Tuesday 23 July 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Hard facts and wishful dreaming produce a sort of magic realism'

The Miracle of Mullinalaghta

Mullinalaghta St Columba's players celebrate with the cup after the AIB Leinster GAA Football Senior Club Championship final
Mullinalaghta St Columba's players celebrate with the cup after the AIB Leinster GAA Football Senior Club Championship final

Tommy Conlon

If it's Friday it must be The Late Late Show and if it's Saturday it must be the RTÉ Sports Awards. But despite their new-found familiarity with this obscure north Longford enclave, the people of Ireland still haven't figured out why they're supposed to pronounce Mullinalaghta with a y.

Nor have we yet quite figured out how, exactly, 'Mullinyachta' ended up the senior club champions of Leinster, when the numbers game is so loaded against them they should be struggling to be the best team in their own parish, much less the county, never mind the province.

When Charles Kickham published Knocknagow in 1879, the Gaelic Athletic Association was still five years away from its birth. Kickham enshrined in his best-selling novel that sentimental attachment to the rural heartland which the GAA would build its empire upon. But the story of the proud little village has become such a perennial pot-boiler that it is encrusted with more platitudes and romantic clichés at this stage than a Daniel O'Donnell ballad.

It therefore takes a pretty seismic achievement to inject some fresh emotion into this dog-eared staple of the sporting calendar. On December 9, St Columba's of Mullinalaghta left tremors on the Richter Scale with their 1-8 to 1-6 defeat of Kilmacud Crokes in the Leinster final. It was, and will remain, a ridiculously romantic fable.

The ongoing urbanisation of Irish society means that the GAA these days is wrestling with the mammoth task of planting its presence in the big towns and suburbs and conurbations. Kilmacud Crokes is an urban superclub that symbolises the contemporary trend in Irish economics and demographics. The prospect of a tiny rural parish beating them might have been a tad too melodramatic for even Kickham's imagination. But for a half-parish to produce a team of this calibre from a population of some 450 souls in total? It can only belong in sport, that unique realm where hard facts and wishful dreaming coalesce to form a genre of their own - a sort of magic realism for the masses.

In passing then, Mullinalaghta has become an accidental symbol, an improbable repository of hope for people living decent lives in quiet places, beleaguered by socioeconomic forces that are dauntingly complex and powerful. Perhaps it is a sign of the anxiety felt in every rural hinterland that this hitherto anonymous community should be embraced with such gladness the length and breadth of Ireland.

Theirs has become a breakout story, hence those appearances on national television and on the news pages as well as the sports sections.

"We knew that we could pull off a shock," said their captain Shane Mulligan at the RTÉ awards, "but we thought it'd be a shock within the GAA circles of Leinster. But it's really captured the imagination of the nation and it's been a surreal couple of days, a fantastic bubble. Christmas has come early to Mullinalaghta."

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And with it came a silver cup more valuable than gold - maybe even the frankincense and myrrh too.

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