'I tell people I have Parkinson's... there's no point hiding it'


PAUL FITZPATRICK spoke to former Cavan minor footballer Harry McCabe, who is undertaking a novel fundraiser this Monday.

St Anne’s Park, Bailieborough, June, 1981. Cootehill Celtic are playing Ramor United in the Senior Championship. The rain is pouring down. Ramor win easily but a young Cootehill defender catches the eye of the county minor selectors.

“I wasn’t aware that Hugh McInerney and Paddy Maguire were there watching the match because Redhills were playing afterwards against Shercock,” recalls Harry McCabe, 41 years on.

“I got word on Monday evening to go to Breffni on Tuesday. I trained Tuesday, my Leaving Cert started on Wednesday, I trained Thursday and on the Saturday we played a challenge match against Dublin in Parnell Park.

“I trained on the Tuesday and Thursday after that and then we were beaten in the semi-final by Armagh. But the team had made an Ulster League final and that game had been postponed and when it was played in September, I ended up playing as a corner-back in it and we won it in ’Blayney.”

The following year, Cavan again won the league section and were fancied to go well in the Ulster Championship. By now, young McCabe was a regular starter alongside his clubmate, Amby McMullen. Football was the centre of their universe.

“We had no car at home and Amby’s father was a hackney driver. There were days we had to thumb to Cavan for training. Wee Benny Brady from Laragh who worked in the White Horse took us over to Breffni for training sessions then later on and Paddy Kelly used to come from Bailieborough to collect us.”

Hopes were high going into the championship but Antrim spoiled the party, winning the minor and senior games at Breffni Park. The only consolation was that Antrim went on to win the Ulster Minor Championship.

Off the pitch, the 1980s were a tough time for young people. Work was scarce and Harry ended up on a Fás scheme at the building of Drumlin House. Many of his friends and teammates emigrated and America was drawing him in too - but football kept pulling him back.

“Nearly everybody of my generation who hadn’t a qualification or didn’t go to college ended up in America and I had my mind made up that if I didn’t get something, I was going to go too.

“But an opportunity came up in Abbots in Cootehill and I started in October ’83 and I never left it until last year.

“It was marvellous, a great place to work. I have a lot to be thankful for to get a job near home. The football was a factor in staying around home; the first 10 years there, I worked a day job to be able to play football, to train in the evenings and play matches at weekends. After that, I went on shift work.”

By then, the memories of Cootehill Celtic’s mid-century glory days were still fresh. The idols of those days were all around. Football was in Harry’s blood; two of his grand-uncles are in the oldest surviving club team photo from 1908 and his father Arthur was a club legend, a three-time Senior Championship winner in the 1950s. Cootehill was very much a football town yet the team was, not surprisingly, struggling to live up to the standard set back in the day.

“In terms of the championship, we played Senior Championship when I first started. We were often knocked out in the first round and that was the end of the summer’s football. But in ’84 we got a run.

“We were drawn against Ballyhaise and it was played in Redhills. I had booked a holiday to the States and we were supposed to fly out the Friday after the game. We beat Ballyhaise and I ended up selling my ticket to another fella.

“The plan was that if we were beaten by Arva in the quarter-final, I was going to fly out the next morning but we beat Arva and then we drew Ballinagh in the semi-final and we were beaten in a close game. It was a great opportunity in hindsight. Just on the day… we ran them tight but that was it.

“It was always my dream to get to a championship final, especially with my father’s success. We were beaten in three intermediate semi-finals as well by Munterconnaught, Templeport and Cornafean. Never made it to a final.”

As a player, a Division 2 league medal in 1988 was all Harry and his colleagues managed, despite their best efforts. In the 1990s, he became a selector and won another league; later, he was again on the sideline when Lavey got the better of the Celts in the Intermediate Championship final.

“Then the best one of all was actually seeing a Cootehill team win a championship final against Ballyhaise. I wasn’t involved but my brother Thomas was a selector. Every club should get to see their team win a championship. It’s a great thing.”


Terry Coyle Park, November, 2018. The winter sun warms the spectators, gathered for an U20 championship match.

Harry travelled to Cavan Town with his brother Thomas and Thomas’s two sons. As he closed the door of the car behind him, he noticed something very strange. A tremor in his hand.

“I walked into the game and sure we were talking away to different ones. I closed my fist and then the minute I opened it again, the shake would start again. I stood in the stand against the back wall, the sun was coming across me. I kept my hand in my pocket or behind my back.

“I knew that day it was something big.”

He let it settle for a while. Two weeks passed and he did nothing. Then, his partner Briege noticed it.

“Briege said to me ‘you may go to the doctor with that’. I went to the doctor on Christmas week and of course, that day, no shake.

“So I told him the symptoms. In fairness, he did all the neurological tests and he thought it was a trapped nerve in my shoulder and he told me to come back after Christmas if the symptoms persisted.

“I spent all of Christmas not telling anybody, only myself and Briege knew about it. I knew it was something but I didn’t want to upset Christmas for everybody else. Then on the 17th of January, myself and Thomas were cutting sticks and he said to me ‘jaysus, your right hand has an awful shake’.

“I told him I was going to the doctor on Monday. So I went in and the doctor says to me ‘what’s up with you now, Harry?’ and I said the shake was back.

“And at that stage, the tremor was in my arm and my leg and it was very pronounced that day. He got me to strip off and lie up on the bench and when I was lying, I gave a jump and I could see the doctor’s demeanour changing completely.

“He asked me was I in VHI, I said I was and he said ‘right, I’ll have an appointment for you in the next three weeks’.”

The door of the surgery closed behind him and he knew that things had changed.


Harry McCabe will Kick of his 3 Point Challenge on Easter Monday when he will Kick 3 points in all 40 club grounds in Co Cavan in aid of Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's and Motor Neurone Disease. Photo by Alex Coleman.

The Hermitage Clinic in Dublin, February 5, 2019. A meeting with Dr Brian Murray, who runs through a battery of tests.

“He did a smell test, he did the hands. He sat me down then and he said ‘have you googled your symptoms?’ and I said ‘no’.

“He was surprised. ‘You haven’t googled it?’ he asked me again and I told him I hadn’t.

“I said ‘I went to Dr O’Hea and he sent me to you and I expect you to diagnose me today’. He said ‘you have to have an idea’. I said ‘I have.’ He said ‘what do you think it is?’

“I said ‘it’s one of three. It’s either MS, Parkinson’s or, I hope to God it’s not, Motor Neurone.’

“He said ‘we’ll rule out the ‘Ms’. I’ll be diagnosing you with Parkinson’s.’”

At first, it doesn’t sink in. By the time he walks out of the room, you could even say he was relaxed.

“It was funny, he asked me had I much of a sense of smell and I said no, not much in the last 20 years. But I always put it down to breaking my cheekbone playing football.

“He told me my sense of smell going could have been the very first symptom. It takes time to progress.”

Dr Murray prescribes medication, blockers and so on, and tells Harry to watch out for a few things. Buying expensive items, out of the ordinary. Starting to gamble. Becoming obsessed with pornography!

“He said to tell him if any of those things happen. It’s the chemical reaction.

“So it was light-hearted enough at that stage but it was only when I came out and I was paying the secretary and Briege was standing there that it really hit me. When I saw Briege…”

It was then he broke down for the first time. Briege’s sister Margaret is also living with Parkinson's and while Margaret has been an inspiration to Harry, it didn’t make it any easier telling his fiancée the news.

The first few days were dreadfully difficult but he made a decision early on to be open about it.

“I got it hard to tell family and then friends, people at work. But once I got that out of the way, I have always been straight up about it and tell people I have Parkinson's because there’s no point in hiding it. You have to get on with it.

“The first three or four days, telling people, I got really emotional. But after that, I just talk about it. It’s something you have to get used to, I always find you’re better talking things out than keeping them locked up inside you because it’s better for you."

Harry McCabe with his Cootehill teammates at the opening of Hugh O’Reilly Park. Back (from left): Paddy Duffy (RIP), Patrick Lynch, Gerry Argue (RIP), Brian Hayes, Liam Lynch, Séamus Carney, Kevin Óg Carney, Martin McMullen, John Farrell, Danny Reilly, Pat McCoy, Arthur McCabe (RIP). Front: Seán Carney, Tom O’Grady, Damien McBreen, Christy McCutcheon, Dermot Coyle, Kevin Argue, Harry McCabe, Nobby Igoe, Paddy McKeown.


April, 2022. We are sitting in Harry and Briege’s beautiful home at Lisnaclea, Drumgoon, overlooking Knappagh Bridge. The Annalee flows by; cross a couple of fields and you’re in Monaghan.

The house is bright and full of photos. Football, family and friends, Briege and Harry’s wedding. There are ribbons in the Drumgoon and Cootehill Celtic colours from a hand-tying ceremony on the day. It’s a warm home, full of love.

Harry is incredibly positive about his situation. He focuses on how well he is, not the negative aspects. And he is well, all things considered.

“I’m doing good, I’m doing good. The only thing is I had to finish work, I talked to the doctor about it and he advised me to finish up.

“There are small things. My writing has gone tiny. Brushing my teeth and shaving… they are three things that I really notice.

“The other thing is the bladder, it has affected it. If I need to go to the toilet, I need to go. It can come on me like that.” He clicks his fingers.

“They’re things you don’t anticipate but you just have to deal with it. I appreciate how good I am.”

Margaret, his sister-in-law, recently underwent Deep Brain Stimulation, a cutting edge technique which is new to this country. It is beginning to help.

“It was tough at the start for her but it is helping. Somebody said to me ‘will you go for that?’ and I said hopefully I will never have to. Hopefully it will be a slow progression. Some people progress at a fierce rate.

“I’m lucky enough that I’m very positive but I can see where people can get down and it’s hard, when you get into a dark place it can be very hard. I’ve always had that sort of personality so it’s easy for me to say to be positive.

“I’m lucky, I have a good family around me, a good wife. We got engaged after I got the diagnosis. We planned to get married in 2020, we had all the arrangements made and next thing Covid hit so we had to put it off to 2021. We had 75 at the wedding, a great day… July 10, 2021.”

Since the diagnosis, Harry, with such a wide circle of friends, had it in his head to do a fundraiser of some sort and with his football links, it was always going to be something to do with the game. When he saw the draw for the championship, Cavan versus Antrim, it rang a bell and brought back memories of ’82. Old teammates and opponents were contacted and jumped in to assist.

“When I got diagnosed in 2019, Butlersbridge and Cootehill played in Ballyhaise and I got talking to Ronan Flanagan after the game and I was telling him about it. And he said to me ‘if you’re ever doing a fundraiser, give me a shout’. So when I decided to do it, I rang two people, Paddy Sheanon and Ronan Flanagan, along with my brother, and they have been a tremendous help. They couldn’t do enough.

“I thought about it over Christmas and said it to Briege and my brother and asked them was I mad in the head. They said ‘no, go ahead with it and see what response you get’. And the two men were fully on board as soon as I mentioned it.”

So, ‘Harry’s 3-Point Challenge’ was conceived. On Easter Monday, they will set off from his home and begin at Shannon Gaels’ home pitch in Blacklion at 6am. From there, they will visit each of the 40 club grounds in Cavan and Harry will don the number four jersey from the local club – the one he mostly wore for Cootehill and Cavan – and kick three points at each pitch. At 8pm, he hopes to be back at Hugh O’Reilly Park, on familiar turf. Home.

Donations are welcome, with all proceeds going to charities related to Motor Neurone disease, Parkinson's and Multiple Sclerosis.

“The reason I picked the three charities and not just Parkinson's was because the day I was diagnosed, I knew it was one of the three.

“I emailed the clubs and they had no bother at all, the GAA community have been very, very good.

“We’ve done a lot of planning. Ronan did a huge amount of work on the route we will take and then Paddy and Ronan got together this week. We have €8500 raised already. People have been very, very good with donations and offers to help, driving me round and giving me food on the day. Paul Clarke of EMCA is putting up a bus and driving it round for the day. I can’t believe how good he is and how good everyone has been.”

The lads can’t wait. All football people love a challenge and this one will be difficult but the craic will be good, too.

Football, family and friends, united for a day to raise funds and spirits. It’s something to savour.

“It’s a tight schedule. People have said to me ‘Harry, you’re fond of talking, time could drift with you’. But you can’t be ignorant either, people are good enough to turn up and be there. We can’t afford to lose any time.”

Every minute counts.

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