This is an unsuspecting, innocent dreamer that we're talking about, someone who quickly got in way over his head. I'm not talking about high finance or international espionage. This is a boy who wanted to be a football star. There are any number of boys like him.
Even as a snotty-nosed kid Packie never missed any of our football matches.
“C'mon the Town,” he'd squeak, galloping up and down the sideline and giving our small village a metropolitan patina. Other teams, for miles around, were mere parishes: a crossroads, a church, a general store, and a flat piece of ground where goalposts were planted. We genuinely believed that at night, out in the country, young men saw the glow from our street lights, and dreamed of style, fortune and fame. In the 1950s 'style' was a gas cigarette-lighter. Fortune was a job in the block factory or in the public service. For boys like Packie – and for many grown men, too - real fame was playing for the county football team.
Packie was born lazy. To study, to work, even to make problems for himself were all too much trouble. He sleepwalked through his schooldays, sat in the sun during summer and by the fire in winter. On balmy nights he lay on the flat roof of the coalhouse, watching the moon and the stars and dreaming of playing in the national football stadium, hearing excited radio commentators telling the nation about Packie's flying save in the dying seconds of the Cup Final.
Time passed. Most of us moved elsewhere, for work, study or brighter lights. Packie stayed put and played football. In the beginning he played in goals, often in those days the lot of the weakest player, the last man picked. Eventually, while never spectacular, he showed some innate ability always to be in the right place at the right time. Some saw this as a skill, others as sheer good luck. From time to time reports reached us of his progress through the lower grades, with the occasional trial for the county team. But, persistence pays, and in the fullness of time, in the winter of 1963,
Packie was included on the 30-man panel of the senior county team.
It was an agony aunt on the national radio station who started the trouble. Sometime early in 1964 she was deluged with questions about the delicate art of making marriage proposals to men, and responded with a mixture of glee and of venom. By this time Packie, a temporary postman, had been 'walking out' with Alice, but showed little commitment to settling down. Alice was made of stern stuff and, primed with the no-nonsense advice of the agony aunt, her timing was impeccable. On Saturday the 29th February, 1964, the day before a crucial match in the national stadium, Alice made her move. Singing the Beatles’ I want to hold your hand she sank to her knees in the crowded post office and proposed. Packie was bowled over. This was one of those shots for which the goalkeeper was entirely unprepared.
The following day, Packie's debut in Croke Park was disastrous. Perhaps the Dublin forwards were particularly 'on form', possibly the defenders in front of Packie had an off day, maybe the events of the previous day preyed too much on his mind. By the time he was taken off, he had conceded seven goals. Old men in the county still talk of that match in hushed voices in the dead of night.
From that day on, Packie's was a slow and inexorable decline. When he died Alice had his body cremated. It was cheaper, she told me when I visited her some weeks ago, a feisty seventy-five-year old. She showed me a large hour-glass above the kitchen range.
“That's Packie,” she laughed. “Never worked a day in his bloody life but I've kept him on the move for the last thirty years.”
She inverted the hour-glass and a fine shower of dust trickled from the upper to the lower bulb.
She's wrong, I thought. Packie would be quite happy with this. Sitting in a warm place occupied with nothing more than measuring the passage of time.