Nothing can replace provincial fix for local feuds and the grand day out

Keith Duggan’s Sideline Cut: No clear or compelling idea has emerged as to what should replace four provincial finals

Ulster final day in Clones: Fermanagh Street is almost certainly the only place on earth where you can stand in the one spot and hear, on loud speaker, Hall & Oates and Barleycorn simultaneously. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Ulster final day in Clones: Fermanagh Street is almost certainly the only place on earth where you can stand in the one spot and hear, on loud speaker, Hall & Oates and Barleycorn simultaneously. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Among the more serious global developments of the year has been the lunatic rise of Boris Johnson, Love Island, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, and the proposals to end the provincial football championships.

It therefore seems certain that we are only weeks away from the tabling of an urgent motion to Congress, almost certainly drafted by a brilliant-if-addled club secretary somewhere along the Cavan-Monaghan fault line, and bearing the title: “Houl’ yer whisht there a minute.”

In Clones on Ulster final Sundays, everyone plays along with the idea that the match is the most important aspect of the day

Sounder advice could not be offered. Only the wilfully unreasonable would try to deny that over the past few weeks the quality of games on offer have been nothing less than a big fat two fingers from the Ulster Championship herself to anyone who reckons the show has become old hat.

In Clones on Ulster final Sundays, everyone plays along with the idea that the match is the most important aspect of the day. And, of course, in the heat of the moment – after the parade and the anthem, with the dust flying, chocolate melted, vocal chords and nerves stretched to the limit, and everything on the line – it absolutely is.

It is the reason that the sound of the first snapped-cap on a long-neck will be heard minutes after 10 am, and why Fermanagh Street will be in party-mode by noontime. Fermanagh Street is almost certainly the only place on earth where you can stand in the one spot and hear, on loud speaker, Hall & Oates and Barleycorn simultaneously.

The game is the reason why there are serious discussions ongoing throughout Cavan and Donegal about how best to “get into” Clones ahead of the 2pm throw-in, because people talk of getting into the town as if it was a highly securitised vault containing rare gemstones – which it also is. The most mental thing about the Ulster final – and probably the most powerful argument for persevering with it – is that it has been taken place since the year 1888. It’s a miracle, in other words, that the damn thing has lasted, and not a minor one either.

Sights and sounds

And in the long run, it’s not the games that the crowd remembers: maybe they retain flashes of detail – McConville’s flourish after the third goal that year, or Tohill striding through the deluge, or McAnallen. But the exultation and disappointments of the car journey home gradually fade and, for veterans, become mingled and confused with other finals. Mostly it’s the experience that people remember: the sights and sounds.

In his wonderful 2005 memoir, the writer John McGahern recalled a Sunday in his childhood when his father came to collect him after “second Mass” in Ballinamore so they could travel together to the Ulster final in Clones. McGahern senior was a Cavan man exiled as a sergeant in a Leitrim barracks and wore intractability as a badge of honour.

The young McGahern, however, immediately forecast and feared a confrontation between his father and Canon Duffy, an equally fearsome figure who delighted in detaining all children after said Mass for catechism. The canon would stand at the door of the church as the crowd exited and grab passing children by the ear to prevent escape. When Frank McGahern arrived, he duly saw his son standing beside the canon in an ear-lock. The sergeant explained that they were headed to the Ulster final. “I couldn’t care less if you are on your way to Timbuktu,” the canon assured him, making no move to release the boy.

A truce was negotiated by the schoolmaster and the McGaherns headed for Clones, leaving an enraged canon in their wake

From there, as the saying goes, things escalated quickly. The sergeant threatened to make a citizen’s arrest and then, to general amazement, took hold of the canon’s ear so that all three – canon, sergeant and boy – proceeded up the aisle as far as the altar in that surreal arrangement. As McGahern would observe on the radio many decades later, he was, at that moment, literally caught between church and state.

A truce was negotiated by the schoolmaster and the McGaherns headed for Clones, leaving an enraged canon in their wake. McGahern wrote: “I have a vague memory that the hawthorn was in blossom all along the way to Clones and of waiting about the streets of the town after the match as my father talked with Cavan people he had grown up with, but these memories could as easily belong to other years and finals.”

This was probably during the period when Cavan teams habitually won Ulster finals so the match itself was not that important. What mattered was that his father was not going to miss the occasion – the day – irrespective of the consequences. Sights and sounds.

Eyesore

This is the aspect of provincial finals that has been ignored in the clamour to do away with them. All of a sudden, the Connacht, Munster, Ulster and Leinster championships have become an eyesore to the GAA: that Formica kitchen which just has to go.

One of the most compelling arguments is that the contests have lost their edge. A cursory look at the honour roles proves the flimsiness of this argument. Since the first Leinster final in 1888, the Dubs have won 57 of them. Meath, their closest rival, have a mere 21. It was always slanted towards Dublin: there is nothing new under the sun.

In the Munster contest, also on the go since 1888, Kerry have a whopping 80 titles, with Cork pitching in with a respectable 37. Only in Connacht and the ever-volatile Ulster arena has the provincial contests remained genuinely unpredictable.

Under the old system, the provincial championships used to yawn their way through July and early August: this tighter schedule has given new momentum and contributed to the eye-catching momentum of games in Ulster this year.

The strange thing is that for all the volume behind the conviction that the GAA needs something new and fresh to replace the provincial contests, there is no clear or compelling idea as to what should replace them. “Something else” might work. And in the beginning, whatever is cooked up will be new and fresh and all the rest.

But it will mean that the GAA’s signature championship no longer has the four regional prizes and all that entails: the ritual day out, the lifting of the cup, the homecoming and the sense, for a day anyway, of an entire county escaping from the routine. And it will no longer have the clearly defined local feuds broadening into national rivalries.

The All-Ireland will simply become another competition: a series of games based on rank and place. It will become, in other words, everything that these provincial final days are not.

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