belonging | 

Roy Curtis: ‘Brian Mullins was a titan who brought colour to a drab city’

‘A monochrome world was suddenly draped in intoxicating colour’

Dublin player Brian Mullins enlivened us all with his sporting prowess© SPORTSFILE

Sunday World

He was a footballer first, of course, a flaxen summer colossus, but above all else, Brian Mullins was a missionary.

An evangelist at the forefront of a cultural revolution, converting swathes of his Dublin tribe to the GAA church; an apostle ministering a profound and powerful message to us city kids of the economically bleak, emigration ruined 1970s.

One that radically announced that it was okay to feel a swell of pride in the place of your birth.

If you are long enough of tooth to recall those wild, delirious, insurgent days you will understand implicitly the bottomless impact of their thunderclap declaration.

It is no exaggeration to declare that Mullins, Anton O’Toole and David Hickey, Paddy Cullen, Jimmy Keaveney and John McCarthy, Kevin Heffernan’s dashing princes of the city, transformed, maybe even saved, so many lives.

I know, because I was among their number.

Heffo was the patriarch, Noah.

We stepped two by two onto Hill 16’s towering concrete ark, a lifeboat ferrying us beyond the flood of despondency that threatened to engulf Dublin in that bleak, hopeless decade.

There were no jobs, no prospects, nothing inspirational to cling to; a derelict, drab city was drowning in its own despair.

And then Heffo’s floating palace sailed across the horizon, an imperious galleon, the wind in its proud blue mainsail.

On that steep Hill 16 terrace, one that seemed to rise, rung by rung, to the very heavens, we found our kin, our identity, our home, a sense of place that made our young hearts soar.

At last, we belonged.

A monochrome world was suddenly draped in intoxicating colour. It was like being gifted a nugget of gold.

Match of the Day had recently launched in England, introducing those of us on the Celtic side of the Irish Sea what our young eyes perceived as unimaginable glamour.

Now, out of nowhere, we had our own Manchester United; Liverpool or Leeds with an Anna Livia twist.

This Sky Blue typhoon gusted and scudded across the landscape in 1974, sweeping away old preconceptions.

Mullins bounded across Croke Park’s rectangle of green like a mulleted Achilles, a glorious athletic specimen, and it no longer felt like being born in one of the city’s vast working class suburbs was a full-stop on the story of your potential.

What Heffernan oversaw was nothing less than a regeneration project for the urban soul.

If we couldn’t match Mullins’s majesty, we could metaphorically stand as tall as this skyscraping boy in blue.

Even now, fortysomething years on, I can feel the endorphins coursing through my being just recalling the fever-dream of euphoria as we belted out The Memories’ anthem.

“We’ll be marching down from Ringsend

“And Ballyfermot too.

“From East Wall and Marino

“To support the boys in blue

“For 11 years we’ve waited

“And there’s nothing left to prove

“So let’s here it now from Dublin

“Heffo’s army’s on the loose.”

Decades later, as a young journalist, I would come to know so many of these mighty pathfinders, enjoy the immense privilege of being able to call them friends.

The handsome, always smiling, urbane Cullen; McCarthy, a force of nature, wild and wise and forever young; Keaveney, a salt-of-the-earth rogue blissfully unaffected by his football genius; Hickey, a creature too brilliant and selfless for words.

And, of course, the Blue Panther himself, the gentle, giant-hearted, beautiful Anton O’Toole, a man I loved like a brother.

Mullins would never be mistaken for a cuddly toy, but there was an intelligence and depth and essential decency to his personality. I will always treasure a lovely message he sent me after reading a piece I had written when we lost Anton in May of 2019.

His final words in that text, in which he described what being a Dublin footballer meant to him, resonate this morning.

“We started out as team-mates, we became brothers. Anton’s death reinforces that bond.”

On Friday, just after 5pm, Fran Ryder, Brian’s compadre at St Vincent’s, at Thomond College and Dublin – as close as a sibling to Mullins – messaged me with the news we all knew was coming for several weeks.

Moments later, David Hickey phoned with the same crushing news. Another of their family had fallen.

Ryder, another of Heffo’s crew I’m proud to call a friend, forwarded the most gorgeous black and white picture of Brian and Anton at an awards dinner just a few years back.

Looking at the vivid sparkle in the eyes of these two titans who transformed the city, I was again a child of the ‘70s.

A flash flood of tears cascaded from the depths as I sang aloud.

“The Jacks are back, the Jacks are back,

"Let the Railway End go barmy

“Because Hill 16 has never seen

“The likes of Heffo’s Army.”

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