‘Sport can be a great comfort . . .’

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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. Photo: Getty Images
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. Photo: Getty Images

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 whip-around 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 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.

Sunday Indo Sport

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