Of Mitchel’s and Foreglen - A tribute to ‘Wee Ollie’

The late Ollie Donaghy (centre) with Enda Gormley (right) and Sean McElhinney at a John Mitchels, Birmingham club dinner dance in Birmingham.
The late Ollie Donaghy (centre) with Enda Gormley (right) and Sean McElhinney at a John Mitchels, Birmingham club dinner dance in Birmingham.

Oliver Donaghy, a Foreglen man and well-known Gael, passed away last month in England and was laid to rest last Friday in Kidderminster. The popular former O’Brien’s and Derry player was pivotal in the development of John Mitchels GAA club in Birmingham and in this piece, his friend and fellow club stalwart, Sean McElhinney pays tribute to man known as ‘wee Ollie’ . . . .

I wrote a book about my Birmingham GAA club, John Mitchel’s, for our 80th anniversary celebration.

As part of the research, I planned a meeting with a man by the name of Oliver Donaghy. I asked him serious questions and in one of the answers he told me he had married a “woman from the Carribean who used to baby sit the weans”.

One night in McReynold’s bar, I had to ask his nephew, Rory, if he was serious. It turned out he was just only joking. I asked him on the phone, a week or two later, “Why would you tell me that, sir?”

“Sure I’m a Foreglen man,” he said, “It’s was a bit of craic… You only believed me because you’re from Dungiven.”

The John Mitchel’s Life-President, Oliver Donaghy - a man with his roots not far from mine - met me in the office of his civil engineering business in Kidderminster. It was the first time I’d been to Kidderminster and I was curious about the ‘Wee Ollie’ that had given my uncle a job in the 70s, when he was trying to flee the conflict, and served as the life-long President of the club that gave me a home in Birmingham.

Damien Sheridan was a player-coach with Mitchel’s in the 80s. A legend in his own right, having taken the Mitchel’s to the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final to play Nemo Rangers, Damien once described to me the fundamental importance Ollie was to a club like ours.

****

The van was warm but the craic was mighty. They set off for Cambridge, with Jimmy Walsh driving and Oliver Donaghy in the passenger seat. Squeezed in between them was a giant, who wore size 15 boots on the football field; he would have been bigger than the two men, either side of him, even if Walsh had sat on Donaghy’s shoulders.

Walsh and Donaghy had got word that an Antrim forward, Paul McErlean, had moved to Cambridge. In consultation with Sheridan, they headed to Cambridge to find their newest Mitchel’s recruit. The only difficulty was that McErlean didn’t know about the decision to make him a Mitchel’s man – and so he wasn’t particularly easy to track down.

“Bicycles! Bicycles everywhere lads,” Walsh exclaimed as the three men came rolling into Cambridge.

“Calm down, would ye sir?!” snapped Oliver. “How are we even going to find this man?”

“We don’t even know what he looks like,” said Sheridan.

Recruitment of talent is a personal challenge for men like Jimmy Walsh and Oliver Donaghy; keeping a club going in England. And so, they kept the faith.

Without thinking of the context of the heightened tensions between the Irish and the English in the 80s, the three Paddys drove from pub to pub in a van; asking if anyone had heard an Irishman, with a Northern accent, who might be known by the name of Paul McErlean.

“What does he look like?” asked one of the English publicans.

“We’re not one hundred per cent sure,” replied Jimmy, “But if you see him, tell him three Irishmen have come down from Birmingham in a van and want to speak with him urgently.”

The barman walked away. And kept an eye on their bags.

Eventually, the three men heard a Northern accent from the corner of their 10th pub. Ollie introduced himself and made conversation about back home.

By the time he stood the ‘nordie’ a pint, he’d found out the whereabouts of McErlean – who signed for Mitchel’s that evening.

And the three men returned to Birmingham smiling. Sure it was a grand day’s craic.

****

When I got into the office, Oliver wasted no time putting me straight on the history of the club.

“I understand it was the 1988 team that was the greatest of the Mitchel’s, Ollie?” I asked.

“What?” Ollie replied, “Rubbish! It was the 1968 team! My team!”

“We had Tommy Buckley, who was playing for Aston Villa at the same time as he was playing for us – a star, that fella. We’d Jimmy Murphy in the forward line. Do you know, he was known for having scored nine goals against Derry minors when he was playing for Armagh? John McAndrew was our captain – from the 1951 Mayo team – he was a great captain and a gargantuan of a man – no-one would ever speak back to him – except for Tommy Buckley. And then there was the Yank Murray, and Christy Mannion. Some top-class players in the ’68 team.”

As we sat in his office, Oliver went on to list a string of Mitchel’s players – and a whole heap that had come from our homestead in Co. Derry - from every corner of Dungiven, Drum, Drumsurn and Foreglen. He’d their names written out on a page and talked through the successes and disappointments that characterised their different times with the club.

He could have been talking about teams from home as I listened to the familiar names of Francie Brolly, Sean Higgins, Jude McLaughlin, Ciaran Duffy, Willie Burke and Jim Burke.

He seemed to remember the name of every man to whom he ever kicked a ball.

Ollie’s mother used to own a wee shop in Foreglen, where Ollie grew up. The lads who worked for Ollie used to joke that the mother would interview men looking for a start, before sending them over to her son in England. It must have been an easy interview because no matter who was looking for work, Oliver would find it.

Oliver arrived in Birmingham 60 years’ ago. When he arrived, John Mitchel’s was only a fledgeling side and he was central to how it developed. The familiarity between John Mitchel’s and those who work for Oliver is no coincidence – Oliver has helped maintain and farm our success using his own personal relationships and business interests.

For Oliver, the club isn’t something that we are involved in, it’s something that has shaped who we are.

As we sat back talking, and having the craic, I slipped back into the auld tongue.

“Sir this, Sir that.”

He told me about a time he had so many lads from home working for him in Birmingham (and playing for the Mitchel’s), that the lady who used to make them breakfast on a Friday was moved to commend their very good manners.

“All those boys are from where you’re from, isn’t that right, Oliver?” the lady asked him.

“That’s right”, said Oliver, “From County Derry. I hope they’re no trouble”.

“Oh dear, no not at all”, the lady replied, “tThey’re the most well-mannered group of men you could speak to. They think a lot of you, Oliver”.

“Is that so?” inquired Oliver.

“Oh yes”, the lady replied, “They always call you ‘sir’”.

Oliver went to work in Birmingham in 1959, starting off as a civil servant working in a post-office and putting himself through night school to get his trade as a civil engineer. Somehow he found the time for football – most likely because it’s all he wanted to do.

Like many young footballers, it was Ollie’s ambition to play in Páirc an Chrócaigh. And so, despite working in the post-office in Birmingham, and putting himself through night school, he still made it home to play for Foreglen and Derry at every opportunity.

In the 60s, a young Ollie would take the train on a Friday morning to the boat; the boat through Friday night to Belfast, and only land home to Foreglen on a Saturday night. He’d play his match on Sunday and have to wait until Monday morning to take the boat back across the water to Holyhead. Then he’d have to take the train, most of the day on a Tuesday, to get back to Birmingham for his work. It was four days of travel and three days off work.

At that time, Derry were as close to the All-Ireland as they would be for over 30 years; and a young Ollie wanted to get his place in a team destined for Croke Park. Against Donegal, in the National League Final, Ollie scored twice and had his place almost certain in the team bound for a championship final in Casement.

But, when he arrived back in Birmingham, he was informed by his superiors that the time-off was just too-much and so he phoned Phonsie Dean of Derry to say he wouldn’t make the Ulster Championship final, a final which Derry won, with a team that went all the way to Croke Park.

The team was without Oliver Donaghy and it broke his heart for every day after.

Ollie loved the game nonetheless, and he found his home away from Foreglen, in the colours of the Mitchel’s. He gave everything to the club and served in every position – except for the position of Chairman.

“Why’s that?” I asked him.

“Because I couldn’t follow in the footsteps of the men who held that position before me. I could never give what I saw those men give”.

His humility was in contrast with his pride. It’s a rare thing to find in a man; peculiar, in a way, to Foreglen men – full of confidence, but full of heart.

Ollie told me that he never had a drink until he was 40 – he said he made up for it after that. At the club’s dinner-dance, we spent the night in each other’s company, with Jimmy Walsh and Damien Sheridan, Sean Higgins and Enda Gormley. We’d a great night.

After that night we missed one another on a couple of occasions, but spoke a few times on the phone. I promised I’d make the trip to Kidderminster to see him before Christmas. And I was there last Friday morning.

But there’ll be no more stories from Ollie, I’ve missed him once again. And the drink will have to wait.

He’d some life; I’m just a wee bit sad that I only caught the tail end of it.

Rest in Peace, Ollie Donaghy - Of Mitchel’s and Foreglen.