Joe Brolly's Never Under The Weather

Michael Nicholas on one of the GAA's most memorable characters

In the 1990s, Derry football produced one of the greatest characters in the history of the GAA. Joe Brolly is the son of well-known folk singers Francie and Anne Brolly, but it has been a different sort of entertainment he has provided over the years.

Dungiven Barrister Brolly reached the pinnacle of his career in the All-Ireland win of 1993 when Derry defeated Cork to claim the county’s first and only All-Ireland crown. Although 1993 ranks as his greatest achievement during his playing career, Joe had actually been dropped from the Derry panel at the start of the Ulster Championship that year.

Reinstated soon after, Eamon Coleman, Derry manger in 1993, recalls how Brolly repeated, ‘You’ve gotta play me, Croke Park’s my stage!’ in the weeks before the All-Ireland Semi-Final with Dublin.

Joe Brolly playing in a match against Armagh in 1991Coleman realised that Brolly’s nerve and confidence was best suited to the big occasion. And he was the vital cog that turned the Derry machine into action on its magnificent comeback, culminating in Johnny McGurk thumping over the winning point to propel the Oak Leaf County into the All-Ireland Final.

That afternoon almost every ball went into the right corner of the Derry attack and Brolly won every one of them. Without Brolly the Derry management, players, and supporters knew they would not have made it to an All-Ireland Final.

In his GAA days, the media adored Brolly. Holding court in the middle of the Derry dressing room after the semi final win over Dublin, he gave the assembled press an abundance of quotes. Brolly liked to joke around. Beating Dublin was ‘a great laugh, great craic, sure it doesn’t happen often!'

He also liked to perform. After scoring goals he used to run back with a beaming smile and arms flagging up and down, airplane-like.

The three-point-win in the final was the first time that Brolly’s shimmy had been seen on the national stage. He said afterwards that there was a touch of anti-climax, ‘because the semi-final was like a final and we really expected to win.’

On September 20, 1993, a mass of players and supporters clad in red and white left Dublin for their victory march to Derry. They were like a triumphant army returning with the spoils of war. On the steps of Drogheda Cathedral, they made their first stop.

After a presentation and a brief rendition of Back Home in Derry from Brolly, the bus rolled towards Dundalk for a similar stop. This time, the crowd covered the main square, and again the charismatic Brolly took to the microphone.

That week, euphoria gripped the city of Derry. The team made their way to Brolly’s hometown of Dungiven, and after he spoke for 20 minutes he was joined by his team-mates for a rousing chorus of The Town I Loved So Well and The Gem of the Roe, a song written by Brolly’s proud parents.

However, parties like this always have a touch of madness and irregularity about them and, once again, Brolly was responsible. As the day broke early next morning, somebody pointed out that he had disappeared. Hours later, Brolly phoned from Belfast, explaining that he had hitched a lift with some workmen traveling from Dungiven to the city, and that they were having a great time on a building site.

Brolly added a second Ulster Championship to his medal haul in 1998, in which he scored the winning goal in the last minute of the final. His All-Star recognition surprisingly came in the relatively barren years of 1996 and 1997.

In 1997, Brolly starred for Dungiven when he collected his second County Championship and they coasted to Ulster Club Championship glory. His hallmark kiss to the crowd didn’t always go down well with opposition supporters, but it was all part of being the entertainer that he is.

After his retirement from inter-county football, he joined RTE as a Gaelic Football analyst on The Sunday Game.

Pat Spillane, a fellow pundit, describes some of Brolly’s unpredictable analysis.

‘Anytime Tyrone could be embarrassed, Brolly would be the first to cheer. Sometimes he’s away with the fairies, and often in the middle of an analysis of a match he goes off on a tangent. I haven’t a clue what Brolly is going to say next.

'I would have prepared my contribution and had what I thought was a great joke ready when Brolly would butt in and say something nonsensical and burst out laughing, destroying my whole momentum.’

During his playing career Joe Brolly never surrendered to managers and wasn’t always complimentary to his team-mates. After a club game, a disconsolate new recruit to the team said, ‘I’ve never played so badly before.’ Brolly appeared surprised, ‘You mean you’ve played before?’

Joe Brolly continues to work as a barrister and plays club football with St Brigid's GAC in Belfast. He appreciates the immense rewards that his involvement in Gaelic Football has brought him.

‘Through the games you are instantly known. Think of the privileged life I’ve had due to the simple fact that I was good at kicking a ball about.’ 

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