Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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Celtic

Scottish League Championship: 5

Scottish FA Cup: 4

Scottish League Cup: 1

Ireland

Euro: West Germany 1988

World Cup: Italia ’90, USA ’94.

Awards

All-Star Award 1988 (Supreme); 1990.

Freedom of Donegal 2007.

Grand Marshall of
St. Patrick’s Day Parade 2010.

PACKIE BONNER
SOCCER GOALKEEPER

When Celtic’s goalkeeper made his way onto the pitch, the Italians began to clap. Any player who lines out for a World Cup deserves a degree of applause. But Packie Bonner was the Irishman whose sensational performance between the posts had brought his homeland all the way to the Quarter Finals of Italia ’90. Sensing that the ovation was for him, Packie bashfully broke into a trot. And then, just as he reached the 18-yard line, he tripped up and fell flat on his face.

‘So that was a bit embarrassing’, he laughs, nearly twenty years later, seated in the office of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) where he now works as Technical Director.

Italia ’90 was undoubtedly the defining moment of Irish soccer, as the ‘foreign sport’ suddenly brought the country to a standstill. It was also something of a breakthrough in Anglo-Irish relations, with players like Andy Townsend and Mick McCarthy proudly wearing their green jersey whilst speaking in the broad dialects of Bexley and Barnsley.

But of all the players to capture Irish hearts during that campaign, Packie Bonner was the man. ‘They reckon we descended from the French’, he says of the Bonner family.[i] His grandfather, Denis Bonner, was a fisherman and small farmer who lived at Cloughglass, a mile outside the fishing village of Burtonport on the north west coast of Co. Donegal. His father, Andrew Bonner, also headed out on the trawlers as a young man. ‘But the sea didn’t agree with him’, says Packie. ‘It was a rough old life on the trawlers and he used to get violently sick.’

As such, Andrew did what people from Donegal have been doing since at least the time of St Columba. He packed his bags and headed for Scotland. ‘A lot of people from around where I lived went to work in Scotland’, says Packie. Most fetched up as ‘tattie-hokers’, crawling through the fields of Girvin, Kirkintullagh and Aberlady, picking potatoes.[ii] Others went to the fish factories of Campbelltown. Andrew Bonner side-stepped both fish and spuds, and instead found a variety of jobs including being a tram conductor in Glasgow. ‘He was a very astute man’, says Packie. ‘He didn’t go to college or university or anything but he was a very quick learner and fantastic with his hands. If there was a problem, he would think it out, and think and think, and eventually he would come up with a solution.’

Andrew later made his way to Edinburgh where he met and married Packie’s mother, [first name] Sharkey, who, along with her three sisters, was working in a hotel in the Scottish capital at the time. Their father, Paddy Sharkey, was a fisherman from Mullaghduff, about 10 miles from Andrew’s family home in Donegal.

The newlyweds made their way to Glasgow where they spent six months in a house on Copland Road. Their son, the former Celtic goalkeeper, ruefully notes that the house stands along the east side of Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium.

During the early 1950s, the Bonners were racked by a series of unexpected and premature deaths, including those of Packie’s grandfather and his uncle Packie (for whom he was named) at the age of 21. They returned to Donegal and opened a Bed & Breakfast for tourists and tradesmen working at Burtonport.

It must have been a tight squeeze because there was already ten Bonners in the house, between Andrew and [mother’s name], Andrew’s widowed mother Margaret and their seven children, five girls, two boys.

‘Burtonport was a fantastic place to be a child’, recalls Packie, who was born in Donegal, along with his twin brother, in May 1960.[iii]. ‘We were right beside the sea, we had boats and we were always out fishing. My cousins fished on the trawlers and used to bring us boxes of turbot and John Dory. It was the best of fish. My dad had lobster pots and fishnets and during the summers the whole family would go out to the rocks and pull dulse seaweed’.

When not at sea, the young Bonners were tending to the animals, cutting turf in the bogs, gathering hay and potatoes.[iv] ‘It was a very rural Irish childhood really’, he says. ‘I don’t remember rainy days! I just remember lying down in the grass with a blue sky, listening to the birds’.[v]

While there was no telephone in Packie’s childhood home, there was a television. And by dint of their proximity to Northern Ireland, the Bonners enjoyed what he calls ‘the luxury of BBC and ITV’, as well as RTE. One of Packie’s earliest television memories is watching the 1970 FA Cup Final with his father.[vi]

‘Soccer was very strong in our area’, he says, ‘because Ballyshannon was a garrison town so the soldiers would have played the game. Arranmore Island, which we could see from our house, was big on soccer and a number of the islanders actually went to Scotland and played for Hibs’.

Packie and Denis played both soccer and Gaelic football. ‘Because we were twins, we always had someone to play with. I’d go into goals and then Denis would go in and, well, I guess I was better than him in goals. And then our next-door neighbour would come around and kick as well. Sometimes Dad took us to see the games at Finn Park’.

In 1970, a good herring season enabled Andrew to purchase football boots for the 10-year-old brothers. The Bonners were soon playing for the local junior club, the Keadue Rovers, known as ‘The Gulls’. When they were sixteen, the brothers helped the Gulls win Donegal’s Under 18s League title and then played Monaghan for the Ulster title. ‘Maybe it’s because we played Gaelic as well, or because there was a culture of soccer from the area, but we produced a lot of decent footballers.’ [vii]

But for Packie, his future lay across the water. ‘I went to Leicester City for a trial when I was sixteen’, he says, ‘and I was over and back to them about six times before they decided not to pick me’.

But the following year, aged 17, he was at school in Dungloe when soccer scout Jim O’Hay [check name] from Derry pinned him for a trial with Jock Stein’s Celtic. ‘I was eighteen when I arrived so I had time to finish at school which was very good for me’.

Packie made his debut at Parkhead on St Patrick’s Day 1979. Over the next twelve years, he wore the No. 1 jersey for Celtic for a remarkable 642 matches, before parting ways in 1996. During this time, Celtic won five Scottish League Championships, four Scottish FA Cups and a Scottish League Cup.

Packie made his international debut for Ireland on his 21st birthday in 1981 against Poland. It wasn’t his best game. He conceded the first goal in 90 seconds, followed 36 minutes later by a David O’Leary own goal. But the Donegal man bounced back and went on to win 80 caps for Ireland over the next 13 years. His most vital save in all that time was against Daniel Timofte’s penalty in the 1990 World Cup shoot-out against Romania. Along with David O’Leary’s successful strike, that earned Ireland a place in the quarterfinals. The jubilant scenes that erupted across Ireland in the aftermath of this moment were memorably recreated in the film of Roddy Doyle’s book, ‘The Snapper’.[viii]

Being a goalkeeper, Packie had to master the art of staying limber and warm when the ball was up the far end of the pitch. That was vital on the snow-swept pitches of Scotland during his Celtic days. But the hardest game he ever played in – and one that his teammates would all concur with him – was the game against Mexico in the 1994 World Cup. ‘The match was played at midday and it was 130 degrees in the stadium in Orlando’, says Packie. ‘And we weren’t allowed water!’

A man of seemingly unrufflable composure, Packie says he never had a problem sleeping the night before a match. ‘I could sleep for ten hours to be honest. Then I’d get up, have breakfast, go for a walk and go back to bed in the afternoon before the game. I’d be much more upright about some of things I do now than I was playing football.’

‘I don’t miss the pressure of having to win’, he says. ‘I do miss having that fitness level because the nature of my job now is lots of meetings and travel so its difficult to have a routine. My wife and kids live in Glasgow and I’m based in Dublin for five days a week, so that’s not easy. But it does give me a kick that I could come back to my own country and make an impact on creating a great team. A football game was high pressure but it’s over in 90 minutes. What I’m doing now is a longer sell - it gives you time to really plan things.’

FOOTNOTES

[i] Bonner is a common name in Donegal, with derivatives such as Bonar, Boner and Bonar-Law.

[ii] Lots of people from the western isles of Ireland headed to Scotland for the potato season. For example, one of Packie’s aunts met a fellow tattie-hoker from Achill Island in Edinburgh. In 1935, nineteen Arranmore islanders were drowned in the Arranmore Disaster while returning to the island from working in the tattie fields in Scotland. Achill Island suffered a tragedy with the death in a fire at Kirkintullagh.

[iii] ‘We were second youngest in the family. We have one younger sister. The rest are older’.

[iv] ‘We were self-sufficient when we were young. People don’t cut turf or set potatoes, but they might got back to it with the recession.’

[v] Children don’t remember the rain. That’s why I found ‘Angela’s Ashes’ so depressing. It was always raining’. Another legacy of the Donegal childhood was what Packie calls the ‘garnial’ where neighbours would pop around to one anothers’ house, perhaps with some knitting, and indulge in two or three hours of banter. His father was a famous storyteller so, ‘even when we stopped doing the B&B, people kept coming back to hear his tales.’

[vi] ‘He loved sport. Soccer, hurling, Gaelic football, the whole lot. He was mad about Muhammad Ali.’

[vii] Many of the Gulls went on have starring roles in the League of Ireland, most notably Denis Bonner, who played centre half for Sligo, Finn Harps and Galway United.

[viii] In 2003, Packie was appointed Technical Director and Goalkeeping Coach for the FAI. In addition, he has more recently, made a career as a football presenter with TV3 Ireland. He retains his link to the sea, with a boat and a house in Donegal to which his children and ‘my wee grandson’ frequently visit. ‘When I can, I go out and walk on the rocks or fish on a line or walk for four or five miles along the beaches. There’s nobody around and it’s fantastic.’

Packie made the concept of being a brilliant Donegal goalkeeper so fashionable that a youngster called Shay Given followed him.

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.