Updated: January 28th, 2023

Bernie Mullan: A Man For All Seasons

Members of Derry GAA and the national and local media gather to mark the birthday of Bernie Mullan.

Loved and respected throughout the GAA, Bernie Mullan celebrates his 80th birthday this month. To mark the occasion, we present a spectrum of reflections from Bernie’s colleagues in the local media and GAA circles.

Michael Wilson (Sports Editor, Derry Journal)

“I’ll ask Bernie.”

Three words every potential Derry GAA scribe is obliged to commit to memory upon his or her induction to the Oak Leaf club and county scene. Three little words that are the Derry GAA equivalent of a swiss army knife but which will provide their user will infinitely more solutions than the most quintessential of multi-tools. Believe me, as a County Down sporting emigrant, I’m speaking from experience.

Arriving at the Derry Journal more than 20 years ago, Bernie’s great friend, Seamus Mullan, and Mr Limavady Wolfhound himself, Chris McCann would have been my initial points of reference for all things Gaelic Games in those early days, and two better men for the job of babysitting a Down exile you’d be hard pushed to find. However I was also keenly aware of another sage like presence in the background.

In those pre-internet days, and on the rare occasion neither Seamus nor Chris was available, with me in danger of drowning under the weight of double checking which Derry player scored 1-03 in their 1998 Ulster Championship opener against Monaghan (it was Eamonn Burns by the way!), the name ‘Bernie’ was handed to me with all the confidence of a winning lottery ticket.

I remember hearing of him long before making the acquaintance and the first thing that struck me was the need for only one name. Now, anyone involved in any sport knows a singular named title is reserved only for those special few. Think Pele, Tiger and the likes. In GAA, the mononym is every rarer and only ever really utilised for surnames but here was a man requiring no more than the forename chosen by his parents to be recognised county wide.

The softly spoken titan in question was of course well worth his billing as over those ensuing 20 odd years Bernie has proved the most genial of of GAA encyclopedias. It’s not understating it to say many Derry reporters would have been lost without him, this one included.

Should it be St. Patrick’s, Waterside’s defeat of Rosemount’s Derry Hi

bernian team in the 1891 Derry senior hurling final or that famous 1993 All Ireland win, Bernie possesses the sort of knowledge that not even the vast expanses of the internet can rival. Go on try it, test it out. See if you can find the result of that same St. Patrick’s club’s July 1890 friendly against St. Patrick’s of Dublin online?

I know it because Bernie told me. Better still, he was able to tell me which Dublin hotel the now defunct city hurling team stayed in for the game!
It’s fair to say that Bernie’s appearance in the press box or stand of any fixture is a guarantee that should the onfield action not exactly stir the senses, then one of Bernie’s famous anecdotes will keep you entertained. In fact, my only gripe is I’m often listening to Bernie recounting another GAA tale when I should be watching the action! (Now you know where the many mistakes come from – It’s all Bernie’s fault!).

The positions he’s filled and roles he’s played for Derry GAA over the years are too many to mention. He is the epitome of what the GAA should and I feel privileged to have worked alongside someone I consider a legend of Derry and Ballerin Gaelic Games. However, I’m even more proud to call him a friend.

So, as another county season rolls into view, the big questions are; Will Derry achieve promotion? Can they retain Ulster? Who will win the All Ireland? How will the club season pan out. . . .

You know what, I’ll ask Bernie!

Dessie McCallion (BBC Foyle)

The GAA’s strength is in its roots – and there are few roots so well embedded in the Association than Bernie Mullans.

For too many years to mention, the Ballerin man has been an integral part of all that is good in Derry.

The sport is about community, it’s about club and it’s about county – and Bernie has epitomised all of that in a lifetime of dedication.

I first met Bernie back in the early 90s when he was the County PRO. My first memory was him asking me to leave a press area on the side of an open-sided lorry at the newly refurbished Celtic Park.

“This is for press only, you’ll have to stand down there,” he said to a sheepish, fresh faced young reporter as he clambered back down off the lorry and to use all of his 5’7” to try to watch the game.

I thought I’d mark his card at that time, but never got the opportunity as from that moment on, our relationship grew to friendship and respect.

I remember asking him and then chairman Harry Chivers back in early 1992, if there was any chance that myself and Derry Journal photographer Larry Doherty would be allowed to travel on the Derry team bus to a National League match. My view was nothing ventured, nothing gained and to my surprise we were allowed to travel. It was a generous offer and one which helped, as it allowed us to get to better know Eamon Coleman, Mickey Moran, many of the Derry panel, backroom staff and others.

The full extent of that trip came to the fore in the subsequent 18 months as we became know to many of the Derry team that won the Sam Maguire. Although in the background to many, the role Bernie played was significant. To many of the press around Ulster and much further afield, Bernie was the first point of contact, and aside from those togging out, Bernie was the face of Derry.

He has been honoured as PRO of the Year, but that only touches on the influence Bernie has had within the corridors of power.

Softly spoken, but ultra efficient at getting what he needs, Bernie’s role in the provision and development of Owenbeg cannot be under-estimated, and many of the facilities we see today can in many ways be attributed to his influence.

Other areas where he had big influence were behind the scenes, dealing with issues that needed sorting, regardless at what level, and sussing out and meeting with prospective new managers.

One such manager who had an enormous amount of respect for the Ballerin man was the late great Brian Mullins. I remember going to Carndonagh to meet the former Dublin midfielder and a half hour meeting turned into a four hour discussion, a great afternoon’s craic and during that lengthy conversation Mullins spoke of his great respect for two people in the whole Derry set-up that he had the utmost respect for – Brian McGilligan (who he felt was the best player he had managed in Derry colours) and Bernie Mullan.

I’ll finish with one of my favourite days in the company of Bernie – and there were quite a few good ones!

It was a Sunday when Dublin were in Ballybofey to play Donegal and Derry were in Killarney to take on Kerry, in Division One of the National Football League. Dublin and Derry chartered a plane between them – Dublin flew to Eglinton, Derry got on at Eglinton flew to Farranfore then travelled to Fitzgerald Stadium for the game before returning via Farranfore to Eglinton, and when they got back Dublin were waiting to board to return south. It was a great way to travel to the match, we left Derry at 10.30ish and we were back home for about 5.

Bernie and I spent most of that day together and it wasn’t until we were halfway back to Derry that we realised the brandy on the plane was free. We just looked at one another, shaking our heads, and agreed it was too late to make much of an impact on a bottle of Hennessy! Would’ve been fun trying to drive home from Eglinton, but I’m sure we’d have given it a go.

Since then Bernie has been a constant, a friend, a smiling face, a font of knowledge – but above all a decent man! I’m sure there are many who will pay Bernie greater tributes than I, but what I can say – in more 35 years of reporting sport, there are very few, if any, who have been better to deal with. It’s been a privilege to work with him.

Sean Bradley (Former Derry GAA Chairman and PRO)

Bernie.

Every County and every club have people who are universally known by their Christian name only (sometimes a nickname). These are folk who are universally respected and liked for their unique talents and abilities.
In Derry and Ulster generally, if you hear the phrase “ Bernie will handle that”, you know immediately who we are talking about.

Bernie Mullan has been involved in GAA affairs all his adult life, with both club and County. He has been a key member and official of Sarsfield’s Ballerin from his teens, and has been a key officer of Derry County Board through good times and bad.To say that he is unflappable would be an understatement. Whether in the boardroom or at the sideline, Bernie is coolness personified.

When you examine the developments both on and off the field of play that Bernie has been involved with, you begin to realise what an influence he has had on the GAA in Derry.

His own club have reached the pinnacle of an All Ireland Club Final (1976), and have recently opened a modern community facility, including two pitches, at their grounds. They play football (ladies and men), hurling, and camogie, and participate in Scór. Like a lot of rural areas, the club is at the heart of the community. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Bernie has been a guiding light in the affairs of Ballerin for 60 years.

At County level, Bernie has been central to the action for a similar amount of time. As Secretary and Chairman of the North Derry Board, he administered underage and adult football to ensure that Gaelic games flourished in the area. At County Board level, he took over as PRO in 1993 and used his skills and dedication to promote Derry at all levels. His sensible advice and cool summation of events are a necessary ingredient of many controversial decisions.

I have written most of this in the past tense, which of course is an error. Bernie will be present today, and at all significant events, as either a reporter for the local press, or in some official capacity. His role with Club Derry (the fund raising body for Derry GAA), had contributed greatly to the success of that essential body. The “big ticket” infrastructure projects of the last 50 years (Owen beg and Celtic Park), have flourished because of his involvement.

This brief accolade will give you a flavour of the hectic and successful career of Bernie in Derry GAA. Like all volunteers, he gives of his time and talents generously. This has been possible though the dedication and support of his family – his late wife Betty and daughters Brenda and Sinead and their families. Long may he continue to be what we all recognise as “Bernie”

Chris McCann (Former Derry PRO and Sportswriter)

From the moment I started reporting on Derry GAA, Bernie Mullan was a welcoming presence. I still remember the first GAA match I covered as a journalist. It was a National League Hurling game between Derry and Roscommon in March 1998. I was on placement at the Irish News sports desk from my training course at Derry tech and to say I was wet behind the ears, well that would be an understatement.

I nervously took my seat in the old wooden cabin perched on top of the Celtic Park Terrace not really sure of the correct etiquette, but Bernie immediately made me feel at my ease. Giving me tips on how I should lay out my notes and that the easiest way to record the scorers was by marking them off against the players names on the programme, and then walking me down to the changing rooms post game to get quotes from Derry boss Kevin McNaughton.

It might sound like pretty basic stuff but as student reporter trying desperately to not appear out of my depth, it immediately made me more comfortable. I know other reporters who have worked the Derry beat have found him similarly helpful. But that’s just what Bernie does, he puts people at their ease and helps them out if he can.

In the decade and a half that I covered Derry GAA as a journalist Bernie was always someone you could rely on. Need some historical background for a feature, I could ring Bernie, need a number for a player, manager or club official Bernie had them. Need details from a game that you’d missed for a round-up piece, Bernie would happily furnish me with the information I required.

In December 2008 I was made redundant from my role with the Derry Post. I was still covering games on a freelance basis, but money was tight. But I could always rely on Bernie for a lift to games saying me precious pounds on petrol. And sitting in Bernie’s motor on trips down the country, sometimes alongside Sean Bradley, was an education, the Ballerin scribe’s depth of knowledge of Derry GAA is immense. If you’re a car travelling to Celtic Park or Ballinascreen or further afield with Sean and Bernie, you have access to decades worth of Derry GAA history and anecdotes, I always emerged from those journeys a fair bit more knowledgeable.

Similarly, when I was county PRO Bernie was equally helpful – providing features and support in producing programmes or providing advice in dealing any tricky communications issues that might arise – if Bernie could be of assistance then he would be.

These days my now all too rare attendance at matches club or county games is purely in a spectating role but even as he’s taking his notes for the week’s GAA coverage in the Northern Constitution, Bernie always finds time for a chat, asking how we’re getting on in London.

Saturday will be one of those rare occasions that I make Derry National League game in person. I’ll be looking out for the Sarsfields man in his trademark flatcap for quick chat, and I know I’ll come away a word of two the wiser.

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