Croke Park contenders brimming with hope


Hit hard by recession, Donegal puts its woes on hold as expectations of the return of the Sam Maguire cup reach an all-time high

TWENTY-FOUR hours or so to go and some people in Donegal, as they exit the county for Dublin, are getting nervous.

“I have butterflies in my stomach,” admits Frank Galligan, a poet, writer, broadcaster and columnist in the Donegal Democrat. “Being favourites doesn’t suit Donegal.”

Galligan reckons Donegal under the creative but strict tutelage of manager Jim McGuinness will win with a few points to spare. He notes reports that many in the county will be broke after the final tomorrow but says that many are broke already. “They have to win to keep the high going for another while; after that, there is going to be a big deflation. At the moment though, it is all wonderful.”

It’s not just about football. The opinion in Donegal is that while the county saw some of the Celtic Tiger investment, it did not get anything close to its fair share. It’s suffering badly now with the recession, and that’s plain to see driving through the towns and villages of the county: the green and gold flags and bunting cannot disguise how hard Donegal has been hit by the economic crash.

“If we could just bottle whatever hormone has been released in the county by getting to the All-Ireland final . . .” muses Galligan.

But some of that hormone is already in the general system. Take a town like Ballyshannon in the south of the county, a place whose experience of the recession is paralleled in many other parts of Donegal.

“The whole county has gone stone mad,” says Barry O’Neill, a local Fine Gael councillor who is a sports producer for RTÉ radio. “It’s like a honeymoon away from the recession – the cost we will deal with when it is all over; it is extraordinary.”

Eleven years ago O’Neill started the Rory Gallagher festival, an annual tribute to the guitarist who was born in the town, even if some people more readily associate him with Cork. It was a simple idea, in a sense stolen from the Munster capital, and now it’s worth €2.5 million annually to Ballyshannon.

O’Neill says that in the past decade or so the town has lost about 700 manufacturing and construction jobs.

Yet O’Neill and many others in Ballyshannon have shown ingenuity and drive in devising ideas that keep some money flowing into the local area.

Terry McIntyre is an accountant who with several others is involved in the Backing Ballyshannon project, a community-based think tank trying to generate ideas and jobs. They are already planning for a festival next August to link in with The Gathering, the national plan to lure some of the Irish diaspora back to holiday in Ireland.

Ballyshannon has a lot going for it: a strong drama club and festival, numerous sporting and cultural organisations, an annual festival commemorating the town’s poet William Allingham, an annual folk and traditional music festival dating back to the late 1970s, a harvest festival and, rather in the manner that it hijacked Rory Gallagher, it now plans to run a Bram Stoker Dracula weekend based on the fact that his mother was born in Ballyshannon. All that activity denotes a big community spirit.

“But,” says McIntyre, “there are just no jobs. The young ones are getting the bus, train and plane and heading off . . . When there are no pay cheques on a weekly basis it is very difficult.”

McIntyre’s wife Betty is chairwoman of the local Aodh Rua GAA club, her sister Catherine is treasurer and Emma Gaughan is secretary – they have yet to hear anyone dispute this is the only GAA club whose senior committee members are all women. The club has 500 members, 350 aged five to 18. It’s now in division three, the loss of 20 senior players to emigration not helping its cause. It’s also a vibrant part of the community.

Betty McIntyre says she was envious when Westport won The Irish Times Best Place to Live in Ireland award, a competition that Ballyshannon also entered. “We have a fabulous town and surrounding area – sea, lakes, mountains, walks, history, culture – we have everything Westport has, except jobs.”

Recently retired as a teacher she says it is “soul-destroying” to see the numbers of young people in the town without work or prospects of work. We are just crying out for some form of employment – anything; it would be a huge morale boost for the town.”

And that’s the nub of the problem throughout Donegal. The community vitality and refusal to be dragged down that is evident in Ballyshannon is replicated throughout the county. What Jim McGuinness has done for the Donegal team, many more are trying to do commercially for the county and its people.

But the normal rule, that what you put in you get back, just isn’t applying. This is due to the recession, but there is also a view in Donegal that it does not get its fair share of what’s left of the economic cake.

But these are issues for another day. As Frank Galligan says, at the moment it is “all wonderful” in Donegal, the sense of joy and expectation is both contagious and cheering.

If Donegal wins tomorrow it will give the county a huge boost.

But, whatever the result, Donegal needs more than a psychological lift. It needs some hard practical support to match the energy that is there in abundance.