By Alan Rodgers
News of Brendan Dolan’s death exactly 50 years ago last week sent shockwaves through Tyrone in much the same manner as the passing of Paul McGirr, Cormac McAnallen, and Damien Casey more than a generation later.
On January 25, 1973, the then 25-year-old from Aghyaran was driving near Castlederg when his car was in collision with a lorry.
He had been travelling to his work as a teacher at St Colman’s High School in Strabane.
At the age of just 26, Brendan Dolan was at the peak of his gaelic-footballing powers. His selection on the Tyrone senior team a few years before had contributed to a rise in fortunes for the Red Hands. He won an All-Ireland title with the Tyrone Juniors in 1968. In the 1972 Ulster Senior Final against Donegal, he scored 1-2.
Just days after the collision, he had been due to again represent Ulster in the prestigious Railway Cup.
His tragic death was a devastating blow to his family, community and gaelic football, both in the Aghyaran area and beyond.
Last Wednesday, family and friends – including many who have only heard about his prowess as a footballer and person – gathered at St Davog’s Church in Aghyaran for a special anniversary Mass.
Among those hoping to be in attendance were four friends and teammates from half a century and more ago. Patsy Connolly, Gerard Devine, John McGlynn and Sean Harvey remember Brendan Dolan well, and even better his footballing skill, his impact and the devastating blow that his untimely death was.
“Brendan was a natural midfielder because of his size. He was about 6’3’’ and 15-16 stone. I remember he had size 14 boots, and was physically imposing. But he was played by St Columb’s of Derry at full-back and then initially for Tyrone in that position as well,” said Gerard Devine.
Patsy Connolly added, “He was a mighty player and a mighty man – a great pair of hands, great determination. He didn’t know when he was beaten. Even as an U-18 he was one of the main players for Aghyaran.”
After representing Tyrone Minors in 1963 and 1964, he graduated to the senior team in 1965.
That year, too, he played on the St Columb’s Derry team which won the All-Ireland Hogan Cup title.
His involvement with that team is widely credited with honing his natural abilities. But, back in Aghyaran, they knew that he had the ability to become an outstanding player.
The St Davog’s club was formed in 1956. Within seven years, Brendan Dolan was making his mark, and, unsurprisingly, there was immense pride in what he was beginning to achieve.
Gerard Devine remembers that, while the club was formed in the aftermath of Tyrone winning the Ulster title in 1956, it was to be another six years before they eventually won a match.
“Within four or five years, we had a county man, and then, in 1971, we were runners-up in Division One of the All-County League. Brendan lifted us every way. He could always get us more than 50 per-cent of the ball around midfield,” he adds.
“Brendan was a steady player for Tyrone during all those years. He had a great commitment to Tyrone – he like playing with the county.”
Patsy Connolly, too, recalls his huge influence.
“Brendan was looked up to by all of us,” he adds. “It was great to have someone local doing so well, but Brendan wasn’t up for that. He had pride in his parish, and pride in wearing the club and county jersey.”
As time went on, Brendan Dolan came to the attention of others far beyond Aghyaran. It was a journey which culminated in him starring as the Tyrone senior team began to make impressive strides again for the first time in more than a decade.
In 1972, things were stirring, and he played a pivotal role as the Red Hands reached the Ulster final for the first time since 1957. The excitement was clear as the county sought to win the Anglo Celt Cup for just a third time.
“It was very wet in Clones that day. I remember, on the night before the match, Brendan came over to our house looking for a pair of gloves.
“That morning he called in, and I was doing a bit of work about home.
“He looked for a loan of my gloves because he wasn’t sure whether the gloves he had were good enough. The day before, he and I were building loads of hay onto a trailer, and that wasn’t the preparation players would have today.”
The name of ‘Brendan Dolan’ was now known throughout Ulster at least. As a youngster, John McGlynn recalls the sense of nervousness which he felt player alongside a player of such renown.
“Here I was, a young player on the Aghyaran team, lining out alongside Brendan Dolan. I remember almost shaking with the excitement of it all,” he adds.
“But he gave me confidence: I remember the first game I played was against Derrylaughan. I won a ball at corner back, and was emptied.
“Brendan came back, and said to me; I’d clear it quicker the next time.
“He was always encouraging, and it’s great memories to have of him.
“We won the Ederney Tournament, and Brendan, along with Seamus Given (father of former Irish soccer goalkeeper, Shay), were absolutely brilliant. We were very proud to have a clubman representing us at county level. That Aghyaran team would have won something if Brendan had lived. He would have introduced stuff that would have taken us forward.”
Since his death, the ‘Brendan Dolan Memorial Trophy’ has been awarded each year to the winners of Division One of the Tyrone All-County League – the county’s second most important competition.
But, even now, 50 years on, the sense of devastation at Brendan’s death remains all too clear, especially for those who knew him well.
The UH summed up the sense of shock with a headline which read – ‘Great ‘loss to Tyrone gaeldom’.
His family was stepped in the GAA.
He was the son of Mr and Mrs Thomas Dolan, and had eight brothers and sisters.
In a special tribute, the Aghyaran club described him as an ‘inspiration’.
“Gaeldom in Tyrone has been cruelly deprived of the services of a gifted and ardent young citizen whose personality was such that everyone who was associated with him felt that they were the better for having known him.”
Sean Harvey was a young man in 1973. He recalled, with emotion, the impact that the death had on the club and community during the months which followed.
“Brendan’s death set us back ten years. He was a teetotaller, a nice person, and football was his life.
“On the morning of January 25, 1973, I bought a paper, and Brendan was selected on the Ulster team to replace Ray Carolan of Cavan.
“Then, the next news I got was of Brendan’s accident. We’ve lost players down through the years. We lost Brendan at the wrong time.”
Patsy Connolly was in the Dolan home as always the previous Saturday night.
He remembers Brendan testing his fitness by kicking a ball against the wall, and wanted to be fit to play for Ulster eight days later.
“On the evening before he was killed, he called into our house. He said he’d be playing the next Sunday.
“He asked me to go on a trip with him. Out he went, and that was my last time to see him.
“I went to Castlederg the next morning, and met Hughie McHugh who told me. I was going up the brae to Dolan’s, and got a feeling that things might not have been just right.
“Carmel came running out to tell me. What a shock that was.”
John McGlynn said the community was shocked to the core.
“Brendan was the mainstay in Aghyaran at the time. To me, Brendan Dolan was like a god.”
Hundreds of people attended his funeral, including staff and pupils of St Colman’s in Strabane, and colleagues on both the Aghyaran and Tyrone teams.
Life went on, but it wasn’t the same after his sad passing. In Aghyaran, the GAA community struggled for a decade. Tyrone won the Ulster title in 1973, but there was always the feeling of what might have been if Brendan Dolan had lived, and been part of what looked like a new era for the county.
Of course, new players came to the fore, and the St Davog’s have regularly provided top stars to Tyrone teams during the intervening 50 years. Ciaran McGarvey became the first from there to play in an All-Ireland senior final in 1986. Ronan McNamee, an All-Ireland winner with the county in 2021, won the first Allstar for the club.
A few years ago, the club prepared a booklet to help make young players aware of Brendan Dolan and his enduring legacy.
Now, 50 years on, his memory lives on for both the young and old.