Fermanagh: on the brink of something very special
Every county in the province has won the Ulster Final – every county except Fermanagh
From left, Aoife and Sean Maguire, Niamh Maguire, Erin Keaney, Patrick Keaney, Gaby Maguire and Dana Keaney are all ready to cheer on Fermanagh at Clones on Sunday. Photograph: Ronan McGrade
“Is there some big match on?” These were the remarks of one unionist in Co Fermanagh this week as he surveys the green and white bunting strewn across the county ahead of Sunday’s Ulster Final clash with neighbouring Donegal in Clones.
However, his fellow Fermanagh men and women know only too well that their GAA team is on the brink of something very special.
The Ulster Senior Football Championship was first contested 130 years ago and since then every county in the province has claimed the top prize – every county except Fermanagh. Only five times previously in GAA history have the Erne men graced an Ulster Final. They have come agonisingly close to victory on two occasions, having been undone in the second half in 1982 and taken to a replay in 2008.
A decade on, the hunger to end that record is written on the faces of Rory Gallagher’s men – they want nothing more than to see the Anglo Celt paraded through their home towns and villages come Sunday evening.
It’s in those towns and villages that the pride in this team battling to make history is most evident. Locals have been out in force all week on cherry-pickers, decking their homes and businesses with banners and flags. Painted cars and tractors in the Erne colours also greet those travelling through the county from Belleek on the Donegal border down to Belcoo near Cavan.
So historic is this match that it has prompted DUP leader Arlene Foster to do the unthinkable by extending her support to the team. As an MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, they are her constituents after all. Her post-training session visit to county board officials and players with a good luck card last weekend, where she received a team jersey in return, appears to have gone down well.
Five years ago, her predecessor as first minister, Peter Robinson, attended his first GAA football match alongside the late Martin McGuinness.
Mrs Foster has yet to reveal if she will be at Clones on Sunday although it is thought unlikely, with sources indicating that she may instead attend a game at Brewster Park in the near future.
She told The Irish Times: “I’ve been pleased to offer my support to Fermanagh GAA ahead of their Ulster Final meeting with Donegal. I haven’t been able to offer the team much by way of tactics or advice for the match but it was a pleasure to meet them and receive a Fermanagh shirt last weekend.
“The Ulster Final is a very significant occasion for Fermanagh and I know there is goodwill across the county for them. All our sporting and cultural traditions form part of the fabric of Northern Ireland and we should recognise and show respect to them all.”
In contrast, Fermanagh’s former unionist MP says attending a GAA match is still very much off the agenda for him. In 2010 as he was appointed Ulster Unionist leader, Tom Elliott famously said he would not attend a GAA match, a stance he has repeated this week.