Friday 21 October 2016

What can you do after years of waiting only wait better?

Tommy Conlon

Published 17/05/2015 | 13:30

Gary Reynolds is pictured as 'the heirs of Martin and McGarty will again face Galway today'
Gary Reynolds is pictured as 'the heirs of Martin and McGarty will again face Galway today'

A friend and fellow countyman usually answers his phone to me with a greeting that has become a hoary old in-joke between us.

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"Up Leitrim! We'll take Sam home to the banks of the Shannon with the help of God and the dead generations."

It is normally delivered in a jaunty tone because we both know there's no danger of it ever happening. And freed of that weight of expectation, all that's left is a hefty dose of gallows humour.

This afternoon in Carrick-on-Shannon the latest generation of young Leitrim gallants will begin the long walk, the epic journey to the Croke Park summit. More likely it'll be a short walk and a brief journey. Barring a major upset, they'll be taking their place in the queue for the back door some time around five o'clock.

Naturally one hopes that said upset will occur. And we'd expect the home side to be tough, resilient and defiant. Leitrim sides have historically produced these virtues, even on the many occasions when they've ultimately been beaten and outclassed. Not winning won't be a grievous disappointment; not competing will.

Of course, any talk of Croke Park in September is fanciful anyway. A mere Connacht title would be enough to send the natives on a first-class ticket to paradise, Valhalla, the land of milk and honey itself.

In reality it is a humble enough prize, the least-regarded of the provincial crowns, but it would be a happy port for a county that last made land there in 1994. Which means it is now 21 years and counting. And as the old country song has it, 21 years is a mighty long time.

But it is as yesterday compared to the 67 summers that stretched like a chasm between '94 and Leitrim's only previous Connacht title, in 1927. Blessed be those sacred years.

Now in GAA land, the minnow counties are expected to learn the value of patience. There's nothing for it but to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. Stand on the platform in that eternal train station and scan the tracks to the east, hoping for the first glimpse of an approaching locomotive on the horizon. Nope: nothing but silence and the sound of the wind.

Then scan the tracks to the west. Hang on! Think I see something, there's definitely something coming. Quick, get the suitcase, check that the ticket is in your coat pocket. Another quick glance down the tracks. Yes, there's something coming but it's taking its time. Finally it hoves into view: a lone cow, idly grazing its way down the line. Oh well. That's a bit disappointing, but no matter. It's bound to come along any year now.

And when all the waiting in the world fails, then, to paraphrase Mr Beckett, we are supposed to wait better. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Wait again. Wait better.

You don't have the population, you don't have the economy, you don't realistically have a chance in hell. But hang on anyway because that's your allotted role; the happenstance of geography has decided your fate.

And in the long silence, generations of dedicated footballers come and go in obscurity. Most of them middling, some of them good, a few of them great.

Michael Martin was great: long, fair hair billowing as he scorched defences with his rampant speed. The Carrick-on-Shannon native played senior county from 1973 to '91. He was a replacement All Star in 1977, taking Pat Spillane's place on that year's tour of America. He was a member of the Ireland team that played Australia in the international rules series of 1984. But other than that, Martin's brilliance never got the stage it deserved.

His predecessor as Leitrim talisman was probably the greatest player ever produced by the county. The devout wait for a second provincial title had become a vigil by the time Packy McGarty made his senior county debut in 1949 - 22 years and counting. McGarty was 16. He played his final game in 1971 and the vigil had doubled in time by then.

Surrounded by a rare golden generation of players, McGarty led the charge in four successive Connacht finals between '57 and '60. They were beaten in all four by a formidable Galway side that had won the All-Ireland in '56.

The county's misfortunes in those years were faithfully chronicled in the Leitrim Observer by the GAA correspondent who, in the fashion of the times, operated under a pseudonym.

"A much respected man," wrote a melancholy Gael óg after the '57 defeat, "once stated that by reason of the inferiority of our county and possessions in material things, our football teams are given to inferiority also, and when that inferiority has been banished and feelings of justified superiority fail, despondency sets in."

It surely set in after '58, the year that hope had soared from rushy native fields into the sunlit uplands. Beaten 2-10 to 1-11 in the final, McGarty was nonetheless carried shoulder high from the field by his people.

And after '59, poor old Gael óg could've taught Beckett a thing or two about existential despair. "Our county can truly be described as a child of misfortune. When," he beseeched the very ramparts of heaven, "will destiny prepare for thee anything but the cup of sorrow?"

The heirs of Martin and McGarty will again face Galway today.

Once more into the breach, dear friends.

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