'˜The biggest thing you take from any part of the GAA is the people you meet'
Twenty years after first donning the Oak Leaf shirt, MICHAEL WILSON talks to BreandÃ¡n Quigley about hanging up the hurl
It was sometime in the late 80s when young Breandán Quigley approached his dad about joining some of the kids from the street at soccer training.
“How much is it?” enquired Brendan senior.
“£1,” came the reply.
“Have you any money?” asked the follow-up.
“Well you can’t go then.”
Undeterred, the youngster waited for a visit from the tooth fairy who very kindly left a bright, shiny pound coin under his pillow and once again came the question.
“Have you any money?”
“Yes, Dad, I have £1.
“Have you a lift?”
“Well, you can’t go then!”
Brendan senior needn’t have worried. His son was always destined for hurling.
Carnhill was hardly a hotbed of clashing camán back then. Even after Derry’s All Ireland football triumph of 1993, Breandán remembers being in a minority among his Pennyburn Primary School classmates.
“I remember coming back to the classroom on the Monday after the final and everyone standing up and giving me a round of applause because they knew I had been at the match. It was a rarity,” recalls Breandán.
Over 20 years later and the landscape has changed considerably, both for Derry City and for Breandán.
A sterling career spanning more than 20 years from Under 16 to senior in the Oak Leaf shirt ended with Derry’s Christy Ring Cup semi-final defeat to Kildare. In typically understated fashion, one of Derry hurling’s most loyal servants called time on a career that had seen him line out alongside the likes of Gregory Biggs, Geoffrey McGonigle, Benny Ward, John O’Dywer and Dominic McGill.
Never one to hog the headlines, the Foyle College teacher started out with some lofty goals for a city kid with one eye on Croke Park.
“When you start out as a four year old, you want to play in Croke Park and, for me, I wanted to hurl for Derry in Croke Park,” explains Breandán, “A lot of people used to laugh when I said that and told me, ‘You’ve no chance. You’re from Derry. You’ll not be hurling in Croke Park, so it’s special that we got there.
“I played Croke Park as a minor; in 2015 I started at midfield in the Christy Ring final and then in 2017, we were Nicky Rackard champions so I eventually got up the steps of Croke Park with Derry. That was the stuff my dreams were made of.”
Having been set on his hurling path by his father and Na Magha legend Sean Mellon, Breandán’s county career started as a wing-back in 2004 against Westmeath in Lavey. He was previously part of the Under 16, Minor and Under 21 squads, winning an Ulster minor title in 2001 with Ruairi Convery and Liam Hinphey as team-mates.
“I was playing Fitzgibbon hurling for Queen’s and Derry manager Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley contacted Mickey Johnston, who was in charge at Queen’s, and I went from there. I had made the Fitzgibbon team as a fresher so I was doing well.
“Liam and Ruairi were on the team by the time I came in. I was 19 and it was my second year out of minors, whereas the two lads had been the stars of that minor team and gone straight to senior. I was with them but definitely not the star of the show as those two were.
“My first game with the squad was an away trip to Roscommon in the League. I don’t remember the result but Gregory and Benny Ward, John O’Dywer, Dominic McGill were all in that team and were phenomenal hurlers. The away trips at that time were fairly famous. You were inducted into the panel on the away trips with a few beers floating around.
“That’s the thing with hurling, and I said this to the boys after I left, the spirit in the Derry hurling team is unique. You have great boys and the craic is great. There is no drinking ban or such in place but even in the difficult times, it has always been a tight group.”
And down the years Breandán says he’s been privileged to play with some exceptional hurlers, too many of whom he believes don’t get the credit they deserve. Two especially stood out.
“Gregory Biggs - ‘Hare’ was an absolute legend. He could do anything - free-taking, sidelines, big scores and an absolute gentleman as well.
“On the same team you had Dominc McGill who was probably one of the best hurlers I ever saw in Derry. He went to America but he could have hurled for any team in Ireland.
“Today you have Ruairi Convery, Liam and Kevin Hinphey - all class hurlers. Oisin McCloskey is superb and then there is the more recent batch coming through - Cormac O’Doherty, Meehaul McGrath and Brendan Rogers - Slaughtneil are not the best team in the county for nothing.
“And I have to give a special mention to Alan Grant. When you compare his experience to those others - we didn’t play schools’ hurling. He’s coming out of Galliagh, no schools’ hurling, club not playing senior and yet he becomes a Christy Ring All Star and was the best player in the Nicky Rackard last season in my opinion.”
So how did Breandán feel walking down the tunnel after 22 years knowing that was his last appearance in the Oak Leaf shirt?
“It was emotional, though the boys have been telling me I’m too slow for 20 years now!” smiles the 33 year old, who is marrying fiancée Seána next year.
“I wanted the boys to know first. It was tough hitting the ‘League Group’ button. That’s a real sign of the times I suppose and a million miles away from how things were when I first started out.
“Hurlers have never really taken themselves as seriously as others and I don’t says ‘serious’ in a negative sense, I mean it as a positive.
“The teams I played in were all the same whether we were travelling to Kildare or Croke Park. There would be boys playing cards up the back of the bus, it was like a club atmosphere.
“Gym work has taken on a bigger emphasis. That’s a big change. Team analysts, stats and video reviews are huge now and it is a route you have to go down. Back in 2003/2004 there wasn’t much of that but while the technology changes, the spirit always remains. Even after the Kildare game we were having a bit of craic and even managed a beer or two in the Carrickdale on the way home! If you are not enjoying it, you are in the wrong place.”
It’s strangely symmetrical that Breandán’s county career, which has seen him play under Seanie McCloskey, Ger Rogan, Tom McLean and Collie McGurk among others, has wound down at the same time as his great friends, the Hinpheys and Ruairi Convery, because it’s the people that has meant most to the Na Magha man.
“Terry Graham, Paul McDermott, Catherine Feeney - people who don’t get credit but who have been there the whole way through. They are great people and there are so many with the county, like Danny Scullion, who does so much behind the scenes, they all deserve so much credit.
“The one year that stands out for me is probably 2015. I had been in Paris the previous year but came back with the attitude of ‘I want to fulfil my potential’ which I don’t think I had.
“I was always skillful and talented enough but maybe hadn’t looked at the fitness side of things as much as I could have. That year I really made an effort at that and it showed. The result is probably my biggest frustration but I had started at midfield in Croke Park to prove I could do it.
“I was happy with that but it also made me think; maybe had I taken myself a bit more seriously the whole way through I could have had a more prolific career but at the end of the day, the biggest thing you take from any part of the GAA is the experience and the people you meet.
“You are always bucking a trend when you play hurling. I think I was always destined to be a hurler though I had a fair bit of help which I was more than happy with.”
So how did the news go down at home?
“It was a tough decision but a natural one at this stage, I’m not getting any quicker! I had to tell my dad as well. He doesn’t say much but told me, ‘You’ve given enough’ which meant a lot.”
Breandán might even get that lift now.