How tragedy and underage success is driving one Birmingham GAA club’s return to former glories
By Damian Dolan
Last year was a monumental one for St Brendan’s – for reasons of tragedy and triumph in equal measure.
Founded in 1958, the Birmingham club toasted success on the pitch at underage, undertook a landmark trip to Boston before signing off the year with a gala dinner to celebrate its 60th Anniversary.
But it was also a year in which it lost one of its most popular and instrumental members, Adrian McGee. Son of one the club’s founder, Walter McGee, Adrian was just 51 when he passed away suddenly in June.
It was a loss which hit the club, and the Warwickshire GAA community at large, very hard.
But from that has come a determination to continue Adrian’s work at underage – he was U15 mentor, children’s officer and played a key figure behind the club’s Boston adventure.
Club chairperson Des Brennan played alongside Adrian for St Brendan’s junior team in the 1980s. He’s committed to ensuring Adrian’s legacy lives on.
“He was a great ambassador for the club – he was a gentleman,” Brennan told the Irish World. “He would have been the club’s next chairperson.
“It was just so tragic; everyone was just stunned and in a state of shock. It was a very hard pill to swallow.
“There were young lads – teenagers of 17 – crying when he died. He was so well-liked.
“I’m sure his name will be mentioned in the future when it comes to playing in major games, as an incentive for everyone to do well.”
Just days after Adrian was laid to rest, the club’s U17s won the All-Britain Championship (ABC) on an emotional day at Greenford. Captained by Sean Doyle, and under the guidance of Finbar Geraghty, Owen McGettrick and Moss Hartnett, they dedicated the win to Adrian.
And so from that tragedy has come a steely resolve to keep driving the club on, particularly at underage, and get St Brendan’s back to where it wants to be, winning senior championships again.
And that may not be too far away. It’s 22 years since the club won the last of its seven senior Warwickshire titles, but its investment in youth may be close to coming to fruition.
Promoted back to Warwickshire’s senior ranks in 2016, after a 12-year hiatus, the club has twice staved off relegation.
Hopes are high, though, that its underage, spearheaded by the club’s U17 side, which added a league and championship double in Warwickshire to its ABC success, will bring back the halcyon days of the 80s and 90s, and one day challenge the supremacy of Sean McDermotts.
The team also reached the semi-finals at the GAA Continental Youth Championships (CYC) in Boston in the summer. Their U15 counterparts also made it to the last four, with both losing out narrowly.
“In my opinion this current crop are the best we’ve ever had – they’ve dominated Warwickshire and did well in America. Big things are expected of this team,” says Brenan.
“We’ve managed to keep our head above water – senior manager Darren McGovern from Co Leitrim is doing a really good job – and we’re just hoping that some of these young lads will come through and that we will reap the benefits.”
He stops short, not wanting to be the “kiss of death” on the players or place too much expectation on their young shoulders, but there is undeniably a yearning to celebrate another senior title, and see this group of young players transfer their obvious ability to the adult game.
“The future looks promising,” he adds.
Warwickshire senior champions in 1977, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1992, 1993 and 1996, the club’s three senior titles of the 90s were back-boned by its underage stars of the previous decade.
But underage “died a death” at the club thereafter, until it was revived in 2000 by Mick Quigley.
“He started it by himself and gradually it picked up. We’ve just gone from strength-to-strength…..it’s doing brilliantly at the moment and long may it continue,” said Brennan.
From U7 to U17, St Brendan’s has established a reputation as a leading club in Britain at underage. Last year they added a girls U12 team – the club’s first to be affiliated to Warwickshire GAA.
Not far behind the U17s, the club’s U13 side also did ‘the double’ last year, as well as reaching their final at the ABC. There was also Shield success for the U11s while the U9s took part of the first time. The future is indeed bright.
The club’s founding members were Michael Sugrue (Kerry), Eddie O’Sullivan (Kerry), Walter McGee (Co Mayo), Paddy Fogarty (Kerry) and Eamonn Flanagan (Roscommon).
At the club’s inaugural meeting on 1 November 1958 at The Station pub in Kings Heath, it was the three Kerrymen who came up with the club’s name, St Brendan’s. Not surprisingly it was Walter Magee who picked its green and red playing colours.
Flanagan was made the club’s first chairman, Fogarty assistant secretary, O’Sullivan treasurer and Magee a selector. Sugrue was appointed secretary.
From Waterville in Co Kerry, Brennan credits Sugrue as being the club’s “most important individual”. He also served as chairperson as well as managing the team.
“He did everything; he was the driving force behind St Brendan’s through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. He was a lovely man,” said Brennan.
The club began competing in 1959 in the Warwickshire league and junior championship, and immediately “raised a few eyebrows” with the signing of ‘The Iron Man from Rhode’, Paddy McCormack.
An Offaly legend, for over a decade McCormack was ever present in the Offaly full-back line winning five Leinster titles and two All-Ireland medals.
But not before a spell with St Brendan’s. Just a week after Offaly’s defeat to Down in the 1961 All-Ireland final, McCormack arrived in Birmingham, and soon enough Michael Sugrue had him togging out for the Brendan’s.
The following year he helped the club to its first success, a junior title. The fledging club from the King’s Heath area of Birmingham was on its way.
“He went back to Ireland and played in the 1969 defeat to Kerry, before winning the All-Ireland in 1971 and 1972,” said Brennan.
“He was a famous celebrity in Co Offaly and would be our claim to fame, although he wasn’t with St Brendan’s for a long time.”
Mayoman Frank Kelly was one of club’s outstanding player of the 1970s. A midfielder, he was a Ballaghadreen “club legend” and was Player of Britain in 1976 and included in the Warwickshire Team of the Millennium in 2000.
“He was arguably one of the best players to ever play for St Brendan’s. He was a brilliant player,” said Brennan.
The 1980s was undoubtedly the club’s golden era. Led by the likes of Tommy Tolan (Mayo) in midfield and Pauric Moran (Galway), Brendan’s were Warwickshire champions in 1983, 1985 and 1986.
They lost out in the 1982 final to a last-minute Sean McDermotts goal, to go down by two points. They were also runners up in 1984 to a combination side – O’Rahillys of Rugby and Sons of Erin from Northampton – in a game Brendan’s “should have won by a landslide”.
“Tommy and Pauric were two outstanding players – we should have won more than three senior championships in the 80s,” laments Brennan.
Brennan recalls the senior team being so good when he arrived at the club in early 80s that “you just couldn’t get into it”.
Instead, he cuts his teeth in the junior team alongside Con Cunningham, who played in the club’s first four senior championship triumphs.
In his third year as chairperson, it was from Cunningham that he took over the reins, having “served his apprenticeship” under him for ten years as vice chair.
From Co Galway, Cunningham’s involvement with the club spans more than 50 years and his contribution was acknowledged at last year’s 60th Anniversary Dinner with the Clubman Award for 2018. He’s now vice chair.
Twice the club reached the All-Britain final. In 1983 they lost out to Tir Chonaill Gaels.
Played at Ruislip, Brendan’s only lost by 1-10 to 1-5. No mean feat given one of their best players, Frank Geraghty, missed the coach on the way down. While they were also without their goalkeeper.
They ‘won’ it in 1994, beating Manchester’s Oisin’s in the final by three points (2-7 to 1-7), only to be stripped of the title for fielding an ineligible player, centre half back Michael Rouse.
According to the Irish World’s coverage of the story at the time, provincial council upheld Oisin’s objection that Rouse ‘had played in the Tyrone county championship with Na Fianna earlier in the summer’.
“We objected, but provincial council stood by its original decision,” recalls Brennan.
To add insult to injury, seven days after being ‘crowned’ British champions, Brendan’s were beaten by Erin Go Bragh in the Warwickshire senior final replay.
A reliance on an “ageing team” and the lack of an underage structure saw the club slip into a gradual “decline”, culminating in relegation from senior in 2004. But back at the top table, hopes are growing for a resurgence.
In its first 60 years, St Brendan’s contribution to Warwickshire GAA has been “huge” says Brennan. The next 60 could be just as significant, and just as good.