Into the West - as Galway's heroes bring Liam home
Captain David Burke pays tribute to fans as triumphant Tribesmen get the party started
'I'm not much of a singer," said captain David Burke. But he knew who was. Step forward Paul Flaherty, with an embarrassed clear of the throat before the crowd of 15,000 that stood before him in anticipation, hoping that they knew what was about to come.
And then there it was - 'The West's Awake' - the old classic for a brand new dawn, sounding as pure as the bell of Galway Cathedral, bringing a lump to the throat for many who remembered Joe McDonagh's iconic rendition in 1980.
A bonfire smouldered at the Beagh roundabout outside Ballinasloe, an ancient symbol of celebration. More will be lit in the days to come as the triumphant new heroes begin their pilgrimage around the county.
But last night was special. The unwieldy, unmissable convoy of the two big red coaches carrying the minor and senior teams was a physical symbol of just how gargantuan this double victory was.
Their schedule was a tight one. After Crumlin hospital there was lunch before hitting the open road. There would be no walking across the bridge over the Shannon in Athlone with the Liam MacCarthy cup in hand.
A lot has changed in 29 years - the ease of the motorways for a start. There would be no leisurely winding through towns and villages this time. Just a stop off for a civic reception in Ballinasloe for 3pm before the main event at Pearse Stadium in Salthill at 6.30pm.
The insistence on health and safety is also new. Crowds gathering in the lay-bys of one of the biggest roads in Ireland was definitely something gardaí wanted to avoid.
So there was only a hardy smattering out as the picture was snatched of the coaches making the symbolic crossing over the Shannon. Liam MacCarthy, home at last, for the first time since 1988.
Shutters had been pulled, a sign in the window of the bank in Ballinasloe tersely stated they would close at 3.30pm.
Crowds gathered in the Fairgreen in Ballinasloe - the site of the famous horse fair - from early lunchtime, warmed up with Kenny Rogers and Garth Brooks hits. There was a bit of Rick Astley for the 1988 vibes. They had to play 'Wagon Wheel'. And the Saw Doctors.
And still the crowds came, swelling as the schools closed. By the end, some 15,000 stood there waiting in sheer pleasure that this moment had come at last.
Nobody seemed impatient when the teams were late.
"Galway in a bubble after winning the double," read a sign held aloft.
Eamonn Costelloe (85), from Kilconnell, couldn't get a ticket for Croke Park "for love nor money" but this was better, he said. He had spent 56 years in England but he was happy to be home for this, he said.
Good things come in threes, pointed out Eamonn, saying he believes Mayo will do it against Dublin in the football final this time. "The west will really be awake then," he said.
Fr Anthony Kelly from Galway, a missionary priest home for the summer from Kenya, had delayed his flight and had been lucky enough to get a ticket for this unforgettable final. "It's mighty to be here. Very emotional," he said.
And then word trickled through at last - the teams were 10 minutes away. The first glimpse of the buses brought the first roar. The minors emerged first and were then followed by the seniors, decked out in a smart-casual uniform of navy shirts, dark jeans and navy suede shoes - but this was not their time, not yet.
It was difficult to imagine any other stars of their calibre in any other sporting field having the level of patience, of being content to allow the younger ones to have their moment to shine. There were no sulks, no strops. And their humility made their heroism on the pitch all the more impressive.
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For at least half an hour, they stood there on the steps, obliging with selfies, happy to respond to the plaintive voices of small children calling out their names and poking their hurley sticks out between the fence for them to sign. One little boy kept up a chant of "Jason Flynn" before being rewarded with a thumbs-up that made him turn to his friend, thrilled at the simple acknowledgement.
"Ah, we were here before," said one local woman. "It's great to see them smiling this time, the cratures."
The gardaí were in on the excitement of this event too. The Galway players had spotted a familiar face - Garda Sgt Willie Browne from Ballinasloe who referees locally and greeted him with affection - they flew at him, knocking his cap off and sending him into peals of laughter.
And then finally it was their turn.
"I'm absolutely speechless at the crowd who have turned out today," said David Burke.
"This is for you as well," he told the fans.
It had been too long - but "hopefully we will hurt no longer," he said.
The fans had been the 16th man on the team.
There was talk of a song. Burke told them he was no singer - and then Paul Flaherty was pushed centre stage.
At the familiar sound of 'The West's Awake', the west truly was alive, the emotions palpable in the delighted faces and swaying crowd. This moment will be savoured on many's a long, dark winter night.
It was great to be home, said manager Micheál Donoghue. This was a privilege - many managers had gone before him in the 29 years, many players too. "Everything we achieved is a testament to those boys as well," he said to a roar of appreciation. And then it was time to go.
Joe Canning was one of the last on the bus because of the deluge of eager fans trying desperately to get a glimpse of their hero.
The faces of two tiny boys crumpled. "I know, I know," said their father, disappointed for them. "But what could he do? He did what he could."
There was the briefest of stop-offs at the Galway Plaza for takeaway Supermac's, and then it was onwards to Galway. A couple of hundred people stood to wave at the Huntsman and crowds stood at Castlegar.
Some 50,000 greeted them at Pearse Stadium, among them Kevin Walsh, the Galway football manager, and Ray Silke, the victorious football captain from '98.
'The Fields of Athenry' was sung heartily. Pearse Flannery, the mayor of Galway, earlier said he hoped they would be heard in Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Tomas Mannion, father of Galway players Padraic and Cathal, said it was a proud day for the families of all the players. "It's brilliant to be a parent of lads that are involved with Galway. But I have to give the lads credit and how they have applied themselves," said Mr Mannion. As day turned to night it was clear the party in Galway has only just started.