Monday 22 January 2018

Minor links to major deal

Eamonn Sweeney

I've seen it every day as I walk into the village of Spiddal to get the papers, the sign which reads, "Go néirí libh Fiach, Fionntan & Peadar óg le mionuir na Gaillimhe."

It is a simple expression of local pride in the trio who the people from the Michael Breathnachs club expect to do them proud in Croke Park today.

They're some club Michael Breathnachs, their catchment area actually begins once you cross the bridge in Spiddal and strike out West. They don't have as much as a village to pick from yet they play senior football in Galway and have produced some terrific footballers over the years. Yet I think this may be the first year ever they've had three Galway minors. And that makes me feel a warm glow because, as Máirtín ó Ciardha of Raidió Na Gaeltachta once said to me, Michael Breathnachs are 'Club Na Feeneys.' In other words, they are the club to which my mother's side of the family pledge allegiance.

One of the most treasured photos from my childhood is of a young me being shown the county minor trophy which Michael Breathnachs had just won, in 1977 I think, by beating Corofin. The winning point was scored by the late Eanna ó Foighil, whose late uncle Diarmuid was married to my late aunt Bríd.

There is another photo from that same evening which I treasure; in it my late Uncle Ned stands with a few more wild-haired and flarey-trousered men beside a celebratory bonfire outside the Poitín Stil pub. It was then owned by a man named Eamonn Cotter, who around that time won a Taoiseach na Gaeltachta contest organised by the club to raise funds for a new pitch. Ned came second.

I remember being with him when the pitch, which is a few hundred yards away from the graveyard where many of my ancestors, all those Feeneys and Concannons, lie buried, was finally opened, in the early '80s, by a hurling match between Galway and Clare. The last game I ever saw with Ned was when Michael Breathnachs were finally promoted to the senior grade after beating Dunmore McHales in an intermediate final four years ago. On the pitch afterwards, Ned met up with an old friend of his, Joe Joe Ridge, who Ned used to travel to Croke Park with to watch the great Galway three-in-a-row team.

Ned would be extraordinarily proud if he knew that today the Galway minor team features Fiontan ó Curraoin at centre half-forward and Peadar ó Griofa, whose individual tour de force saw Galway past Longford in the quarter-final, at right corner-forward. Fiach ó Bearra, who's in the subs, has featured earlier in the championship and is a good bet to get a run today.

So it would seem pretty obvious that today I will be rooting for Galway in the curtain-raiser.

But that doesn't take into account the fact that the Cork team they'll be playing features two players from Castlehaven. And my daughter Emily, who came up with me to Spiddal to spend time with her granny, her uncle Colm, her auntie Maura and her cousin Cillian, has no prouder possession than the blue and white Castlehaven jersey which she has worn when training and playing for the club at under eight level. She'd wear it to bed if she was let.

There is also the fact that the morning after Cork beat Armagh in the quarter-final, I looked out the front window and saw Damien Cahalane making his way past the house on crutches. Damien will be playing for Cork today. And so will Brian Hurley, one of the best minor forwards in the country. Brian's brother Shane is the partner of Aisling O'Neill, the outstanding principal of the Gaelscoil in Skibbereen where Emily has been going for the last three years and where, on Tuesday, her sisters Lara and Isabel will make their primary school debut, an adventure which is surely the five-year-old's equivalent of playing in Croke Park for the first time.

Aisling's father Vincent and I have had many an enjoyable debate and disagreement, her aunt Mary is our family doctor and Emily's mother Siobhán would not dream of buying a car without seeking the advice of Kevin, Aisling's uncle. One of Emily's under eight team-mates, Molly O'Neill, is Aisling's cousin. There are connections here.

And not just in Castlehaven. Cork will also feature Thomas Hegarty of O'Donovan Rossa, whose aunt Jean has often come to the rescue with her taxiing services when I might have been marooned in Skibbereen, and who has probably been more nervous about this year's minor games than the lad himself. They will have Daniel McEoin of Ilen Rovers, Siobhán's family club, and Steven O'Mahony of Gabriel Rangers and John O'Rourke of Carbery Rangers, both of whose clubs have, as well as Ilen Rovers, been among Emily's under-age opponents this year.

And it was one of Carbery Rangers' former greats, Seán McCarthy, who first rented me a house in West Cork 12 years ago, thus setting in train the process which resulted in my being the father of three daughters who sit in front of the television and cheer on Cork, accompanied by a large bear dressed in red and white which we have christened, 'Teddy McCarthy.'

Then there's the fact that I was given a blow-by-blow account of the quarter-final by Mike 'Moggie' Maguire, sub goalie on the Cork All-Ireland winning teams of 1989 and 1990, who is married to Deirdre, the sister of Damien Cahalane's mother Ailis (married to the legendary Niall Cahalane). Deirdre and Ailis are the daughters of Ned Cleary, formerly the sergeant in Castletownshend village, who hails from the Mayo village of Ballindine and in 1989 watched his son John score three crucial points for Cork as they defeated Mayo by, you've guessed it, three points in the All-Ireland final.

Another one of Ned's daughters is Nollaig, a star on the Cork ladies football team who have won the last five All-Ireland titles and whose exploits are one of the main reasons why all over Cork girls like Emily are mad to play football. I met Mike on the way to the village shop, owned by his brother Batt, a place from which it is very difficult to escape without having a lengthy discussion about the GAA and where I have had better and more intelligent conversations about Gaelic football than I have ever had anywhere else. This morning all the talk there will be about Damien and Brian. So you can see that I'm kind of caught.

This web of neighbourly connections is replicated thousands of times over every time there's a big match in Croke Park. And it strikes me that this accounts for something which I've learned since starting to write this column. Irish people are a cosmopolitan and knowledgeable lot when it comes to sport, their interests range far and wide. But nothing, and I mean nothing, really moves, inflames and enthuses them like the GAA. Their feelings about the GAA are more intense because while they are interested in other games, they are implicated in football and hurling. It's all about connections.

So who will I be cheering on today? To be honest, I'm not sure. I suspect that I'll waver over the first few minutes and then, like a good Sligoman, take the side of the team that's losing.

Maybe I'm making too big a deal out of a minor game. Or maybe not. Because for the people in Michael Breathnachs, in Leitir Mór and Barna, in Castlehaven, O'Donovan Rossa and Ilen Rovers, you couldn't get a bigger deal than this.

And that's why the GAA is the GAA. Why it's me and you and all of us.

Come on the . . .

Sunday Independent

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