Don’t tamper with the perfection of Clones on Ulster final day

Its days are numbered unless the GAA issues a reprieve – I’m all for the whales. But let’s save Clones too

At the pre-match parade in Clones, pace is everything; the slow-march and jubilant notes of the brass band somehow elevate the anticipation to boiling point. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho

At the pre-match parade in Clones, pace is everything; the slow-march and jubilant notes of the brass band somehow elevate the anticipation to boiling point. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 02:00

Is the GAA seriously about to end the tradition of Ulster final day in Clones? Say it ain’t so, Joe. To do so would be madness.

Yes, the logic of moving Ulster’s big football day to its main city of Belfast is unimpeachable. When HRH, no less, takes 60 million sterling from her handbag for the purpose of redeveloping Casement Park, the gentlemen of the Ulster Council are not going to say no. That’s a lot of Friday bingo nights.

Word is that the new place in Andy’town will be a model of modernity and spatial planning and sightlines. The plans look wonderful. When its first big championship day rolls around in 2016, Ministers from Both Sides will sit together in the Ard Comhairle, smiling and remarking upon how far they have all travelled.

The GAA will sportingly provide guests of Unionist persuasion with the cricket updates from Trent Bridge or Headingley. It will be a good day for Ulster.

Belfast is a brilliant city. It makes sense to have the province’s main GAA theatre there. The redevelopment gives Ulster a stadium to compare with the best of those to be found ‘down South’. And those bragging rights matter in the GAA. There will be none of the traffic nightmares experienced in the narrow laneways around St Tiernach’s Park. Casement Park can accommodate more supporters. The press facilities have everything its members could need, even electrical sockets. It’s a great leap forward. Moving from a backwater to the bright lights. It’s progress!

But so what? It’s still not Clones. Clones on Ulster final day is perfection and you shouldn’t tamper with that.

The Prodigy

Now, it’s true that Clones on Ulster final day boasts an unrefined kind of perfection. It’s true, for instance, that the entrepreneurs of the culinary roadside emporiums have a fondness for country ballads played at full volume or the kind of lost classics that never made it out of the early 1990s. In Clones, the Prodigy will always be in the charts.

And there is no denying that you will encounter the full spectrum of booziness by takin’ a dander down Main Street, from the buckleppers who had a brave lock in the Hibernian to the few unfortunates whose day is done before the minor match. Stocious. Blitzed. Buckled. Bananaboats. Calved. Wrote off, hey.

It’s true too that the pleasantries are exchanged in a coda that the CIA would find tough to crack. “Go on ye wee get ye.” “I near forgot the wain.” “Is that you?” “Bout ye, big mon.” “Some day, hey”. “Wild hey. “Sure it was bucketin’ there comin thru Lisnaskea.” “Fierce walk in.” “Some handlin’.” “I near calved.”

Nor can you quite get over the disconcerting level of glamour which characterises Ulster final day.

If many supporters dress as if they are intent on going straight from the match to the dance floor in Kelly’s of Portrush, that’s because they are. And yes, Paulo Tullio and the other critics from the Restaurant might be sparing in their awarding of gold stars if they found themselves in Clones on Ulster final day and stopped at one of the culinary stalls on the way up to the Park.

In fact, they might be a little taken aback by the level of clousterin’ in general. Unless, of course, they had stood outside the Creighton Arms for a few noontime nerve settlers and fell in with the Scotstown crowd or the Kilmacrennan boys and had a right few. Then those quarter -pounders dripping with onions would taste like heaven.

Yes, it has been recently observed that Ulster’s somewhat problematic relationship with flags and marches can sometimes extend to the pre-match parade in Clones. Pace is everything: the slow-march and jubilant notes of the brass band somehow elevate the anticipation to boiling point. Maybe it would be better just to stick Set Guitars To Kill on the tannoy and let the players mosh in front of the Ard Comhairle for five minutes: just get it all out of their systems. But no: Clones is about nothing if not ceremony and tradition.

Think of any of the great stadiums of the world. Fenway Park in Boston. Anfield in Liverpool. The Olympiastadion in Berlin. Rio’s Maracana is a splendour to behold – or so I’m told.

All of those places have decades and stories behind them. That’s what makes them special. St Tiernach’s Park has that. It’s a great old stadium that just happens to be perched on a height over one of the Ulster’s most haughty and careworn towns. Clones is to Ulster what Ava Gardner was to Old Hollywood.

It helps, of course, that Clones is the home town of Patrick McCabe, who is probably the square root of modern Irish literature. It helps that he gave Clones the immortal Francie Brady, who put the town on the map and wouldn’t have been arsed with the Ulster final.

Hang on

On days like tomorrow, when the senior match throws in a four pm, Clones reaches a crescendo at around 2. 42pm. St Tiernach’s Park is already busy but there is still a good crowd down the town and the hill leading up to the turnstiles is jammers.

Everyone knows that they need to get moving but they want to hang on, to stretch the day out. Because the anticipation of the match is the high point: no county has yet lost. Then, all of a sudden, 5,000 people decide to leave at once and it is bedlam. Sometimes people duck in to use the loos in the Creighton and aren’t seen again until Christmas. It is that kind of day.

There have been some great and some terrible finals there down the years. But the day is about more than the game.

It is fitting, now, that the last scheduled Ulster finals coincide with a renaissance in the fortunes of Monaghan football. They might even squeeze in a three-in-a-row before Ulster final day goes the same way as the Railway and the Luxor cinema and the other Clones landmarks.

Its days are numbered unless the GAA issues a reprieve. They could at least split the finals, with Clones hosting every other year. I’m all for the whales. But let’s save Clones too. They won’t know what they lost until they have lost it.

And it is a fleeting magic. By the time we leave the press box in the evening time, the Anglo Celt Cup has long been lifted and laid. The dressing rooms are closed, the stadium ghostly and the serenity and sense of desertion about the town is hard to fathom given the noontime scenes.

You could go on about Clones forever. But a friend put it perfectly in an email not so long ago explaining what he feels sets Clones apart on Ulster final day.

“It’s one of my favourite places on earth, like an Ireland that no longer exists and somehow for one day in the year appears shimmering from the mist like Hy-Brasil.”

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