“He said I couldn’t play with a Plaster of Paris on my broken arm. So, before the throw-in, I went over to the van where I had a small angle grinder and I cut the plaster off. In fairness, the referee was probably right.”
Noel McFeely has never lacked courage. He played that championship game against Ardmore as he has lived his life: fearlessly, selflessly and with total devotion to the people of the Foreglen.
From the four-and-half-mile bus journey he took as a fourteen-year-old boy to Claudy Green to watch his idol Foncey O’Kane play for the O’Brien’s, to listening attentively on Sunday mornings at club meetings under the eaves of George McCormick’s thatched roof, McFeely comes from a people and an area where memories run long and deep into the heart of the 1800s, when Gaelic games were first recorded in Derry.
“In Foreglen, it’s born and bred into you. And you do what you can for the club and the people,” he says.
The club’s youth officer for a fifteen year period, McFeely has held every position bar treasurer. He has won Derry Football Championships as team captain (IFC, 1985), manager (JFC, 1990) and chairman (IFC, 2013).
Born in 1954 in a family of thirteen (seven boys and six girls), McFeely represented Derry at all age grades of football. “I was on the fringes of the Derry senior team in the mid-eighties” he says. “I was always strong and fit but I was getting on in years. Time kind of ran out on that.”
Football-wise, it was witnessing the magic of a Cavan man ‘at Jim Brolly’s field’ in the late sixties that captured his imagination of what was possible.
Charlie Gallagher – the subject of one of the best Irish sports books of 2019 by Paul Fitzpatrick – has been described as ‘the George Best of Gaelic Football’.
“He was a dentist in Derry,” explains McFeely. Having worked in the Clarendon Street practice for another Cavan great, Barney Cully, full-back during the 40s, Gallagher was still playing with the Breffni County when he agreed to assist the men of Foreglen prepare for the championship of 1969.
A fifteen-year-old Noel McFeely couldn’t pass up on the chance to soak up the experience.
“Charlie Gallagher was a master,” he recalls. “Training in those days was kicking in and out and who could catch it the best. Fairly basic. But Gallagher was all about speed. He was like lightening himself!”
In Fitzpatrick’s account, Cavan’s Frankie Kennedy recalled a conversation with Gallagher which backs up what the teenage McFeely had witnessed. Asked why he would not engage in long runs during training sessions, rather preferring sprints, Gallagher responded: “if I don’t get the ball in the first five yards, I won’t get it. But I f**king will get it.”
“We had only one man who could keep up with Charlie; Philip McLaughin, our corner back,” says McFeely.
“Having Charlie Gallagher involved at that time was like bringing in Mick O’Dwyer. Our players loved him and he changed the way we saw the game to be honest. The man won an Ulster championship with Cavan that year and apart from that point that never was in ’97 they haven’t won one since.”
A joke with a jag but a case in point, that as well as a lifetime of service to the O’Brien’s club, McFeely’s thoughts are never far from the fortunes of Derry teams. Along with his brothers Tom and Derek, they collectively sponsor the current Intermediate Football Championship.
“During my time as youth officer, I took our young players to watch Derry all over the country. I even flew our U16s to Catalonia to experience games and life out there. The lads all helped pay their own way, raising funds and all that.
“I’m a great believer in discipline, especially with our young people. I’m not saying mine was all that good years ago but when you get older, you get more astute and see things differently. I emphasise that now throughout the club as I think it’s very important.”
Noel McFeely clearly cares deeply about the development of young people. It’s possibly one of the reasons he got the call from Niall Conway to assist with the Derry minor football team in 2007.
“I didn’t say yes right away,” he explains. “But it didn’t take me long and I couldn’t refuse after talking it over with my family. You want to do it for Derry.”
An Ulster final disappointment and another point that never was against Tyrone momentarily halted the team’s progress but with the safety of a back door the management of Niall Conway, Killian Conlan, Noel McFeely and Michael McMullan soon had the young Oaks back on the road, a road that took them all the way to the All-Ireland minor final of 2007.
“I look back on that year as amongst the best times of my life. The three fellas along with us were unbelievable. The final was obviously a massive disappointment but it was mixed emotions too.
“My son Ciarán had been through a lot. He was badly burned when he was ten and was lucky to survive. He came on in that final ten minutes. We were leading with a few minutes to go and Galway got a goal. Ciarán got a score back and it just cleared the crossbar. Had it been a goal he’d have been a hero but we lost by a point. It was disappointing but I was glad for him at the same time. It was one of the best parts of my Gaelic life.”
Along with Ciarán, Noel’s sons Eunan, Ruairí and Odhran have all represented the O’Briens at adult level. Like the construction of the new A6 dual carriageway which will overhang the superb facilities at the club, progress and life forges on through generations.
“We have worked hard in the past few years to consolidate the position of the club,” he says. “It’s only when you come up against obstacles that you know you’ve got a good community, when everyone rows in.
“We’re fairly well on with a new health track around the existing pitch,” reveals McFeely about recent club developments. “It will be tarmacked with lights and a safe space and walkway for the entire community. With the help of the roads people we are progressing with a new artificial pitch as well.”
Whatever happens in the 2019 Intermediate Ulster campaign, Gaelic life in the Foreglen will go on thanks to people like Noel McFeely. Since the 1840s, wars, famine, political and economic strife have not stopped them. The plaster cast never stood a chance.