‘Sport can be a great com­fort . . .’

Twenty years on from Omagh bomb and one fam­ily still ap­pre­ci­ates golf’s gen­er­ous re­sponse

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - DER­MOT GILLEECE

TRUST­ING the pas­sage of time to have eased the ter­ri­ble hurt, I spoke last week with Lind­say Hall about the Omagh bomb. It is 20 years since we met at Port­marnock Links, where golfers from all over th­ese is­lands, and fur­ther afield, came to­gether in sol­i­dar­ity with those af­fected by the out­rage.

For the Hall fam­ily, Satur­day, Au­gust 15, 1998 be­came a day for tidy­ing up some loose ends for their youngest son, Alastair, as the sum­mer hol­i­days drew to a close. “His mother took him into town to get a pair of trousers for back to school,” the fa­ther re­called. There was a pause.

“She sus­tained a frac­tured skull and com­pound leg frac­tures,” he went on. “In fact, she got the hear­ing back in her right ear only about six months ago from new tech­nol­ogy that’s come out. Alastair lost his right leg.”

Ac­cep­tance has come to re­place the raw emo­tion of a dread­ful time when a dev­as­tated fa­ther could ut­ter only the plain­tive plea: “He was just a boy. How can they do this? He loved play­ing rugby, but he was only 12, for God’s sake. I am 57. Why didn’t it hap­pen to me?”

The idea for the Port­marnock gath­er­ing came to Dun­gan­non na­tive Dar­ren Clarke dur­ing the Smur­fit Euro­pean Open at The K Club in late Au­gust. “I sup­pose it was prompted by the fact that on the day of the bomb, Heather [his wife, who died of cancer in Au­gust 2006], brought our son, Ty­rone, home from hos­pi­tal,” said Clarke at the time.

“The re­sponse has been won­der­ful. Apart from the 27 teams who played, we had 29 wait­ing in the wings for the chance to play. I re­alise that money is not go­ing to bring back those loved ones who have gone, but I hope it can help the sur­vivors in some small way.”

He was right. As Hall put it: “It helped peo­ple. Made life a bit eas­ier.”

The event took place on Mon­day, Septem­ber 14, the day af­ter the All-Ire­land hurl­ing fi­nal in which Of­faly beat Kilkenny. Hav­ing scored an un­avail­ing 0-5, DJ Carey en­dured the phys­i­cal dis­com­fort of bro­ken toes in­flicted by a ri­val. But he still turned up for this spe­cial golf­ing day.

Des Smyth sat be­side him in the locker-room where they changed into their golf shoes. “As DJ strug­gled to get a sock off, I could see that his foot was in a ter­ri­ble state,” said Smyth. “And I can re­mem­ber say­ing to him, ‘Do you think you should be play­ing to­day?’ I’ll never for­get his re­ply — ‘Aw Je­sus, Des, you couldn’t let Dar­ren down on a day like this.’ Which left me with a new re­spect for the tough­ness of Kilkenny sports­men. DJ was de­ter­mined to hon­our a com­mit­ment, what­ever the cir­cum­stances.”

Carey’s re­ac­tion was typ­i­cal of the tremen­dously up­lift­ing at­mos­phere I re­mem­ber around the Links club­house that day. Like the fact that a pri­vate whiparound among the staff of the ad­join­ing ho­tel re­alised £4,000 for the fund. Then there was a per­son­alised golf bag which ar­rived from Ernie Els, in­clud­ing balls, vi­sors and gloves au­to­graphed by Els, Mark O’Meara and Nick Price. And Aus­tralia’s Stu­art Ap­pleby saw fit to make a con­tri­bu­tion, only a short time af­ter his young wife was killed in a car ac­ci­dent.

Europe’s num­ber one, Colin Mont­gomerie, was among the play­ing pro­fes­sion­als to re­spond to the call, di­rect from his win in the Bri­tish Masters. And he brought with him a print of a Keith Fearon paint­ing of him­self and Scott Hoch at the Ry­der Cup at Valder­rama 12 months pre­vi­ously, which was auc­tioned for £2,000.

Jose-Maria Olaz­a­bal, whose roots in the Basque re­gion of Spain would have made him sadly fa­mil­iar with ter­ror­ism, was there to hon­our the Span­ish dead of Omagh. Ian Woos­nam was also there, to show sol­i­dar­ity with his Ir­ish col­league.

Clarke’s ini­tial tar­get was a mod­est £40,000 but the fi­nal fig­ure of £348,000 re­flected the won­der of sports­peo­ple pulling to­gether in a com­mon cause. Though Aer Lin­gus didn’t want it men­tioned, they gave free flights to vis­it­ing pro­fes­sion­als.

Later in the day, as the shot­gun start cul­mi­nated in some of Europe’s lead­ing play­ers stream­ing in from the course, there were ap­pre­cia­tive looks from Hall and from an­other Omagh res­i­dent, Sammy Jame­son, who spoke of the pain the bomb had in­flicted on his nephew and sis­ter-in-law. “Omagh is a good town and it’s the feel­ing of sol­i­dar­ity that’s so im­por­tant,” said Jame­son, who died 12 years ago.

Mean­while, Hall noted that the broad sweep of the sport­ing re­sponse in­cluded Ed­die Jor­dan and former For­mula One world cham­pion, Da­mon Hill, who went from Port­marnock to the Alt­nagelvin Hos­pi­tal in Derry, to visit Hall’s son.

And he talked of the sup­port from the world of rugby. “I got a beau­ti­ful let­ter from Tony Ward,” he said back then, “which I read three or four times ev­ery day.”

Brian Mel­lon, the cur­rent pres­i­dent of Omagh GC, re­called how the words of Longfel­low — “There is no grief like the grief which does not speak” — in­spired his club to or­gan­ise their own event that au­tumn, so that “ac­tion might help lessen de­spair.” So it was that £150,000 was raised in a golf clas­sic on Oc­to­ber 10 and 11, when a spe­cial limited edi­tion plate do­nated by Beleek Pot­tery was pre­sented to each of the 92 com­pet­ing teams.

A re­tired bank man­ager, Hall en­joyed golf as a mem­ber of New­town­stew­art GC un­til three years ago. That was when a torn Achilles ten­don, ac­com­pa­nied by a di­ag­no­sis of Parkinson’s dis­ease, caused him to pack the clubs away.

“I couldn’t get about,” he ex­plained, be­fore adding al­most offhand­edly, “I’m just tak­ing the tablets now.”

Then, look­ing back once more to Port­marnock Links, he seemed to be es­pe­cially taken by the pres­ence there of Christy O’Con­nor Jnr, who passed from us in Jan­uary 2016.

“He had lost his son [Dar­ren] in a car ac­ci­dent only the pre­vi­ous week,” he said, as if con­sol­ing him­self that Alastair’s plight could have been a lot worse.

As it hap­pened, Christy’s wife Ann was also there with their el­der son, Nigel, who cad­died for his fa­ther. And I re­mem­ber the player say­ing to me with typ­i­cal, wide-eyed en­thu­si­asm: “I can’t be­lieve shoot­ing 68. It must be Dar­ren’s put­ter. I took it out of his bag com­ing here and holed ev­ery­thing.”

And there was an Omagh con­nec­tion

‘It left me with a new re­spect for the tough­ness of Kilkenny sports­men’

in the ap­pear­ance of Christy Se­nior, go­ing back more than 40 years to his time as pro­fes­sional at Bun­do­ran. “I used to go reg­u­larly to Omagh to play in ex­hi­bi­tions and they al­ways treated me very well,” he said. “So many mem­bers be­came friends that when I heard about this, I im­me­di­ately wanted to be­come in­volved.”

Alastair Hall is now mar­ried and liv­ing in Wales and while he never found a place in ac­tive sport, he is a sea­son-ticket holder at Cardiff Blues RFC. “There was a busy time in the early part of 1999, by which stage he had a pros­the­sis,” his fa­ther re­called. “Es­pe­cially mem­o­rable was a visit to Old Traf­ford for my wife, my­self and Alastair as guests of Manch­ester United. That was the year they won the tre­ble and we were there on the Sun­day they beat Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur to se­cure the Pre­mier League ti­tle.

“We met Roy Keane. I like Roy. He’s a rough di­a­mond but he’s hon­est; he says what he thinks. And he was more than nice to us. We also met Bobby Charl­ton who told Alastair that he once had a ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence [Mu­nich air dis­as­ter] but he didn’t want to talk about it. ‘Maybe your dad will tell you about it some time in the fu­ture,’ he said.

“I have the match pro­gramme with a wee note in it about us. All signed. And a real col­lec­tor’s item in a shirt au­to­graphed by all the play­ers. Ear­lier that year, on an in­vi­ta­tion from the IRFU, Alastair had ap­peared as a mas­cot for the rugby in­ter­na­tional against Eng­land at Lans­downe Road. And he walked onto the pitch, as he promised him­self he would do.”

Though dates have changed, the link with last Sun­day’s hap­pen­ings at Croke Park didn’t es­cape this mem­ber of Omagh RFC. “I never thought Lim­er­ick had the sort of strength to win a hurl­ing All-Ire­land,” he re­marked. “Mind you, Mun­ster peo­ple love their sport.”

Paus­ing to gather his thoughts, he con­cluded: “Sport can be a great com­fort.” Which you sensed was some­thing that wasn’t said lightly.

Port­marnock Links, where golfers from all over th­ese is­lands, and fur­ther afield, came to­gether in sol­i­dar­ity with those af­fected by the Omagh bomb 20 years ago

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