To: Jimmy Stynes
From: Bernard Flynn
November 16, 2009
How are you, big man? Thinking of you a lot. Feel helpless so far away. It is tough what you are going through but there is no one stronger than you mentally to meet the challenge ahead. I know you are going to do whatever you have to do to survive this tough time. God can be a hoor from time to time; boy does he f****n' test us along the way. I have to go in for my hip replacement on 30 November. The pain has been chronic but I couldn't go in earlier with the [property] crash and all the shit that goes with it.
I'm going over to see you, Jim, when I can walk properly again – that I promise you. It is something that will keep me going. I think it will be the start of February if that is okay with you and Sam. Hey, Jim, we have lost practically everything that we worked hard for over 20 years. We're starting all over again, it's hard, but you know what, I will work hard and like you I have a great family and I am at last sorting out my health. I and Madeline are thinking of you all the time. I know you will be in mighty form when I go to see you. So long for now, Jim. Please say hello to Sam for me. Get yourself ready. Flynner is coming.
BERNARD FLYNN saw every hour last Tuesday night, just like the night before. And as the pain shot through his every fibre, because of a serious reaction to morphine, forcing him to grit his teeth and grab the monkey pole above his bed in Mount Carmel Hospital, he reminded himself – "I'm one of the lucky ones".
He thought of Jimmy Stynes, who he befriended on the Compromise Rules tour Down Under in 1990 and who for 10 years would visit him and his wife Madeline in Mullingar every Christmas, staying over in their house for days, having great chats and a few glasses of wine. Now Jimmy, one of the world's great gentlemen and specimens, is fighting cancer at only 43; he'd love to only have a hip operation, followed by a knee replacement next year, to put up with. His achievements on and off the field are remarkable, particularly with his charity called REACH.
Flynn's mind raced back to last September and the funeral of his friend, Edel Duignan – wife of Offaly hurler and RTÉ Sunday Game panellist Michael – who the big C claimed at just 42 years of age. How Edel suffered and how she would love to trade places to be back with Michael and her two lovely sons, Seán and Brian. And Eamonn Coleman, who he'd often have some tea and a laugh with over lunch when the soul of Derry football used to work on the sites of Mullingar. And John Kerins and Mike McCarthy from Cork, who denied him an All Ireland and who he denied All Irelands before they all realised too late it was only just a game. Bernard and Madeline recently had the great pleasure of hooking up with Ann Kerins, John's widow at Bob O'Malley's wedding in Mayo and boy, did they have a great bit of craic.
Yet other thoughts would flash through his mind, briefly tormenting him. Why didn't he get this operation done a few years ago? Was business really that important that he'd put if off and instead take between six and eight tablets just to play a round of golf? Was his business really that bad over the past 12 months that he couldn't afford to take a few months out for fear it would completely fall apart?
And Christ, why did he take so many injections to the hip to play in and win all those Leinster and All Ireland finals? Or all those jabs to the ankle playing for the month in the three tests for Ireland Down Under in 1990; was winning the series and being its leading scorer worth it now? And what on earth possessed him to come back after the horrific injury in '92 when doctors said he wouldn't walk again properly after his knee was made shit of in a bad tackle playing for the club? Was hobbling back to win another three counties for the Shamrocks really worth it? By that stage, he had fractured both legs in the middle of that six-year period.
But then he thought of Edel again. And of Gráinne Keigue, another close friend that was taken away far too soon. And of Madeline and his three kids.
"I'm one of the lucky ones."
The week before he went in Dessie Farrell called him out of the blue, having learned of his impending operation. "Have you insurance?" he asked. And thankfully, Flynn was able to answer in the affirmative. Way back in the day playing for Meath and the injuries were starting to mount up, his close colleague Gerry McEntee strongly advised him to take out and keep up his health insurance. And last week, grimacing at the ceiling, Flynn thought of all those old warriors from the quiet fields and killing fields of the '80s and '90s and beyond who needed insurance but didn't have it and many still don't have it – or the inter-county medals to show for their battle wounds either. He had the medals, the All Stars, the plaudits – and the health insurance for his hip operation. A lot of poor bastards out there don't.
On Thursday morning he thought of some sad bastards of a different kind, for at least in his eyes that's what they are. Lying in his back in hospital, he'd just read the paper to learn there were counties objecting to the GAA's recognition of the GPA and the player welfare schemes Dessie Farrell and Christy Cooney intend to roll out collectively. Later that day Dessie would ring him again just to see how he was feeling. As Flynn himself said, it was a nice call to get. No past or present officer of the Meath county board came through his door this past week. Nobody from Of One Belief called in either and Flynn has no doubt there will be none from the county board or the other crowd calling this week either. But he isn't bothered one bit.
"There has been many like me and there'll be more like me, and the GPA, Christy Cooney and Páraic Duffy are now trying to do something for them. And those self-righteous boys object to it. Pathetic and sad people," says Flynn.
"I must commend Cooney in particular. He has really surprised me. He has been fantastic. He's a charming man but more importantly, he has embraced the whole player welfare thing up front by this recognition. None of the past presidents ever embraced it the way he has. I have spoken to many past players recently and the respect they have for the things he has done like inviting ex-players and their wives to the GAA box on days their counties are playing in, meant a lot to them. Those lads felt worth something for this little recognition. I know. I was one."
He had managed to get in some sleep by then. Thanks to a few tablets he managed to doze off around 11 o'clock on Wednesday night, the third night after the operation, but the first where he got some sleep and after waking up at 5.45 the following morning, he reminded himself of how lucky he was to be alive. He did his exercises at 6am until 8am before breakfast. His surgeon, Dr Kieran O'Rourke, brother of his old friend Colm who he found outstanding throughout, had told him the harder he worked at the start of his rehab, the better it would be for him. So did Seánie Walsh, his old roommate from the GAA legends golf tours who he and Madeline had a few pints with last Saturday night up in Dublin along with his wife Ber after they'd been at the Ireland-South Africa rugby game in Croke Park. Seánie had his hip replaced a good few years ago and was now in mighty form. And so, last Thursday morning, after he woke up, Flynn did some programmed exercises in his bed before manoeuvring his way off the bed and completing 20 laps of the corridor on his crutches.
Later that evening he'd be told by Dr O'Rourke that he'd require a new knee because it has become so unstable, probably some time next spring. Yet he continues to put his normal sunny side out.
"I'm 44 and the way I'm looking at this, the referee has blown the whistle and it's half-time in my life. I needed this hip replacement. My business probably needs a hip replacement. I did okay like many other in the Celtic Tiger years. I borrowed money like so many as the banks threw it out like confetti. But sure listen, that's the way it is. There are thousands of GAA men and self-employed men like me, suffering in silence, and this week has given me time to reflect. The way I see it, it's a brand new game when I come back out."
It will be back to working hard for Flynn – something he never shirked. He firmly believes that Ireland became very lazy. "We need the young, smart, innovative people with a wealth of knowledge to be allowed to exercise their expertise and drive to get the country up and running again. The time has come when all of us together must start looking forward and stop looking back. There's been too much negativity on television and in the media, which has poisoned our younger generation. It's positive thoughts and actions the youth of Ireland that we need now, not the shite we've been listening to."
• • •
We often think of him as merely a member of one of the greatest full-forward lines ever, just one partner in the firm that was Flynn, Stafford and O'Rourke, but never as a great player in his own right. Keener and closer observers though tend to view him as exactly that.
Last Sunday night Martin McHugh, who went through the torture of a hip replacement himself 18 months ago, sent Flynn a lengthy and touching text message. It was prompted primarily out of empathy but out of a great deal of admiration too. In 1990 he was on a Donegal team that played Flynn's Meath in an All Ireland semi-final. In the same game Flynn cracked his chestbone yet stayed on to score 2-2, the difference between the teams. He was a lethal finisher, able to kick goals and points off both feet. He was sharp, he was smart and boy, was he brave. For McHugh the measure of a player is how much he stands out for his club, and in his eyes, the fact Flynn was able to move to Mullingar and win four county titles on the trot for the local Shamrocks club was one of the great individual achievements of any forward of modern times. Earlier he had done the same for his beloved Colmcilles in Meath.
Ned Moore, the former Westmeath footballer, soldiered with Flynn throughout all those campaigns. He knows how the general public tend to view Flynn – the guy who writes a page in the Daily Mirror and the tanned pretty boy on The Sunday Game with the gelled hair, Meath's answer to Cork's Tony Davis, and on the field a bit of a shaper too. "Nothing was further from the truth," says Moore. "He had the biggest heart I know. He had to withstand more hardship than any player but never shirked a battle. Football was a different game in those days. There was a lot of cynical fouling, cheap, dirty hits, yet he was never intimidated.
"After we won the county in '92, we were playing down in Aughrim in the Leinster club championship. Bernard had scored something like 2-3 when just after half-time I saw him in a heap on the ground at the far end of the pitch. I still remember visiting him in Navan Hospital the following week where he was confined for 14 days. The ligaments had snapped to such a state they found them halfway down his shin and halfway up his thigh. The knee cap had been smashed in umpteen places. The doctors said he wouldn't walk again properly. Six months later he was back playing. He was only hobbling about the place and still players couldn't mark him."
Flynn on occasion was no angel himself; he'll accept that. He remembers a Leinster final and getting a few clips out the field from the likes of Tommy Carr and their then new half-back Keith Barr. With his blood boiling Flynn couldn't resist unleashing a dose of verbals which were over the top. Yet these days Carr and Flynn coach the same school team. Tom and Mary Carr and the family have become best friends. While he has raised over €1m for charity Barr and Carr are a fixture at all those gigs, and through their involvement, the two Dubs have forged old friendships which had become strained.
Flynn was a product of football's killing fields, a member of the old great Meath team. He recalls one night in Páirc Tailteann in the lead-up to the four-game saga against the Dubs in '91. "We had a team meeting a few nights earlier. Boys had agreed that training had gone slack. Mick Lyons said we'd gone too soft. So this night we were training and I sidestepped Mick when he gave me this feckin' awful dirty belt. We exchanged words and I said to myself, 'If that happens again, I'm going to pull'. Anyway Mick did it again and I turned around and hit him as hard as I could. Next thing, all I could see was blood. I split his nose down the middle. I spent the rest of that training session looking around, left, right and centre. I genuinely had a fear that I was going to wake up in hospital.
"I kept out of Mick's way for the rest of the training session. He never said a word, just let the blood flow down his nose. But I remember going into the dressing room after and there was hardly a word spoken. I was thinking to myself, 'You're fighting for your life here'. I went into the showers and it was like something from Midnight Express with the steam rising and everything. I reversed in and positioned myself so that if anyone came in, I could see them. Next thing, Mick walks in, and I swear to God, I clenched my fist down by my side and said to myself, 'If he pulls, I'll pull first'. What does Mick Lyons do? He lifts his arm but instead of hitting me he puts it around me.
"'That's the sort of stuff we f***n' need!' After me splitting him! I said, 'Mick, I didn't mean to split you but it's just you hit me…' He said, 'Don't worry about it. It's only blood'. With that I unclenched my fist, finished my shower and when I walked out, I looked back over my shoulder and all I could see was Mick showering away, blood and shampoo mixing together. That was Mick Lyons. The best captain I ever played under. That was Meath. That was football back in those days."
• • •
He first started taking cortisone shots for the hip around '87, '88. Before big games in Croke Park he'd skirt away from the rest of the team and head off for his jab. Even then, before they were married, Madeline was telling him he was taking too many injections, too many tablets, for a man in his early 20s. But she didn't understand, he'd say to himself, and Seán Boylan didn't have to know about them all. If Flynn didn't play, he'd miss out on winning. He'd miss out on playing the next day. Lining up to take his place were classy forwards like Mattie McCabe, Finian Murtagh and Liam Smyth; if fate had been kinder to them, you'd never have heard of Flynn and Stafford, whatever about O'Rourke. Flynn acknowledges that O'Rourke was the best all-round player he ever played with and that Stafford was the classiest he ever saw.
"I look back on it now and I was probably too insecure, probably trying to prove myself too much. At that time we had some great leaders in the squad. Joe Cassells I think has 11 kids now, six or seven when he was playing, yet he wouldn't dream of missing a training session. Gerry McEntee was a surgeon, flying back from England and America without a word of complaint. Without doubt, he put Meath football before everything else. Liam Harnan played in an All Ireland final with a broken bone in his back. That was inhuman. So for me to get a jab to go out and play, I'd have kept it to myself. As it was some of the lads might say, 'Ah, Flynn was moaning about a bit of pain'. I actually suffered a lot more than I let on. And a lot more than the players would have ever known."
His last game with Meath was in '94, the same year he helped them to a league, scoring two goals against Armagh in the final, but in truth he was only 70 per cent of the player he was before the battle of Aughrim in '92. He now knows he came back from too many injuries too soon but the winning was addictive and the craic was something else too. Rooming and partying with David Beggy. Enjoying the droll but sharp wit of men like O'Rourke and Harnan, Finian Murtagh and Martin O'Connell and Stafford. And the intriguing chats with McEntee. Where else would you want to be? What else would you want to be doing? But looking back now it was a Faustian pact – play and win now, suffer later. If he had to do it all again, would he?
"A few years ago I would have had no hesitation in saying it was worth it. But now? Those couple of All Irelands, the five Leinsters, the three national leagues, the two All Stars?
"First up, the way I am is my own fault. And umpteen county players have been here before me – the likes of Seánie Walsh, John O'Keeffe, Martin McHugh and so on. But I have to say when I think of the pain in the knee and the hip over the last few years, the fact I haven't been able to lift a golf club since May, that over the summer the kids had to put my socks and shoes on for me and I couldn't get up and down the stairs; if I'm being honest, the answer to your question is probably not. And I tell you, the pain I felt last Monday and Tuesday night – Christ, I thought I was going to die! – my answer would have been definitely not."
He can almost feel and hear Gerry McEntee on his shoulder – "You feckin' eejit, Flynn – why didn't you get it done earlier?" It was McEntee who in '95 set up the appointment with Dr Pat O'Neill who told Flynn his career was over; if he played on he'd end up a cripple. It was McEntee who told him about insurance. He'd have told him to get the hip replaced years ago too. Yet Flynn always put family and work ahead of himself and so he resisted.
"I just had a taboo about having a false limb in there at 44 years of age. It's grand at 74 going around with one false limb and being ready to hit the grave. My fear was, 'Will I now need a second one at 54? A third at 64?' There was this weird, silly feeling inside me, 'Jesus, if you go for that, you won't be a real man anymore'. I'd think whether I'd be able to do certain things with the kids again. Could you fall and roll around the garden with them after playing football? Jump on the trampoline? Ski with them like we did before? A father must never be sick is what I felt. But the way I was this summer I couldn't do any of those things. I could barely put on my trousers. I pushed the boat too far. I was going, going, going all the time."
The other reason why he put off the inevitable for so long was another source of fear. Flynn is a small, self-employed one-man operator involved in property. He had the family and banks to feed.
"I should have gone in over a year ago but I couldn't with the pressure and tell people that I was going away for a few months to get a hip sorted out. The economic situation has put me back 15 years – like so many other people. Many of them are well-known GAA people. I made mistakes, banks made mistakes. We all made mistakes. The man who didn't make a mistake, made nothing," he stresses.
"I now firmly believe that if we all put our hands up and agree we made mistakes instead of everyone blaming everyone else, apart from themselves, then we would be better off. Let's get on with it."
He now sees the GPA and Christy Cooney are ready to provide that kind of support and it's up to the wider GAA community and especially its county boards to do likewise. This operation and this economic situation has underlined to him the need for a support network within the GAA.
Flynn is convinced that the demands and the pressure on our amateur players has to a certain extent created a binge drinking culture. "There is at least one or more potential alcoholic in every inter-county dressing room. There's probably a compulsive gambler or two there as well. I commend Donal Óg Cusack and Oisìn McConville for their honesty and openness in their recent announcements. That took great courage .
"Not all GAA lads are as confident as people believe or outgoing as people might think. I was lucky to have my insurance and know a great surgeon like Kieran O'Rourke. But what about the average player in my situation who has no insurance and does not know who to turn to for medical help? A lot of lads have cried out for help from time to time and there hasn't been a helping hand there. There are very few Seán Boylans and Brian Codys and Joe Kernans out there, because some managers are there now for a quick fix and to pick up the wages. By and large players are well looked after but Croke Park should be doing more to make sure there's proper mechanisms put in place. A lot of GAA players were under pressure to go out and form their own businesses, cash in on their name, many without any real foundations. They are now suffering the consequences.
"Inter-county players might be amateur but they're public property just like the pros. They're superstars one day, scapegoats the next and a lot of fellas struggle to deal with that.Who is there to help them? Who is there to help the guy that is going through personal turmoil and is suffering all alone? We expect too much from our amateur players. There should be a facility in place that a player can turn to without having to spill his guts out to his manager and teammates. There has to be a statutory model in place in a private and confidential forum for these players."
Flynn has had little dealings with the GPA to date but he can tell from something like their proposed benevolent fund that they're dynamic, proactive, empathetic. And by formally recognising them, Christy Cooney and Croke Park too are embracing the same ethos. But at the moment county boards are all virtually reactive, unwieldy, outdated, viewing the player as simply someone to help the county win, someone disposable. Who cares about you once you hand the jersey back? Or if you do hand it back? A whole change in mindset is required, Flynn believes. The 'lucky-to-wear-the-jersey' riposte no longer suffices. The template for going forward for a county board and team management job is to provide a life experience for young men which is worthy of their time away from their loved ones and seeking or keeping down a job.
"In the GAA we have to look after our players and each other. Give business to each other. Give jobs where applicable to the players. The good young player coming out of college at present; there's a real danger he's now going to head straight to Australia, America, London. It's going to be pretty poor-to-bad here for another while so county boards will have to put a little structure in place to make sure these lads are given the best opportunity, in terms of jobs and the like, otherwise we're going to lose the best players we've never seen."
Flynn knows though that in many ways the lot of the current player has improved since his day. They no longer are asked to flatten the local biggest hill. They have greater physio and medical backup. There'll be fewer and fewer players needing a hip replacement in years to come. But to make sure of it, he has this bit of advice for the kid thinking of taking that next injection to squeeze in that next game.
"Be responsible for your own wellbeing because no one else will. If you're only half right, leave it and get it fully right. You'll play for longer. As I know now, your future health will be paramount to your family's future."
It's nearly time to leave. He needs to rest up some more. But before you go, you're struck by how chirpy his disposition and mood is. He talks about the 32 marathons in 32 consecutive days in 32 counties (32marathons.com) a couple of his friends, Gerry Duffy and Ken Whitelaw, are running for charity. He is a co-founder of this and hopes it will gross a million for charity next summer. Also the book launch in Meath he and his close friend Kevin Cahill are putting together for Billy Morgan on Saturday, 19 December in David Beggy's new pub in Navan where there are 300-400 people expected. Above all, he is grateful to Dr O'Rourke and all the staff in Mount Carmel and Aiden Gleeson CEO of Cappagh Hospital for how they have looked after him.
"I know for myself, it's back to basics. The simple things in life are free. I'm going through a tough time medically and in business, and facing a knee replacement next year, but I will deal with this when it comes."
As he says, he's one of the lucky ones. It's half-time now for Flynn. As he lies on the bed in Mount Carmel after his sixth day, his bag is packed and his crutches are by his side waiting for his great friend Mick King (The Kinger) who has always been there for him through thick and thin, to bring him back to his family in Mullingar.
As he looks up at the ceiling, his last thoughts goes to Jimmy Stynes in Australia and more particularly Gráinne Keigue, Edel Duignan, John Kerins, Mick McCarthy, Eamonn Coleman and Cormac McAnallen. All looking down on us and saying: "Aren't they the lucky bastards."
Honours: Two All Irelands, five Leinster titles, three National League titles and two All Stars
Did you know? Mikey Sheehy described Bernard Flynn's performance for Meath against Down in the 1991 All Ireland Final – when he kicked six points from play, three with each foot – as the best he had ever seen at Croke Park