It’s been a whirlwind week. I partook in the celebrations with gusto in Kinlough on Sunday night and watched the match DVD with the team on Monday evening, but it was back to work come Tuesday and a busy week and weekend ahead.
As I drove up through Leitrim on Tuesday morning – the ashes of the bonfires down through Glenade that welcomed us home still dancing in the breeze and the makeshift signs, on the sides of cattle trailers and on round bales, recording our win like some modern-day cave paintings by a northern Aborigine tribe – I thought of what the win had meant to our entire community. From the Atlantic coast to the edge of Manorhamilton, from the borders of Sligo and Donegal across to Rossinver and our Fermanagh neighbours, we were heralded home as people gathered from parishes all around to share in our joy.
And we did it our way. Just like Donegal Catch, we’re different up here. There’s an edge of the wilderness rawness to life on the northern tip of Leitrim that will always call me home, the loving savage. Even my south Leitrim friends reflect on it; the wilder of them – you know who you are – constantly drawn back here by the rugged beauty of the landscape, and the earthy welcome of the time-rich people.
For new visitors, it’s often an awakening. I recall bringing home a very well-to-do psychologist from Dublin 4 one weekend. We arrived in Kinlough around 11pm on a dark November Friday night to find three likely lads standing around an exercise bike beside the courtyard of Simpson’s Garage, upon which Gareth Phelan was peddling away with an aluminous pink fuzzy clown’s wig on his head. There wasn’t a sinner to be seen anywhere else in the village. The Gaels were in the final stages of a 12 hour ‘Cycle-athon’ fundraiser and these were the last men standing. Without batting an eyelid I took the wig from Gareth and put in my half hour in the saddle.
By the time we left for Dublin on the Sunday afternoon my psychologist friend (or The Shrink as she had been christened by the locals) reckoned she had met enough characters to keep her in work for the rest of the life, with a dedicated team needed to start work on trying to figure out my Old Boy.
Dad always encouraged us to engage in some ‘howl at the moon’ madness whenever the appropriate opportunity arose and Sunday night was one of those nights.
Then I thought of the night they must have had in Gortletteragh the week before, and the grin that our All Star hero Seamus Quinn was probably still wearing each time he pondered on the value of perseverance. And I thought of how they were celebrating together in Mullahoran in Cavan, and in Curry in Sligo and in Tempo in Fermanagh and I marvelled at the power of sport and the importance of community, as I wove myself into the conscious fabric of local life that John McGahern knitted in his many great works.
I spoke at an event on mental health and sport in Portlaoise a couple of weeks ago, and An Uachtarán CLG Liam O’Neill opened the night. He said something that struck me and stuck with me since. While the GAA club helps to give a community an identity, it is the community that gives the club its life, its very existence, he said.
No doubt Leitrim Village and all concerned with that clan of Gaels howled at the moon on Sunday night, revelling in both their community spirit and their club’s achievements. The two are so inter-connected they work like the right- and left-hand side of a beautifully balanced and ambidextrous footballer. Perhaps the St. Joseph’s ladies leaped the highest of all, finally tasting success after two consecutive county final defeats. It was a long hard road, girls, but worth it in the end I’m sure you’ll agree. (Congratulations, also, to the Bornacoola Ladies on their Intermediate success.)
Of course the young footballers of Fenagh/Gortletteragh and St. Manchan’s must do it all again. I didn’t get to see their thrilling final and its dramatic conclusion but I wish them all the best of luck. It’s a great age to be playing football and you’ll make friends that will last throughout your life. I should know – Padraig Flynn, the Fenagh/Gortletteragh team manager and I lined out for Leitrim from U16 grade right through to senior and remain the best of friends to this date.
I could tell you about the time my club in Boston, the St. Colmcille’s, flew Padraig up from his then home in Richmond, Virginia, for a game in the Irish Cultural Centre and the adventures that ensued that weekend, but I’m saving that one for the book. Our changing room that day was next to the Shane McGettigan Memorial room, a tribute to our dear old friend in the city in which he lost his life so tragically. As another wild man from the Northwest, Rory Gallagher, put it: ‘Wheels within wheels.’