Ulster football championship the saviour of the All-Ireland summer

Fiercely competitive province always produces compelling drama the locals savour

Tyrone’s Justin McMahon and Peter Harte get up close and personal with Donegal’s Michael Murphy in Ballybofey last week. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Tyrone’s Justin McMahon and Peter Harte get up close and personal with Donegal’s Michael Murphy in Ballybofey last week. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

‘Unfortunately nobody hits each other anymore,” sighed Colm O’Rourke on Sunday last, seconds after the Tyrone and Donegal players had finished their obligatory show of half-time jousting as they left the pitch – while the school brass band played resolutely on.

The Meath man was being half mischievous but it was obvious he was enjoying actually attending an Ulster championship match as opposed to merely watching it in the RTÉ studio.

RTÉ’s decision to send O’Rourke and company on a most ambitious trip instantly paid off. Supporters gathering early might have well have spotted none other than Pat Spillane, incognito in fedora and carrying his green and gold valise across the concourse. It was hardly a coincidence that the RTÉ panel, who have been mystified by the charms of Ulster for many the long year, suddenly found themselves warming to the unusual spices which make up a championship Sunday up there.

For Joe Brolly, the local exoticisms of steady rain, treacherous breezes and brewing antipathy may be old hat. But his colleagues seemed slightly intoxicated by it all. All-Ireland championship football may not be knock-out anymore but in Ulster every game is sudden death,

“Could you take your eyes of it for a minute?” Spillane asked the country in an unprecedented outburst of praise before providing the answer himself. “No.”

Well quite. It may be slowly dawning on its critics that the Ulster championship, for decades perceived as the carousing tearaway of the provincial family, has, in fact, become the saviour of the All-Ireland summer. Tomorrow Monaghan face Cavan in Breffni Park and the fare will be relentless and salty. Seven days after that, Fermanagh will host Antrim in Enniskillen, a meeting in which no love is ever lost. A week later, Derry and Down, square up by the Creggan in what is a critical match for both counties.

Full houses

None of the other provinces can hope to come close in scheduling a comparable series of box-office games. The perverse beauty about last Sunday’s match was that it was merely a preliminary round match.

Donegal against Tyrone is one of the most resonant fixtures on the contemporary football championship calendar but because of the quirks of the draw, it was slotted in as a prelude to the main fare.

The near-impossibility of the task for holders Donegal was a common topic of conversation over the past few weeks. Retaining their title will require victories– now that they have got past Tyrone – over Armagh, then Down or Derry, with Monaghan favourites to make it through to the final from the other side of the draw. The argument is that if they do manage to get that far, they will be fatigued by the time they reach the last eight. But that is beside the point.

The Ulster championship is so rich precisely because it exists entirely within its own framework of importance and rivalries and hatreds, both petty and magnificent. The concept of the All-Ireland exists only in a vague way for Ulster managers until their teams are either out of Ulster or have won the title. It’s a catch-22. Tyrone might well prosper and grow now that they are liberated from the localised bitterness. But regardless of how well their championship goes, you can bet that Mickey Harte and his players would give anything to still be there. That’s because there is nothing like it.

People gripe that the provincial format has become dated and pointless. Leinster has suffered through Dublin’s dominance. Connacht has its unpredictable moments but Mayo and Galway usually prevail.

In Munster, Kerry or Cork have claimed every senior title since 1935 – with the hallucinogenic exception of Clare’s great escape in 1992.

An open draw, with an adaptation of the Champions’ League format for group-stage games to decide quarter finalists, is touted as the best solution. It would be a crazy and pointless.To begin with, the Champions League is habitually dull throughout the group stages. That competition doesn’t really get going until the quarter-finals stage – which is precisely the complaint about the contemporary All-Ireland football championship.

Unexpected clashes

The big problem with tampering with the prevailing system is that it will erode the heritage and the tradition of local rivalries. Galway against Mayo on June 14th may not have lasting consequences on either team’s potential to make it to the All-Ireland quarter finals. But as a day out and as the continuation of a story that contains within it a century of stories, the occasion matters much more deeply than the game. It is part of the summer calendar in the west of Ireland. To end that just to be seen as progressive would be daft.

And to do anything to alter or diminish the significance of the Ulster football contest would be a grave error. The plain truth is it really matters to the people there in a way that is indefinable and glorious. Ulster Sundays can be unruly. They can have moments of spite. The scoring can be parsimonious. But as a summer contest it adds up to something unique.

“Welcome to the pleasure dome,” Kevin McStay memorably said a few years ago during the opening seconds of a match. It was half warning, half salutation. The Ulster championship can’t be manufactured. It is far from perfect but when the houses are crowded and all eyes are following the ball through the sky as dark clouds appear over Clones or Derry promising thunder to match that on the pitch, then it doesn’t get much better. The custodians of the GAA should do everything they can to safeguard the Ulster championship. It is one of the last refuges against the everyday and the bland.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.