“Last night I had a pleasant dream,” sang Larry Cunningham in the 1960s, “I woke up with a smile.” And apparently it wasn’t Zsa Zsa Gabor that Larry had dreamed of. It was the beautiful Leitrim.
Last Sunday I ran into another man from Ballinamore an hour before the county final in Carrick-on-Shannon. He hadn’t had any dreams the night before, pleasant or not, because he hadn’t slept with a wink on his nerves. Most of us didn’t get a lot of sleep on Sunday night either. But we definitely woke up with a smile on Monday morning. We were senior county champions for the 21st time. It was the city’s first title since 1990. The famine almost killed us. The celebrations would almost kill a few, too.
In fashion, the team hopped in the back of Joey Smith’s truck, past the Beirne gas station on the outskirts of Edentenny. It was about eight o’clock; darkness had fallen. The long journey of the day into the night was about to begin. A large cavalcade of cars threw themselves behind the truck. With flashing lights, blinking horns and waving flags, they made their triumphal procession through Ardrum, Aghadark, across the bridge over the Shannon-Erne waterway, onto Main Street, High Street and onto St Felim’s Square at the top. from the city.
On Main Street, Stan Smyth walked out of his Siopa l and handed over a few crates to our conquering heroes, cap the bottles for easy access. He brought a flashback to this watcher. In 1986, my teammates and I were on a similar procession when Michael Martin, the late hotelier who was fondly remembered, rushed to the front doors of his premises and handed over two huge bottles of champagne as we continued our little man on the road.
But that was then and it was now. And it was the now that mattered. More than three hours earlier, the same hordes that took to the streets were on the pitch for Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada, moments after the referee blew the final whistle. The game had finally broken Ballinamore’s path with four minutes left in regulation time. Niall McGovern scored the only goal of the game.
He had been on the edge of a knife from a throw-in. In truth, it could have gone both ways. Mohill, the defending champions and a team that gave their club a golden age, played top-notch football. Their diamond in the middle third of the center-back, midfielder and center-forward was really impressive. Keith Beirne at 11 threw breathtaking scores with both left and right feet. It was like watching Matty Forde.
Our boys held on. Darren Maxwell between the sticks kept us alive with three blinding saves on penalties. Everywhere we have grafted. Then, we grafted others. Our back-line veterans, Liam Ferguson and Mattie Murphy, came up with a series of critical interventions. Ahead of them, Wayne McKeon produced a monstrous performance, doing nuts and bolts on defense, slashing lavish deliveries into the front line, converting clearances then in the 55th minute, topping it off with a sliced shot from over 45 yards. “Draíochtúil! Seán Óg de Paor said of TG4’s comment as he navigated through the posts.
Credit and thanks must go to TG4 for making the decision to broadcast the game live. We don’t get a lot of attention at Leitrim. With a population of 32,000, we don’t expect much and have long learned to live with being orphans in the bigger scheme of things. As far as I know, this did not engender resentment but a kind of steel self-sufficiency. Certainly not self-pity, just some sort of dignified resilience and understated decency.
For the aforementioned county final in 1986, friends of mine, a couple from the lush green pastures of Tipperary, decided to make the trip. The match was at Cloone. They joined Cloone’s triumphant cavalcade that evening in Ballinamore – country roads all the way. They had a great time that night as the city was full of Mardi Gras. The following week I met them in Dublin. A picture of the day had remained with them: it was the small, bushy and bushy fields, some of them inundated, some of them with hay roosters washed up in the water and blackening from the bottom up. “I could have cried when I saw him,” the guy said. “I didn’t know there was agriculture like this in Ireland.”
So if the land doesn’t breed prosperity, it breeds stoicism, determination, a core work ethic, and – not unrelatedly – a fondness for country music. A good dose of sly wit and black comedy too. You would need it in those parts, to be honest. There is hardly anything that cannot be extracted for a joke or a thread. Then everyone makes a living. In other words, we go to Leitrim as best we can and we don’t make a lot of remarks about the fact that no one is making a lot of remarks about us. We are well; could be better, could be worse; we keep him kicked out anyway.
But with the arrival of TG4 in town, and without forgetting Marty Morrissey for RTÉ too, we weren’t sure whether to be flattered or worried. I repeat: we are not used to any class of spotlight on us. As it turned out, in the county’s flagship game, the two teams conspired to showcase all that is good in Gaelic football. They made us proud.
It was Ballinamore day. Most of these players had suffered a traumatic loss in the 2019 final. If there was a difference between the teams, maybe it was a refusal from our guys to accept defeat again. They would not tolerate it. Maybe that’s what drove them to cross the line. At the second break, the message from manager Dom Corrigan was straightforward and emphatic: keep playing, keep playing, keep playing.
When McGovern’s shot rocked the net I saw Birdie Burns in front of me jump up and down like a young buck. Ollie Honeyman next to me also turned on the tap and let out a few screams. Gunter Logan and Beezer McKiernan a few steps away from us were as happy as sand boys. The hangar was full of Ballinamores. They gave the Old Town the battle cry, “Go Cannaboe!”
In our youth we would have heard people like Christy Gallogly and Pat Mallon and Eddie Matt Turbitt shout it too, all set off for their eternal reward. The wheel continues to turn.
I remember as clearly as the day I burst out laughing on a Sunday morning on our land. It was a bad weather day. Motivation among the players was not at an all-time high. My brother reluctantly tilted his back to pick up a ball – reluctantly. He only managed to stomp her a few yards in front of him. He descended a second time, only to trample him a few more feet. Amid various oaths and imprecations from supporters unequivocally ordering him to bend his ass back, I heard Eddie Matt roar, “You want a creel for that, Willie?”
And because I’m a sentimental old fool, I thought 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 at mass. And forever marked by us for their unwavering faith in the city and the team. I also thought of Jimmy Clyne, who played on Ballinamore’s first team to win the championship, in 1913, and who died on the Western Front in World War I in 1915. And we also thought of friends. absent that day but who will hopefully be there for other days, Andy Duffy and Barney Breen among others.
At the end of the game, all you had to do was step onto the pitch and let the good times roll. There we met several people that we had not seen for years. Scattered across all parts of Ireland, they had heard the return signal inviting them to return for the day there. And they duly responded, like a migratory species returning to its original breeding ground. The emotions were discharged. There was a lot of manly hugs and meaty backslapping – and it was just the women. The men kissed each other tenderly and affectionately while whispering sweet words to each other. Everything was possible in these sublime minutes. There were tears, many tears, at the end of such a long wandering in the desert.
I did a straight line for Liam Ferguson. Now 35, married, father of three and a teacher in Dublin, he has finally reaped the harvest of his 19th season as a senior player. Nineteen years of traveling up and down every weekend, every workout and every crushing setback. Sport doesn’t always do justice. But sometimes it is. It did Ferguson justice on Sunday. McKeon and Murphy and Shane Moran too – all veterans who kept coming back.
Players decanted in the back of Joey’s truck in St Felim’s Square and took a short walk in the arms of loved ones and enthusiastic crowds outside Gay Prior’s bar.
In Ireland there is constant concern about the decline of small towns, the rural economy and local pubs. If there is one licensed local that embodies the pub’s ideal as a community hub and center of local life, it is Prior de Ballinamore. Gay, the owner, has provided service to his community for over 40 years that can never be quantified. He has also been a pillar of support for the team throughout this time. How sweet to see his own son Tom, scorer of two vital points, return triumphantly in the fold of his family, his friends and neighbors, one of the conquering heroes.
They are made men now. Their photo will be hung on the wall. They are the best of us. They are young, but you can sense their desire to be part of something bigger than them. They are plugged into tradition; they are now part of the line of succession. Last Sunday they stepped back in time and hooked up with the 1913 men and every championship team since.
Inside, it was chaos. Prior was a house of happiness back and forth. Everywhere you looked, literally everywhere you looked, people were smiling, laughing, and being at peace with themselves. It was a beautiful sight. Outside, a DJ was playing tunes. Outside, they were dancing in the street. I may have tossed a few shapes myself when the Nolan sisters gave us their immortal version of I’m in the mood to dance. It wasn’t Larry Cunningham, but you can’t have it all.
At dawn, I ran into the High Street with the brother. Back in town, we could still hear the music; you could hear the joy and the laughter and the energy of renewal carrying the night wind. It echoed us all the way home. It has resonated in the past and will reverberate in the future.
On Monday morning, we woke up with a smile. We were all young again. We were still 21 years old. Happy 21st birthday, Ballinamore.