Saturday 1 October 2016

Billy Keane: In the east Meath became Ireland's valley of the kings

Published 19/07/2014 | 02:30

'Sean Boylan harnessed passion's play in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Meath played with an almost unique blend of vagabond and creative at the same time.' Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
'Sean Boylan harnessed passion's play in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Meath played with an almost unique blend of vagabond and creative at the same time.' Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Gaelic football is the guarantor of Meath sovereignty. Big cities consume the identities of the adjacent places. Greater London lassoes many miles of land from the city centre out. Old hamlets where ducks quacked in trout-filled ponds and men in white played cricket on village greens are now urban sprawls.

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We stood in a taxi queue for nearly two hours, out foreign, with two wonderful Meath sisters from Oldcastle. Aisling and Aoife live and work abroad. Their house is the last Meath home before the Cavan border – and they are Meath to the core.

Car after car passed by and then Aoife uttered an "ah here" when a taxi man told us he was quitting for the day. Aoife was moved to utter a strongly felt "ah here" – pronounced 'ah he-orr' – with a heavy emphasis on the rolling r. "Ah here" means 'we've had enough of this lark and what's this that's going on at all.' Meath are sick of being beaten by Dublin. Their team might just be about to shout out a collective "ah here."

The Dubs had better watch out. Meath people are fiercely proud of their defiant footballing heritage. Football helped save Meath from being gobbled up. The influx of new arrivals, brought in by the expansion of Dublin, hasn't paid off in terms of success on the field of play, but some day it will when the newcomers' children will endorse their Meathness by playing for their county.


Dublin far outshines any other county when it comes to organisation of Gaelic games in their primary schools. The Dublin Cumann na mBunscol set-up is the key to the recent upsurge in Dublin football. The finals of the kids' competitions are played in Croke Park and there is money to burn, but most important of all is the love of Gaelic games instilled in the pupils by our primary teachers.

The newcomers' kids, though, will most likely follow the Royal County. Meath GAA do not have the resources to compete with the Dublin GAA infrastructure, but the keystone of the GAA is that children, as a general rule, must play for their county of residence.

I was in Slane lately on a Royal visit. We met up with our good friend David Beggy, who runs a most hospitable pub in Navan. He was one of Meath's finest. When Beggy was in full flight The Road Runner had to pull in to the hard shoulder to let him pass.

'Jinksy' – as they call Beggy in Meath – told us of fierce battles played out in club football on days when, if the ball was punctured, the game would have gone on anyway.

Meath has long been a battleground. The lazy flow of the River Boyne meanders nice and handy through it all. The Battle of the Boyne was fought back in 1690, on the 12th of July, no more than a few cic fadas from Slane's excellent Village Inn, where the hospitality put all of us publicans to shame.

Isn't it sad, though, that GAA games had to be put back a day in the North because of the danger of loyalist violence. The Lambeg drummers will point to the fact that Saturday last was only the bare 324 years since the Battle of the Boyne. The Orange champion was King William of Holland, and their soccer team hasn't had a day's luck in the World Cup ever since.

There's history here going back to the dawn of civilisation.

Finn McCool licked his burned fingers and so became wise when he ingested a sliver of the Salmon of Knowledge. Maybe the chefs could stick salmon on the menu in the canteen at Dublin City Council. The ancient Meath people were well aware of the need to preserve their cherished independence. Newgrange is as a much a fort as a place for stargazing and burial.

Meath has the best of our good land. The Boyne valley would feed Ireland on its own. Cattle and crops thrive here and so it was that the land was fought over. We in the west killed over swamp where the water buffalo would drown in fine weather, but in the far east Meath became our valley of the kings. The prize for the winners was a land of plenty.

Meath was often conquered, but they were never defeated.

Beggy put it this way: "Meath people will forgive you anything, anything except cowardice on the field. It's bred into us from the start. There's no standing back, no matter what the cost."

The lighter-framed lads such as Bernard Flynn have had their bodies reconstructed such was the wear and tear from fierce battles. But Flynn never stood off or shirked a 50-50. For all his twinkle-toed brilliance and unerring accuracy, they would have had little time for Flynn in Meath if he hadn't been brave.

Sean Boylan harnessed passion's play in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Meath played with an almost unique blend of vagabond and artist. They were ruthless and creative at the same time.

Back then Meath football was all about long accurate kicking and it still is. Meath didn't need to eat a feed of salmon to figure out that hand-passing is snail mail and the ball travels faster if delivered by boot.

The Royals must keep going at full belt for about 75 minutes. I hope Meath are fitter than they were last year. Then again, recent history tells us there has to be a day coming soon when Dublin will begin to show signs of tiredness from the unrelenting drive to win the two-in-a-row, but it might well be their fresher reinforce-ments could swing the contest late on.

Win, lose or draw, Meath will give their all. That much is a given... ah here.

Irish Independent

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