The one true religion

August 10th, 2011
by Sunday Independent, September 21st 2008

IN 1946 Monsignor Liam Brosnan watched Kerry train for the first time and fell under a lifelong spell. He was 12 and they were training for the All-Ireland final replay against Roscommon: it was love at first sight. Later he followed his brother Noel into the priesthood and both moved to work in San Antonio, Texas, where they've lived and worked for half a century. But Kerry kept drawing them home.

Monsignor Liam has accumulated a stash of memorabilia that would put the greatest GAA anorak to shame. Most of his vast collection of autographs, signed footballs, photographs and other possessions is in the US where he will return with his brother early next month. Some pieces are at his sisters' house in Killarney. This is his 60th trip home since first leaving for Texas in 1959.

According to Weeshie Fogarty, the voice of Radio Kerry, the Monsignor's collection of Kerry artefacts is the largest "in the world" although it is not certain that this can be scientifically proven. No doubting, however, his serious commitment to the cause. He pulls out a photograph of the Kerry training squad he saw for the first time 62 years ago, posing outside St Finian's hospital, under the wily supervision of Dr Eamon O'Sullivan. Next, moving full circle to the present, he proudly holds up one taken recently of himself with Paul Galvin.

"I have pictures with 154 All-Ireland medallists," he enthuses. "Initially, I didn't have any camera. In the 1960s I went round to several of their homes; I went out to Dingle to Bill Casey. I went to Paddy Bawn, Tom Ashe, all these fellas. I'd go there and just knock on the door. The Landers brothers. I'd just ask them if I could take a picture and, sure, they were all kind to me.

"I have 13 footballs autographed and one of those I started getting signed in 1969, when Kerry won their 21st All-Ireland. I retired it in the year 2000 and I have 124 senior All-Ireland medallists signed on it. I'd say there's probably about 312 All-Ireland medals in the county."

Here's the punchline. When Maurice Deegan throws in the ball at Croke Park today, and the attentions of the packed stadium and worldwide television audience are firmly fixed on the outcome, the retired Monsignor will take to the bed at his sisters' house in Killarney, unable to watch the game because of the stress it would induce. In 1985, he suffered a heart scare and his doctors advised him to steer clear of strenuous activity. With his passion for Kerry, live matches had to be sacrificed.

Not only that. He won't allow himself to listen to the match on radio. That would probably be worse than watching it. His sisters and brother, Monsignor Noel, will be instructed not to go near the room for the duration of the game for fear they might convey some signal, good or bad, and jeopardise his health.

"I'm afraid to gamble, afraid to take a chance. I'll just lay on the bed and my brother and sisters will be in the house and the strict orders, which are kept, are: don't come near me until the games are over. I don't want any information at half-time, I don't want to hear anything until it is all over. If my sister screams, we've a two-storey house, then I'm going to have to work out if it is a good scream or a bad scream."

He tells a story about the time he and his brother were returning to the US in 1982 the same day Kerry were warming up for the five-in-a-row decider with Offaly. By his calculations, when they got back to their apartment in San Antonio, the match would be over. They got in and he phoned his sister.

The match was still on. "She was screaming and shouting, they were up by two points and all of a sudden she used the expression 'Oh Jesus!' And I said: what happened? She said Offaly got a goal. And I'm on the phone . . . ! She couldn't talk to me after that. End of story."

Was that the worst feeling in the world, you ask the Monsignor, and he smiles benignly.

"I guess we were all keyed up for five-in-a-row. And that was a huge disappointment. But, interestingly enough, and I said this before, you know something? I think that it was one of the finest hours of that team because they really never complained. They took their beating."

In San Antonio, before the dawn of the worldwide web, the two brothers comforted one another and waited for more detailed forensics to arrive from home. "We called the sister again to see what she had found out. What had happened? What did people say that were at the game?"

* * * * *

WITH his flowing white locks and serene and erudite nature, Kerry All-Ireland medal winner Mick Gleeson could pass for the local poet or philosopher; the vagaries and vicissitudes of football certainly don't ruffle him. The prospect of losing to Tyrone doesn't fill him with dread. The sun will rise in the morning. Kerry will still play football. And they will win more All-Irelands.

He won two himself, in 1969 and 1970, at the end of a decade when Kerry were usurped and forced to mine uncommonly deep levels of introspection thanks to the trespassing exploits of Down and Galway. In Kerry terms, they were unsettling times and he was part of the movement that lifted the siege and restored some sense of normality. The 1969 All-Ireland, Kerry's 21st triumph, ended a seven-year wait.

Mick remembers articles in The Kerryman newspaper asking what was wrong with the county football team that it had sank so low. That's why he's not in a panic now. "There's always the ability, and the talent coming through, because of the tradition, because of the commitment, because of how well the club structure is in the county, to ensure that defeats are accepted," he explains calmly. "The disappointment is accepted and the county moves on and starts building new teams. There are likely to be retirements (after today) but they will go on and win their fair share of All-Irelands."

In Jimmy O'Brien's popular watering hole in Killarney, Mick is one of a number of former Kerry players who drop in to talk about football and other affairs of state. On Tuesday night, the legendary Tom Long was there, seated at the bar with friends. The musicians were from Sliabh Luachra, a part of Kerry that has provided its own distinct traditional music style, and the part of the world the bar owner hails from. Jimmy has had the business for almost 50 years and has been going to All-Irelands even longer.

Like the Brosnan brothers, the musicians in his bar had been in Fitzgerald Stadium earlier to see Kerry train. People travelled from all around the county to watch them go through various ball drills. Interest in the final has never been as keen. Earlier in McSweeney's bar, Weeshie Fogarty and London exile Donie O'Sullivan were debating who should be crowned the top five Kerry stylists of all time. "Not the most effective players," Weeshie emphasises, "but the top five stylists." It is how one passes the time.

Mick Gleeson headed to Dublin on Friday and planned to call in on Con Houlihan. "Last time I brought him a bottle of wine," says Mick, "he'd be partial to a little drop. 'Fine,' he said, 'it won't go stale in this house.'"

You knew which one to pick?

"Ah, any one I'd say, once it flows."

* * * * *

KILGARVAN is a 20-minute drive from Killarney and an idyllic spot on the Kerry landscape. Here Tom Randles, the club chairman, is engaged in a fund-raiser to help offset the cost of draining their GAA pitch and the planned lights and running track that are to follow. They've hit upon an idea that would generate a bit more outside interest; ticket buyers get to choose the top ten Kerry forwards still living. They must be All-Ireland medal winners.

Kilgarvan, not far from the border with Cork, is a little hurling oasis. Tom thinks it is because of Cork and Tipperary workers who settled here when they were building the railway. In the 1950s, the club won three senior hurling titles and he was part of the last two campaigns. More recently he was pressed into service aged 71 in a match in the north Cork junior league in Tullylease, lining out at left corner-forward.

"I was manager and trainer until this year; I quit to look after the field. I had togs in the car and I went out and played the game. Played the full game. Well, I was training the team so I was always out pucking the ball into them, backs and forwards, so I'd be fairly fit. An hour's hurling wouldn't knock much out of me."

We're standing on the neatly cut grass, Mangerton mountain to the north, Bird Mountain off towards Bantry to the south, and a sweeping view west towards Kenmare and the farther reaches of Sneem and Waterville. Getting the pitch drained was a big task and cost a lot of money. When the sand was rolled out they were confronted with a major challenge and forced to take drastic action.

"We patrolled this every night since June when sand was put down, like an open sand desert, Jesus, it was swarmed with rabbits; you'd have 150 when you'd come up. We didn't know what to do with them, we blocked the burrows but it was no good, and then we had to shoot them. I shot 32 or 33 one day. We came in with shotguns and patrolled it. We'd an awful job with them."

The situation seems to be under control and they have a fine surface to show for their efforts. The person whose top ten living forwards match that of a panel of experts will be in line to win €2,000. The chosen ten will each receive a mini Sam Maguire when the decision is reached before Christmas.

Any famous footballers in these parts, Tom's asked, as he drives to Kenmare in the warm sunshine. He points to the home of Tadhgie Lyne's father which is over our right shoulder on the hillside. This prompts him, rather too accommodatingly, to stop the car dead on the road and show me the exact spot. Lyne was star of the show in the seminal 1955 All-Ireland final against Dublin. Tom has been going to All-Ireland finals for 50 years but this time he will give his tickets to his son and grandson. It's their turn now. He was in London for a few years during Kerry's difficult spell in the 1960s. "I, and my late wife, bought a radio between us. Think it was Kerry and Galway. We had to go up to a high place to get a reception, it was still bad, and Kerry lost. And it was the old story, Kerry being a bit behind the times. Having said that, Kerry gave them all the answers when Dwyer came along. Marvellous man and, I have to tell you, badly treated by Croke Park. If any man should have been Irish manager, it should have been Dwyer. But Dwyer wouldn't do what Croke Park wanted him to do. You know, he bate them with the jerseys (controversial '70s jersey sponsorship). He was a player's man."

* * * * *

TYRONE are on the brink of achieving what Down did in the 1960s by defeating Kerry in two All-Ireland finals and one semi-final. "I think there is a general idea outside this county that there is a fear in Kerry of northern teams per se," says Mick Gleeson back in Killarney. "But I don't agree that there is. I think it's just an accident of fate that they have never actually beaten Down in a final for instance. Sooner or later that will be rectified. But I think it will be very close this year. Tyrone, by the very nature of their team and their wonderful work ethic, will have to make it difficult for whoever they play."

Because he was at a student's remove in Dublin in the late 1960s, the subordination of Kerry didn't rile him as much. "It certainly annoyed some people. I remember we played Down in some game, and one of the Kerry mentors approaching Joe Lennon to confront him with that statement (about Kerry being 30 years behind). I'm sure Joe Lennon would accept that his statement proved less than accurate. Kerry have won a few more than Down since. I think we take pride in, number one, Kerry's tradition, Kerry's winning tradition, but also in the general acceptance that Kerry play good attractive football and that they have great commitment to the ethos of the game, not just to winning -- but to entertain as well. The Kerry people going to Croke Park at considerable expense, they want to be entertained as well as winning -- both are inter-linked."

Monsignor Liam Brosnan and his brother, Monsignor Noel, caught the last few training sessions before today's match in Killarney during the week. "In 2006, when they won," grins Liam, "I actually sat in the car outside the house for the duration. My brother came out at half-time just to walk around and get fresh air and I didn't even look at him. When they drew with Cork recently, I actually took my watch off so I wouldn't be looking at it and thinking 'oh there's ten minutes to go' and so on.

"And you know the one thing I won't do? I won't say a prayer."

Why not? "Well, you have to be fair to the other team too and if they (Kerry) are going to win, I want them to win on merit and not on prayer. No, I wouldn't do that."

Do you feel cheated? "No. When I watch the video (afterwards) I know the result and there is no emotion involved. So I would see a more objective game in a sense than the fella who watches it live."

Won't you ever break the fast? "No, no. I made the rule and I don't want to find out whether it would work or not. So far it has worked, nothing has happened. I don't want to mess around with that. I love Kerry but (laughs) I want to be alive."

He has seen a lot of Kerry training down the years. What's his gut telling him? "I have a feeling that there are a lot of players fired up. One, they don't want to be beaten a third time by Tyrone, and, the second thing, I think, there is an undercurrent that they really haven't been treated well this year by the GAA. They say you can't even train with them (in Galvin's case), what does that prove? It's like a big guy beating up a kid. See the way they were after the referee the last time? That's totally foreign to the Kerry team; there's anger there now. No Kerry player is saying that to me. But it looks it to me."

All there is left for him to do now is go to his room, lock the door, lay down on his bed. And wait.

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