Passing of Legendary City Gael

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“Even in the ordinary way of life, he was an outstanding in the ranks of men. He was a man of ideals and principles and was prepared to suffer for those ideals he held in high honour.”

The were the words spoken by Fr. O’Hagan in St. Mary’s Church, Ardmore on the occasion of the death of Sean Dolan in the late autumn of 1941 at the age of 26. These words were repeated some 71 years later from the altar of St. Mary’s Church, Creggan on Tuesday by another Fr O’Hagan at the Requiem Mass for John McChrystal, a friend and colleague of the late Sean Dolan.

It was tremendous to see the chapel full on this sad occasion as the players of Sean Dolan’s and Doire Trasna, in their club colours, paid their last respects to John, his family and friends.

John’s name will continue to be remembered by City Gaels along with Barney McFadden, Tommy Mellon and of course, Sean Dolan.

Some years ago I spoke with Bernie Mullan - Derry’s ‘unofficial historian - and asked him to tell me the background to John, and what drove the man. Bernie could have talked all night, but below are a few of his memories, that give an insight into the gentleman we know as John McChrystal.

“John has been one of the best-known Gaels in Derry City for close on 70 years,” explained Bernie, “He was involved in the Pearse’s club from the Waterside, which was formed in 1941. Upon the death Sean Dolan, John was instrumental in changing the name of the club to Sean Dolan’s. Also involved were his cousin, another John McChrystal, Lexie Smith, Tommy O’Hara and Paddy Jordan.

“John played with the club in the 40s and 50s and was not known for taking prisoners. Patsy Mullan of Ballerin, who was known as a man who could take care of himself once claimed Johnny McChrystal was the hardest man he ever met on the football field and had a broken nose to prove it!

“John was the City representative on the County Board for many years, he and the late Tommy Mellon, Phonsie Deane and Barney McFadden kept the GAA going in the city in hard times. At one particular County Board Meeting, a club was up for indiscipline and one of their delegates had been in a pub across the street. Upon hearing the decision, the delegate made the mistake of telling the County Board members just what he though of them. John handed out his own punishment on the pavement outside Timoney’s of Draperstown where county board meetings were held at that time. There were no further derogatory remarks!”

Bernie remembers John bringing teams to play at Ballerin. “He was manager, physio and selector rolled into one and he was never worried about results. He knew the importance of keeping the club going and that he did virtually single handed for many years. He was confident that there would be good days ahead and he proved to be right. It was always his dream that when Dolan’s moved to the Creggan area that they would have their own home.”

At that time John was on The City Council and used his influence to get the land that is the present home on Piggery Ridge. John was highly respected for his forthright views whether it was in GAA or Community matters.

“When John came to North Derry Board meetings during my tenure as chairman he did everything he could to promote his own club and there was never any middle ground,” added Bernie, “Despite his failing eyesight he loved to attend games where possible and amazingly could still tell the referee where he went wrong if the decision went against either Dolan’s or Pearses!”

Those who played against him or got on the wrong side of him marvelled at his great strength that was built up by humping two-hundredweight bags of fertiliser at Prehen.

One story depicting that strength was told by the late Tommy Mellon about a house which was being searched by the Army in Creggan. When John arrived, there was a slightly built soldier standing guard at the door. “Well son, how are you?”, he said in a friendly manner before gripping the soldier so hard on the upper arm that the soldier fainted.

“Despite a hard edge when it was necessary, I always found John to be a friendly and sociable man and one who did more that his bit for the GAA,” adds Bernie.

On Tuesday, we entered the cemetery at the top and eventually worked our way to near the bottom to the awaiting grave, but there was an irony in all this. Firstly, John never made anything easy and, secondly, he is overlooking one of the best county grounds in Ireland, a ground that would not have been in existence when it not for those names mentioned above.

Good night John and give all those referees in heaven a hard time!

D McK.