Wednesday 24 May 2017

Snapshots of a county final

Eamonn Sweeney

1 Flags

All week long on their way into school the children counted the flags which had sprung up all over the parish of Castlehaven, like the flowering of some exotic blue and white plant. There were flags flying from cars, flags stuck out the windows of houses, flags stuck to pallets in farmyards, flags in the paws of giant teddy bears balanced on gate piers, flags hanging off the bunting which hung between the telegraph poles on either side of the road into Skibbereen.

There was even the banner from the other side of the world we saw on television, 'Ireland for the World Cup, the Haven for the county'. And opposite the pitch at Moneyvoulihane, Deccie Bawn O'Donovan had parked a car painted blue and white with the words 'small club, big heart' written on it.

Our small, quiet corner of the world is rigged out for a carnival. Only the GAA can do this. Only the GAA in county final week.

2 Minnows

On Monday, in his Irish Examiner column, the former Kerry great Eamonn Fitzmaurice described Castlehaven as "a remarkable club in so many ways. They shouldn't even be playing in the senior grade let alone reaching county finals."

He's right. There are few more remarkable clubs in Ireland. The Haven pick from the hinterland surrounding two villages, Castletownshend, which is largely made up of holiday or retirement homes, and Union Hall, which is not big enough for anyone to ever mistake it for a town. The club has the population resources of your typical junior outfit. Yet Haven have been Cork senior football champions in 1989, 1994 and 2003 and Munster club champs in 1989, 1994 and 1997. It's as though Leitrim had won the Sam Maguire three times in the last 20 odd years.

And this day last week they were going for a fourth title, against UCC in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Hence the riot of colour and the utter emotional transformation of the parish.

3 Photograph

Near the back of Batt Maguire's shop in Castletownshend village, where people gather to talk about the football from the weekend just gone by and the football to come in the week ahead, there is a photo. Every now and again someone will stop and look at it, casting their minds back to the great days of the 1994 county final-winning team it depicts.

At the front are a few little mascots. One of them is Mark Collins, another is Damien Cahalane. Today they are two of the most promising young footballers in Cork, if not Ireland, and on Sunday were perhaps the key players as Haven took on UCC.

But the most remarkable thing about them is not that they have come through for the club but that they have done so while being brought up in Cork city. Year in, year out, Mark's father Francis and Damien's dad Niall made the 120-mile round trip so the boys could play with their family club. You have to do these things if you're going to keep punching above your weight.

4 Song

Which is sung by Brendan O'Neill in his fine fisherman's voice and backed up by the parish choir, was written by Jerome Geaney and has been getting plenty of airplay on local radio in the run-up to the final. And you'd be a dull dog indeed if you were living here and weren't stirred when you heard, "I have walked Castletownshend, likewise Union Hall. I have seen some great teams playing Gaelic football. But in all the great games no-one have I seen, like our team Castlehaven away out by the sea." Away out by the sea where I've been living these past 12 years and have fallen under the spell of this great little club, the club which to my mind epitomises all that is good about the GAA.

5 People

Like James McCarthy, the manager of the senior team, who was also in charge when the team made its last final in 2003 and won it. Castlehaven is full of former county players and club stars yet it is James Mc, who was neither of those things, who works the oracle as helmsman. He's done the same at other clubs but his modesty prevents Cork's powers that be from seeing the full worth of the man.

Meanwhile, Fidelma Hurley has spent the year making industrial quantities of sandwiches for the players to devour after training. And in the week of the match she bedecks the window of the Castlehaven community shop with blue and white, the centrepiece being an extraordinary vintage furry monster who wears the club colours as if he was born to do so.

There are the club officers, Bernard Hurley, Finbarr Santry, Chris Whelton et al who keep the show on the road. If you think about all the voluntary effort, all the hours that people contribute for no other reason but love of the club, if you really think about this, it leaves you in awe of the people involved.

6 Families

The first great Castlehaven team was founded on the seven Collins brothers: Christy, Dinty, Donal, Bernard, Francis, Anthony and Vincent. Then came the five Cahalane brothers, Niall, John, Fra, Patsy and Dinny. There were three Maguires, Mike, John and Batt and three Clearys, John, Denis and Edmund. Clubs, especially small ones, are all about family. On and off the pitch.

When I and my own family take our seats at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, we see three generations of O'Regans behind us and behind them Niall Cahalane's father, sister and brother watching Niall's son on the pitch.

As the teams march around, I'm talking to Martin O'Mahony whose father John from Toe Head was the greatest Castlehaven footballer of the 1940s and '50s, an outstanding athlete who turned down numerous offers to join bigger clubs. Seventeen years ago, Martin was starring in a county final, today he's a water carrier, four years ago his son Gary starred when Haven won a county under 21 title. John O'Mahony's great right hand man was John Browne whose grandson Liam plays in the schools game at half-time.

The last of John O'Mahony's team-mates from the 40s, Gerry, died a few months back. Time takes its toll but the GAA flows on like a river. The GAA is eternal.

7 Kids

You learn a lot about the way a community and a team is implicated when you try and explain to your kids who the players are.

"Right, number five owns Fox Dog who Isabel fed her breakfast to last week at the boathouse. Number eight is Fidelma out of the shop's son. We used to live next door to number 12's family when Emily was very small. He's number 14's brother. Number 13 is Muinteoir Aisling in the Gaelscoil's boyfriend's brother. You know the antique shop in the village that's never open? Number three and number 15's father used to have a pub there. Number six is Niall Cahalane's son. Niall Cahalane was . . . "

My eldest, Emily, interrupts me, "Dad, everyone knows who Niall Cahalane is."

She then informs me that she's been up all night reading the club history Marching To Glory which surprises me before I remember she has actually played for Castlehaven, crossing swords in mighty under nine duels against the likes of Rossmore and Ilen Rovers. Outgaeled by my own daughter. Damn.

8 Worry

Castlehaven are slight favourites but in the first half they are clearly second best against a UCC team who are as slick and well organised as you'd expect a college team in this era to be.

At half-time we're 0-8 to 0-4 down and five minutes into the second half, the margin is five points and everyone is beginning to realise just how young these lads we've pinned our hopes on are.

Mark Collins is still an under 21 after all, Damien Cahalane was a minor last year. All those fantasies which have been cherished, those mental pictures of elation at the final whistle, triumphant homecomings, a winter where the final is eternally replayed in the pubs and on Sky Plus, start to fade before our eyes.

9 Elation

And then they finally come to life. Damien Cahalane is driving the team forward from centre half-back, Chris Hayes, the smallest man on the team, is storming into it and putting the fear of God into a man twice his size, Sean Dineen, the farmer from Braid, is getting on top at midfield. David Burns kicks a terrific angled point to cut it to one and the terrace where we're sitting rings with chants of, 'Haven, Haven.'

People are clattering the fences at the back of the terraces. Haven win a free 55 yards out, Mark Collins takes it from the hands and launches into the air. It starts out to the right then bit by bit floats back on the breeze. It drops, the 'keeper jumps for it. And it lands on the top of the net and Haven are level and now we believe. We really do believe and all the dreams seem real again. There are five minutes left.

10 Despair

It only takes a minute. Seán Kiely, UCC's best player, picks up a loose ball from the kick-out and sets out on a run at the heart of the Castlehaven defence. He goes 30 yards, 40 yards and nobody tackles him and then about three defenders converge on him at the same time.

The rest of it unfolds like a nightmare from which we cannot wake. The ball is transferred inside to corner-forward Paul Geaney and as full-back Liam Collins comes to challenge him Geaney is falling and referee James Dorgan is signalling for a penalty.

It doesn't look like a penalty to me but I can't find any shred of impartiality in me at that moment. And Dáithí Casey, another moonlighting Kerryman, slots home the penalty and we all know that is that.

11 Disappointment

We don't think or write much about disappointment in the GAA. The focus is on the team who wins, their stories, their celebrations. But there are always losers.

And last Sunday while Castlehaven's hearts were being broken, Newcastle West were losing the Limerick football final by five points, Tinryland were losing their first Carlow county football final in 19 years by a point, St Joseph's Doora Barefield were being beaten in their first Clare football decider since 1898, Birr were coming up just short against Coolderry in the Offaly hurling final, Crotta O'Neills were blowing a six-point lead to lose the Kerry hurling decider.

Ever since winning the semi-final, the fans of those clubs would have pictured just what it would be like to win the county title. In the space of just over an hour a whole alternative victorious universe was swept away. And today the fans of Ballintubber or Castlebar Mitchels, Crusheen or Sixmilebridge, Garrycastle or Mullingar Shamrocks will have to cope with this overwhelming disappointment, will walk away from the ground feeling utterly emptied out. Defeat is inescapable. But it never gets any easier to take.

12 Devastation

It's tough on the Castlehaven players as they return home that night to the village of Union Hall. And the more people tell them they haven't let anyone down, the more they feel they have.

When one lad tells me, "Nothing anyone can say to me will ever make me feel any better about this," there's no point in telling him that he played a blinder, that everyone admires the fearless way he always plays the game and the determination it took for him to overcome the injuries which almost ended his career.

But you'd hope, as time goes by, they'll realise that the crowd were there in Union Hall to show their love. We're country people not Californians so we don't use words like that but love does happen to be the word most applicable to the bond between a community and its team. The team had come home. And in the words of the American poet Robert Frost, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

13 Dénouement

As the night went on in Union Hall and it got near to the morning, people started to ease off on the post-mortems. They talked about the under 16s winning the divisional final, they talked about the Kelleher Shield final that's coming up, the fact that there was still a county title in this team and what a great bunch of kids they were, standing there talking to people about the game when it was the last thing they wanted to do, making no excuses and indulging in no recriminations, behaving the same way your club's players will when the result goes against them.

And I thought about the American journalist Michael Lewis who in his new book portrays Ireland as some kind of gloomy ghost town where all is rain and dereliction and depression and how someone like that doesn't know what the real country is like at all because an outsider doesn't see what the GAA does in a place like Castlehaven, how it lights up a little parish and makes it into our very own homegrown Hollywood, turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, as it always has done and always will do. Amen.

14 Thanks

For letting me be lucky enough to follow a club like Castlehaven. For all I've learned about sport and community and family and decency and just life in general from that good-natured, cheerful, hard-working, honest, friendly, passionate crew which wears the blue and white. And for the fact that there are so many other clubs out there followed by the same kind of people, the people at the heart of the greatest sporting organisation in the world.

15 Victory

In the end, Castlehaven never really lose. Being from Castlehaven makes them winners.

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