An amazing story of courage

Aughnasheelin's Vincie Dolan - A Champion of Life's Battles

 Michael Fitzpatrick

Reporter:

Michael Fitzpatrick

Email:

mikefitznyc@gmail.com

Aughnasheelin's Vincie Dolan - A Champion of Life's Battles

Vincie pictured outside the church he and Kathleen married in

She waited for her son with the others. Outside, by the fence. A simple, yet effective structure, comprised of timber and wire, constructed many years earlier, by sons and fathers of a previous generation.

Immediately beyond that partition, was a grass verge, acting as a buffer between the fenced-off garden to the front of the Dolan family home, and the adjacent boreen outside it.

This little-used, narrow country road, led in one direction to Ballinamore, and in others, to Fenagh, Keshcarrigan and Drumshanbo. All considerably larger than their own tiny hamlet, Aughnasheelin, where Mary Ann Dolan’s family had lived, laughed, loved, and indeed, like the son they’d been waiting for, left, for decades.

Some of her other children waited with her. There’d been nine in all, and, but for teenage twins Ann and Kay, had grown-up by then. Neighbours waited too. As did her son’s old teammates, lads who’d battled with him on the playing fields of Connacht.

Schoolpals and men he’d worked alongside, at Ballinamore Creamery, before he emigrated to New York, seven years earlier, in 1959.

After sixteen weeks comatose in an American hospital and months of rehabilitation Vincie had arrived home


They stood silently, by her side, as hope and optimism battled fear and anxiety. Staring off into the Leitrim air, they waited, anticipating the sight of a motor car on the horizon, listening for the distant hum of an engine, as it brought her boy home.
Mary Ann was a strong woman, a survivor. She’d had to be.

Having lost her husband Jack, seventeen years earlier, she’d been left with nine children to raise, alone, but for the help of her sister Bridie Crampton, another young widow. Together, these courageous Irish women raised their twelve children, against so many odds, in the harsh economic climate of 1950s Ireland.

Now, one of Mary Ann’s children was coming home to her. Another survivor, but only just. His American adventure at a sudden and regrettable end, and she’d have to prove her strength once more.

She paced along the thin strip of earth, which ran the length of the green outside the family home, dividing it somewhat evenly. This cragged dirtline, just a foot in width, and of an indeterminate length, had been caused by years of children playing, and neighbours out strolling, until an informal, slimline footpath had formed, loosely connecting the sparse line of homes, that dotted this part of the east Leitrim countryside in 1966.

The 1959 Leitrim Gaelic Football team of New York with the Ballantine Trophy. Vincie is pictured in the front row, third from left

This rural postcard setting, was to be the scene of a much-heralded, yet worrying, homecoming. There were hugs shared, hands shaken and tears shed. Gentle sobbing could be heard, discreetly piercing the quiet stillness of that somber Summer afternoon, as they thought of fond memories, and fretted over his, and indeed their own, uncertain futures.

Word had reached the homestead, that he was en route. The final leg of his 3,000 mile odyssey almost complete. Seven years after he’d left Ireland for New York, Peter Vincent (‘Vincie’) Dolan was coming home.

It was unlike before, when he’d arrived back for his brothers’ ordinations into religious orders. Then, amidst a hum of excited anticipation, he’d hug his mother, meet pals, and chat with neighbours, before jetting back to New York. This trip was not by choice, but necessity. He was home, they’d hoped, to recover.

Eventually, the car came into view. After sixteen weeks comatose in an American hospital, a further six months of rehabilitation in the US, then several more months at a similar facility in County Dublin, he’d arrived.

Back to the little village where he'd climbed trees and chased girls, played cowboys and kicked a ball. Rampaged across the playing fields of Aughnasheelin and beyond, before moving on, like so many young men and women before and after him, to New York City.

Their handsome brother, their loyal friend, their courageous teammate, her beautiful boy.

The car slowed by the Dolan homestead, and gently, discreetly, edged onto the grass, moving the expectant crowd back, before rolling to a silent halt, allowing it space to unload its passengers.

The doors opened, and Mary Ann’s second eldest son, Father Leo, stepped out. Vincie’s fiancee, Kathleen Cafferkey, was next, as pretty as they’d remembered, yet now, there was a look of anxiety, etched into her delicate features. The tears, that had been threatening all afternoon, like rain itching to seep from darkening Leitrim clouds, broke free as arms reached out, to hold her, to reassure her, that they were there, they’d always be there, to help them ease back into a life that had taken so much from them all.

His American dream lay shattered on a sports-field in The Bronx

Fr. Leo gently assisted Vincie, onto Leitrim soil. With his neighbours’ assistance, they helped him to his feet, and carried him towards his mother and awaiting siblings.

Despite it all, he was still here, there’d been much talk, that he’d not make it. He was home. His Stateside adventure over, and his American dream lay shattered on a sports-field in The Bronx.

Unable to walk unaided, he could not speak, was legally blind, had difficulty hearing, would be prone to stroke-like symptoms, and he would never be able to work again for the rest of his life. Vincie Dolan was 27-years-old.

He’d left for New York City in 1958, having just turned twenty. A Gaelic football fanatic, Vincie had been working at Ballinamore Creamery, had many friends and a large, close-knit family, but he was anxious to try bigger, more exciting things, and, while the west of Ireland may have had greener pastures, things didn’t get much bigger, or more exciting, than New York City.


Vincie and Kathleen on their wedding day, in 1967

In 1959, Vincie’s friend Packie Mulvey had driven him to Cork, from where he sailed to New York. Such was the ferocity of the waves on the way over, that Vincie was put off sailing for life. The younger of his two children, Leo (47), has since quipped; ‘I don’t think he’s been on a boat in the fifty-odd years since, not even the Staten Island Ferry!’.

Vincie was the third eldest child of Mary Ann and the late Jack. He’d been enthralled by stories of New York, having heard them from his American-born father, who’d tragically passed away at the age of 49, in 1949. This left Mary Ann to raise Vincie and his brothers Joe (who served as a Catholic priest until his passing in 2019), Leo (now Father Leo), Paddy, Jackie, Jimmy and Tony (now Brother Tony) who were all just boys at the time, while twins Kay and Ann, were mere babies.

Upon being invited over to New York by family friend Packie McTague, there was no stopping young Vincie.

According to his sister Ann; ‘“Mam told him not to leave, she said he’d be better off staying in Ireland and joining the Gardai, but his heart was set on trying New York, and, that was it, off he went”.

Once he’d arrived, after a stint working in a warehouse, Vincie got a job with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, driving buses, before serving his time with the US Army. He continued to play Gaelic Football, joining the Big Apple-based Leitrim side, and before long, met the love of his life, Mayo girl, Kathleen Cafferkey.

According to Vincie’s cousin, Pidgie Murray (nee McTague, Kathleen’s best friend at the time); ‘It was love at first sight. We were at a dance, I think in midtown Manhattan, and after she saw Vincie across the dancefloor, she whispered to me; ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry’.

The young County Mayo beauty, and the strapping Leitrim full-back got acquainted, and before long, were ‘going steady’. They’d often ‘double-date’ with Pidgie and her partner (and now husband of over forty years), Vincie’s close friend, and Leitrim teammate, Pat Murray. Pat, a now-retired New York City firefighter, smiles at remembering the fun times the couples had together.

“We were roommates, Vincie and I. Once we thought we’d impress the girls, by inviting them over for a home-cooked meal at our place in Sunnyside. It didn’t quite work out, as when Kathleen and Pidgie arrived, and Vincie and I set about cooking, we turned on the stove, I think for the first time ever (!), only to witness dozens of cockroaches dashing across the floor escaping the heat. The girls were shocked, and probably disgusted, so we decided to go out for dinner instead!”

The mid ‘60s in the US, was an exciting, if troubling era. It was a time between Kennedys, post Jack and pre-Bobby, before Woodstock, and the word ‘Vietnam’ was about to enter global conversations. Vincie was perhaps fortunate to have avoided serving during the conflict in Asia, having completed his military service, before tensions had escalated there.

Winning the New York Championship, and then the Ballantine Cup, with Leitrim, he continued to play before passionate crowds at Gaelic Park in the Bronx every Sunday.


Vincie receiving his discharge papers from the US Army (1965)

In early 1965, after his honourable discharge from the US Army, Vincie joined the NYPD, successfully undergoing training, and graduating later that year from the Police Academy, thus ensuring that his professional future was secure.

He’d an adoring fiancee, a packed social life, an extended family in the US (his cousins, Norman and Peter Crampton had settled there too), and dozens of pals from within the Gaelic Football community. It seemed that the young Aughnasheelin native, had it all, and he did.

Until, that is, one afternoon in May 1965, when Vincie Dolan’s world came crashing down around him.

Sunday, May 16, 1965, was a day like any other in New York. Crowds of Irish emigrants made their way from neighbourhoods all over the five boroughs, and further afield in Long Island, Connecticut, Westchester and New Jersey, to enjoy an afternoon of football and hurling at the city’s GAA headquarters, Gaelic Park, at West 240th Street and Broadway. On the schedule, was a clash between old rivals, Kerry and Leitrim.

The game itself, which resulted in a Kerry victory, was, for the most part, a typical encounter between two strong footballing sides, as they aimed for that year’s championship crown.

An adrenaline-fuelled, physically demanding affair, the game, as many sporting occasions did, always carried the faint, yet real, threat of serious injury. Luckily however, very few players over the decades had been badly hurt during such an occasion at Gaelic Park.

That was to change. Vincie Dolan, playing at full-back, was crouched down for a second, holding the ball, considering as quickly as he could, what options he had, in order to stop another Kerry attack.

He was attempting to switch the direction of play away from the Leitrim goal and back upfield towards his teammates on the forward-line, where perhaps they’d nick a point, or even, a goal.

In the midst of this manoeuvre, as the Kerry attack attempted to regain possession, Vincie received a substantial blow to the side of the head. It’s still not certain, and most likely never will be, whether it was a boot, or a knee, which arrived, forcefully, at full-speed, knocking the young Aughnasheelin man down, but it quickly became apparent, that this was to be no run-of-the-mill injury.

Says Pat Murray, who played alongside his friend that day: “We knew right away, that something serious was wrong. There’d been injuries before, we’d seen so many over the years.

This though, what happened Vincie, we just knew. When he didn’t get up and brush himself off, as he’d normally do, even after the strongest challenge, we knew that this was very, very serious”.

Vincie Dolan, the 26-year-old full-back, who’d graduated from the New York Police Academy just weeks earlier, and was about to start patrolling the Big Apple’s streets as a cop, lay unconscious on the grass of Gaelic Park.

It would be over four months before he opened his eyes again.

Players from both sides were overcome with emotion. While some stared in disbelief at the tragedy unfolding before them, others prayed, while more simply broke down. They all hoped he’d be up and about in seconds.

"The word was, he was going to die”

It wasn’t to be. Vincie was taken to Jewish Memorial Hospital at 196th Street and Broadway, where he remained, motionless and comatose, for over four months.

Says Leitrim native and long-time friend and former teammate of Vincie’s, Mike Carty, now a successful New York-based businessman; “We were devastated. I forget who called me, but we didn’t know until the next day the full extent of it. Among other teams too, it was just such a huge shock. We’d seen other injuries of course, but nothing like what happened Vincie. The word was, he was going to die.”

Leitrim GAA historian and former coach with the senior team in New York, Frank Brady, wrote in his book; ‘A Century of Leitrim Football 1904-2004’, that PJ Grimes, the Irish Echo’s publisher, visited Vincent in hospital shortly after the incident; ‘Where he found Vincent motionless. His brother, Rev. Leo Dolan, recently over from England, was holding his hand, breathing into his mouth and whispering into his ear, but all to no avail, absolutely no response’.

His friends in the footballing community were devastated, and though not allowed visit, were afforded daily updates, through intermediaries like Pat McTague, Paddy McGreevy and Joe McInerney, among others.

In the subsequent months, Leitrim were, according to Frank Brady’s book; ‘Conspicuously absent from the playing fields. The players had decided not to play while the young life of a very popular player hung precariously in the balance. Football had little appeal in such troubling times’.

Extensive fundraising went on in the subsequent months. Says Pidgie Murray; “He’d a lot of good friends here in New York. What happened, helped bring out the good in a lot of people”.

Kathleen visited her adored Vincie daily, and stayed by his bedside, hoping and praying

Friends and teammates such as Mike Carty, Frankie Dwyer, Seamus Wrynn, Mike Dillon, Pat and Seamus O’Brien, Christy Creamer, Jackie Brennan, Joe and Margaret Taylor, Patsy Gallagher and Joe and Eilish Bohan, and so many others, raised much-needed funding for Vincie’s medical and living expenses. It was unlikely that Vincie would ever work again.

Pidgie Murray talks of the strength Kathleen showed throughout the ordeal. She visited her adored Vincie daily, and stayed by his bedside, hoping and praying.

‘She was just so beautiful and smart’, says Pidgie. ‘The nicest person, she really kept everyone going, especially Vincent, during such a difficult time. She was so strong, and had such great faith, that he’d get better’.


Vincie pictured with his brother Father Leo, and younger son, also Leo last August

Days turned to weeks. Kathleen spent over four months visiting Vincie, talking, praying and waiting. Finally, after sixteen weeks in a coma, Vincie Dolan woke. With his speech, sight, and hearing severely affected, he was unable to walk, or use much of his right side. There was a long, challenging, difficult road ahead.

Kathleen was loved by the entire Dolan family. Her daily vigils by his hospital bed, talking to her sweetheart, until she’d to leave for a few hours sleep before coming back to do it all over again, was heartbreaking for his family to watch. She’d hold his hand, kiss his forehead, and tell him all her news, as he lay there, motionless.

It was then, a difficult conversation. It was because of the great love that Vincie’s family had for their future sister-in-law, that they took her to one side to offer her guidance. To remind her, that they were there. For her, and for Vincie. He’d never be alone.

His brothers, Father Leo and Father Joe, approached her. A charismatic, ambitious, smart woman, with, they felt, an incredible life ahead of her in one of the most exciting cities in the world. Nobody, they informed her, would think any differently of her, if she were to step aside, cut her ties and move on, without Vincie.

Her fiancee had spent four months in a coma, and faced a very uncertain future. If he were to survive the coming months, there was little doubt that he’d need constant care for the rest of his life. The family would still love her, regardless.

Kathleen was not going to step aside.

It didn’t matter. To Kathleen, Vincie was still that handsome chap she’d spotted across a crowded dancefloor in New York. The boy she’d danced with. Spoken of. The girlish giggles with her pals. The man she fell in love with, and told her best friend that she wanted to marry. Whose courageous performances in Gaelic Park she’d cheered on, and who gave her such pride as he got his badge and prepared to patrol the Big Apple Streets as a New York City cop.

Kathleen was not going to step aside. Vincie’s family couldn’t love her more.

Four strenuous months of rehabilitation at a Manhattan clinic followed, where, for hours each day, he learned to walk again, to speak once more. Kathleen, as ever, by his side, for every shaky step, and each struggled word.

Upon leaving the centre, his brother Jackie, who’d arrived to help with Vincie’s daily needs, flew home to Ireland with him, where Vincie commenced upon yet more rehabilitation, this time in Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin.

Kathleen stayed behind in New York, to tie up their loose ends, before returning home to be with Vincie, and to travel on to Aughnasheelin, to visit Mary Ann, and the extended Dolan family.

The couple settled in Ireland, defying the odds that had been stacked against them, and married in August 1967. Sons Phelim (January 1970), then Leo (July 1972) were born, and Jackie had built a house in Kilcloon, County Meath, where the young family moved to, and settled happily.

They’d been dealt some extraordinary hardship, but were coping, as well as they could.  Then, in 1975, the Dolan family were handed another crushing blow.

Following a number of misdiagnoses, where it was thought she’d been suffering from mastitis, a not-uncommon inflammation of the breast, often associated with breast-feeding, Kathleen, not long after seeing her beloved mother pass away earlier in the year, was informed that she, just like her mother, had developed breast cancer.

She’d a mastectomy in late 1975, and the family moved back to the US, primarily for its superior healthcare. For a time, the young family lived in Queens, where Kathleen received extensive treatment for her illness, before they moved on to Ridgewood, New Jersey.

The boys started school, and Vincent enjoyed his daily strolls, strengthening his legs, and continuing his rehabilitation, until Kathleen’s health began to deteriorate rapidly, as the cancer spread throughout her young body.


Vincie Dolan, a man of courage and fortitude who overcame tragedy and loss

It was during this time, that the family was greatly supported by another of Vincie’s brothers, Jimmy, who though now married with children, at the time was a Catholic priest (since leaving the priesthood, he’s worked as a psychologist at Duke University), who brought her to her hospital appointments, assisted Vincie with his exercises, and was an invaluable source of moral support, during these continuing troubled times.

Kathleen’s father passed away in July of 1978, and with Vincie’s sight and speech still greatly affected, and she herself being seriously ill, spending more and more time in hospital for treatment, it was time to make yet another difficult decision during this emotionally-draining time.

Reluctantly, and with heavy hearts, it was decided that the boys, Leo and Phelim, would move back to Ireland temporarily, where their uncle Padraig took them, to stay with Kathleen’s sister Mary and her husband John, in Belmullet, County Mayo. It was yet another extraordinarily uncertain time for the Dolans.

The scene of an adoring mother, with her adoring husband and two little boys, tragically, didn’t last long


As her health continued to deteriorate, the weeks spent without her boys, Leo and Phelim became too much to bear. She decided that she could not go on any further without her babies, so she flew home, insisting upon arriving right in time for Leo’s seventh birthday, in July 1979, before taking him and Phelim, now nine, back to New York to be with her and Vincie.

The scene of an adoring mother, with her adoring husband and two little boys, tragically, didn’t last long. After a few rallies, Kathleen Cafferkey, the incredible tower of strength from the west of Ireland, just weeks after celebrating little Leo’s seventh birthday, passed away. She was 39-years old.

The family were shattered, after one enormous, life-changing tragedy, they’d been dealt with another, and the day after her funeral, Vincie and his boys, Leo and Phelim, were on a hastily-arranged trip (thanks to Vincie’s cousin Norman Crampton, whom he’d grown up with after their respective fathers had died) back to Ireland.

They settled (for six months, before buying the house next door), with Vincie’s sister Ann O’Hora and her husband, Garda Mick, in Kilcloon, County Meath. It was a devastating time for all concerned, but they got by, with the incredible help of Ann and Mick.

Says Vincie’s pal Mike Carty; “How he progressed after being so near death. It was an amazing thing, the recovery he made. Nobody expected it. Being legally blind, to lose his wife so tragically, and raise his two boys. An incredible family”.

Vincie’s son Leo, now 47, says, that despite everything they’d encountered: “We’d very happy childhoods, in Dublin, then back to New York, then when we eventually moved back, after Mam died, to Kilcloon, where we lived right next door to dad’s sister Ann, and her husband (Garda) Mick.

"They were like second parents to us, and helped enormously, with our growing-up. Us, and the O’Hora's, it was like open house, I’d often be raiding their fridge and watching their TV, and vice-versa! Uncle Mick was super, he did so much work for us, and Ann would do a lot of what any mother would do for us, meeting our teachers, bringing us on days out. A very happy childhood’.

Vincie’s own mother, Mary Ann, lived a long life, eventually passing away at 97, in 2001. Says Ann; ‘It affected her greatly, what happened to Vincie, I’m not sure she ever fully got over it’.

Leo and Phelim Dolan, the two sons of Vincie and the late Kathleen, are now married and settled-down with families of their own, and live very close to their father, and indeed, the O’Hora family, Ann and Mick and their children, who were, essentially, an extra set of parents for them growing up.

Ann and Mick, a Garda who worked closely with former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, would pick the boys up from school, bring them to doctors’ appointments, cheer them on in sports, and be that extra source of support, not only for them, but for Vincie too.

Remarkably, for a man who’s seen his life turned upside-down on a number of occasions, Vincie Dolan, now 81, remains upbeat. He struggles, of course.

He’s had difficulty walking, which he overcame, by often going for hour-long strolls in Kilcloon, even trekking the six miles to Dunboyne, before calling in to his cousin John Crampton on the way back, for tea and a chat. Vincie, a lifelong teetotaller, has never drank alcohol.

His fighting spirit, his dry wit and good humour are still there


There has of course, been severe speech issues, his hearing was never quite the same, and his sight didn’t improve. The fighting spirit however, that once propelled him in matches at Gaelic Park, and on playing fields throughout Leitrim, all those years ago, as well as his dry wit and good humour, is still there.

Says Pat Murray; ‘I used to joke with Vincie, as we’d be driving to go to training, or even to a game, and we’d approach a toll-bridge. Vincie’d automatically fall asleep, and then miraculously wake, once I’d paid the toll!’.

The positive attitude never left him either. Says his sister Ann: “He never got depressed over all he went through. Only around the time of Kathleen’s anniversary, would he get a little down, but he’d try not to show it, for the sake of the boys”.


Upon meeting him, in the Kilcloon, County Meath home, which he’s lived in, beside Ann and Mick for almost fifty years, I remarked upon what a beautiful, peaceful part of the countryside it was. All green, the hedges, trees, fields, even the GAA flags, green for Meath, partnered with gold, occasionally spotted on gates, trees and shop windows, the Kilcloon folk showing their support for their county.

All except proud Leitrim man Vincie Dolan, who looked at me, smiled, and whispered; ‘I can’t stand Meath people!’, before cracking up laughing.

This story would not have been possible without the extraordinary help of Pat and Pidgie Murray, Mike Carty, Mike Wrynn and the Dolan, O’Hora and Crampton families.

About the Author:

Michael Fitzpatrick is a Dublin-born writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in; The Irish Times, The Irish Echo and The Derry Journal among many others. Married to Mei, and Dad of Liam, Emmett and Fiona, he's written a number of plays, and has worked as a sportswriter, an entertainment reporter and currently focuses mostly on true crime and human interest pieces (missing persons being one subject of specialty). He has been working on Vincie's story, for over twelve months. Michael can be contacted at  mikefitznyc@gmail.com.