Written by Dermot McPeake

The last man to let you down

The last man to let you down by Dermot McPeake

“Let me tell you ’bout the cherry trees
Every April in our town
They put on the most outrageous clothes
And they sing and they dance around”
Dance of the Cherry Trees ~ John Spillane

—–

Next month marks five years since the passing of a man who was always there.

Joe Gormley served the people of his community through all stages of their lives. He served on boards governing hospitals, schools and local business groups. He also served drinks across the counter of one of south Derry’s first lounge bars.

The Hideout – situated near the family home – became a local landmark and an integral part of life in Maghera town. Ireland is a country famed for its oral tradition and the tall tales emanating from the establishment still stretch out into neighbouring parishes and entertain the generations many years later.

Married to Bridie Mullan with whom he had four sons; Bernard, Donal, Michael and Enda, Joe Gormley’s devotion to his family was matched only by his loyalty to his employees and acquaintances.

“If he had your back, it was for life,” said one. “It worked the other way too, of course. But you couldn’t get a better friend than Joe.”

Joe and Bridie Gormley with son Enda following an Ulster minor victory for Glen

The Leitrim writer John McGahern once wrote: “the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.”

It’s a line which is reminiscent of Joe Gormley – a man who brought calm to where it was most needed. With dignity, insight, wit and intelligence, his work in that most serious of professions –  as an undertaker – was quietly profound. His good grace will always be recalled by the many hundreds of families that he attended.

Joe was the fourth generation running the family business, which was established in 1841 and still serves the people of Maghera now, into a fifth.

Farming and the family business occupied his younger years in Desertmartin. And of course The GAA, to which he had a lifelong tie. As a boy of just 17 years alongside his brother Pat, the genius of Patsy Breen and the steel and skill of the Fullens, Joe Gormley played left back on the miraculous St Martin’s championship winning team of 1953 – to date their single senior title.

Desertmartin, Derry SFC Champions 1953. Joe Gormley is stood front row, extreme left.

Defeating Ballerin in the county final, and a star studded Newbridge team in the south Derry final, propelled Gormley on to the county scene where he represented Derry through the mid to late 50s.

A photo taken before the county final of 1959 reveals how the boy of 17 had turned into a man. His arms are bulging, built not from bicep curls but kegs and coffins. He was ‘rock hard’ according to a veteran local GAA reporter:

“In the days when the goalkeeper usually gave over responsibility for the kickouts to a defender, Joe’s delivery was remarkable.

“He didn’t like it being referred to as a toe poke, but by God it was effective! He was a rock hard defender whose loyalty to Derry GAA lasted his entire life. There was also many a Derry team ‘selected’ at the Hideout bar.’

Like the rest of the county Joe Gormley took tremendous pride in the accomplishments of the men of ’93. The connections ran deep.

“At the start of ’92 we had no brand on our jersey,” said Henry Downey at a recent Club Derry evening at Seamus Heaney HomePlace. “All the sponsorship and structures available now just weren’t there back then. Pat Gormley and Sperrin Metal changed all that.”

Without Enda Gormley there would have been no Sam Maguire in Maghera that Monday night in September 1993.

A deadeye ball striker – a craft honed through endless hours of practice – his six points in the All-Ireland final were among twenty-five he scored that summer and included one of the finest left foot efforts the Hogan Stand has ever seen – the ball curling majestically left to right before dropping over the crossbar.

Not that Joe would have accepted such wholesome praise as one jubilant fan recalls.

“I met Joe after the game on Jones’ Road. Everyone was delighted of course. I remarked how well Enda had played. He was super and he let (Niall) Cahalane know about it after that score. Joe thought about that for a second and eventually agreed, before adding, ‘but he needed that slap after those first ten minutes.’

Joy flowed through the streets of Maghera. The Hideout was bursting at the seams as the victorious homecoming bus inched past and people spilled out onto the already jammed streets. “It was black! Black with people. It was un-believable” recalled Tony Scullion – an interview which is now regularly rolled out on social media.

Over the next few weeks due to the situation with COVID-19, the same route into Maghera will be quiet. With pubs and shops shut, walkers scarce and casual on-lookers non-existent, one thing will remain in nature’s annual cycle of life.

Undeterred, the pink cherry blossoms which frame Joe Gormley’s bar and home place will prise open, brightening the world in a quietly resolute way. Like the man himself.

Cherry Blossoms in Maghera

Margaret McLaughlin

“Cherry Blossom in the air
Cherry Blossom on the street
Cherry Blossom in your hair
And a Blossom at your feet
You know we’ve travelled all around the Sun
You know it’s taken us one whole year
Well done everyone, Well Done
On behalf of me and the Cherry Trees, Well Done!”

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