Football inter county Championship 2020 Dec 2, 2020 15:34:02 GMT via mobile
Post by Mickmack on Dec 2, 2020 15:34:02 GMT
November 29 2020 02:30 AM
It was July 1997 and Bernard Cusack, at the age of 102, knew that his time left on earth could now be counted in days. He was ready to meet his maker, recalled his son Owen last week, "but he didn't want to meet him until the game was over".
The game in question was the Ulster football final, to be played in Clones on Sunday, July 20, between Derry and his beloved Cavan. Born in 1895, Mr Cusack had known all the glory days and seen most of them. He was there when Cavan were lords of Ulster for the first 50 years of the 20th century, and lords of Ireland in 1933, '35, '47, '48 and '52.
But by 1997 they'd been reduced to starvation rations. They hadn't won Ulster since '69. In the days of plenty it was inconceivable that they would have to wait 28 years for a provincial title. And having waited that long, Bernard decided that the God in whom he deeply believed could wait a bit longer for him too.
Owen Cusack is himself now 80. He remembers his father's final week like it was yesterday. Bernard had broken his hip a few weeks earlier. He was in Lisdarn Hospital in Cavan town. "And he was ready to - he was just ready to die. But he had his senses and all that."
A farmer in the parish of Lacken, he would regularly go for a drink in Phil Masterson's pub in nearby Ballinagh. "And then you see, he used to meet some of the Cavan footballers in Masterson's, Stephen King and (Bernard) Morris and a lot of them maybe after matches."
Bernard had the height of time for Stephen King, a midfielder who in his prime could stand toe-to-toe with the best midfielders in Ireland. The Killeshandra man was captain in '97 and on his last legs as a footballer.
He was pushing 35 and in his 18th season with the county. He had known nothing but the doldrums wearing Breffni blue but wasn't the type to mope about it; he loved his time in the county jersey, irrespective of the absence of medals. Bernard Cusack had seen all the Cavan greats over the previous 80 years and admired King as much as he admired any of them.
Three or four days before the '97 final, the doctors moved him to a private room. They could do no more. Phil and his wife Eileen were regular visitors during those weeks.
"So then Mrs Masterson went in to see him one day in the hospital before he died," recalls Owen, "and he was praying. And she said to him, 'What are you praying for?' 'Well,' he said, 'I'm praying that Stephen King will lift the cup, that Cavan will win the Ulster championship. I know I'm gonna die but I'll not die,' says he, 'until the game is over'. That was a couple of days before the match."
He lapsed in and out of consciousness during the following days. On the Friday he seemed close to exhaustion. But he rallied somewhat. Owen says he was always hardy - a country man, an outdoors man.
"Ah he was always tough, you know, he was a very healthy man. He was a great huntsman, a very active little man, blessed with good health and great memory." He'd been a footballer too. "He played with Bruskey in the 1920s, they had a team in Bruskey that time, there was no team in Lacken. They got to a final that time but he couldn't play because he got his back broke, a wall fell on him and broke his back."
In his room in the Lisdarn was a television attached to the wall. On the Sunday, Owen and his five sisters kept a bedside vigil around their father. They followed the match on TV.
It was an agonisingly tight game. The teams were level no less than eight times in the first half alone. Their father could only "see glimpses of it" but they were updating him with every score and he could grasp the ebb and flow. "Oh he could know, oh by God he could." Then young Jason Reilly, in off the bench, drilled the game's only goal ten minutes from time. The match had broken Cavan's way. They saw it out to win by the narrowest of margins, 1-14 to 0-16.
"And when the game was over he said, 'Thank God it's all over now, I can go'. And he died the next morning at five o'clock, the Monday morning. And Stephen King rang Masterson's, because we had no phone at the time, on the Monday about 11 o'clock to see when would he bring in the cup (into the hospital) but he had passed away."
It didn't matter. The man died peacefully and happily having his final wish fulfilled. He had lived long enough to hear the good news. King and Morris and several more of the victorious Cavan players paid their respects at Bernard's funeral.
After '97, Cavan would have to wait another 23 years for their next Ulster title, delivered last Sunday against all the odds with a performance that will go down in the local annals. Veteran followers of the county's fortunes say it is up there with their defeat of Down, then the All-Ireland champions, in '62, or their 1969 victory, also against Down who were again the defending All-Ireland champions. Owen Cusack was at those games and many more besides, like his father before him. In all honesty, he has to admit, he did not see last Sunday's performance coming.
"Not at all, no, not at all! I knew they had a bit of fight in them but sure Donegal, they were talking about them as the only team that'd bate Dublin and that." He has two young neighbours who starred last Sunday, Thomas Galligan and his cousin Raymond Galligan, the goalkeeper and captain. They live only "a stone's throw across the fields". He was extremely proud of them last Sunday.
In normal times, the county would have jacked the traces for a week of celebrations. Instead they had to make do with a cavalcade of cars on Sunday evening beeping their horns and flashing their lights in a drive-by salute to their heroes outside Breffni Park. The players stood up on an open-sided lorry and took the acclaim as Cavan's supporters cheered them from the safety of their cars. It was the best that everyone could do in the circumstances.
Owen lives on his own but had a nephew over for company. "The only regret is that there wasn't an auld pub open. But we had a couple of little sups. It wasn't tae now we drank, I tell ya."
Sadly, since '97, Phil and Eileen have also gone to their eternal reward. And their bar that was once the vibrant centre of community life for Cavan's standing army of supporters has also long since closed. Times have changed, society has changed, and one cannot but feel a pang of sadness at the passing, one by one, of these modest establishments that offered a home away from home for lovers of the game.
It was Phil himself who told this writer the story of Bernard Cusack a few days after Stephen King had lifted the cup. I had gone down to write a colour piece for the Sunday Times, knowing well that a county besotted with Gaelic football would offer rich material for a good story. But even knowing this, one didn't expect to hear about a man of 102 who literally postponed his own death until he got word that the team had won. In the circumstances it was surely meant to be: no one but no one could deny a dying man his heart's desire.
I wrote the story for the following Sunday's edition. The headline on the piece was 'Heaven can wait for Cavan'.
Sunday Indo Sport