By Peter Makem
They would probably be grandfathers by now, John Martin, Brian and Anthony Reavey who were mowed down by a Loyalist gang as they sat in their home in Whitecross, Co. Armagh on Feb. 1st, 1976, discussing Gaelic football among themselves. Their footballing children would be coming to the end of their careers, and some of the next generation making their early introduction to the game.
The last discussion that the Reavey brothers had among themselves on that tragic evening 40 years ago was about the football season about to commence. The last thoughts they had between them were about the games to come, and how players would perform, and who they would be meeting in the first match and so on.
Since the early sixties there had always been a Reavey on the Whitecross team. Their father, Jimmy, had been a selector and committee member with St. Killian’s, notably in the 1969 championship winning team. Their mother, Sadie, was a founder of Irish dancing in the district in the mid-forties, parents of a totally round the clock, for club and county, passionately committed GAA family.
So what healing factor could be introduced to help erase the still lingering memory of the tragedy all this time after the event? The surviving members came to the conclusion that only a special dedication of the game of Gaelic football itself could give redemption, and organized a match between Armagh and Donegal to play in the exact same local ground where the slain Reavey brothers had once trod the same turf.
There was a growing feeling that their memory could only be authentically commemorated in this way because no other mode of remembrance had the comforting power to rise to the sense of occasion demanded by the anniversary.
An instinct told them that only the game, the presence of the orange jersey – which Brian proudly wore as a minor and U21 player – the presence of the crowd, the action, the scores, the overall excitement could, in its own profound, intimate way, give an uplift and serenity that no words or thoughts could do.
We mortal people naturally find it hard to cope with immortal things, with the great mysteries of existence. This is why we move so much into signs and symbols and speak in parables. There seems little doubt in this regard that the GAA was the prime, dominant symbol in the lives of the Reavey brothers as it was with so many young people in rural Irish life. Their lives were based around its dominant presence. It provided their sense of self worth, their sense of identity, of belonging, of status in the community.
Armagh captain for the day, Eamonn Reavey, and nephew of the deceased brothers, led the county side out onto the field to long applause. It was poignant but liberating, as it seemed the very game itself provided a peace and closure that had not been there. It was as if Gaelic football itself had returned to say thanks to them and bless them for their young years of devotion.
On behalf of the wider domain of Irish culture, Gaelic football has made a special journey here today to assert that the Reavey brothers and their parents and family will not be forgotten, that they will ever dearly belong, that all are faithful sons and daughters of deep Irish things.