Finding a heartbeat in rural isolation and urban alienation

Finding a heartbeat in rural isolation and urban alienation

At the time of writing the Gaoth Dobhair celebrations after their Ulster club football title win were ongoing.

That makes it four days clocked up, and counting.

Even by Donegal standards that’s epic. In fact, these aren’t celebrations anymore, this is a piece of performance art.

Put Kevin Cassidy and Neil McGee in the Tate Modern with bottles of Bulmers and a soundtrack of cheesy house music, then read glowing reviews in The Guardian about how it is a searingly perceptive comment on modern masculinity. Bravo!

Kevin Cassidy and his Gaoth Dobhair teammates celebrate Ulster club title victory Pic: Twitter via @KCASS7
Kevin Cassidy and his Gaoth Dobhair teammates celebrate Ulster club title victory Pic: Twitter via @KCASS7

Cassidy has been dutifully documenting the monumental bacchanal since Sunday’s triumph over Scotstown made Gaoth Dobhair the first Donegal club in 43 years to win the Ulster title, overcoming his own, ahem, fatigue as well as the shortcomings of rural broadband to provide reportage fit for Reuters via his Twitter video feed.

It’s been fun to watch this souped-up version of what is known in Donegal as being ‘On The Beer’. I appreciate people in other places also go ‘on the beer’, but only in Donegal is it a state of existence, like being ‘married’ or ‘unemployed’ or ‘dead’.

Being On The Beer is not like a night out, or even a stag weekend-type prolonged binge. It is not subject to the normal constraints of time and space. When one is On The Beer, one becomes at one with the beer.

Think Buddhism, but with Smirnoff Ice and cheese and onion crisps.

Time moves slower in Donegal anyway, and the winter rolls in for months like a damp, woolly blanket. A night? Three days? Four months? What does it matter? Who says you can’t sing Sweet Caroline in a pub at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning? The Man, that’s who. And we all know where he lives. Yeah: Dublin.

Gaoth Dobhair are well and truly On The Beer and it’s not just the milestone of ending all those decades of the underachievement by Donegal clubs that has them testing the limits of human endurance.

It’s compulsory at this time of year when the success of various club sides is being recorded to look at what the GAA means to the parish; to talk of family, place, the ties that bind.

But for places like Gaoth Dobhair that stuff really resonates in the long boozy aftermath of much-cherished success.

Before I reach for the well-thumbed volume titled Sob Story of Rural Neglect, let’s pause for a moment. I’m from the neighbouring parish to Gaoth Dobhair, and I can tell you they have never wanted for self-confidence.

The bastion of Gaelic culture in Donegal, they inhabit their role with uncompromising zealousness. Growing up, we sensed that they looked down on those of us who carried out most of our business in the foreign tongue.

Kevin Cassidy and Odhran McFadden.
Kevin Cassidy and Odhran McFadden.

I remember being brought to buy school uniforms in Gaoth Dobhair and our mother suddenly speaking Irish to us in the shop, as if overpowered by the heady air of cultural dogma. We thought she’d gone mad.

No, they were sure of themselves, Them Gweedore Ones, as we called them. But even Them Gweedore ones weren’t immune to what happened to rural Ireland in recent decades.

The flight of manufacturing industry to cheaper destinations crippled the industrial estate which was a massive employer in the region as a whole. The usual story of emigration and governmental neglect followed.

Gaoth Dobhair lost shops, landmark hotels, even the nightclubs in which I’d done most of my underage drinking shut down (there should be some sort of blue plaque on those places, by the way).

And so the story of the rural GAA club which gives meaning to struggling, isolated places slots into place and you think, damn right they’re On The Beer.

The same tale has been told this week about the incredible Mullinalaghta club from Longford, who take on Dublin behemoth Kilmacud Crokes in the Leinster final.

Boasting just 155 members, compared to Kilmacud’s 4,800, this is not just a David and Goliath tale, but a parable for modern Ireland’s great urban-rural schism.

Mullinalaghta has a school with 44 pupils, a church, a community centre and not much else. The post office has shut down and the broadband is dodgy. Mullinalaghta have their team name, St Columba’s, on their jersey.

Kilmacud, on the other hand, are sponsored by Bank of Ireland. Actual Bank of Ireland.

“Only for the football field I’d say the majority of our team would have emigrated by now,” said Mullinalaghta’s James McGivney this week.

"That’s the heartbeat of the club and the only thing keeping the community together."

It’s easy to nod along to the stories of the great things GAA clubs do for rural Ireland and see the urban superclubs as the flipside of the coin, representing the evil cities that suck the life out of country communities like Gaoth Dobhair and Mullinalaghta.

What need do the people of Stillorgan, or Dalkey, or Foxrock-Cabinteely, whose women are in the All-Ireland Ladies Club final this weekend, have of the glories that send Donegal men off on weeks of debauched celebration? Sure haven’t they enough?

Maybe, but that’s another story. The clubs in these places are also providing something, just in a different way. Where the rural clubs give meaning and pride where there is too little, the urban ones do the same in places where there is too much.

The country roads that lead to the local pitch might look different to the concrete jungle around the big Dublin clubs, but both are making communities out of places pulled in opposing directions by the uncaring forces of modernity.

Tackling rural isolation and urban alienation are challenges beyond the ken of most governments, but it’s the great underappreciated strength of GAA clubs that they can do both.

As I finish this, things have gone quiet on Kevin Cassidy’s Twitter feed. There’s a state of existence that comes after On The Beer, but we really don’t need to go into that right now…

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