Thursday 15 November 2018

Joe Brolly: Magical mystery tour reveals the only remotely sane thing we have left is the GAA

Ballintubber's Cillian O’Connor. Photo: Sportsfile
Ballintubber's Cillian O’Connor. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

After writing about the barbarism of MMA over the last few weeks, the backlash left me feeling like a man who had woken up in the middle of a Tourette's convention.

If Trump ran for president in Ireland, no one would stand a chance. Not even the lad who isn't sure if Travellers are people. As my uncle Richie from the Bronx is fond of saying, "We are going to hell in a handcart."

In a world that has gone mad, the only remotely sane thing we have left is the GAA. For GAA people, October is the real Christmas. You can have the best time in the world at this time of year doing nothing but picking out a game somewhere in the country, jumping in the car and heading off filled with hope.

As part of my magical GAA mystery tour, I found myself at the Mayo minor semi-final a fortnight ago, between the up-and-coming Parke club and Knockmore, two big, strong teams. Beforehand, Darragh Melvin, who has Down syndrome and is part of the furniture at the club, suddenly realised the Knockmore boys were already in their huddle. He sprinted out to them in a panic, they parted and he stood there with them shoulder to shoulder, pleased as punch, then jogged proudly back off.

What a game of football it was, all long kicking and man-to-man marking with high skill levels and hard, honest play. At the full-time whistle, they were deadlocked, so to the delight of the big crowd it went to extra time. Knockmore won it in the end, courtesy of two great goals in the final period. I was chatting to their coach, Dessie Rutledge, afterwards. "They play great football, Dessie," I said. "What's the secret?" "We only ever ask them to do two things, Joe. Respect the game, and express themselves."

Last weekend, I eased myself into it on the Saturday night, watching the Mayo intermediate and senior finals on Mayo GAA TV for a fiver. First up, Belmullet v Borrishule. Belmullet, which is on the western seaboard, 30 miles from anywhere, is a fusion of ancient Ireland and Ibiza. It has one small main street and during the day it looks abandoned, as though it had been closed down by the military years ago after an anthrax epidemic. But at night, it comes alive, in the manner of a Bacardi Breezer ad. The pubs are filled to overflowing, live music is everywhere, and buses discharge loads from all over the county onto the street. In Belmullet, time has no meaning, nor do the words "Time gentlemen please."

McDonnell's bar, run by the Conroy boys, who are the town's unofficial sheriffs, undertakers, embalmers, storytellers and social workers (Seán is also the school principal), is one of the wonders of the world. The first time I went in there, Pádraic measured me for the coffin at the door, calling the measurements over his shoulder to his brother Seán, who noted them down in the book. "I have him, I have him."

"Is there a bank machine handy?" I said. Pádraic rummaged around in his pocket and handed me €50. "Here," he said, "is this enough?" "How does this work?" I said. "Sure you'll be spending it in here anyway," he said, as though I were simple. I was there three times before I realised the ocean was across the street. They should make T-shirts saying "I SURVIVED McDONNELLS."

Anyway, their boys made short work of Borrishule, steaming into them from the first whistle, dismantling their kick-outs and generally running riot. Borrishule suffered stage fright and only began to play a bit in the last quarter when the match was long over.

Watching the Belmullet boys celebrate on the pitch afterwards, I asked, somewhat optimistically, "Can we go to Belmullet?" The glamorous brunette rolled her eyes. "It's half seven you lunatic, sit there and watch the senior final." Which turned out to be tedious in the extreme, and highlighted the impossibility of the task facing James Horan next year.

For Ballintubber, Cillian O'Connor scored his frees and did little else. For Breaffy, Aidan O'Shea drifted around the field into positions of no importance, taking possession, then hand-passing it sideways to men in no better position than himself. For all his ability, he has no inkling how to influence a game. For the opening five minutes, he went to full-forward.

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Westport manager James Horan shaking hands with Aidan O’Shea. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

The first long ball that was kicked in, he won it superbly in the air in spite of being double-marked, barrelled in on goal and was dragged down for a penalty, which was smacked home by Peter Dravins to put Breaffy 1-0 to 0-0 up.

'He's going to destroy them,' I thought to myself. Instead, he went into his habitual drifting around aimlessly mode, and Breaffy's greatest ever opportunity to win a county title drifted around aimlessly with him.

Next morning it was up early, dinner at ten to get a good run at the day, then off to the Antrim under 14 football final between our boys St Brigid's and Aghagallon. The game was at McRory Park on the Whiterock, where the slope on the field is so steep, elderly spectators need an escalator to get to the far end. Turned out to be an epic game.

In the second quarter, Aghagallon played some of the best football I have seen to go seven points up. But these St Brigid's boys refuse to yield and produced an amazing comeback in the final quarter to force a draw with the last kick. Extra time had us jumping and holding our heads in our hands, and cheering and grimacing. We lost after conceding a penalty, but in truth everyone was a winner.

After that, we had the choice to go to Ahoghill to watch the Antrim final or the Athletic Grounds to watch Crossmaglen, a decision that took roughly three seconds. As I explained to the glamorous brunette en route, Cross games are always brilliant whatever the result. They go man to man, kick long and early, back themselves 100 per cent, and generally restore your faith in humanity.

Crossmaglen never lose a game. You have to beat them, as Ballymacnab discovered. Grugan, the big Ballymacnab full-forward, was like a young Frank McGuigan for the first 30 minutes, scoring 1-4 from play, each score of the highest order. His goal was dispatched to the bottom corner from 30 yards. With 15 minutes to go, Ballymacnab were three up. When they missed a few chances to stretch it out to five or six, we all knew what was coming.

After a blitzkrieg of nine consecutive points - Aaron Kernan providing a suitable finale with a brilliant one from out on the left touchline off the outstep of his left foot - Cross were champions by six and we left the Athletic Grounds bathed in a warm glow. It is a mystery why Crossmaglen, the greatest footballing village the game has ever seen, has no influence on the way Armagh play.

On top of their spirit of adventure, skills, pace and fitness, they are hard as nails. As a friend of mine said afterwards, they would make short work of those 'I do MMA at the gym' lads.

Real men play Gaelic games.

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