The whole of Inishfree were electrified with excitement about the Connacht final in Castlebar. Lough Gill was shivering in a silvery way in its ancient bed. Benbulben seemed to have lost the frown on its stony brow. That seems fanciful but there is only slight hyperbole. The whole county was highly animated. It was moving to be there.
Every car had at least one window flag. Every house seemed to have three or four. Roadside children at their gates screamed support from underneath the buntings at the traffic massing towards McHale Park in the afternoon.
Hope was painted black and white all around the county’s boundaries. It was exciting.
However it happened, by accident or deliberate design, the GAA’s founding fathers who fixed upon the (English) local administration units for their regional competitive borders, got it exactly right.
Given the nationalistic fervour of the time they might have instead chosen the old barony boundaries we know little about now. Instead, thankfully, they gave us the existing units of Sligo and Mayo, Galway and Roscommon and all the rest. It has worked powerfully. Because of the GAA and its success the county identities of you and I and Seán Citizen were never stronger, never borne more proudly. And never more clearly defined.
Down all the Sligo roads leading to Castlebar the verges were black and white.
“Good Luck” from every factory, from every parish club along the way, from the Mayor of Sligo, from local TD’s, from every chipper and tipper and organisation and service. “You Can Win” over and over again. A striking one from Barton Smith, Safes & Locks.
Could Sligo find the code that would open the doors to glory? And, dramatically, at the doorstep to the village of Bellaghy on the main road from the city, the flags stopped in their tracks. The sister town of Charlestown is in Mayo, one of the sides defeated on the campaign towards the title challenge. Another identity, another old and fiercely proud unit of the GAA. And it would have been exactly the same right around the Sligo boundaries. And Roscommon was painted primrose for the Rossies heading for Castlebar from the Plains of Boyle and Castlerea and all over.
The existence of such clearly marked boundaries and communities adds immense spice to championship battles right throughout the land.
Exactly as the internal club battles are energised by the old parish boundaries. Where would we be without them? We all know now that the fairytale did not come true for Sligo after an epic struggle. Donal Shine shone for the Rossies and washed down all the lobbies of their dreams. (What a display!).
It would have been the black half of all the flags and favours that was most prominent for the fans on their long way home without the silverware. But the back door is still open, Down are not an insurmountable obstacle for a team that were below par on the day, Sligo’s boundaries will be painted black and white for a while yet.
Even as the Primrose County blooms bright and dreams of Croke Park.
Championship tradition has a long tail. The counties are still wrapped around the heartland territories of the old clans of the baronies the GAA thankfully did not follow all those years ago. There is enduring proof of that in every game.
Given the continuing domination of the big guns Galway and Mayo in Connacht, the vagaries of the draw system and past history, it is probable that Sligo and Roscommon may contest no more than two Connacht finals in the next twenty years. That would be about par for the course to date.
But do you know what is virtually certain already about those games of the future? Some of the primrose jerseys of the Rossies will be filled with footballers called Heneghan or O’Gara or Finneran, Mannion, Dinneen, Claffey, Shine. You can bet on it tomorrow.
And the black Sligo jerseys will be borne by some players called Breheny and Gilmartin, McGee and O’Hara and Taylor. And might there be a Kearns?
The weight of the footballing clans, in these and the other counties, still dwell and play their football inside the jigjag old boundaries adopted by the founding fathers so long ago. We are unlikely to ever see a Tyrone team without a McGuigan or a Devlin or a McMahon. We will never see a Kerry team without surnames that bristle with ‘O’s’ like O’Sullivan or O Sé. We will never see a team of Tribesmen lacking a Joyce or two. And the list goes on and on from one end of the island to the other in the seasons of today and tomorrow when the old counties flaunt their colours alongside the midsummer flowers.
And follow their hopes and dreams.
Meanwhile, today, the Red Hand has clenched itself into a fist again!