Don't stop believing... Fermanagh hoping to make history

IF ever you feel compelled to search for deeper reasons why Fermanagh are one of only two counties to have never won their provincial football Championship, you could find something in the tale of Father Theobald Mathew.

The first National Apostle of Temperance was determined to make some headway into the alcoholism that had ravaged peasantry and nobility alike through the country. When he ventured north from Cork in 1841, he was welcomed by Nationalist and Orangemen - who flew their banners at his events - alike.

Over 50,000 were reported to have gathered to witness his oratory in Whitehill on the northern shore of Lough Erne, with 30,000 following him through the streets of Enniskillen.

But as Peader Livingstone notes in ’The Fermanagh Story’; ’The spectacle in Roslea Church, where Father Mathew preached on St Patrick’s Day, was enchanting. Thousands rushed to take the pledge but, unfortunately, thousands broke it nearly as quickly.’

You could question the lack of follow-through by the locals. Because these things always sound good in theory - no drink means no hangovers! Something to celebrate with a tipple.

There is a small sense that under Rory Gallagher - a man completely devoid of sentimentality - that things are different now in the county. Time will tell.

In the meantime, the good people of Fermanagh have been staging a re-enaction of the events of 1841 in a glorious festival of losing the run of themselves.

Banners have been made, superimposing Arlene Foster’s head onto James McMahon’s body in full bicep-flexing glory after the Ulster semi-final, bearing the message ’Arlene Foster’s Green and White Army.’ 

Look out for it tomorrow afternoon around Clones.

In Tempo, local hero Aidan Breen’s family business of Brockagh Bog was neatly woven into a good luck message on a car sprayed green and white and parked outside the village; ’Forget the turf this year Breeno, bring home the Anglo Celt!’

If it happens, the place will slide into chaos altogether.

I’ll be getting down there early. From my domicile in south Tyrone I could go via Monaghan town but instead I will take my usual route into Fivemiletown and branching off the left.

This leaves me in spectacular country, not the type of terrain to be chancing when the diesel light is flashing. But as Cooneen Road unfurls spectacular Fermanagh scenery. Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon were left to die here at the side of the road here in 1957 after the botched raid on Brookeboro barracks and a headstone marks the spot, possibly the loneliest place in the world.

The peak of Carnmore is the kind of sight to catch the heart off guard and blow it open. A glorious route to approach Clones for matchday.

I was there in 1982, when Fermanagh reached their fourth Ulster final. My parents took their place standing on the grass bank of ’The Hill.’ There is a little crop of land past the boundary at the very top of that Hill that you can access over a high wall, saving you the trouble of paying in. It may come as no surprise that ’The Breffni Stand’ is well-filled on the days Cavan are in town.

Anyway, at some point my parents lost themselves in an alien experience while I just plain lost my three-year-old self, later retrieved by Sean and Veronica after my name was called over the tannoy. Quizzed only this week about such, well, ’relaxed’ parenting, himself told me, ’Sure, we knew we’d catch up with you at the Creighton after.’

In 2008, they changed tack and went to the O’Duffy Terrace for the final while I took my place in the press box, dying a little bit more inside with every shot and free-kick planted wide, allowing Armagh to wriggle off the hook and claim a title they scarcely deserved.

While growing up, Fermanagh was a constant in our lives as a family. Not in an in-your-face-screaming-at-the-match sense, but as a means to connect with people, the sheer seductiveness of whiling away a few hours on a Sunday and having a common purpose, something to talk about.

We learned what it was like to soak the ass of your Sunday trousers on the old slides at Brewster Park and just put up with it.

We dodged the rows and blows between rival fans as a row erupted between opposing supporters on the Irvinestown hill in 1993.

And we soon learned that the words ’never again’ after the latest humiliation were always going to be hollow. 

As Darragh ÓSé said once, what else were we going to do with ourselves? Mass? Sure we tried that!

It wasn’t confined to mere football either. We were indiscriminate in that regard. In many ways the hurlers were more fun to follow and their tales legendary. Like the time they stayed in a hotel for an away game and after spending the evening and night in the local pubs, returned to the hotel starving. While one player, ahem, ’gained access’ to the kitchen and began pulling limbs off a cooked turkey, another sprang into the air to grab a lightbulb, roaring ’my ball!’ (careful to guard his catching hand with his imaginary hurl, of course) before taking bulb, light fitting and cable to the ground in a cloud of plasterboard and curse words.

One Sunday during simpler times of the mid-90s, I stood on the Brewster Park sideline as Kildare hurlers trooped off the field at half-time. Injured Fermanagh hurler Gerry Murphy started roaring at them in his best southern accent to ’ram it down their nordie throats!’ and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard. That was until his own team mates walked past and he abused them like the most venomous Kildare supporter on the planet.

I have only lived in Fermanagh for six of the last twenty years, but always have been captured by the relationship between fans and the team. Fermanagh has only 20 football clubs and if you take it that each club has roughly 18 players, that leaves just 360 senior footballers in the county.

Take all the various county teams down through underage ranks and it’s a safe estimate to say that 80% of them have represented their county at some level. That brings an intense devotion.

In many ways, the prospect of winning a first provincial title is a glorious opportunity for supporters and players alike.

Imagine the possibilities, of a tiny but full of heart club like Coa O’Dwyers welcoming back the county captain with the Anglo-Celt. Of Enniskillen, that most Garrison of towns with several soccer clubs, surrendering to carnival time, celebrating an Ulster title? Ah man, we can live with our fantasies. It’s all we’ve ever known.

Our ones are at it again. Last Sunday, they went along to the recording of one of those dreadful cash-in videos filmed at Blakes of the Hollow in Enniskillen, a venue John McGahern labelled a ’Cathedral of a pub.’

The mammy gets caught up in the excitement of it all and shed her years just as she was a child watching her brother playing for the county minors all those years ago. For the Pappa, it meant getting a Smithwicks at midday.

They are trying a different spot again this Sunday. This time it’s the Pat McGrane Stand in an attempt to ward off the demons of bad luck that afflicted them on The Hill and the O’Duffy Terrace.

I’ll be picking them out with the binoculars on Sunday from the press box, the parents surrounded by children and grandchildren, all wearing green. All enjoying the day, considering the outcomes.

Praying silently that dreams can one day become reality.



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