GERRY BOURKE GOT to the Gaelic Grounds in good time before throw-in on 22 July last year.
He’d travelled down to Limerick for the latest chapter in Mayo’s whirlwind summer, the Breaffy chairman keen to see the O’Shea brothers and Robbie Hennelly fly the flag for their club.
Getting a good vantage point was not the reason for his early arrival.
It was just over three weeks since David Gavin had gone missing in Canada. He had got into difficulty while swimming at Kinbasket Lake in British Columbia.
Despite intensive search efforts there had been no trace of the 25-year-old, a cornerstone in defence for Breaffy football teams over previous years.
There was no sign of the fundraising drive to aid the search for Gavin, slowing down. Bourke had arranged to be at the Gaelic Grounds to meet his Crossmolina counterpart Eamon Howley, who had a donation from his club to be given to the fund, a shining example of how GAA clubs around Mayo had rowed in to support.
“I was there and I was hanging around and then this man walks up to me,” said Bourke.
“He says, “Are you the chairman of Breaffy club?” He’d seen me on the news. I said I was and we shook hands.
“He wanted to sympathise. He asked me to hang on and said don’t leave, walked back up to me 15 minutes later and handed me a cheque for €500.
“I don’t know who he was or where he was from. He wanted that to go to help to find David’s body. This was the type of thing that was happening.
“There are hundreds of tragedies but for some particular reason this hit a nerve with everybody.
“As a club and a community we cannot put our finger on why David Gavin touched so many people in such a sorrowful way.”
Two weeks ago the body of David Gavin was recovered. The search for him had been postponed last October, the plan being to wait until late April when the water levels in the lake would be lowered to facilitate a renewed search.
And a fortnight ago the breakthrough came.
A crew from Calgary were successful at a time when sub aqua clubs and divers from Donegal and Mayo were preparing to travel to Canada to assist in the efforts to find the location of his body.
In February 2017 David emigrated to Canada with his girlfriend Ciara. They settled in Vancouver and he joined the local Gaelic football club.
On 30 June last he was travelling to a GAA tournament in Calgary with team-mates when they decided to stop at Kinbasket Lake and go for a swim but after jumping in David got into difficulty as he was making his way to the shore.
Canadian authorities had called off the search in July but the sheer scale of the response to the fundraising efforts in Ireland enabled the search to continue.
“The word came through on the Sunday morning,” recalled Bourke.
“I had got a text, it came through during the night that David had been found. Jesus, it was unbelievable. I went into ten o’clock Mass in Breaffy, the church is right beside me.
“Our own curate Fr McCormack, he was doing a funeral service in Castlebar and we had the parish priest, Fr Eustace. He came out anyway, went up to the altar and welcomed everybody and he said, “It’s a day of celebration, David has been found”.
“The vast majority of the congregation didn’t know and there was a gasp in the church. There was joy which is an awful thing to say and is a funny contradiction but there was such joy and relief.
“My own brother and his wife, their daughter was killed in a car accident in 1982. The cemetery is just across the road from their house and I was in the house with them that Sunday evening.
“They said at least now they (the Gavin family) can go to a grave like we can, they can sit down and talk and cry and pray. They have that opportunity now.
“There was huge disappointment last year when Michael and Angela (his parents), their daughter (Aoife) and Ciara (girlfriend) were coming home and there was no body. You were sympathising with them but it was terrible for them.
“At least now they will have a bit of peace.”
Declan Jennings is a Breaffy native, who works as a Games Promotion Officer with the Garda Westmanstown Gaels club in Dublin. As a player he lined out for Mayo in the 1994 All-Ireland U21 final and was a leading light for Breaffy when they were trying to climb out of the junior club ranks.
As a coach he continues to give back to the club. When David graduated from NUI Galway and started working with KPMG in Dublin, he was part of a band of Breaffy players based in the capital that Jennings put through their paces in midweek sessions.
Breaffy’s pursuit of the Paddy Moclair Cup still endures and Gavin was central to their recent major attempts at grasping silverware. Corner-back for the 2013 Mayo county senior final loss and wing-back for the 2015 decider defeat.
The October before he emigrated he was full-back as they were edged out by two points in a semi-final by Knockmore.
He had a fine personal Gaelic football CV. In 2009 he was corner-back in the All-Ireland minor final, numbering Cillian O’Connor amongst his Mayo colleagues as they fell three points short in Croke Park against Armagh.
Three years later there was a Connacht U21 season with Mayo and he juggled his studies in Galway with a couple of Sigerson Cup campaigns.
Jennings paints the picture of an elite club player devoted to self-improvement, putting in extra hours in outside of the collective sessions.
“If I’d 40 David Gavins, it would make life very easy,” said Jennings.
“He’d be on the phone wanting to know what he could do better or how he could improve. He’d be the first one on the pitch maybe 20 minutes or half an hour before training started. Just an incredible footballer as well.
“The way he’d come out of the defence with a ball, he just had a bit of class, the way he glided across the ground. A bit like Lee Keegan does, just no effort at all. He was a very important person and team member for those county finals.
“He went away last year and I remember getting a text from him to say he’d be back to training up in Dublin again and he was looking forward to it, maybe in a year’s time or whatever.
“He was an extremely intelligent lad he was and just so bright. A real thinker in lots of ways.”
Breaffy have supplied the O’Shea brothers – Seamus, Aidan and Conor – to the Mayo cause, seen Robbie Hennelly stand between the posts on big Croke Park days and watched players like Michael Hall and Matthew Ruane win All-Ireland U21 medals.
The club’s role in the Mayo journey was important to Gavin.
“He was very proud of the lads,” said Jennings.
“I sat beside him at the Mayo Tipperary All-Ireland semi-final (in 2016). We were biting our nails when Mayo were scraping across the line. He would have gone to all of the Mayo matches and enjoyed supporting his club men.”
The day after Gavin went missing, it was a message from Aidan O’Shea on the Breaffy team WhatsApp group that informed most in the club of the shocking news across the Atlantic. Later that afternoon Mayo would get past Derry after extra-time in a qualifier in Castlebar laced with drama.
Both Bourke and Jennings recalled the moment when O’Shea notched a vital point, turned and directed his finger towards the sky.
The grief in the club was still raw at the time and the lack of progress in the search deepened the anguish in the coming days.
So they rallied around and did what they could. For the search to be prolonged in Kinbasket Lake, it needed to be funded. The call was issued for help and the response was overwhelming. Money, support and words of comfort flowed in from a wide array of sources.
Some were familiar, like GAA clubs all over Mayo, but acts of generosity came from unknown quarters as well. The fund ultimately topped the $300,000 mark, a staggering reflection of the goodwill created.
Jennings was part of a group collecting outside Cusack Park in Ennis on 8 July when Mayo took on Clare.
“There was about 40 of his friends and team members there. The outpouring of people coming up I’d never seen anything like it in my life. People throwing in 20 euros, 50 euros, whatever they had and wishing us well.
“It would restore your faith in human kindness. I’ll never forget it, it was such a special feeling.”
“It was a GAA driven thing,” said Bourke.
“I’m a member of the Connacht Council as well. There were prayers said to him at a meeting and people walked up to me after to give me envelopes with money in it.
“The amount of goodwill was huge. I’d go into in a match in MacHale Park and people would be asking for him, describing him as one of our own. It really came home to us the importance of the GAA to a community. It resonated with so many.”
The weeks and months from then on in 2017 were difficult to put down, a cloud hanging over the business of keeping a GAA club going.
“It was hard to celebrate wins last year with club or county to be quite honest,” stated Bourke.
“I’d say if we had won the county final – and we were knocked out early on – it wouldn’t have had the same impact on us. There was an air of gloom hanging over the parish and the club. His death had a huge impact on the players in the club and that would have gone to school with him and in the neighbouring clubs as well.
“It struck a chord with them all. He was such a lovely fella. You could have good footballers who have little personality but Gav like was larger than life. Everybody loved him.”
The club organised a vigil Mass a few days after the accident and later the clubhouse was organised for a memorial where hordes of sympathisers had the opportunity to meet the Gavin family.
It was a strange and sad time as the search was still ongoing thousands of miles away.
“It was shocking to have a memorial and not to have a body,” recalled Bourke.
“Having to meet the family then, oh, it was absolutely terrible. It’s something we’re not accustomed to.
“I’m sure if you were in America and soldiers had gone to war, you could only get a feel what those parents had gone through and they never have a body.”
The prolonged quest of the Mayo footballers to lift Sam Maguire and the series of recent epic summer journeys which culminate in a loss at Croke Park have tended to prompt words like ‘heartbreak’ and ‘sadness’ be tossed about in the post-championship debates.
Last year there was no difficulty to find some perspective in Breaffy.
“You’d see his dad at Breaffy games and you’d just nearly be hoping Gav would be playing for him,” stated Jennings.
“Before you probably would have gone that it’s all about Mayo. We’re all caught up in our lives with work and Mayo football, but it just makes you think what happened to him. We were all devastated in Breaffy.
“He was such a positive fella and held in such high respect all over the place. There was just something very special about him the way he held himself. (I’m) very relieved for his family.”
Gerry Bourke is born and bred in Breaffy. He lives in the same house that his grandmother grew up in and where himself and his nine elder siblings were reared.
The chief steward in MacHale Park on match days, tomorrow’s Connacht showdown between Mayo and Galway had long been earmarked as a seismic start to the GAA summer.
As club chairman he has been immersed in the preparations for the ‘Breaffy OsKaRs’ fundraiser they were holding last night.
It’s a hectic time but there’s regular reminders about a lost son of their club. On Wednesday, Michael Gavin messaged him good wishes from Vancouver for a successful running of the fundraiser.
On Thursday he got a call from an 84-year-old Mayo fan in relation to access to the stadium tomorrow and yet the conversation started with an enquiry as to how the Gavin family were doing.
“It’s still there with a lot of people in Mayo. I don’t think it’ll affect the players, if anything it’ll affect them in a positive way. There’s a positivity now where there was a negativity last year. He’s not lost any more, he’s found.”
Declan Jennings is heading back home around lunchtime today, he’s planning to take the Breaffy U16 team for a training session this evening and then has one of the coveted match tickets for tomorrow. It’s been an odd couple of weeks but there’s still that sense of anticipation before a big Connacht championship game.
“We’re very proud of the lads that play for Mayo from our club. They’re immense lads and incredible men for the kids in Breaffy.
“And I know Gav was very proud of them as well. We’re very glad that they found him. We can put a bit of closure to it and bring him home.”
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