arms and my hands got that tired I couldn’t move my arms so I told them I’m going to have to take the pedals off and start moving around by using my feet. And they were saying you can’t do that and I said well I’m going to do it for there’s no other way I can do it, so that started me off.”
Robert’s doctor has described his progress since then as miraculous.
Lynda recalls: “The first time we took him out of hospital when he was well enough, we took him up here to the Brandywell at a big Gala Night in July, maybe the year before it shut down, in a wheelchair in the back of my disabled car. And he never even got out of the car. Then the next time he came when one of his dogs got into final, he put the wheelchair to the railing and he couldn’t see so well and so he pulled himself up to a standing position. Gradually he could take his weight standing, and then next time he was in a zimmer frame and now he is walking with a stick. It was just gradual progress. All his goals are associated with dogs.
“I am a nurse and for him to have had the diagnosis and the prognosis he had is astonishing. For him to be doing what he is doing, I can’t explain it.”
Robert said he has loved every minute of his involvement with greyhounds down the years and both he and Lynda said there were many benefits to becoming involved with the dogs.
Robert said: “I can’t understand why there is not more young people coming into the sport because they should be. It would be the best thing ever happened them. There never was anything wrong with a man that had a dog.
“It’s a happy life but it’s a pity that drugs ever started on streets, it’s a shame.
“I loved every minute I was out with my dogs and I always had them spotless clean, no hurts on them and very seldom I ever had to go to a vet’s with them.
“My brother-in-law, anybody who he was talking with him, he would say, ‘I’ll tell you one, thing, if Bonner sells a dog he will need to go with it himself!’ I just have that much love for them.”
Lynda said her father had always been devoted to the greyhounds, as have all the best doggie men and women in the area.
“As a child I never remember him much being in the house in the evenings. He would always come home from work, get his supper, maybe doze for about 15 minutes watching the news and then he’d be out again with the dogs and that would be him until bed time.”
She added that the new track will encourage younger generations to come to the dogs and get involved in training and keep greyhounds. “It’s on their doorstep and it’s a great facility,” she said.
Speaking on greyhound racing, she added: “It gives you routine so it’s great for retired people as well as young people.
“My earliest memories are taking dogs out for a walk with my father. Nowadays, maybe, kids don’t have that quality time as they are on computer games. After school every day we were always up to the fields for a walk.”
The Brandywell hosted the last greyhound meeting back in October, 2016 and as chance would have it, one of the dogs to win one of the final races was a pup named ‘Perfect Ten’ which was related to Robert’s beloved ‘Skinny Genes. ‘
Now that Robert has fulfilled his wish, he returned to watch another of ‘Skinny Gene’s’ pups race around the track. Despite all the advances in technology in the digital age, there’s one piece of doggy man’s kit Robert still brings with him today - his own trusty timing watch which has served him so well over the years.
And to celebrate the new Brandywell Stadium and dog track opening, Robert has put his fine singing voice to good use by recording a new version of ‘Lovely Derry on the Banks of the Foyle.’
“I sang it for my father and all the people because Derry is a very friendly place,” he said.
You can watch the video on our website at: www.derryjournal.com