Ciarán Murphy: Sunday showed why counties like Leitrim deserve a chance to progress

Ballinamore’s victory showed the locals why their efforts in the GAA are worthwhile

Ballinamore Sean O’Heslins’ Niall McGovern celebrates winning the Leitrim title. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Ballinamore Sean O’Heslins’ Niall McGovern celebrates winning the Leitrim title. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Tadhg Coakley’s wonderful piece about the absence of sport in Irish fiction in these pages on Monday got me rooting around for the John McGahern short stories he mentioned - those that count as the only times the GAA really featured in the work of Leitrim’s most famous son.

It’s not exactly a badge of honour to be a footballer, or a football fan in McGahern’s work (you either abscond on a pregnant woman, embezzle funds from the local creamery, or murder your wife, so not anyone the GPA would be putting on a poster).

Guard Harkin, in Love Of The World, and the eponymous character in Eddie Mac, were both fine footballers who, when their footballing powers waned, almost inevitably then failed to adjust to life as a regular man.

I play football with a few Leitrim men here in Dublin, and they were convinced that it was the greatest Leitrim county final ever played

The bitterness at the loss of their privileged status in their home towns calcified into pessimism, selfishness, and ultimately unforgivable acts of desertion and murder.

McGahern was never afraid to write about class - an often unspoken, under-played, but nevertheless ubiquitous force in country life - but reading the three stories back-to-back at Coakley’s prompting over the weekend, it was interesting that he used the ‘soft’ power of the GAA as the ultimate masculine indicator of status, and of a man’s position in the village.

Harkin and Eddie Mac were county champions, one in Roscommon and one in Leitrim, and there’s probably a McGahern character lurking in every county final-winning team this year - obviously not the rogues and criminals referenced above, but certainly a frustrated school teacher, a country Garda, an adult son or daughter suffering under a tyrannical father, maybe even a writer living in a old flat in a Georgian house in Dublin, in love with the wrong woman. All of human life is in McGahern, and in the GAA.

National television

And all of human life it appeared was in Páirc Sean Mac Diarmada on Sunday, as the Leitrim county final was shown on national television for the first time.

I play football with a few Leitrim men here in Dublin, and they were convinced that it was the greatest Leitrim county final ever played, and that the reason for that was absolutely the presence of the television cameras, and perhaps too the sprinkling of stardust the watching Andy Moran, the county’s new football manager, gave to proceedings.

The excitement the live coverage engendered was palpable just watching on from home. The red carpet had been rolled out, the grounds were looking tended and shining, and even the county board official handing over the trophy at the final whistle had on a suit which looked more appropriate to the father of the bride than Páirc Sean on an October Sunday.

The game itself was a classic. It was 0-9 to 0-8 at half-time, magnificent scores, non-stop action, a contest right to the end until it was decided by a late goal, and it had the greatest county final trope of them all, the retired intercounty man using every last bit of nous and energy in his body to bring home the goods.

Ballinamore Sean O’Heslins are a sleeping giant in Leitrim football, top of the roll of honour despite not having won a county title in 31 years, and they were inspired by their veteran wing-back Wayne McKeon. He kicked five points, most of them absolute peaches, and he spent almost the entire afternoon bombing outside-of-the-boot passes 40 or 50 yards downfield.

Every touch he had was designed to be decisive. He kicked more contestable passes in one 60-minute period than most footballers do in an entire championship run, so his possession stats might not make for great reading, but he broke the game open time and time again.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mention the impending Congress vote but… it is also probably relevant here. Both teams got plenty of bodies back, but they were also willing to take risks on the ball, as McKeon did time and again, and play with positivity, because they knew they were up against a team of similar quality.

Damage limitation

Neither team played with containment as their main ambition, and there was room for a footballer of the quality of Keith Beirne to score eight points, including four vaulting efforts from play, in a losing effort. The last time we all saw Beirne, he was kicking frees for Leitrim against Mayo in their hammering in MacHale Park in July, where he looked willing but utterly isolated in a Leitrim team that was built solely (and ineffectually) for damage limitation.

The quality of the offering last Sunday should go a large way to eradicating the memory of Castlebar that afternoon. If it reminded Leitrim people of why their efforts in the GAA are worthwhile, laudable, and of value to people outside the county, then it will have done a great service. They deserve an intercounty championship structure they feel they can progress in.

In any case, Proposal B is not high on the agenda of many people in Ballinamore this week. Maybe the McGahern scholars among them will recall that line in The Creamery Manager about the protagonist’s trip to the Ulster Final - “it’s a day out, a day out of all of our lives”. Last Sunday was certainly that.

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