The last day of November took from us two men, who for many were intrinsically linked with Athy. Tony Bracken was just 63 years old when he succumbed to an illness which first became apparent in March of this year. He knew Br. John Flaherty, indeed Tony was taught in 6th class in the local Christian Brothers School by the tall genial Kerry man who will be remembered by many onetime scholars of the St. John’s Lane school. Both died on the same day this November, Tony who had given a lifetime of service to the G.A.A. and John Flaherty whose life was dedicated as a Christian Brother to educating Irish youths. Flaherty died in advanced old age in St. Patrick’s, Baldoyle, Tony in his own home at Woodstock Street surrounded by his family.
I last met Tony at the Aontas Ogra 50th anniversary celebration in Dreamland Ballroom. He was then very ill but facing into the future, uncertain as it was, with determination and courage. It was that same determination which saw him through a successful career as a handballer, winning softball titles while playing with the Moone club, and becoming the first, if not the only Moone club player ever to be selected on the Kildare County handball team.
Athy in the early decades of the last century was one of the principal centres for handball in this country and produced many champions over the years. When Tony was growing up in Woodstock Street the handball court in Barrack Lane was still in use, even if not as often or as effectively as it had been decades previously. Nevertheless the handball court provided a readymade arena for local youngsters who were willing and able to practice what is after all one of our national games. Tony was one such youngster and he became a handball player of ability, who in later years joined the Moone handball club where he was assured of competitive games with some top class players.
Tony was also a Gaelic footballer. I can’t vouch for his playing prowess or point to any great success of his on the playing field. However, it was as a club official that he is best remembered in terms of his involvement with the G.A.A. A fervent supporter of the game whose membership of the local Geraldine Club went back almost 50 years, Tony always seemed actively involved at local club level. He was a team selector, committee member, team manager and above all, as Club Chairman Marty McEvoy said at his funeral mass, ‘his love of G.A.A. was based on passion, commitment and total dedication’.
He was a selector for the Kildare County Minor team for three years and it was Tony who first spotted the future county footballing star Christy Byrne on the day 14 year old Christy was asked to stand in goal for a Castlemitchell team which found itself a man short one Sunday afternoon. Tony noted the young boy’s excellent performance that day and two years later was instrumental in having him selected for the County Minor team. Christy would later go on to win Leinster Championship and Railway Cup medals as the province’s outstanding goalkeeper. Tony managed the County Minor team in 1991, the year when local players such as Christy Byrne, Glen McLoughlin and John Wall helped secure the Leinster Minor Championship for Kildare to make up for the disappointment of losing the previous year’s final.
The huge funeral cortege which passed through Leinster Street on the way to St. Michael’s cemetery on Monday was a fitting testimony to the popularity of Tony and the esteem in which the Brackens are held. The moving tributes paid to a man whose popularity was unquestionable were well deserved. Athy G.A.A. Club provided a guard of honour for the removal of the remains to the church and the next day to St. Michael’s Cemetery. On both days the coffin bore the red jersey of Tony’s club and the famous Lilywhite of Kildare County in recognition of Tony’s attachment to club and county. He epitomised the well described, if sometimes little recognised, grass roots member of the G.A.A., a great national organisation which is the sum total of the countrywide clubs of which it is comprised.
There are hundreds like him throughout this island, each dedicated to the well being of clubs or organisations which provide outlets for sportsmen and sportswomen and without whose energy and commitment such clubs would falter and perhaps even disappear. Athy Gaelic Football Club will greatly miss Tony Bracken whose work over the years contributed enormously to the continued success of Athy’s premier sporting club.
The moving ceremony in St. Michael’s Parish Church on the morning of the funeral was presided over by Fr. Philip Dennehy, assisted by two other priests. The choir was in good voice and Jacinta O’Donnell gave a moving rendition of the Curragh of Kildare which she reprised at the graveside. Tony’s nephew, Brian Hughes, played on the tin whistle at the end of the Mass, his musical interpretation of ‘Danny Boy’ and the applause which greeted his musical tribute to his uncle spoke volumes for how well the piece was received by the congregation.
Tony’s daughter Glenda paid a moving tribute to her father and her delivery and presentation in the emotional atmosphere of a funeral mass was extraordinarily good. In fact I felt that hers was the most beautiful tribute I have heard paid to a parent at any of the many funeral masses I have attended in recent times. It was a most compelling and sensitive tribute to a father, the sentiments expressed finding an echo in the thoughts of her listeners who had known her father Tony.
Tony is survived by his wife Lily, his son Anthony and daughters Glenda and Olive. Lily I have known since both of us were attending, in her case St. Mary’s, in my case the Christian Brothers School where Tony was also a pupil. The years have passed with startling speed but friendships shaped in youthful times persist and the sorrow felt at the passing of Tony Bracken is palpable and real. He will be sadly missed by his family and friends, while Geraldine Gaelic Football Club and the Lilywhites have lost a lifelong supporter.
Brother John Flaherty and Tony Bracken were part of a shared past dating back almost 50 years ago. Their passing on the same day in November was a strange and a sad coincidence.