Brendan O Sullivan

Life, Death and Hurling

May 12th, 2012
by Brendan O Sullivan

Michael Duignan, RTE analyst and former Offaly hurler, is the first GAA man from that county to write an autobiography. It is not your typical GAA story, it is more than a tale of matches lost and won, of highs and lows on the hurling field. It is a deeply moving account of his personal life and in particular his wife Edel's battle with cancer, which she was eventually to lose at the young age of 41.

The book opens with Michael being warned by close friends that he has been involved in too many heated arguments. A pattern had developed, in the period before and after Edel's death, of rows in pubs, Michael fighting fire with fire-punches thrown, glass broken, a waitress knocked over. People made allowances for him, the gardai were not involved-but he was walking a thin line. The warnings eventually hit home and he determines to change.
He describes how Edel made a routine visit to her GP in 2002. This resulted in an immediate trip to Tallaght Hospital, a diagnosis of breast cancer, an operation, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Some good years follow but in 2006, the cancer returns-secondary cancer affecting the liver and she is given a year or 18 months to live. They are devastated but she tells Michael that she will be there for their son Brian's First Communion, three years away.

Edel defies the specialist's predictions and lives for over three years. She has good and bad days but comes to terms with the fact that she will die and tries to prepare her family for life without her.

In 2009 she is present for Brian's big day. The family then enjoy an idyllic summer holiday in the west of Ireland, they return to prepare the two boys, Sean and Brian, for their return to school, Michael does the analysis for the Hurling final, Edel falls ill, is brought to James' Hospital, knows that she will not survive and is totally reconciled to it. The saddest scene in the book is when Michael brings Sean and Brian to their mother's bedside to say goodbye.

It is a huge funeral. The GAA community turn out in large numbers. Henry Shefflin and Eoin Kelly, among others, puck a sliotar in the back garden with the two boys. Niall Quinn slips them €50 each. Paidi O'Se rings Michael to sympathise. Michael tells him not to travel from Ventry, but the next morning, Paidi calls to pay his respects, stays five minutes and is gone.

The book is about hurling too. Going to the field in Banagher as a young boy, the school and underage teams. He graduated to the Offaly minor hurling team in 1985 and was on the first team from that county to win a minor All-Ireland in 1986. On to the under 21 team and losing a final to Tipperary. He progressed to the senior team and, after some unsuccessful years, the breakthrough arrived. It involved daylight robbery at the end of the 1994 decider against Limerick when Offaly went from being 5 points down to 6 points ahead in the last few minutes. The shock defeat to Clare in 1995 followed. The amazing hurling year of 1998 is described in detail from the Offaly point of view. The eccentric ways of hurling legend and manager Babs Keating, his "sheep in a heap" comment about his team, his resignation, the arrival of Michael Bond whom none of them knew. The extraordinary 3 games against Clare, the second being the most famous. Michael admits that he should have been sent off for his uncharacteristic strike on David Forde. Despite referee Jimmy Cooney's leniency, he is among those abusing him after Cooney blew the full time whistle some minutes early. This plays on his conscience and he eventually got the opportunity to apologise at the Galway Races many years later. Of course, Offaly beat Clare in the third match and went on to surprise Kilkenny in the final and Michael had won his second All-Ireland senior medal.

He is modest about his hurling ability in comparison to the more skilful players on the team-Brian Whelehan, Johnny Pilkington, John Troy. They qualified for another final in 2000 but were well beaten by Kilkenny, who won the first of 8 All-Irelands so far under manager Brian Cody.
He describes his life as an analyst. He is a straight talker, not a sensationalist. Pat Spillane gets a mention and it is not complimentary. Michael wasn't comfortable with Pat as presenter of the evening programme; his questions at times bordered on the bizarre.

The book returns to his life after his retirement. Having spent 15 years hurling at the highest level, he then felt he could spend time doing things for himself. The fact that he had a wife and two children who'd made sacrifices for him didn't seem to matter. He played golf, went to the races, stayed away for days, leading to some straight talking from Edel.

The mini-crisis in their marriage is overcome but soon afterwards they receive the dreadful news that Edel's cancer has returned and that it is terminal.

This is a frank and honest account of Michael Duignan's life so far. Above all, it is a wonderful permanent tribute to his wife and her courage as she faced her inevitable death. The book's title may owe its origin to Liverpool manager Bill Shankly's famous comment about football being more important than life and death. But, in this book, "Life, Death and Hurling", hurling, with good reason, comes third. It is well worth reading.

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