In his brilliant book, Memoir, John McGahern wrote of growing up in Leitrim and of how, in rural communities, “the local and the individual were more powerful than any national identity”.
Football was intrinsic to that identity, to a sense of the local, and to the life of a young boy growing up in the county. McGahern recalled an autumn day from his childhood: “I had watched enviously from the bank as the older boys played football, and my dream was to learn to play.”
He was taught to kick while working in a potato field with Eddie McIniff, a man who McGahern described as a good footballer, one “who took all the close-in frees for the Ballinamore team”.
Out in the drilled field, Eddie gave McGahern a lesson in how to kick well, using newly-dug potatoes as footballs and a whitethorn hedge as the goals.
Under Eddie’s tuition, McGahern started kicking potatoes:
I missed the first few kicks, but soon, with Eddie’s help, was managing to send the occasional potato clear of the hedge.
The problem was that the potato-kicking session was being observed by McGahern’s father — and he was outraged. McIniff was a star footballer, a drinker and a casual labourer; McGahern’s father — a local Garda Sergeant — was of a different order, and said to McIniff: “The child is bad enough, but I don’t even know how to begin to describe you.”
There were no more lessons with potatoes. But when Aughawillan played Ballinamore in a match the following spring, McGahern met McIniff again.
McGahern was shouting for his own Aughawillan, but Ballinamore, led by Eddie, won the day. As the players left the field and the crowd swirled around Eddie, he saw young McGahern and lifted him into the air. The boy was delighted and told him, in tears: “You played great Eddie.” McGahern, in turn, was made to laugh when Eddie replied: “We’ll always have spuds and eejits.”
McGahern went on to develop an immense love for cricket, something that swelled through his love of BBC Radio 4 commentary on the game.
But right through to the very last of his novels, football was embedded in the culture of the Leitrim that he portrayed.
It was an utterly authentic representation of life; indeed, to have left out football would have been to leave out something essential to Leitrim where GAA clubs stand as a sporting and social map of the county, reaching into every townland.
The internal rivalries are intense. Seán O’Heslins is the most successful club, but clubs such as Cloone, Aughawillan, Gortletteragh, Aughavas, Glencar/Manorhamilton, Melvin Gaels, Mohill, Fenagh and Allen Gaels have all won more than five senior titles apiece.
More than that, ten other clubs have also been successful in the senior football championship at some point. The right to dream is a legitimate one.
It is undeniable that — at inter-county level — the GAA in Leitrim has suffered for its size of population; it has been ravaged by emigration.
The 1841 census recorded in the region of 155,000 people living in Leitrim. Just ten years later that had fallen by almost 28% to 112,000.
By 1901 Leitrim’s population had fallen to 69,000 and the 20th century saw further decline. By 1951 the population had fallen by a further 28,000 to 41,000.
One of the people who emigrated was John McGahern’s friend, Eddie McIniff, whose return every Christmas was memorable.
His friends and others from the town band, with whom he played the drums, met him at the train station:
After the handshakes, the slaps, the embraces, the jokes, the laughter, he was carried shoulder high from the platform. The band would lead the crowd through the town to whatever bar had been decided upon.
McIniff was but one of the thousands who left, generation after generation. Leitrim’s population reached its lowest number in the 1990s (at just over 25,000) before experiencing its first demographic growth in over a century and a half in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It has only now climbed just above 32,000.
It is further reason to ensure that when success has come, it has been cherished all the more fervently for its scarcity.
The first great success came in 1927. In their opening game in the Connacht championship, Leitrim faced Roscommon at Laird’s Field in Carrick-on-Shannon. The match was won with a goal from Willie Martin “which sent hats and caps skyward”.
Despite their four-point defeat, Roscommon filed an appeal on the grounds that the pitch at Carrick-on-Shannon was too small. This appeal was upheld and a replay was ordered.
The weather prevented many turning out for that replay at Ballinamore on June 26, 1927.
There was further drama when Roscommon had to find men in the crowd to fill their team asfive of their players were stranded when their car broke down on the way to the match. In the end, Leitrim won comfortably.
In preparation for the Connacht final, Leitrim enrolled the services of James O’Hehir. Father of future GAA commentator Michael, he had trained Clare hurlers to win the All-Ireland hurling championship back in 1914.
More than 6,000 people came to see the final against Galway. Leitrim ran out winners by 2-4 to 0-3.
The key moment was when Willie Flynn scored Leitrim’s second goal “by putting ball and custodian into the net”.
Their reward for that victory was an All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Kerry at Tuam. In preparation, the team went into intensive training with O’Hehir for the fortnight in advance.
More than 10,000 turned out for the semi-final, which was politely deemed “a physical affair”. Indeed, it was a game marked by tackling that— even by the standards of the day — was remembered as being ferocious.
This was accommodated by the match referee, who chose a discreet style: “He stayed out of controversy, ironing over awkward situations by getting the two players involved to shake hands.”
Leitrim missed a string of chances — both goals and points and eventually lost by just 0-4 to 0-2.
The 1927 team was the greatest in Leitrim’s history, but it could have been still better. In 1926 key players Johnny McGoldrick, Willie Daly, Nipper Geelan and John McGuinness had been lost to emigration.
All four players backboned the New York GAA football team of 1927 and McGoldrick’s departure for New York was particularly mourned. In his excellent book Scéal Liatroma: Leitrim GAA story 1886-1984, Seán Ó Suilleabháin describes him as “one of the greatest Leitrim footballers of all time”.
A generation later, Leitrim qualified for four Connacht finals in a row between 1957 and 1960.
They had the great misfortune to lose out in all four finals to what became one of the greatest Galway teams of all time.
The star of the Leitrim team was Packy McGarty, who made his senior county debut at just 16 in 1949; McGarty continued playing for Leitrim through to 1973 when he played his final game at the age of 41.
Stoicism in the face of defeat should not be taken to mean Leitrim GAA did not crave success as much as the people of other counties.
The truth of that statement was obvious in the response to events of 1994, when Leitrim won their second Connacht title.
The roots of that success lay with the arrival of PJ Carroll as team manager in 1989. Carroll arranged for the Leitrim-based and Dublin-based players to train together in Kells, Co Meath, and the team went on a run which saw them win the All-Ireland ‘B’ title in 1990.
More success came the following year when Leitrim won the Connacht U21 championship.
The next challenge was to improve at senior level. A key player on the Leitrim senior team was 1990 All-Star winner, Mickey Quinn, who played for Leitrim for five years at under-age level, for 20 years at senior level and then for another nine years at Over-40 level.
Quinn recalled the arrival of John O’Mahony as manager in 1992 as another key moment: “He drove us so hard. There were evenings that we would turn up for training in Kells that would be so wet that you wouldn’t let your dog out in it. We’d be thinking: ‘This guy is off his rocker,’ but he was setting an example.
He brought us to train on the biggest sand dunes in Sligo and that toughened us up for the next phase.”
More than 30,000 people turned up to see Leitrim play the 1992 Connacht final against Mayo.
The match ended in scenes of delirium following a one-point win. Next stop was an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in front of 50,000 people.
Among the huge Leitrim crowd that day in Croke Park were men and women who had travelled from across the world.
Some had emigrated before World War Two, others had left in the great wave of departures through the 1950s and many more had been recent exiles from the 1980s.
It brought a vast outpouring of emotion and the roar when the Leitrim team ran out from the tunnel and onto Croke Park was something guttural and joyous.
As Declan Darcy (a Leitrim player, who later played for Dublin and became central to Jim Gavin’s management team) recalled: “It was so much more than football.”