If you haven’t hit Clones on Ulster final day, sure you haven’t lived

Monaghan on home soil taking on All-Ireland champions Donegal is an occasion of unique pomp and grandeur

A packed house awaits the start of the 2009 Ulster senior football final between Tyrone and Antrim at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

A packed house awaits the start of the 2009 Ulster senior football final between Tyrone and Antrim at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho


It is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the Bernabeu and it may not have quite the history or architectural majesty of the Olympiastadion in Berlin and no, the hors d’oeuvres may not be quite as luxurious as those on offer in Yankee stadium. But who would ever deny that St Tiernach’s Park in Clones is one of the greatest sports theatres in the world?

Tomorrow, Donegal will play Monaghan in the most eagerly awaited Ulster final since last year’s. The Ulster final remains Clones’ day of pomp and grandeur and it never fails.

What has Clones got that other GAA towns may not? The answer was best put by Morrissey, who, when informed that the public had chosen him among the top three of Britain’s Greatest Living Icons, didn’t hesitate when asked what he had that David Attenborough and Paul McCartney did not. “Oh, I would say many things. Many things.”

No matter how early you land in Clones on Ulster final day, the town is jammers. People begin to abandon their cars on the outer fringes of Fermanagh and once you get within a two-mile radius of the town, hundreds of entrepreneurs, from courtly farmers to flinty-eyed young fellas appear from the shadows, furiously beckoning you down this laneway or into that farmyard for a small fee.

If you decline, you get a stony Ulster stare and, if they are bored enough, the two fingers to match. You know you are getting close to Clones itself when you see cars ditched on front lawns and the road becomes impassable with Ulster men walking with purpose – chirpy Derry men or Tyrone families bristling with confidence. ‘Yes, sir’. ‘Not so bad, sir’.

Any decade you please
The magical thing about Ulster final day is it transports you instantly to any decade you please. Clones has the hauteur peculiar to old railway towns and when you are standing in the square – Francie Brady’s old stomping ground – it is hard to believe the place is a small market town whose prosperity has passed.

It still communicates a sense of its own importance. The square is the best vantage point to observe the narrow sweeping gauntlet with its run of pubs leading down to the Creighton Arms. The late Seán Kilfeather of these pages rightly maintained that Clones possessed the best named pub in Ireland: The Bursted Sofa. It closed its doors silently and disappeared between one Ulster final and the next.

The atmosphere in Clones is always high humoured and rushed, particularly on those days when throw in is at two pm. Patrick McCabe, a Clones boy to the last, overheard what has to go down as the very best line about the local park: “It was so f***ing crowded in there you couldn’t turn a sweet in your mouth.”

You walk past the burger vans through a haze of smoke and fried onions and up the steep hill at St Tiernach’s Church to the ground. It isn’t exactly Everest but when you are trying to climb it with the five or six thousand who have also left it to the last minute, it can be tight.

You can’t see the park until you crest the hill and then you are suddenly towering over it; it is dug into a hollow.

You have your paper work in order to get into St Tiernach’s Park. The Gerry Arthurs stand is named after no high-scoring forward or immovable fullback but an administrative figure. Gerry Arthurs was a secretary of legendary efficiency for many years with the Ulster Council.

The Ulster Council respects efficiency. So the custodians of the car park expect to see the right passes waved.

Once, a Donegal man showed up there with three companions with an assortment of ailments – broken limbs, serious operations, a stroke. The driver made his way to the car park confident they would qualify for the disabled parking section. ‘You haven’t a pass’, the steward explained. The driver exploded. ‘A pass! I’m sitting here with Hop-along Cassidy, The One Armed Bandit and Shakin’ f.....in Stevens and you’re saying I need a pass’. The rules were waived.

Every county has its own Clones memories. For Donegal, getting murdered by Down in the 1991 final on a baking day and then, just to add salt, the endless wait on the road home because an RUC checkpoint had been set up.
Light work of it
Or the overcast day in 1998 when Joe Brolly scored a late, late goal to win the Ulster final for Derry. He made such light work of it you’d swear he did it just for the craic. Just to annoy people.

Or the 2002 final against Armagh when traffic came to a grinding halt outside Lisknaskea, causing Fr McLoone from Frosses to go from car to car until he could borrow a mobile phone and ring the guards in Clones to have them delay the throw-in. It was delayed.

Armagh seemed to own Clones for the bones of a decade. After their 1999 Ulster championship win, myself and Kilfeather were sitting outside the Enterprise centre which briefly masqueraded as a press centre. It was close on seven pm, the town was breathless and quiet now and Skilfy was bemoaning the street boozing he had witnessed earlier that day – which was, as they say in those parts, serious.

For amusement, he wondered if the Ulster final wouldn’t be better placed in Casement Park in Belfast. It was enough to get a rise from the women who were hosting the press. She said that having a drink on Ulster final day was just part of the culture. Even as she started to speak a group of fans came around the corner, the lads clearly banana-boat drunk and the girls tottering along the busted concrete in stilettos. They were all in high spirits.

One of the boys let a roar and rugby tackled about six or seven of his group so that they collapsed in a heap. Skilfy sighed. “Is that part of the culture too?” The woman laughed. Then she said: “The Ulster final is the one day we have left.”

If you have never gone to see a game there, you are missing out. And tomorrow with the Monaghan boys parading in the county ground on a baking hot Ulster final day against the defending All-Ireland champions, Clones will be trembling. For those few hours it is a place out of time.

They say you could fry an egg there if you had an egg. And you could certainly sink a pint of Harp – if you were willing to queue in the Creighton for an hour solid.

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