Mullinalaghta are a small club with a big heart and no fear
Frank Mulligan will take his seat in the stand in Tullamore today and, for a moment, before the craziness really begins, wonder at it all. How did it come to this? The sense of anticipation has been building all week and as much as he and others tried to go about their business, the thought was never far from anyone's mind; a single, crazy thought: Mullinalaghta are in the Leinster final.
On Friday, Frank was in Sligo for his nephew's wedding. His nephew is Emlyn Mulligan, the Leitrim footballer, and there were many times over the years when Frank wished he could sneak him back over the county boundary to help Mullinalaghta through some tough times. Now, on the same weekend Emlyn is married, Frank's sons Shane and Francis play for their club - his club, their club - in a Leinster final. It is, he says, a fairytale.
After years in the wilderness, Mullinalaghta St Columba's reached the Longford senior final in 2014 and lost to a fine Killoe team. Conditioned by hard times, Frank feared the worst. He had seen other teams come from nowhere over the years to get their chance and not take it. They would disappear again, and the years, maybe even decades, would drift by, and regrets would soften to fond memories of what might have been and the day they nearly won the Sean Connolly Cup.
But Mullinalaghta didn't disappear, and two years later he could scarcely believe it when they finally won the championship. That night a neighbour looked to the heavens as he walked up the path to his mother's house and said, 'God, I'm ready, you can take me now'. It was just Mullinalaghta's third senior title, and a first since all the way back in 1950.
Things, though, only got better. The three-in-a-row was completed in October and steady progression in Leinster over those three years has culminated in Mullinalaghta, the half-parish on the edge, becoming the first Longford club to make it to the Leinster final. It is David versus Goliath; Mullinalaghta versus Kilmacud Crokes . . . and the bookies make David 5/1. "Three years ago," says Frank, "if somebody had said we'd be in a Leinster final I think you'd have got 1000/1." The odds are narrowing all the time.
During this extraordinary run of success, it has occurred to Frank that, in a way, some things never change in rural Ireland. The DNA of the last great Mullinalaghta team, which reached five finals in a row and won two (1948 and '50), is strong in the current group. Frank's sons are grand-nephews of the Reillys from that team, the McElligotts are connected to the Matthews, who also featured. And the Rogers name is still there too.
Take a drive some day around the beautiful lakelands and rolling drumlins of the Longford-Cavan border and you might just stumble upon Mullinalaghta, on the shore of Lough Gowna. On the road from Granard to the village of Loch Gowna, on the north-eastern shore of the lake, you cross the Clooneen River and soon hit upon a village of sorts. There are two pubs, but only Keogh's now opens its doors, a church, a community centre and a farm; there's no shop, no bank and the post office closed recently. Round a bend and you pass the national school and graveyard before a small bridge signals another river - the Erne. From one river to the next you have travelled little more than three miles, but you have travelled the length of Mullinalaghta.
"That small bridge, that's the border," says Frank. "That is Leinster and Ulster, Mullinalaghta and Gowna, Cavan and Longford." Seamus Fitzpatrick, a former club chairman, reckons Mullinalaghta "is fairly square". Travel a mile or two in any direction and you could be in Gowna, Mullahoran, Abbeylara or Granard. "Our team eats in the [Piker's] Lodge in Gowna after all the games," says Frank. "There is nowhere else. All our functions are in Gowna."
And there have been more functions of late than any of the 440 residents could have imagined. Yet through it all there has been a resistance to getting carried away. It's not the way in these parts. The memories of almost seven decades of hardship are vivid; nobody in this corner of a small county will ever get too far ahead of themselves. Every little thing is earned the hard way.
The club has come through some extraordinary tough times. In one history of GAA in the county, the dispatch from Mullinalaghta made for grim reading, hitting a nadir in the 1980s. "The beating of a highly fancied Colmcille 9pts to 5, in the first round in '83, again with no training, was the intermediate performance of the eighties," the club's report stated. The following year, championship hopes were derailed by a half-time dressing-room row, the after-effects of which lingered for several years. "During the years of '85, '86, '87 morale was at rock bottom with only a handful of competitive games each year. The club made no progress in any competition except in '86 when after an easy first round championship draw, they found themselves in the semi-final where they ran Colmcille to two points. This despite no training or preparation at all."
Yet it was in those turbulent years that the seeds were sown for the club's revival. In 1984, Mullinalaghta and neighbours Abbeylara joined forces at underage to form a new club, Northern Gaels. For years, they had struggled on with half-teams, entering mostly nine-a-side competitions. It was dispiriting and of little use in developing players, serving only to feed the rot. Northern Gaels changed everything. Over time, they started winning, and they got used to winning. Under 14, 16 and minor championships; and a national Féile title. The success translated to schools, and an All-Ireland title, and to county, with players part of a Fr Manning Cup success and Leinster minor successes.
"So many players fall away if they are playing underage and they are not winning anything and then it just becomes, 'ah sure we never get anywhere', and they drift to other sports," says club chairman John Keegan. "Northern Gaels seemed to be able to gel a group of players that believed they could beat anything in the county, which they did."
"It was the catalyst, it's what set us up," says Frank.
The strength of some of these Northern Gaels sides can be seen by the fact that Mullinalaghta were beaten county finalists in 2014, Abbeylara beaten finalists in 2015, and then for the last three years - the three-in-a-row - they have played against each other in the final. "It's unfortunate that when it comes to senior ranks, that they are arch rivals," John Keegan adds.
John's son, also John, is on the team today. And selector Paddy Brady's son, Conan, travels home every week from Leeds, where he works as a civil engineer. "That's an enormous commitment to come back here from England at his own expense to play his part in the success," says John.
Paddy chips in: "On the other side of the coin, he has three medals in his back pocket. I played until I was 40 and I've no senior medals. He's totally committed, and he's enjoying it." There's another benefit too for the Bradys: "We're seeing him once every week now that we wouldn't otherwise." All of the players have put their lives on hold for the last three years, he says. John adds that the players "travel here from Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Dundalk, Ashbourne . . . they're all over the place, in various different colleges and in jobs. All those guys travel here at their own expense. Nobody gets travelling expenses because we couldn't afford to pay it."
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Mullinalaghta's picturesque home is The Laurels, on the edge of Derrycassan Wood. Even this patch of ground has a story which somehow mirrors the adversities the club has overcome. It was originally part of the Dopping-Heppenstal Estate, and was later planted, but there was a dispute with the locals, who sought to claim a small portion for use as a football field. Seamus says the dispute was settled definitively when the local priest "mobilised the people and in one night they pulled out about three acres . . . they pulled the trees and dumped them". The Laurels had come into being.
It has been painstakingly developed over the years, with dressing rooms, a playing pitch and a training pitch, and a stand currently under development. There is a playground alongside, as part of the amenity that is the woods, and a walking track which is a real community focal point.
"We tend to do things on a slow burn here in that we don't get into debt and we don't bite off more than we can chew," says John. "We do things as we can afford them.
"We had a fundraiser here, two years ago, a lip sync and it did very well. We would be too small to take on that on our own so we did it in conjunction with Ballymachugh, a club in Cavan. It worked out very well. They were picking out of a different group than we were and so on . . . we weren't competing with each other. We made about 60 grand each out of it, which was massive for us. There was a lot of work in it. I'm not sure when we were proposing it and starting off that we knew the amount of work we were taking on, but sure we were in it before we realised what we were at. Everyone put their shoulder to the wheel and it went very well.
"That was the biggest fundraiser we had in a long, long time. That was used to provide an electronic scoreboard and we're half-way through building a stand now, and we'll get that finished there or thereabouts without having debt. We won't have any money but we'll still be debt free. That has been the motto here all the time. Over the years nobody wanted to bury the club in debt for some spectacular ground that we couldn't afford."
Keeping the club going is every bit the grind you might expect it to be, but it is not in their nature to cast envious glances over their shoulders - even when it comes to today's opponents, Kilmacud Crokes.
"They have different problems than we have," says John. "It takes a lot of management and a lot of organisational skills to manage the animal that Kilmacud Crokes are - it takes an awful lot of people with very good heads to keep the show on the road. We are at the opposite end of that scale - we can't even contemplate the coaches, and the underage structures and what have you that they have. We'll never see that.
"The biggest problem, if that's the word for it, that we face is keeping the guys that we have, the 30 people we have on the panel, keeping them here. Emigration is an issue; lack of employment is an issue . . . all of these things create issues. If we were to lose two or three of our players, this team wouldn't be what it is. We are very much dependant on the commitment of these guys to get back here every week."
In the home dressing room at The Laurels, there's a team photograph blown up and taped to the wall. In this picture, lies the secret of this side's success. Paddy points to it, and says: "You can see that every young lad in the parish, I think, apart from two, that's between the ages of 18 and, I don't know what the oldest man there is, thirty-something, is there in that picture."
They are, he says, a unit. They have got used to winning and embraced it. They are difficult to beat. And in manager Mickey Graham they seem to have the perfect foil for their talent and ambition. "He has instilled self-belief and confidence into them . . . We are not depending on one or two. You look at [the game] against Rhode, probably our three top forwards didn't score, we're not depending on one man to carry the can. Today somebody else will step up; the next day somebody else will step up. They are a nice balanced unit.
"Being involved with them, and looking forward to the game, I see that for us it's just another game. It's the next game in this competition. Of course you expect Kilmacud, with their household names, to be strong, but you don't fear it. The game is there to be won. That's the way I see it."
This group of players has been determined to break free from the chains of the past, not just for Mullinalaghta but for Longford football. The mindset is different. They don't look on themselves as just being from a small corner of a small county. They have learned together to see themselves as more than that. They will take that with them to Tullamore today, and whatever will be, will be.
"It's a mammoth task for them," says John. "It's a mountain for them to climb. But we're aware if they perform as they can they'll give plenty of competition to Kilmacud. We recognise that Kilmacud is a big club, probably one of the biggest in Leinster, while we're at the other end of the scale, one of the smallest. But at the end of the day it's 15 versus 15 when you go out there and we're delighted to be there and delighted to be part of this.
"It's an enormous occasion for us, and for the county. It's the first time the county has been in a senior Leinster final. Of course we are proud of them, of course we wish them well, but if they don't succeed there's no shame because they owe nothing to Mullinalaghta football, they owe nothing to Longford football. It's a win-win."
No matter what happens, they will gather back in Mullinalaghta tonight and savour every moment. Either way, they are not finished yet.
"We are proud of them; I am proud of them," says Frank.
Sunday Indo Sport