Never was a column called ‘Straight Talking’ so aptly named, given this week’s subject, which is on the late Eugene McGee. Like so many people, I was shocked and saddened to hear of his passing as the news spread on Sunday morning last.
In the days since the news broke it is amazing how many people have expressed such fond memories of the great man from Colmcille. I am certainly no different. He touched so many people’s lives in a positive way.
Of course he will be primarily remembered as the man who steered Offaly to probably the most famous All-Ireland senior football final win of all time, in 1982. But he had so many more strings to his bow.
I first met Eugene in the late 1970s when he was in charge of a famous and very successful UCD team that included our own Tony McManus. Tony often regaled us of fantastic stories of his coaching methods and no-nonsense approach, and how when you first met Eugene he appeared off-hand and gruff but once you got to know him he was anything but that.
He was a man who was way ahead of his time in terms of his attitude and thinking. When local radio started in 1989, there were many people in the local newspaper industry who viewed this new form of media as a possible threat. However, Eugene was one who embraced the idea and was of the opinion that it would be a big addition to local communities. And of course he was proven right.
As the Shannonside GAA commentator and reporter in those early days, I sought advice from Eugene many times. He was always so helpful and supportive. He was very quick to point out anything that he disagreed with too!
But Eugene McGee was far more than a GAA coach and newspaper columnist. As the Editor of the Longford Leader (and for a period, the Cavan Leader) he was a tireless advocate for people in rural Ireland. He used his high profile to highlight many issues in terms of unemployment, emigration, health services, transport and infrastructure. He spared no-one in power if he thought they were selling rural Ireland short.
He had a brilliant mind, whether it was to do with the GAA or other issues, but his dour demeanour meant that some people thought he was off-hand and gruff. But when you got to know Eugene you realised that the exact opposite was the case. He loved seeking out people’s views. In recent years we would chat on the telephone and it was clear that his passion on rural issues and his love affair with Gaelic football had never waned.
In recent years, because he had some health issues, he was not as frequent a visitor to Croke Park as in former times. The last time I met Eugene was in Croke Park at the Roscommon v Dublin Super 8s match last year. He was in good form. We had a long chat about different issues, including blanket defences, club matches, Offaly football, Roscommon football, and whether Dublin would win the All-Ireland again. As we parted that day he said: “You know, it’s nice to be back here again”. He loved the big day – and especially the big day in Croke Park.
He was a fearless GAA columnist and regularly lashed the GAA when he saw fit. In fact I remember at one stage there was talk about banning Eugene McGee from the Press Box in Croke Park because of the nature of some of his journalistic output. Thankfully sense prevailed. The criticism was coming from one of their own, a man who loved the GAA and who knew its positive impact on communities around the country.
There are so many stories that I could tell about Eugene over the years, reflecting his blunt, straight talking way of going on.
I recall one of the first Sundays since Shannonside had begun broadcasting, and on air was a presenter who didn’t really have a clue about sport. At one stage he read out the following: “And the latest score from Ballybofey is ‘Finn Harps 0, Longford Town one point’”.
The phone rang immediately. It was Eugene McGee. He told the woman who answered in studio: “Would ya tell that bloody eejit that there’s no points in soccer?” – and immediately put the phone down.
Another story much quoted in recent says is of Eugene’s comment on the morning of the All-Ireland final between Offaly and Kerry in 1982 when a journalist asked him how badly did the Offaly players want to win the match.
He snapped back: “There are men in that dressing room who haven’t had a pint since last Wednesday night”.
So many more of those stories about Eugene will be shared this week by those of us who were privileged to have known him.
This weekend, hundreds of thousands of people will do the ‘Darkness Into Light’ charity walk. Eugene McGee brought light and hope to many people throughout the country over the years.
He was one of the finest men that I have met in my lifetime. An innovator, a deep thinker, a very intelligent, witty and caring man who spoke straight out as he saw it, and who never suffered fools in any walk of life. We won’t see the likes of him again. To Marian, Linda and Conor, I extend my deepest sympathy.