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Loving Lovely Leitrim

July 5, 2011

On Saturday, my son and I will take an early flight to Belfast, jump in a hire car, drive down to Newry, Co Down, watch 70 minutes of Gaelic Football, return to Belfast, and fly home. A long journey for a short match you might say – especially as there are very strong odds that our team will be defeated – but I make the trip, to see Down v Leitrim in the All Ireland Championship Qualifiers, enthusiastically. In fact, it’s a shorter trip than usual. Usually our destination is more than a hundred miles further south than Newry; if our county, Leitrim, are playing at home in Carrick on Shannon, the journey from Belfast is three hours rather than one.

Following GAA Football, when based in Scotland, can be a lonely occupation, especially when you consider that part of the attraction of sport is the chance to discuss games with fellow enthusiasts and be part of the build up and aftermath. If I go into work on a Monday morning elated or downcast by the weekend result, few colleagues have any idea what I am talking about.

However, supporting your home county in Gaelic sport reflects a wide range of emotions and enthusiasms. Perhaps my attachment is best explained by sharing a bit of background.

My grandfather left Drumkeerin, Co Leitrim, over 100 years ago. He came to Edinburgh via Brooklyn and, in the emigrant tradition, his children spent their teenage summers ‘back home’. In my own turn, I began to visit Drumkeerin and formed an attachment to the small town and its people. It’s difficult to avoid sentimentality or caricature when you write of returning to your roots, but all I know is that I feel comfortable in Drumkeerin, and in particular in the fields around the townland of Drumnafaughnan where my family were tenant farmers. On the slopes of Corry Mountain, overlooking Lough Allan and Slieve Ianarrain, the land is boggy and rough but, to my eyes anyway, possesses a grandeur. Standing in those fields I can gather some understanding of the attachment to land. As Dolores Keane sings in ‘Solid Ground’, written, coincidentally, by Scot Dougie McLean:
It’s the land that is our wisdom
It’s the land that shines us through
It’s the land that feeds our children
It’s the land you cannot own the land the land owns you

However, existence here is hard and not easy; there’s little that is romantic about North Leitrim – except, perhaps, the spirit of its people. Other than the building of a few ‘ghost estates’ and unfeasibly high house prices, the Celtic Tiger didn’t much bother this county, which, with a population of around 25000, is one of the smallest in Ireland. They say the boggy land is sold by the gallon and those who wish to continue farming the family land do so, amidst a welter of EU paperwork, with one eye on their day job and another on the chances of their own children wanting the hassle when their time comes. To live in these conditions speaks of commitment – to neighbours, to family and to community. The welcome you’d get in Leitrim could kill you; hospitality is genetic; when we arrive at our friends/relations, the Byrnes, we are welcomed home with genuine pleasure and the place is set at the table overlooking the land my ancestors worked. It is the way the people are, and they make little of it, but it fairly screams their pride in who they are and where they have come from. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that continuing tradition?

And it’s the place of the GAA to be the cement in that community, as it is in towns and villages throughout Ireland. Surely it has its detractors: there are those who see it as old fashioned and conservative, and others, of the West Brit mentality, who would like to think of it as too parochial for their sophisticated pan European tastes. But, for those of us who have tasted life in a faster lane, it is an echo of what once was and is no longer.

Am amateur organisation, it exists in every parish, village, town and county in Ireland. Profits from show games at the magnificent headquarters at Croke Park in Dublin, Europe’s third largest sports stadium, find their way back to the grassroots of the game in refurbished grounds, upgraded dressing rooms, facilities for Gaelic Sport and culture, at all levels. What the GAA cannot provide centrally, the local community works together to establish – and this means practically, not just in fundraising, but in laying bricks, flattening ground, painting facilities and so on. The clubs, whether at parish or county level, belong to the people who run them, support them and play for them.

So to attend a Leitrim game at pairc Sean MacDiarmada in Carrick on Shannon is a unique experience, especially for those more used to spectating at professional sports events across the channel. With thirteen or fourteen thousand people there, getting on for half the entire population of the county have come to support their lads. Crucially, those around you know the team, personally: he’s a neighbour, a relation, your teacher, mechanic, painter, shopkeeper. You went to school with him, he lives in your village, he sold you insurance, he plays in your club team. It puts high demands on the guys in the team: their supporters are their neighbours, there’s no getting away from a bad result, and these players train like professional sportsmen, while holding down a full time job. Some face a two or three hundred mile round trip to training three or four times a week.

There is fierce pride and enormous rivalry – particularly against neighbouring counties – in Leitrim’s case especially Roscommon, Sligo or Longford, but the banter between fans is good natured and comradely. The point I’m seeking to make is that the GAA is about people, and a tale from a visit in 2009 will illustrate the point perfectly.

Leitrim were to play Roscommon on Sunday afternoon. My son and I attended morning Mass in Drumkeerin and afterwards John Joe Byrne called us across, saying there was someone he wanted us to meet. He introduced us to Colm Clarke, a player with Drumkeerin’s Naomh Brid club. Colm would be making his debut for the county that afternoon, so it was great to meet him. John Joe pointed out how we flew across from Edinburgh for games and Colm was friendly and interested and appreciative of our support. John Joe pointed out that when Colm’s father was young he had worked the land at Drumnafaughnan where my own family had worked. It was a lovely connection to be made.

That afternoon, in a packed Pairc Sean, Colm made his first start for the county and, within 100 seconds, scored a spectacular goal. He dribbled through the centre, beating a number of men before dispatching the ball into the net. As he approached the goal the crowd was on its feet, the excitement building, to be released with a roar that would shake the heavens when he scored. I have been to World Cup Finals, internationals, Test Matches and many stellar events in sport, but I have never ever felt the emotion I felt when Colm found the net that afternoon. Even Leitrim’s eventual defeat couldn’t take the gloss off that moment. The depth of the emotion and joy was generated by the feeling of connection; no highly paid hired hand this player, but a lad from our parish, scoring for the county. It was, and remains, an absolutely priceless moment, which I will never forget.

As I said, the GAA is about people – which is what makes it so special. It’s about community – which is what makes it so important, and, yes, it is about feelings, which is what makes it so emotional.

So when the lads march out in those green and gold shirts at The Marshes in Newry on Saturday – to face the might of Down – a David and Goliath moment if there ever was one – I know I will be watching, as usual, with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat.

And the journey I’ve made won’t lay heavy on me, because, in my heart, I won’t have come west from Edinburgh, but north from Drumnafaughnan – a much shorter journey, from a place that is never far away from me.

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