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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 3 June, 2020
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'I was at home before Paddy was in the graveyard' - paying respects to GAA heroes in era of Covid-19

Offaly legend Paddy Fenning was laid to rest in Tullamore this week, where strict social distancing measures took place.

Members of the public and Tullamore GAA adhere to social distancing as the hearse carrying former Offaly footballer and community man Paddy Fenning passes by.
Members of the public and Tullamore GAA adhere to social distancing as the hearse carrying former Offaly footballer and community man Paddy Fenning passes by.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WHEN MARTIN FURLONG flew home from New York to officially open the new state-of-the-art gym in Tullamore GAA club in February, he knew in his heart it was going to be the last time he saw his close friend and longtime team-mate Paddy Fenning.

Furlong and Fenning are the only two All-Ireland senior football medallists from Tullamore. Both were part of Offaly’s 1971 and ’72 victories, while Furlong won his third medal in 1982. 

On the night the gym was opened, Furlong was presented with a framed picture of himself and Fenning from the team photograph taken before the 1972 All-Ireland final replay.

Furlong kept a clean sheet between the posts that afternoon and Fenning scored a famous goal from 50 yards to help Offaly past Kerry in Croke Park. 

Tullamore chairman Tom Martin also presented Furlong with a second copy of the framed picture and asked him to deliver it to Fenning at his home on the Clara Road before he returned Stateside.

“The club invited Martin Furlong back for the gym opening, he’s a football legend really,” Tom Martin told The42

Furlong had already been home earlier in the year to support the launch of Fenning’s fundraising drive to raise money for motor neurone research and local homeless charities.

“He came at the last minute, which was brilliant,” continued the club chairman. “I just said the club had to give Martin Furlong something, and we didn’t want to give him a lump of crystal or money or anything like that. 

“We gave a presentation of flowers to his wife Katie. I went into Joe O’Sullivan (local photographer) and he picked up the photographs of the 71/72 teams. And he put in the words ‘Furlong and Fenning’. It was just a memento.

“I gave Martin Furlong it as a present on the night but I also had a second one.”

Furlong was clearly moved by the request. He had visited Fenning earlier in the day and knew his friend’s condition was quickly deteriorating. 

He was very emotional about it. 

“It was more appropriate for Martin to give it to him. I said, ‘Would you mind going back out before you go back to New York on Wednesday and present him with the memento?’ I knew this man wasn’t going to last long.” 

Furlong delivered the picture to his old friend before returning to his New York base.

“Martin Furlong was so chuffed to take another copy of the frame and bring it out to him. 

“Paddy and Furlong were fierce great friends. And he (Furlong) was fierce emotional that night at the gym opening, he was really upset. Because he knew he was going downhill fast.” 

1583162537419.jpg--legendary_offaly_all_ireland_winners_reunited_for_special_presentation Martin Furlong and Paddy Fenning reunited for a special presentation. Source: Tullamore GAA

The 69-year-old was an immensely popular figure. His achievements in life extended far beyond the football field, where in addition to his two All-Irelands he won four Leinster titles, a Railway Cup with Leinster and a pair of Offaly SFC titles with Tullamore.  

The real measure of the man was seen in his contribution to the community of Tullamore. He selflessly drove countless projects, helping raise money to build a swimming pool, an arts centre for the town which will open shortly and €200,000 to provide a CAT scan in Tullamore hospital in the 1990s. 

He was involved in many events for charitable causes over the years. He set-up a fundraiser for Clara man Michael Nestor who was disabled following a work accident in the 1990s, and a golf classic for former Offaly team-mate Mick Wright who successfully fought leukaemia in the 2000s after getting a special transplant in Spain.

His impact on the Tullamore club was significant too, where he served as underage coach and president. 

“He did an awful lot for the club,” said Martin. “He was involved as an underage player, as an adult player where we won championships in ’73 and ’77. He trained underage teams, he took the minors and U21s, and he fundraised to clear the debt on the development of O’Brien Park.”

He also organised many club reunions and annual holidays with his former Offaly team-mates. 

“Paddy was a mighty organiser for trips away, golf trips, nearly every trip we ever did Paddy organised it,” says Sean Lowry, who was part of the ’71/72 teams.

Martin adds, “He organised the famous club trip to America in 1985 and fundraised for that. That was a big thing. They met Ted Kennedy and travelled to America with all the club members.

“That was a huge thing. There’s a great photograph of them with Ted Kennedy in Washington.” 

offaly-team-1971-j4050 The Offaly football team before the 1971 All-Ireland final. Source: Connolly Collection/SPORTSFILE

Even when he contracted motor neuron disease, which has no cure, Fenning put together a local group with the stated aim of raising €150,000 to fund research and services for the illness, in addition to homeless causes in Offaly.

In the final week of his life he was heartened to hear that over €50,000 had already been raised for the cause. A walk planned for 7 June was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it will go ahead at a later date.

Last week, Fenning lost his battle with MND less than a year after his diagnosis.

In normal cirucumstances his funeral would have easily filled the local church, but social distancing measures meant only close family could attend.

The new reality brought about by Covid-19 means clubs and counties are forced to find new ways to pay their respects to fallen heroes.

When former Roscommon footballer Conor Connelly died in March, fans confined to their homes in his native county and adopted village of Ballycumber in Offaly displayed flags of primose and blue outside their houses to show their solidarity with his family.

Down’s 1968 All-Ireland winner John Murphy was laid to rest yesterday. On the way to his grave, the funeral cortege poignantly stopped at Pairc Esler for a short tribute to his dedication to Newry Shamrocks and Down GAA.

Tullamore GAA made arrangements so former team-mates, clubmates and friends could pay their respects to Fenning. It was strictly a local affair due to the travel restrictions in place, but huge numbers turned out.

Two guards of honour took place on his final journey, one that walked either side of the hearse and a stationary guard of honour on both sides of the road that ran right through the town. 

On one side of the funeral cortege were his team-mates from 1971/’72 Offaly All-Ireland winning sides.

“We had blazers that we got on our 25th anniversary (of the ’71 victory), which is a good while ago now in ’96,” said Lowry. “Paddy of course organised them so we all had the blazers. It’s a funeral jacket no more than anything else.” 

On the other side were former colleagues and members of Tullamore GAA club who wore blue and white armbands.

members-of-the-public-adhere-to-social-distancing-as-the-hearse-carrying-paddy-fenning-passes-by Paddy Fenning on his final journey. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The two Tullamore team captains from ’73/77 led the moving guard of honour and the stationary guard of honour was the whole way up the town,” explained Martin.

“We organised contacting people in our club, we didn’t want to let it out to the wider town because funerals are totally different now than before.

“There was only 10 in the church, it was a family thing. We did a lovely blue and white flower arrangement from the club. 

“We walked to the cemetery and stopped at the gates,” continued Martin, who was the same age as Fenning and knew him since they were young.

“The people from the Arts Centre, who Paddy was involved with, and the people from the (MND) fundraiser he was doing, they all came out and did the same thing up High Street.

“So there was a line the whole way up to the top of the town on both sides. They were all social distancing. 

“Then we did the static guard of honour from the church gates as far as the numbers would come up the town.” 

It was a strange experience for Lowry, who didn’t get to catch up with any of his former team-mates or even enter the graveyard. 

“There were hundreds of people I didn’t see because everyone was so far spaced out around the town that I didn’t see them,” he says. “I just walked into my space and tried to keep away from everyone.

“Then when it was over I just walked out and went home. I was at home before Paddy was in the graveyard. Which was very strange because you meet all these guys and you’d go for a coffee or whatever.

“You can’t do that now it’s just strange times. Very, very strange times.”

******

You can donate to Paddy Fenning’s fundraiser in aid of MND research and Offaly homeless causes here.

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Kevin O'Brien

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