Mccartan tale underlines the true power of sport
ON the night before Down played Armagh in the 1991 Ulster championship, James McCartan Jnr was a busy young man. Nowadays, the Saturday nights are planned to the last detail, with players pre-programmed and slotted into neat grooves prepared by a battalion of experts.
Whether much of it is pure nonsense is debatable but it's fair to surmise that the manner in which McCartan, then 20 and still learning the inter-county trade, prepared for the Armagh game wasn't exactly ideal.
He got no sleep whatsoever that night because there was important work to be done. A bomb had exploded at Clover Brea, across the River Lagan on which Donacloney village is built, blowing out the windows and doors of several houses, including the McCartans'.
They ran a licensed premises which was also damaged but nevertheless became a focal point for neighbours, most of whom were Protestants. The McCartan family, led by James Snr, turned it into a refuge but only after the windows and doors were boarded up, work which took much of the night.
The next day, James Jnr played at No 15 as the Down team beat Armagh. Four months later, Down were All-Ireland champions.
That story is one of many in 'The King of Down Football' -- the autobiography of James McCartan Snr (co-written with Seamus McRory) which was launched in Newry on Monday night. James Jnr spoke eloquently of his pride in the McCartan football heritage, while others talked of its enduring legacy.
James Jnr is, of course, the current Down manager while James Snr remains one of the great patriarchs of Gaelic football. That was proven by the massive turnout at the launch which was drawn from people as far away as Cork, Wexford, Sligo, Galway and Offaly as well as Ulster.
The degree to which Gaelic games transcends county borders was underlined by inviting Mick O'Dwyer to officially launch the book.
Down football people have great respect for Kerry, increased perhaps by the warm glow of never having lost to them in the championship. It was a point good-humouredly acknowledged by O'Dwyer, who quickly added that he had got his revenge with Wicklow, who beat Down last year.
I travelled to Newry with O'Dwyer, who recalled the many great battles he had with the McCartans, Sean O'Neill, Paddy Doherty and the other heroic figures who transformed Down in the early 60s.
The car radio was switched off because there's a limit to how much depressing news people can take, especially when it's delivered by a succession of politicians who are clearly incapable of shame.
Yet, when you read James McCartan's experiences, it makes you wonder if people south of the border have a clue what difficult times are really all about. He's pictured in the book, sitting on the Massey Ferguson tractor that "I had intended to use to tow away a bomb which had been left at our bar lounge door in 1973".
A bomb disposal team arrived and carried out a controlled explosion. The bomb was so large that if McCartan had towed it away, there was no knowing what devastation would have ensued. Because the McCartans lived in a largely Protestant area, they were easy targets for sectarian elements, although James writes that the majority of the locals were their friends and customers. However, a destructive minority can always cause chaos.
The McCartan children had to be taken out of the local school because of intimidation; the family slept in tracksuits in case of the need for a quick getaway at night; there were demands for money, accompanied by the chilling warning that those involved knew the McCartan children, the schools they attended and the routes they took; there were threats of a burn-out.
However, throughout it all Gaelic football was a constant source of inspiration for the McCartans. Now, Northern Ireland is a different place, but football remains just as much of an obsession for the family as James Jnr attempts to lead Down back to All-Ireland glory.
A bright November moon glistened on the river as we left Newry late on Monday night but shortly afterwards, as we drove through Louth, we ran into thunder, lightning and torrential rain.
A metaphor for our times, perhaps? No security checkpoints, no delays at the border and a motorway which stretches all the way to Cork, advances which seemed impossible 15 years ago.
Now, they're in place in a new Ireland, yet we've wrecked it for ourselves through greed, incompetence and corruption.
We need sport like never before and, as the largest sporting organisation, the GAA has a more important role than ever to play in the Ireland of the next decade.
The McCartans are a typical example of how it helped people in Northern Ireland through difficult times and now its brief must widen yet again because the entire country is looking for an inspiration which can only come from the people themselves.
Changes to league format still don't go far enough
SO semi-finals are on the way back (2012) in the Allianz League Division 1 football and hurling. Question is -- why were they scrapped in the first place?
Also, why is it so difficult to settle on a format for the leagues which isn't changed every second year? It was always certain that straight finals between the top two would produce campaigns where the final round of group games were largely meaningless, as happened in hurling this year.
Restoring the semi-finals is a good idea but doesn't go far enough.
Returning to pre-Christmas starts should also return to the agenda. Allowing rugby and soccer to dominate exposure between September and February is a dangerous game for the GAA.