Fairytale gives rise to a moral dilemma in the true tradition
Dermot Crowe has witnessed the success of Kilmurry-Ibrickane with the grudging respect reserved for neighbours and rivals
A STEEP challenge awaits the upwardly mobile footballers of Kilmurry-Ibrickane as they head to Limerick today to play Portlaoise in the penultimate round of the club championships. The air will be thinner and they'll need all their wits to survive; their heady exploits have taken them well above the clouds. Now the expedition either ends, and they tumble back down to base camp, or it brings the spectacular summit into view.
Their supporters will follow in their slipstream, reaching for the next ledge in a climb that smacks of wonder and make-believe. If they beat Portlaoise they are set for Croke Park on St Patrick's Day. An All-Ireland final has long been the stuff of fantasy, laughably unrealistic and impossibly remote. Now it is an hour away.
They are long odds -- the rank outsiders of the remaining four contenders -- but that hardly matters. At the core of this story is a group of players that considers self-belief to be the entire point of the exercise. Without it they'd have no hope and no future and none of this vaulting ambition. And teams with much bigger reputations have left the field rosy-cheeked because of it, having found Kilmurry-Ibrickane's brand of football, and the obstinacy and will that lies beneath, simply too much. They made way.
When they won the Munster final before Christmas, defeating the favourites Kerins O'Rahillys, there was a natural impulse to take pride in their achievement if you were from the same county, as I am. But being from the next parish, as I am, isn't quite so straightforward. In this instance, the differences are emphasised and magnified, not the similarities. We are two distinct tribes and there is no love lost between us; that is what we have been raised to believe. So, this is the conundrum: do you feel horror or joy when the neighbourly rival is riding high on his luck?
To be from the next parish at a time like this is to be placed in a peculiar bind -- jammed between the obvious inclination to be pleased, in a spirit of Clare solidarity, and the urgent need to profoundly despair and run screaming to the hills. All clubs have rivals of course, and they have to live with that. But what happens when the team next door suddenly loses the run of itself and wins two Munster club titles, as Kilmurry-Ibrickane have done, and is now gunning for a place in the All-Ireland final? How are you supposed to feel then?
Hailing from the next parish of Miltown Malbay at a time like this means having to shoulder a lot of history and baggage. Our club is Kilmurry-Ibrickane's long-established foe, the rivalry has often been acrimonious and as parochial as they come, and it would be something of a falsehood to say that some of us are not a little queasy at the prospect of Quilty (as Kilmurry-Ibrickane is commonly referred to locally) winning an All-Ireland title, whatever about getting to the final. They have already won Munster, surpassed themselves, brought honour to Clare football which is welcome. Let's leave it at that shall we?
It would not be unusual to hear a Miltown loyalist offer fair dues to Quilty for winning another Munster title, a second in five years and a truly remarkable achievement, then see his face crease in terror at the prospect of them adding an All-Ireland. If that were to happen, I think we can all humbly agree that the psychlogical effects would demand years of rigorous counselling. And the counsellor couldn't promise anything. Is it acceptable to feel that way? Isn't that what the GAA is essentially about after all -- not loving thy neighbour as thyself?
We are happy for Quilty in a Clare way, and in a west Clare way, appreciating the room for solidarity and the wider tribal definitions beyond the parish. And you always have to admire the guts of a team overcoming the odds, as they have done so spectacularly. But it is hard to not have it reflected back on your own achievements or lack thereof. What will they be like if they win the All-Ireland? We'll never hear the end of it. There are dark visions of hell where Quilty win the All-Ireland and make a triumphant procession home through Miltown, honk their horns and cheer loudly, to remind us of the magnitude of the deed. The village of Quilty will be ablaze with the satanic light of the bonfires and around the parish hamlets of Mullagh and Coore they will also be rejoicing. It would be much worse than England winning the World Cup. Much, much worse.
It is a lot more civilised now, or so they tell me. The relationship is more amicable without compromising the essential rivalry. Miltown will always derive the greatest satisfaction beating Quilty, and the reverse is also true. But the rows don't seem as frequent or as fierce. The worst melee I have ever witnesses was between these clubs, a minor championship semi-final 30 years ago. Almost everyone at the ground got involved.
When you played Quilty, a row was virtually an accepted part of the day's work. It might only be a small dispute, a few sporadic incidents, but there would be aggro of some sort because tradition almost demanded it. The world's a smaller place now and our horizons have broadened. The old visceral heat
has been reduced or at least placed in a larger kiln -- maybe it is not life and death anymore. There are greater concerns out there. We are less parochial. But still. For either club to lose to the other is an experience they'd rather do without.
Miltown have won 12 senior football championships, one more than Kilmurry-Ibrickane, though that boast has long worn thin. Last year Quilty won back-to-back titles for the first time and they will be favourites to add a third later this year and draw level. They are the only Clare club to have won two Munster titles.
In 2004, they almost swept the boards, winning football championships at U14, minor, U21 and senior grades. They have been hoovering them up. Miltown prides itself on a football tradition and that was already well established when their neighbours bagged a first senior success in 1933. But Miltown's last senior championship was in 1990.
These days, Quilty are undisputed champions of Clare, and now of Munster as well. There are some promising signs of revival for Miltown, with underage titles from the last decade, and a change of management for the senior team this year. Granted they are a long way from Quilty's enviable heights. But they have their goals, a committed bunch of lads and a kind of ingrained sense that they should be winning more than they have been lately.
To see Quilty winning cannot become the sole driving concern but if they were to be honest it would have to be a factor. How do they truly feel about it all? Most, being honest, would have to say they are glad for Quilty, warts and all, because what they have achieved has been the product of hard work and careful husbandry of their juvenile players. That is harder to achieve now than it was 20 years ago as there are infinitely more distractions and temptations. They have made football king in that parish and given it an almost religious status. The success has fed the fever and today they will be in Limerick maintaining their devotions. Young lads in the parish are intensely proud to pull on that green and red shirt and so they should be.
My theory is that if all clubs had the same application, Miltown included, then Clare's football team would be in an infinitely better state of repair. They aren't the most luminous football team left in the club championship, they won't dazzle you necessarily with their football, but they have made the most of their resources and done so by fair and honourable means. If they reach the All-Ireland final, good luck to them. If they win it -- oh God -- well good luck to them too. It will have been an astonishing feat. So, come on Quilty. Sew it into them.