Our refusal to accept defeat again characteristic of the steely self-reliance that Leitrim folk embody
“Last night I had a pleasant dream,” sang Larry Cunningham famously in the 1960s, “I woke up with a smile.” And apparently it wasn’t Zsa Zsa Gabor that Larry had been dreaming about. It was Lovely Leitrim.
Last Sunday I bumped into a fellow Ballinamore man an hour before the county final in Carrick-on-Shannon. He hadn’t had any dreams the night before, pleasant or otherwise, because he hadn’t slept a wink with the nerves. Most of us didn’t sleep many winks Sunday night either. But we definitely woke up with a smile Monday morning. We were senior county champions for the 21st time. It was the town’s first title since 1990. The famine had nearly killed us. The celebrations would nearly kill a few of us too.
In time-honoured fashion the squad hopped up on the back of Joey Smith’s lorry, outside Beirne’s filling station in the suburbs of Edentenny. It was around 8pm; darkness had fallen. The long day’s journey into night was about to begin. A great cavalcade of cars fell in behind the lorry. With lights flashing, horns blaring and flags flying, they made their triumphant procession through Ardrum, Aghadark, across the bridge over the Shannon-Erne Waterway, down Main Street, up High Street and onto St Felim’s Square at the top of the town.
On Main Street, Stan Smyth came out of his Siopa Ól and handed up a few crates to our conquering heroes, caps off the bottles for ease of access. It brought a flashback to this observer. In 1986 my teammates and I were making a similar procession when Michael Martin, the late and fondly remembered hotelier, rushed out the front doors of his premises and handed up two massive bottles of champagne as we went on our merry way.
But that was then and this was now. And the now was what mattered. More than three hours earlier, the same hordes who were out on the streets had been out on the field at Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada, just moments after the referee sounded the final whistle. The match had finally broken Ballinamore’s way with four minutes left in regulation time. Niall McGovern drilled home the game’s only goal.
It had been on a knife edge from throw-in. In truth it could have gone either way. Mohill, the defending champions and a team that has delivered a golden era for their club, played high class football. Their middle-third diamond of centre half-back, midfield and centre half-forward, was seriously impressive. Keith Beirne at 11 kicked some breathtaking scores off left and right foot. It was like watching Matty Forde.
Our boys hung tough. Darren Maxwell between the sticks kept us alive with three blinding saves on goal-bound shots. Everywhere we grafted. Then we grafted some more. Our veterans in the full-back line, Liam Ferguson and Mattie Murphy, came up with a series of critical interventions. In front of them, Wayne McKeon produced a monstrous performance, doing the nuts and bolts in defence, pinging sumptuous deliveries into the forward line, converting frees and then in the 55th minute, crowning it all with a sliced shot from over 45 metres. “Draíochtúil!” declared Seán Óg de Paor on TG4 commentary as it sailed between the posts.
Credit and thanks must go to TG4 for making the decision to televise the match live. We don’t get much attention in Leitrim. With a 32,000 population we don’t expect much and we long ago learned to live with being orphaned in the grander scheme of things. As far as I can see, it has bred not resentment but a sort of steely self-reliance. Definitely not self-pity, just a kind of dignified resilience and an understated decency.
For the aforementioned county final in 1986, friends of mine, a couple from Tipperary’s verdant pastures, decided to make the trip. The match was in Cloone. They joined the triumphant cavalcade back from Cloone that evening to Ballinamore — country roads all the way. They had a whale of a time that night as the town went full Mardi Gras. The following week I met them in Dublin. An image from the day had stayed with them: it was the small, scrubby, rushy fields, some of them flooded, some of them with cocks of hay marooned in the water and turning black from the bottom up. “I could have cried when I saw it,” said the chap. “I had no idea that there was farming like that in Ireland.”
So if the land doesn’t breed prosperity, it breeds stoicism, determination, an essential work ethic and — not unrelated — a fondness for country music. A fair amount of cunning wit and black comedy too. You’d need it in them parts, to be honest. There’s nearly nothing that can’t be mined for a quip or a yarn. Then everyone gets on with making a living. In other words, we tip away in Leitrim as best we can and don’t pass much remarks on the fact that nobody passes much remarks on us. We’re doing okay; could be better, could be worse; we’re keeping it kicked out all the same.
But with TG4 coming to town, and not forgetting Marty Morrissey for RTÉ too, we didn’t quite know whether to be flattered or anxious about it. To repeat: we’re not used to any class of a spotlight shining down on us. As it turned out, in the county’s showpiece game, the two teams conspired to put on an exhibition of all that is good in Gaelic football. They did us proud.
It happened to be Ballinamore’s day. Most of those players had suffered a traumatic defeat in the 2019 final. If there was any difference at all between the teams, it was perhaps a refusal on the part of our lads to accept defeat again. They would not countenance it. Maybe that is what got them over the line. At the second water break the message from the manager, Dom Corrigan, was simple and emphatic: keep playing, keep playing, keep playing.
When McGovern’s shot rattled the net, I saw Birdie Burns in front of me jumping up and down like a young buck. Ollie Honeyman beside me opened the tap too and let out a few yelps. Gunter Logan and Beezer McKiernan down a few steps from us were as happy as sandboys. The shed was full of Ballinamores. They unleashed the old town war cry, “Come on Cannaboe!”
In our youth we’d have heard the likes of Christy Gallogly and Pat Mallon and Eddie Matt Turbitt shout it too, all of them gone to their eternal reward. The wheel keeps turning.
I can remember clear as day cracking up laughing one Sunday morning down at our home pitch. It was a horrible day of weather. Motivation among the players was not at an all-time high. My brother was reluctantly bending his back to pick up a ball — very reluctantly. He succeeded only in toeing it on a few feet in front of him. Down he went a second time, only to toe it on a few feet more. In between various oaths and imprecations from supporters ordering him in no uncertain terms to bend his f*****g back, I heard Eddie Matt roar: “D’you want a creel for it, Willie?”
And because I’m a sentimental old fool, I thought on Sunday night of Christy and Pat and Eddie Matt and all those who had gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, as they say in Mass. And marked forever by us for their undying faith in town and team. I thought too of Jimmy Clyne, who played on the first Ballinamore side to win the championship, in 1913, and who died on the western front of World War One in 1915. And we thought also of friends absent on the day but who will hopefully be there for other days, Andy Duffy and Barney Breen among others.
When the match was over, there was nothing left to do but get onto the field and let the good times roll. There we met several people whom we hadn’t seen in years. Scattered to all parts of Ireland, they had heard the homing signal bidding them to come back for the day that was in it. And they duly responded, like a migratory species returning to their original breeding ground. Emotions were unloaded. There was much manly hugging and meaty backslapping — and that was just the women. The men embraced tenderly and lovingly whilst whispering sweet nothings to each other. All things were possible in those sublime minutes. There were tears, many tears, at the ending of such a long wandering in the wilderness.
I made a beeline for Liam Ferguson. Now 35, married with three kids and teaching in Dublin, he had finally reaped the harvest in his 19th season as a senior player. Nineteen years of travelling up and down every weekend, to every training session and crushing setback. Sport doesn’t always do justice. But sometimes it does. It did justice to Ferguson on Sunday. McKeon and Murphy and Shane Moran too — all the veterans who kept coming back for more.
The players decanted from the back of Joey’s lorry at St Felim’s Square and made the short walk into the arms of their loved ones and the cheering throngs outside Gay Prior’s bar.
In Ireland there is constant worry about the decline of small towns, the rural economy and local pubs. If there is a licensed premises that can be said to embody the ideal of the public house as community hub and centre of local life, it is Prior’s of Ballinamore. Gay, the proprietor, has rendered for over 40 years service to his community that can never be quantified. He has been a bedrock of support for the team during all that time too. How sweet it was to see his own son Tom, scorer of two vital points, return triumphant to the bosom of his family and friends and neighbours, one of the conquering heroes.
They are made men now. Their photo will go up on the wall. They are the best of us. They are young but you could sense from them their desire to be part of something bigger than themselves. They are plugged into the tradition; they have become part of the line of succession. Last Sunday they reached back into the past and connected with the men of 1913 and all the champion teams since.
Inside it was mayhem. Prior’s was a house of happiness from front to back. Everywhere you looked, literally everywhere you looked, people were smiling and laughing and at peace with themselves. It was a beautiful sight. Outside a DJ was playing tunes. Outside they were dancing on the street. I might have thrown a few shapes myself when the Nolan Sisters treated us to their immortal version of I’m In the Mood for Dancing. It wasn’t Larry Cunningham but you can’t have everything.
With the break of day beckoning, I stumbled down High Street with the brother. Back down at the bottom of the town, you could still hear the music; you could hear the joy and the laughter and the energy of renewal carrying on the night wind. It echoed to us all the way home. It echoed into the past and will echo into the future.
On Monday morning we woke up with a smile. We were all young again. We were 21 again. Happy 21st birthday, Ballinamore.