A death too many

Swedish fans drinking in the sunshine at Euro 2012.

Following the discovery of the body of James Nolan, the following piece was submitted to two Irish newspapers for publication. Both editors said they liked it a lot, but both rejected it. 


It was about 35 degrees in the Euro 2012 Fan Zone in Kiev when my phone rang, but the call still chilled me to the bone.

A journalist colleague rang to say that Polish police were sure that the body recovered from the river Brda in Poland was that of James Nolan, the young Irish soccer fan from Wicklow who went missing on Saturday night.

His wallet and phone had been found. All they were waiting for was a formal identification of his remains by a member of the family.

The sickening feeling brought me back to March 2008, when another young Wicklow man died in similar circumstances in Stockholm, where I have lived for 13 years.

It was a bitterly cold weekend in March and the entire Irish community was out celebrating St Patrick’s Day. John Aherne, who was visiting his friend Karl, left early, stopping off for another drink on the way home.

It was the last time he was seen alive.

On the Sunday we had our annual St Patrick’s Day parade, but later that evening we began to worry. Karl reported John missing, and the slow, agonising search began. It concluded abruptly when John’s body was recovered from the water near where he was last seen.

In truth, it could have been any of us who were out celebrating in Stockholm that weekend, just as any of the Irish fans who were drinking and celebrating in Poland could have met the same fate as James Nolan.

I didn’t know John personally, but because of his death I stopped drinking. I had two small children at home, and his passing made me realize how fragile our lives are..

I still go out, I still enjoy myself. I still go to Ireland games – I was in Estonia the night we beat them 4-0 to all but book our place at the Euros. When the partying gets out of hand, I leave the others to it.

But it seems to me that we no longer know when to stop, or even slow down. That fact has never been more apparent than when Ireland play away.

The joyous party that night in Tallinn slowly descended into drunken oblivion, and when I was leaving my hotel at half past six the next morning, the streets were awash with puke and piss and drunken Irish people. The locals were horrified.

I’ve been based with the Swedish team in Kiev and their fans have been putting away fairly large quantities of alcohol, but the stories that came out of the travelling Irish camp in Poland tell a tale of almost Olympic consumption.

It should come as no surprise then that John Delaney, CEO of the FAI and essentially the man who should be Ireland’s number one football supporter, is seen making tired and emotional speeches on Youtube.

Forget the “Drink Responsibly” campaign and the lip service paid to moderation – Delaney is leading by example, and it’s not a good one. We need to have a serious word with ourselves about our attitude to drink and sport and our national identity.

Go to the Croke Park museum this summer and you’ll see the trophy that we play for in the Nordic GAA championship. It is named after John Aherne, who died so needlessly when out having the craic in Stockholm.

Deeply loved and missed by his family and friends, it is one of the few traces of him that is left in this life. Now another young man from Wicklow – an outstanding soccer player, by all accounts – has gone the same way.

Without an autopsy report it’s too early to say definitively that it was alcohol that took James Nolan’s life.

But what we can say for sure is that drink didn’t help.

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