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A family tragedy during the Troubles and winning an All-Ireland while pregnant

Monaghan great Brenda McAnespie is next up in Laochra Gael hot seat.

MONAGHAN GREAT BRENDA McAnespie reflects on the many, many highs and lows of her career — and life in general — in her Laochra Gael episode.

McAnespie’s programme, which will be aired on TG4 next week, is another excellent installment in the 18th edition of the famous GAA series.

Image from iOS Brenda McAnespie. Source: TG4.

The Scotstown native, who once played in an All-Ireland final when she was pregnant, was Gaelic football-obsessed growing up on the farm. In school one day, the teacher went around the classroom asking the children what they wanted to be when the grew up. McAnespie’s answer was a long way off the standard doctor, nurse or teacher.

“I want to be a footballer and have plenty of children,” she beamed. 

She got exactly what she wanted.

McAnespie enjoyed many days in the sun with Monaghan from their 1992 All-Ireland junior final victory — which came just months after their foundation — onward, and built a lovely family life with her husband, Vincie.

But there were many dark days too, as life on the border meant that trouble and tragedy were never far away.

She tells the story of the tragic death of her brother-in-law, Aidan McAnespie, in 1988. The 24-year-old Tyrone man was shot dead by the British Army:

“Aidan played football with the local club, he was just an ordinary young fella living in a border town when the Troubles were going on, it wasn’t easy. He was a bubbly person, he was full of life. I was talking to him that morning, we had arranged to go out that night.”

Vincie, who appears in the programme to tell Brenda’s story, explains that after lighting a fire in the home house, Aidan headed for the football field at Aughaloo GAC. He parked on the northern side of a checkpoint, and went about his own business.

“I had come into Scotstown village,” Brenda recalls. “There was a little shop, owned by a couple called Joe and Bridie McCaffrey. Bridie came over to the counter and she asked me which of the McAnespie boys I was going out with.

“I said, ‘Vincie… why are you asking me?’ She said, ‘Oh, well it’s not him.’ I just knew from the question there was something just not right. Then she went on to tell me somebody had been shot and she heard it was Aidan.

“It was just real surreal for a while. Those next couple of days were just awful. It really sent ripples right through the length and breadth of the country. I remember my aunty, who was a nun, was out in Africa in the Missions and it was something she heard over there. It hit everybody.”

BRENDA_3 The McAnespie family during the programme. Source: TG4.

She remembers the many efforts that were made in the aftermath to keep Aidan’s memory alive through monuments and tributes, while Vincie speaks of how supportive Brenda and her family were.

Brenda’s remarkable football exploits brought joy to the family and surrounding community in difficult times, as she played a pivotal part on the Farney side that conquered ladies football through the 1990s.

She returned to action better than ever after having twins — now Monaghan stars themselves, Aoife and Ciara — while her 1995 season was cut short because she was pregnant with Ryan, who is now also a key player for the county.

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The babies were looked after, but football went on. All-Ireland finals were contested, and Celtic Crosses came in 1996 and 1997; the second of those while pregnant once again, this time with Eimear.

After reassurance from her doctor and a conversation with her husband, McAnespie was determined to play on, and keep her pregnancy a secret.

In the programme, she recalls going for a scan in Monaghan Hospital, “sick” thinking about bumping into someone she knew. While waiting for her name to be called, she was thinking up an excuse.

“People would be saying, ‘What’s she in for, with an All-Ireland final on Sunday?’ I got through that whole procedure safe and sound with nobody knowing anything different and I was fit to go and play the game.”

Telling her manager, Mickey Morgan, was another difficult conversation. But McAnespie stuck to her guns, and played in the Croke Park showpiece against arch-rivals Waterford.

“I remember coming in at half-time and being sick, but I had to hide it. And I remember going out and acting normal.

“On that particular day, everyone started to cramp. I remember thinking at one stage, ‘Vincie’s going to be thinking there’s something wrong,’ but everything was fine.”

After an excellent display from McAnespie in defence, late, late dramatics and confusion through injury time about when the final whistle went, Monaghan were crowned champions.

brenda-mcanespie-mongeraldine-oryan-wat-1997 Playing in the 1997 All-Ireland final. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

The scenes afterwards were something else, and McAnespie later told her team-mates her big secret. A moment to savour, indeed.

Amazingly in 1998, she returned to the panel as a goalkeeper, though that All-Ireland final didn’t end just as well.

“When I do look back on it, it probably was complete madness even considering playing again but it’s very hard to let go of something that means so much to you.

“The kids always came first. I’d take them to football training so I never felt that they were losing out. If they were losing out, I would have gave it up. The football gave me a lease of life, which meant that in turn, I could be a better mum to them.”

McAnespie, who worked as a local councillor and delves deeper into that, and further troubling times with her family, retired from inter-county football in 2006 — but she played on long enough to win an All-Ireland club title with her daughters and Emyvale.

Brenda McAnespie’s  Laochra Gael episode will be aired on TG4 next Thursday, 9 April at 9.30pm 

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Emma Duffy

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