Wicklow football still has a mountain to climb
But clash with All-Ireland champions Dublin a special day for football folk in the county
Wicklow’s Sean Furlong celebrates with a team-mate at the final whistle after the Leinster championship victory over Offaly at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
In the summer of 1799, dismayed at the inaccessibility of the Wicklow mountains which extend just beyond the border with south county Dublin, Lieutenant Charles Cornwallis ordered preliminary survey work on a new purpose-built military road.
It wasn’t quite Himalayan territory but at times if felt that way. For the armed rebels and quasi-military groups, still lawless and marauding in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, the Wicklow mountains provided a perfectly safe refuge to their hideouts around Aughrim, Rathdrum and the valley of Glenmalure. And for the leaders of the United Irishmen like Joseph Holt and later Michael Dwyer it was perfect for their fugitive guerrilla lives.
By February 1800, aided by the Martial Law Act, Cornwallis was formally petitioned to build the road, and work began later that summer. Wicklow was served by four small roads east-to-west, but none to connect them north-south, the route the new military road would take.
Following an ancient track, it ran for 58km from Rathfarnham in south Dublin to Aughavannagh in southwest Wicklow, with side arms from Glencree down to Enniskerry, and from the Sally Gap down to Roundwood. Finished in 1809, it immediately served its intended purpose – giving government troops some access to the mountainous area, while at the same time restricting the safe movement of the rebels.
What the military road was never intended to serve were Wicklow footballers trying to cross the mountains for intercounty training purposes. Only 200 years later, it remains the only north-south road through the centre of the county, the side arms also still acting as primary routes.
Either side of it lies some 20,483 hectares of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, the largest continuous upland region in the country, and with the exception of sheep and cyclists and Sika deer, among the least inhabited. All spread over a range of mountain summits, including the bulking Lugnaquilla, which at 925m is the highest mountain in Ireland outside of Kerry.
This is not the sole reason why Wicklow remains the only county yet to win a Leinster football title, and it’s no more naturally mountainous than enduring football strongholds such as Kerry, Donegal, and Mayo.
It is a reminder of the unique challenges facing footballers born and living there, especially when trying to compete with neighbouring counties such as Dublin, who Wicklow have never beaten in either league or championship. Because for all the talk of resources and commercial income and population (Dublin’s 1.34 million versus Wicklow’s 142,332) the GAA can never move mountains.
“It is like two counties really, when you look at it,” says Wicklow captain Seánie Furlong. “Divided by the mountains in the middle. I sometimes think the mountains thing is overplayed a little, but the winter just gone was definitely tough. Some nights you’d head out to training towards Aughrim, Rathdrum, or up towards Roundwood from Glenmalure, and there was no way through. We had to turn back because of the snow.”
Furlong plays his football with Kiltegan, in southwest Wicklow, one of the 15 clubs with players on the panel for the win over Offaly last Sunday week – Wicklow’s first victory in the Leinster championship since 2013. Those 15 clubs are essentially divided either side of the county, with the mountains in the middle, another reminder of the contrast with the Dublin football team who, according to the latest GAA census, all live within the circle of the M50.
To the mostly west is Blessington, Hollywood, Dunlavin, Donard, Baltinglass, Kiltegan and Ballymanus; and to the mostly east is Éire Óg Greystones, Bray Emmets, Roundwood, Rathnew, St Patrick’s, Avondale, Aughrim and Arklow-Ballymoney. While the Wicklow GAA centre of excellence in Rathdrum is their main training base, there are often sessions in Roundwood or recovery sessions at the Druids Glen hotel near Kilcoole.
For the three Dublin-based players, Dean Healy, John McGrath and Brendan Kennedy, the most direct route would be over the military road through the Sally Gap, at least when not impassable because of ice or snow; for those coming from Blessington or Hollywood, the Wicklow Gap would be the most direct route, again as long as the road is actually visible.
Other players such a Conor Healy, at college in Limerick, come from further afield, again a scenario certainly not unique to Wicklow, only magnified by the fact it’s all in such close proximity to Dublin.
Truth is Furlong has never been put off by this. Whatever about moving mountains, he’s certainly willing to cross them and 10 years after making his senior debut for Wicklow, having been called in by then manager Mick O’Dwyer, his commitment to Wicklow’s cause remains undiminished.
“To get from Kiltegan, some days you might head into Rathdangan, then down into Aughrim, then to Rathdrum. Or else Tinahely, Aughrim and then Rathdrum. So you’re looking at 50 minutes, an hour maybe. Or going down to Wicklow town, an hour and 10 minutes, not back home and in bed until 11.30. It’s the weather, really, that gets in the way. Some nights you couldn’t get out the door
“Sometimes you do question that, and people would ask me too, knowing I’ll never win an All-Ireland, or even a Leinster title. And believe me I’ve asked myself enough times down through the years. Some nights at training you’d stop and ask yourself ‘what am I doing here?’
“But then days like last Sunday week, beating Offaly, do make it worthwhile. You could feel the buzz around the county for a few days afterwards. And now a day like Sunday motivates me too, the chance to play Dublin, the best team in the country, the best team to ever play the game in my opinion. And it’s a great honour to captain the county now as well. Growing up all I ever wanted to do was to play for Wicklow, and never thought otherwise.
“And that’s why I wouldn’t agree with a two-tier championship. This is the chance to play the best team, the best players. There is no weakness in this Dublin team. We know exactly what we’re coming up against. Even if one or two players are off their game, they’ve lads on the bench to come in. But we’re not going to sit back and defend either. We want to test ourselves, maybe ask some sort of questions of Dublin. I probably won’t get another chance to play Dublin. You have to try to enjoy it, make the most of it.”
He’s had his moments to help lure him along the way; starting the 2008 Leinster first round win over Kildare, Wicklow’s first ever championship win in Croke Park; scoring 1-05 when they beat Fermanagh to claim the Division Four title in 2012. Even after taking two summers out to play in America, in 2015-16, and now aged 30 he always knew he’d come back for more.
Furlong does have one complaint. After beating Offaly, Wicklow were entitled to home advantage in Aughrim on Sunday, only for the Leinster Council to rule the 8,000 capacity unsuitable. (Furlong also knows what home advantage can offer: his uncle Mick O’Neill played in the infamous Battle of Aughrim in 1986, when Wicklow beat Laois); only this Sunday many Wicklow supporters will have to come up over the mountains to Portlaoise.
“It would have been great for Wicklow football, to get more kids in, the chance to see Ciarán Kilkenny, whoever, and the result for them is whatever it is. I can’t understand it, only hope it’s not for the money. It’s just a pity, and everyone in Wicklow will tell you that. We are trying to raise the bar, to win games, and there is progress being made. Kevin O’Brien [Wicklow’s only football All Star] is in over the minors now, and there is talent on that team.”
Indeed that Wicklow minor team scored 5-12 during the week, drawing with Louth, and Furlong, who works in Shillelagh with Kerry Foods, points to other signs of progress.
“The last few years have not been great, but there are good young players coming in, goalkeeper Mark Jackson. Saoirse Kearon, Dara Fitzgerald. I feel strongly that Wicklow are going with youth, and it will pay off. We’ve Joule on board as sponsors, things are improving there too. You’ve seen it in counties like Carlow, Tipperary and even Clare now, but it takes time.”
Wicklow manager John Evans also knows all about time and mountains. He travels back and forth from Killorglin in Kerry several days a week, having previously managed in Tipperary and Roscommon, but once summer landed the journey was made a lot easier.
“Some evenings driving into Wicklow in this weather you could almost thing you were in Kerry, with the mountains and rivers and trees,” says Evans. “It was a harsh winter though, the weather really making the difference compared to counties I’ve been with before.
“Of course there are mountains in Kerry too. It’s about knowing how to handle mountain men. Mountains didn’t divide Kerry, in fact they made us stronger, and it can be the same with Wicklow. There’s always been talk about the mountains dividing Wicklow, but everyone is together now, that’s what we want, and we’re starting to make progress. It’s also about creating a line of talent to come on to the senior team, and improve from there.
“Sunday is just a dot in the line of that journey, on a tough, long journey. We know if we played Dublin inside in our own kitchen we wouldn’t beat them, but it will be great for the Wicklow players to test themselves against the best, stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and see what they can do. What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.”
Which is what most mountain men would say before crossing any great divide.