A Good Friday story of fish and football
By Kevin Egan
For some, it’ll be out of religious observance, for others it’ll be because of a long-held habit, and for others it’ll be sheer coincidence. But whatever the reason, tonight will see fillets of mackerel, cod, hake, salmon and whatever you’re having yourself hit the pans of Ireland as huge numbers turn pescatarian for the day that’s in it.
It used to be the way that fish and the fishing industry wasn’t something that large swathes of Ireland thought of very often, aside from that single Friday in Springtime, but for certain pockets of the country, particularly out on the western frontiers, it’s a way of life.
However it is not known as a way of life that has traditionally co-existed easily with high level GAA. Killybegs and Donegal forward Manus Boyle is the most well-known exception to the rule, as a prodigious teenager who played senior, U-21 and minor for Donegal in the one year and went on to have a long career in green and gold colours, perhaps peaking when he kicked nine points and won the man of the match award in the 1992 All-Ireland final against Dublin.
Boyle didn’t spend his working life out on the waves, but he did build up a successful business supplying and maintaining equipment for those who do, so his approach to working life had to mirror those he served to a certain degree. He had no shortage of customers on his doorstep, but also worked with companies from all across the North Atlantic, growing his enterprise alongside his football career.
“It was incredibly busy, the 1990’s was the start of a huge period of growth for the fishing industry and you would regularly put in 50, 60, 70 hours in a week. It wasn’t uncommon to get up before 6am to get started early, to break for training in the evening with Donegal and then go back to work afterwards” he recalls.
“I had a very considerate girlfriend, who in time became a very considerate wife, who put up with a lot!
As a columnist with the Donegal Democrat and commentator with Ocean FM, while also continuing to coach in his home club, Boyle is very familiar with the evolution of the modern game and is convinced that intercounty football has moved past the point where someone could feasibly work in a sector like this and maintain an intercounty career.
“To be honest, it was always incredibly difficult” he says.
“I remember preparing for the Ulster Club final in 1991 (against Castleblayney Faughs), we had six members of the Killybegs panel who were working out on the boats, and because of the time of year and the need for some of them to be out there, the club management effectively had to take the decision which three out of the six players they would try and do without for the final, and which three they most needed to come back.
Team captain Denis Carberry, who had missed the club’s victories against Dungiven and Downpatrick, was one of the three who returned for the final, alongside David Meehan and Conor White. However the fairytale ending wasn’t to be as the Monaghan champions prevailed by 0-8 to 0-6.
“I see the local lads around that are part of the panel now, Eoghan Bán (Gallagher) and big Hugh McFadden, and they’re in incredible shape no matter what time of year you see them, and that only happens when you’re conscious of what you’re doing and looking after yourself around the clock. If the same requirements were in place 30 years ago, there’s not a hope you could do it, in this industry or in lots of others.
One of the key transformations in Boyle’s view is how joining an intercounty panel is no longer a commitment for a season, but that a longer-term view is necessary.
“When I was playing, lads moved in and out of the panel a lot more frequently, it wasn’t big news when someone stepped away. I didn’t kick a ball in 1989, it was a combination of trying to establish myself at work and giving a couple of injuries time to resolve themselves, and there was no big thing about it.
“Now I see the big counties taking players into the panel at 19 or 20 years of age, and the focus is player development all year round, to get them to a place over a few seasons, where they’re eventually ready for the really big occasion.
“It’s a very different type of commitment, and it certainly wouldn’t be compatible with going off out onto the Atlantic Ocean for long stretches of time!
Like the sport of gaelic football and the demands made of it, Boyle too has changed and evolved over time. A carpenter by trade, he continues to use those skills but has also earned qualifications in health and wellbeing, and most recently, mediation skills and techniques.
“That’s the nature of life, you won’t see anything stay the same over the course of 30 years. Society reboots itself, things are done differently.
“I chose to go back and learn and re-educate myself, and part of what I’m doing now is working with secondary school students as part of the ‘Going Well’ programme that was put in place by Pat Daly.
“Those changes sometimes happen unconsciously, you’d hope that Covid has given people the opportunity to question what is necessary and un-necessary, and indeed what is the GAA, what is our culture, and our community?
Food for thought, from a man who knows all about ‘brain food’ and the incredible effort required to put so much of it on our dinner plates this evening.