In Ardee for a 5k road-race last Saturday, I visited the sculpture of Cúchullain and Ferdia, depicted after their epic fight at the river ford for which the town is named. It's a fine piece of work, given added resonance by a certain football match this weekend. Cúchulainn was of course the mythical champion of Ulster, while Ferdia – although his friend and foster-brother – represented Queen Maeve and Connacht.
As the football may well do, the fight went to extra time. It had already lasted several days by then, the two men so well matched as they knocked ever-bigger lumps out of each other, it seemed nothing could separate them.
But each had a special weapon that he hoped might give him the edge: an impregnable apron of iron in Ferdia’s case; the mysterious “gae bolga” in Cúchullain’s.
For a while, it seemed that Ferdia’s defensive shield would prove decisive. Cúchullain had taken the heaviest blows and seemed to be in trouble.
But like most men, Ferdia was vulnerable to attack from below, which is where the gae bolga came in, literally. It was a cross between a spear and a cluster bomb, with multiple barbs shooting out in all directions once it landed. And it was launched by the foot, as only Cúchullain knew how to do, and now did to devastating effect.
So Mayo be warned (by a long-suffering Monaghan supporter).
This is just the sort of thing Tyrone might try on Saturday.
The most famous ever resident of the Louth town, I suppose, is The Turfman from Ardee, as commemorated in ballad. The second-most famous may be Dermot O'Brien, who captained Louth to win the 1957 All-Ireland (they beat Tyrone in the semis) and then enjoyed an enormously successful showband career, singing that ballad among many others.
So synonymous were he and the song that his 2007 obituary in this newspaper suggested the Turfman had been "self-penned" by O'Brien. It certainly had not. Before him, it was a favourite of Margaret Barry, who in the 1940s or earlier probably sang it on the streets of Ardee, and in every other Irish town.
It’s also mentioned repeatedly in the 1930s school folklore collection. And it goes back to at the least the century before that, as one of the lines – concerning the extreme longevity of the turfman’s “tired ass” – makes clear: “He was yoked in a trap when I was born, September ’83/And he cantered for the midwife, says the Turfman from Ardee.”
The cart was even older, according to the lyrics. But of its construction, I’m proud to note a passing compliment to the engineering traditions of my home town, Carrickmacross – the next stop north on the N2: “The axle never wanted grease but one year out of three./It’s a real old Carrick axle, says the Turfman from Ardee.” Vorsprung durch Technik, as we say in South Monaghan.
There's an "Irish Street" in Ardee, as in many towns of Ireland: a comment in itself on the colonial experience. As is also usual, it's peripheral to the main thoroughfare, which in Ardee includes Hatch's Castle, a tower house given to the family of that name by Oliver Cromwell. This was the northern edge of the Pale, historically. Carrick was always just beyond the Pale (and maybe still is).
When I dropped into a pub to use the gents, the heavy-set man next to me at the urinals sensed a stranger. After a sideways glance, he went straight to the point: “Are you local?” Yes and no, I said, detailing my origins but adding that I was just off a bus from Dublin. “Are you studying?” was his next guess: a puzzling one that I have since decided to feel flattered by although it may have indicated severe short-sightedness on his part.
So I explained about the race, to a blank stare. Then I mentioned it was named after a man called “Seamie Weldon”, a local athletics stalwart who died some years ago. That was like a magic password. “I knew him!” declared the man, in sudden triumph. “I worked with him!” Then he marvelled at this strange turn of events that had interrupted his Saturday afternoon pints and declared: “Well, f**k me pink!” There was nothing to say to that, so I smiled and left.
As for the road-race, my first since the pandemic, the best thing I can say is I finished. There are a lot of hills around Ardee, I was brutally reminded. If nothing else, the event gave me new insight into how the old Turfman and his tired ass felt. Recuperating afterwards, I resembled one of the figures in the heroic statue. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Cúchullain.