One of Summerhill’s great unsung heroes Brendan Ryan points to a photo of the 1976 Summerhill SFC winning team. Photo: Gerry

'I liked playing football but I was a star that never shone'

To enter the home of Brendan and Nan Ryan close to the village of Summerhill is to be enveloped in a wave of good old traditional Irish hospitality and charm.

You are asked to come in and offered tea and coffee, or anything else you might wish to imbibe. Homemade brown bread and other niceties are on the menu.

It's not long before the conversation turns to a subject that, you suspect, is frequently discussed around the large table in the well-illuminated kitchen - the fortunes and many misfortunes of the Meath football team.

The GAA has been an integral part of Brendan Ryan's life since he was a youngster. He played for Summerhill in his youth and, now - and at the age of 87 - he is still involved with the club. Still contributing in whatever way he can.

His most recent project is selling tickets for the club's fund-raising draw and, you suspect, like most challenges he has tackled in his life, he has gone about that task with a gusto and drive that is exemplary.

The draw that took place last Saturday had some big prizes including a BMW 330e, no less, for the winner. It was all part of a fund-raising drive by the club as they seek to carry out development work that will cost, it has been estimated, in the region of €250,000. It's the kind of sums that are needed to run a GAA club these days.

It's all a world away from the days when Brendan played football for Summerhill. The days before the club even had a home they could call their own. Days when the world was a very different place in so many ways.


There was a lot going on, both in Ireland and abroad in late May 1937.

People in Ireland would have been shocked to pick up the papers and read headlines such as appeared in the Irish Independent for the edition of the 28th May 1937. "500 perish in Mexican mine disaster," screamed the headline. The story told how people in a Mexican village were "engulfed" by an avalanche of sand when a barrier at a nearby mine gave away.

Back in Ireland the Meath Chronicle reported in late May how work was proceeding satisfactorily in connection with the provision of roadways for "the new carpet factory to be erected in Navan." The Meath town would soon become famous far and wide for it's production of carpets. In the national press there was much discussion about the role of women in Irish society and how that should be enshrined in the new constitution. That's a discussion that certainly got plenty of airing recently too.

On the 28th of that month also Brendan Ryan was born to Rose and Kit Ryan. Brendan was one of seven in his family. Growing up in the 1940s had it's advantages but there was plenty of challenges too.

"My father, who was herd (herdsman) in the nearby Barry estate, became very ill with asthma, he couldn't work, there was no real cure for it at the time, and it was left to my mother to try and raise the family as best she could. My father struggled with the illness all his life yet he lived until he was 92, my mother only lived to be 54," Brendan recalls.

As as he grew up, young Brendan developed a passion for Gaelic football and particularly his local club.

He recalls playing for Summerhill - invariably lining out as a goalkeeper. "We played our games in Shaw's field in the village, although there wasn't near as many houses there as there is now. We would go up there on a Sunday and play a game or just have a kick around. We used to tog out in Shaw's yard, sometimes in the cowshed," he recalls. "I liked playing football but I was a star that never shone," he adds with a characteristic laugh.

The club didn't have much but gradually their fortunes improved. "The Land Commission gave us the football pitch where the club is now and we did the best we could with it. I was able to get some ESB poles which we used as goalposts."

At first championship triumphs proved elusive for the club which was only formed in 1931 - but in time all that was to change particularly in the 1970s when they won four successive Meath SFC titles and became Leinster champions.


Brendan Ryan is a big Meath supporter. Always was. He followed the Meath team every step of the way as they landed the Sam Maguire for the first time in 1949, when Cavan were defeated in the final. People cycled up to Croke Park that day from places like Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin and - we can safely assume - Summerhill too.

In '54 the Royals did it again and defeated Kerry to take home the famous trophy for the second time. Brendan talks about the excitement around the county at the time, the anticipation before big games, the delight generated by the victories. He remembers it like it all happened yesterday. They were tough times in many ways - but there were golden moments too to savour.

Brendan names the full 1949 team without hesitation - the heroics of players such as Brian Smyth, Peter McDermott, Paddy Meegan, Bill Halpenny and Jim Kearney are ingrained into his consciousness. They were like gods, he recalls. Giants that walked among the people.

He recalls going to Summerhill and getting a lift to Croke Park for one of the many big games Meath played in those, pioneering, success-strewn days. There wasn't much of an alternative for folk back then, except the train from some of the local stations, a bus perhaps, or the trusty old bike.

When Meath rose to the summit again in the 1980s Brendan was still there, still loyal to the Royal. Victories such as in the 1987 All-Ireland final were greatly embellished and enriched for him by the fact Meath were captained by a Summerhill man - Mick Lyons - who he has great time for, and respect also.

By then Brendan was the father of a grown up family. In 1963 he had married Ann Reilly or Nan as she is widely known. He recalls how they met going to a dance in Kildalkey.

"I had a Ford Prefect at the time and Nan was with a few of her friends outside the shop in Summerhill and they asked me for a lift to the dance in Kildalkey. They travelled with us and coming home she sat in the front seat beside. It was a good sign," he adds with another of his characteristic laughs.

They went on to have a family of four boys - Christopher, Julian, Dennis and Raymond. Now Brendan and Nan have 12 grandchildren. These days Christopher or Christy is also the Summerhill chairman.

Brendan has worked in various jobs over the years. He was employed with Meath Lime for 21 years. When redundancy hit there he turned to working his own small farm. He milked cows as a commercial enterprise for a time before a real talent in how to fix water pumps landed him a job that involved going to farms and other places. He enjoyed it, meeting people, having the banter and the chat. Of course football featured prominently.

Even though he's now retired many years he still keeps himself busy. He looks after a small herd of cattle and that gets him up and going in the morning.

He believes in keeping fit and occupied, both the mind and body. He never smoked and that has helped him sustain a robust health. He might have the odd glass of whiskey if an occasion demands it. He refuses to be bowed down by technology either. He's learning about social media all the time.

Brendan's home is also the HQ for the well-known Ryan's Kitchens business. That too ensures there is always somebody around; people coming and going.

Old friends of Brendan regularly call to the house for a chat about football and perhaps the good old days. Brendan was inducted into the Meath Sean Gael ranks some years ago for his services to the old Association; that was a real honour.

He enjoys going to Pairc Tailteann to fill in as a steward for games. He meets people has a laugh and a chat; it's another way to keep in touch with the GAA community. His community.

Then he will return home. Back to Summerhill and to his home which, as any visitor will testify, is a haven of hospitality and charm.