We all like someone good batting for us. Someone who can go out, without resort to a note or a rehearsed rote-learned speech. Who sounds lyrical but not flowery. Who speaks sense. Who preaches what is right. We all love it when our leaders are people who orate easily, who can melt hearts with their smiles and their personality, who can defuse the most tense of situations with an ability to bring sides together. Because when our leaders look and sound well, we think that we look and sound well. If these are the people who represent us, by extension, then we are all the better for having them lead us.
We like our pilots to sound confident and sure; we like our legal briefs to be foppyhaired and articulate; we even like our disgruntled footballers to sound like Keano; we want our presidents to sound like Mary Robinson, we want our words to be those of Michael D. And we want those who represent the past, the present and the future to sound like the late Joe McDonagh.
In Joe McDonagh, we had all that. When Joe went out to bat for the west, he returned always with handsome innings. He looked the part, he sounded the part, he was the part. He was mischievous, serious, emotional, determined and dignified.
I was so saddened when I heard on Friday night that he had passed away after a short illness borne with all the drive and positivity of the man that I had known for the past few decades since I entered this trade. He was a colleague of my wife, Bernadette, as they both set out 26 years ago to respectively build a news service and a sports service on the then fledgeling Radio West (now Galway Bay fm ). I loved the way he said “Abbey-Duniry,” I had never heard of Abbey-Duniry, but after hearing Joe say it, I wanted to go there and to see it. It sounded exotic.
When we think of Joe, our minds go to 1980 and the Hogan Stand, but perhaps his biggest oratorial contribution that week was on the Wednesday before when the team were dining at Athenry Mart and he started a speech along the line “we’re not coming back to Eyre Square next Monday night a beaten team.” And it started an emotion that made this talented team truly believe that they could do it. It was like a scene from that movie Brubaker when all the inmates followed in turn with their contributions of commitment. And believed. And that belief turned into a victory that today makes grown people cry.
And while he was a man of the utmost integrity, he was also one who loved a bit of gossip, a bit of craic. He would sit you down and ask you to fill him in on what you had heard about so and so. And he’d return the compliment.
I knew him too as the consummate host of the Galway Rose competition (which I judged on and off for a decade or more with the consequence that I can now spot a potential Rose of Tralee winner at at least 500 metres. At a time when Gay Byrne was the national host, it was always accepted that Joe could easily have stepped into his shoes and carried it off with as much aplomb. Joe was a master host, topped off by the fact that he could also serenade the winning Rose with the song itself.
If we were to hear at the start of this year that Galway would lose both Christy O’Connors and Joe McDonagh, we would not have believed it. These are all once in a generation men. To have three at any time bestows a wealth of riches on a county; to lose three in the space of a few months is heartbreaking and leaves a massive void in the pantheon of greats that this county has created.
In essence though, Joe McDonagh was someone you were proud to know, who you were proud to know was representing Galway and the west very well at the top table. And also because you knew that he was one of the good guys. His innate commonsense, his ability to orate, and his desire for progression giving us a GAA today that is still light years away from the one he first entered.
Joe’s legacy is felt right across the county. Every September, our hurlers strive to mirror the moment that he created in 1980; there is a greater respect between the varying games in this country because of the steps Joe took to break down barriers, to ensure that sporting lives mirrored the changing times, the greater tolerance, the peace process, the new Ireland.
And then in more recent times, the work that Joe did contributed to situations where thousands and thousands of Galway children are getting a great education and a foothold on the ladder to success. I know of one situation when Joe saved an entire school in the past few years — a school that will benefit and create and nurture an interest in the wonders of things that he shared, such as the love of the language and its ability to move people. He did that because he believed in doing what was right. That was Joe. Always doing the right thing.
He was a man you don’t meet every day. A man who made a major difference to how Galway, Ireland, and the GAA saw itself. A man who loved the Irish language and whose ease with it contributed to the campaign to have it reenergised.
Sixty-three is a short life relatively, but Joe McDonagh fitted 126 years into those 63. The greatest tribute we can pay him now is to replicate his ideals, to become like him, to find new people who can be the next Joe McDonaghs, to go forward to make a difference. Our thanks go out to his wife Peig and family for sharing him with us. They will miss him terribly. Farewell, Joe.
Ní chuile lá a chasfaí a leithéid ort. D’imir sé tionchar ollmhór ar an gcaoi ar shamhlaigh Gaillimh, Éirinn agus CLG iad féin. Fear a léirigh cion a chroí don Ghaeilge agus chuir an sampla a thug sé go mór leis an bhfeachtas chun an Ghaeilge a athbheochan.
Is saol réasúnta gairid é 63 bliain, ach d’éirigh le Seosamh Mac Donnchadha saothar 126 bliain a bhrú isteach sna 63 bliain sin. Is é an bealach is feiliúnaí le cuimhne a choinneáil air anois ná aithris a dhéanamh ar na tuairimí láidre a bhí aige, iarracht a dhéanamh sampla a thógáil uaidh, agus daoine nua a aimsiú a bheas in ann leanúint i gcoiscéimeanna Sheosaimh Mhic Dhonnchadha agus a thiocfaidh chun tairbhe don saol mór amach anseo. Gabhaimid buíochas lena bhean Peig agus lena theaghlach as ucht é a roinnt linn. Aireoidh siad go mór uathu é. Céad slán leat, a Sheosaimh.”