Harry and the like are the real heroes

Harry Bryan
Last Monday evening the wind was cutting tiles of newly built and old houses and the rain was clattering into exposed flesh like red hot needles, writes Barrie Henriques.

Last Monday evening the wind was cutting tiles of newly built and old houses and the rain was clattering into exposed flesh like red hot needles, writes Barrie Henriques.

I called to Bosco Bryan’s house in Callan with my book of Lotto tickets for John Lockes GAA club. I was doing my bit for the club, but inside Bosco and Elaine’s house, his dad, Harry was worried about being a Euro or two short on his Lotto collection.

Harry had collected over €200 as his offering from around the parish. I slinked, embarrassed, into the corner.

Bosco Bryan, familiar to most GAA people around the county, is performing hand-stands for his beloved John Lockes. With a few helpers he has overseen, and directed, the club’s (County Board really) Lotto commitments.

It has been a resounding success, a success that prompted the officers of the club to press on with their recently completed €1-million development. As they say, the apple never falls too far from the tree.

It was as inevitable as day following night that Harry Bryan’s children would slip into the already worn footsteps of as quintessential a grass roots GAA member as you could meet. As a GAA addict, Harry Bryan is still the real deal, even though he is near his mid-seventies.

I write this on the eve of the election of a new President in the GAA. Corporate GAA will gather, wine, dine, laugh, joke and manoeuvre. Politic GAA will cloak the entirety of this august body which will sit in judgement and make decisions about the state of the ’Association.

Grass roots do matter

If one got a Euro for the number of times the expression, grass roots is mentioned, one would probably clear a sizeable overdraft.

Recently I had a conversation with our illustrious County Board chairman, Ned Quinn. I happened to make the suggestion that in the real order of things, the grass roots don’t matter. Ned, who shoots from the hip in most instances, was quick to point out that such an observation was never so wrong.

I sincerely acquiesced to his contradiction, and retracted my statement. Of course he was correct in every sense. The grass roots do matter, because without the grass roots, we would have nothing.

There would be no County Boards, and as a result there certainly would be no Croke Park and all that it stands for

Back to the Harry Bryans’ of GAA World!

Allow me to introduce you to and outline the contribution of the Harry Bryan I know. When I complete my story, I will ask one question.

He is a native of County Offaly where he was bred into the GAA. Others before him set the template. He was secretary of his local football club when he was doing his Intermediate Certificate examination. After joining the Garda Siochána, Harry was eventually posted to Callan.

He may have been elsewhere in the interim, but such information is superfluous to the narrative of my story. Like many Gardai - a number, but not a majority - Harry Bryan immersed himself in the John Lockes club shortly after moving to Callan.

In truth he involved himself with the juveniles in the town through the invitation of a Bro. Shreenan. The dye was cast. Harry Bryan was where he wanted to be. Callan had a solid base of good young schoolboy hurlers. In fact, the CBS had the audacity to stand up to, and nearly beat, a star-studded St Kieran’s College team, Brian Cody, Billy Fitzpatrick et al in the Leinster colleges championship in those days.

Games blossomed

The under-age structures in the school blossomed. Through good coaching, and better direction, the school produced a bunch of 12-year-olds with great promise. Brother Jacob, a priest who had laboured in the GAA vineyards of Castlecomer and Freshford, Fr Liam Dunne, Pat ‘Diamond’ Hayden, Joe and Bernie O’Dwyer and Tom Walsh (1957 corner-back) were the collective tide that lifted the fortunes of the Callan juveniles.

Harry Bryan was integral to that particular movement. Discipline, respect and good manners were the core values of the culture then. Hurling ability and the rest followed.

Those men revolutionised the hurling culture for youngsters in Callan beyond their wildest expectations. Long before central or provincial councils came with Development Squads, or Féile, the youngsters of Callan were taken to places like Cork, Mayobridge in County Down, Raharney in Westmeath and many other locations to play games.

Croke Park was on the menu for Leinster finals and so on. Those children had a dream hurling academy. For instance, every day after school, every one of the youngsters would make their way to ‘Diamond’ Hayden’s shop for a penny worth of sweets. Some might not have had the penny, but they would still go, because the ‘Diamond’ would talk about what they wanted to hear - playing for Kilkenny, and playing in Croke Park.

It resembled the great Spencer Treacy as Fr Flanagan holding court in his revolutionary Omaha (Nabraska) Boys Town. The chaps loved the famous Kilkenny hurler. That love and respect was reciprocated. The ‘Diamond’ was the only Kilkenny hurler they knew.

Harry Bryan, the ‘Diamond’ and his team ran raffles to make the few bob to defray expense. The town bought into the idea. The idea paid a rich dividend subsequently. The hurling club involved itself in most parish issues.

Fund-raising for the new CBS school was taken up with gusto. Sponsored everything and anything were fronted by the likes of Harry Bryan and others. The school was built, and hand in glove with that build, the John Locke club decided to buy and build its own home, John Locke Park.

Decided to move

The historic Fair Green was a commonage willed to the people of Callan by the Annerley Estate. It could not be developed. John Lockes decided to move. Both undertakings moved simultaneously. Great men were found to establish the new home of the John Lockes GAA club.

It became obvious from an early stage that the club would succeed through its own determination. It was self-help or no help. The names of Ryan, Roughan, Lyons, Vaughan, Corcoran, Donovan, O’Dwyer, Bryan, Bergin, Hickey, Power, Stapleton were the vanguard of a mighty movement. All travelled from Callan to the four corners of the land trying to get funds to pay bills.

As club chairman, I remember Harry Bryan taking Joe and Bernie O’Dwyer, Tom Donovan and his wife Bea up to his home area around Tullamore and Gaeshill. They came home with money. There was nobody waiting for them with a wad of expense money.

Every conceivable fund-raising enterprise was worked to death. It had to be. The club were paying an astronomical price for eleven acres of a hill field – it cost £44,000. Notice the pound sign. Diggers, dirt removers, holes, banks, drains were central to the creation of an excellent playing pitch.

Great joy was felt when the ground was prepared for sowing, but stones had to be picked. Evening after evening I saw Harry Bryan with his four children, including his two little girls, Maeve and Mary, together with Liam Bergin and his two girls laboriously piling stones along the ground for collection.

He was chairman or director of very little, but he was seldom more than a few steps behind the leader when the work had to be done. The club revelled in the reflected greatness of buying its own home. Everyone was thrilled with the back-breaking achievement.

Tremendous mentor

We are talking about such an achievement in the tough, late seventies. The club too had one other tremendous mentor. Quiet by disposition, but shrewd, and caring, Fr Jack Kennedy more than most was utterly thrilled by what was achieved by hard work and dedication.

Harry Bryan and all of the Harry Bryans’ were walking ten foot tall, with a smile on their faces like a cat having discovered a concealed entrance to the Callan Co-Op creamery. All of this development was only an adjunct to the more important business of training juvenile hurlers.

Harry was very much involved with that process too. With Tom Walsh (teacher), Barry Hickey and E.J. Ryan, John Lockes won the Roinn A minor title in 1984. The ‘Diamond’, Joe O’Dwyer, Bro Jacob, Tom Walsh (1957), Fr Liam Dunne and Harry Bryan were thrilled to see their under-12 lads striding proudly up the steps of Nowlan Park to collect the Mick Joyce (a tremendous Callan GAA man) Cup.

I would have been privy to the many conversations between those great men as they debated the best positions for Power, Egan, Comerfords, Bryan, Corcoran, Leahy, Dwyer, Lynch etc. They were proud men that day. They were prouder still when three of them (Bosco Bryan, John Power and Liam Egan) made the Kilkenny minor team that was was beaten in a replayed All-Ireland final by Limerick in the Semple Stadium.

And so the games progress and the work continues. The Harry Bryans’ are still pulling on the rope. Their endurance as purposeful as ever, their loyalty to doing a job that they feel is making a contribution is unconditional.

Ticket selling

They understand that ticket selling, manning gates, manning a stand at a club field day, or registering whatever needs doing is all for the cause. The only thing that changes in the GAA lives of the Harry Bryans’ is their age, their abilities to contribute as much muscle power as they did when they were in their prime thirty years ago.

But their enthusiasm has never waned. It is as powerfully focussed as ever. And they do it all without any form of recompense. They never handed in an expense statement.

Nobody ever offered them a free dinner, and they certainly paid into every match that they attended, including their own club games. They would find it an affront to their dedication to do anything else. They will give a hand where they can, and when they feel it is needed.

They do it without invitation or pre-condition. In many instances these unsung foot-soldiers are involved in many other demands of their local community. They will support every local fund-raiser they feel needs support.

Well I remember when the lamented, much loved parish priest, Fr Jack Kennedy - a man ahead of his time - was running dances in the Parish Hall, or more prominently, in the famed Callan Marquee, starting on the weekend of the Leinster final. The vast majority of his helpers were the lads who were the front runners in the John Lockes development back in the days.

He was a great mentor to them, and such interest was reciprocated. Harry Bryan was not too far away either, in a more official but hugely important capacity as well.

Like all the Harry Bryans’, whatever the club was doing, they got involved. It was as natural as putting two spoons of sugar into your cup of tea. They never had ambitions of ‘climbing the ladder’.

Don’t want to climb

If you asked some of them who was the President of the GAA before Nickey Brennan, they might not know. They might not care. They have no intentions of climbing the GAA ladder.

I can hear many of them eulogising about the power struggles along that road. As the man says the road to power is paved with hypocrisy and broken promises. Cannot disagree with that!

In my travails around the place I have met many of the Harry Bryans’. Names like Eamon Holden in Mooncoin readily comes to mind. Jim Conway, one of the fixtures in Mullinavat, is another. Seamus Dunphy in Glenmore ranked as one such footsoldier.

I would nominate John Healy too for inclusion in the pantheon of club greatness, and sure Martin Treacy in Bennettsbridge would qualify with honours.

I have used the name of Harry Bryan to illustrate my narrative. He was rather uneasy for me to use him as my template, but thankfully he acquiesced to my request, and for that I am grateful.

The only reason I did use him was because I was totally aware of his contribution, and it was even more meritorious than that above. The clincher was when I saw the man of his age, returning the Lotto funds to his son. There are many more.

The next time you happen to be at a game in John Locke Park, have a look to see the man who is directing you into a parking spot! You could do the same in Mullinavat, or Bennettsbridge, or even Tullogher.

In singling out these men, I pay the greatest compliment to the work done by so many club men, the grass roots men, and women too. I do not wish to denigrate the effort, or lessen in any way their contribution.

Through the names mentioned I applaud you all. On your willing backs, your heroics have been magnificent. Pity you are not told it a bit more often.

My question then is this: “Is there a Harry Bryan in your club, and does he matter to you?”

So yes, the grass roots do matter, but it is a shocking pity that the acknowledgement of their existence and contribution is still only a matter of political expediency, and rather transient.

PS - In the article on Simon Cleere last week we used the incorrect name of his daughter who died in tragic circumstances. The lady’s name was Marie. Our sincere apologies to all.