Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Mayowoman through and through, and that everywhere I go, I dream of green and red. But I have a fondness for Donegal, and have spent many a happy day and night in that little piece of heaven with the best people you will ever meet.
(I also like Donegal people because they were sound when they won the All-Ireland in 2012 and were happy to party the night away with us losers without actually making us feel like losers. I think it’s called being gracious in victory. Or being drunk.)
Anyway, when the opportunity presented itself to hit Clones for last weekend’s Ulster Final, the bandwagon jumper in me was only raring to go. Day 5 of 100 Happy Days was one of those sunny summer Sundays we GAA fans live for.It was a bit of a last-minute decision, but the day started out like they always do.
Up early, get in the good solid breakfast (Superquinn sausages come into their own on match days), pack the bag with gear for all eventualities (sunscreen, poncho, snow shoes), get on the phone to sort out the tickets, get the colours ready, proceed to the meeting point. Sean and Gerry pick us up at 12.30 and away we go. we arrive in Clones through a sea of blue and white flags, after a very thorough analysis of the impending football fare all the way from the M50. Some of us are feeling a bit ropey after last night’s late night. It’s good to get out of the car.
We pay a fiver and park in a field.
“Pull in there in front of that car. Yeah, yeah, there.”
“But there’s a line of cars behind us, we’ll be blocking them in.”
“No, no yer grand there”.
We walk a mile, chatting away. and another bit. When we arrive in the town, Clones is heaving. I’ve never seen anything like it. The streets are thick with people – thousands spilling onto the streets in a sea of green and gold and white and blue, pints in hand, sunglasses on head. Everyone in Ulster must surely be here.
“It’s like the Fleadh Ceoil”, Gerry says.
We don’t hang around, and we fly on through the town towards the ground, because the minors are playing. I run into a Donegal friend, briefly pause for a hug and a quick hello, but I can’t stop, I have to keep moving. I tell him I’ll see him later.
Arrive in St. Tiernagh’s Park. Of course, all four of us are sitting different sides of the ground. That’s what you get when you only sort out your tickets on the morning of the game. I don’t mind, though. I quite like paddling my own canoe at GAA games; invariably, it works out well. And you’re always going to be in good hands with Monaghan and Donegal people.
The minors have just finished when I take my seat – a wooden bench on the half-way line. Nice spot. A handsome win for Donegal. Mayo are playing the losers, Armagh in two weeks, so I’m sorry I didn’t catch some of it. But I hear enough from those around me to make me feel quietly confident.
There’s a teenager with flowing blonde hair and the shortest of denim cut-offs selling Maxi-Twists out of a cardboard box.
“Anyone for ice-cream?” she calls, half-heartedly. “Free spoon!”
It’d be rude not to.
The teams emerge to a crescendo of noise. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Compared to MacHale Park last week, this is a pressure cooker of noise. These supporters know how to make themselves seen and heard and they’re far from shy and retiring. The way it should be. It’s loud. Me, I’m sitting back. I just enjoy being in this special place, watching as an outsider. It’s the most relaxed I’ve been at a football game in months. Today, I can’t lose. I’ve my green and gold headband on for the day, but despite my affinity for the North Westerners, I feel a bit more neutral than I look.
It’s s a scrappy, frustrating, low-scoring first half. Ugly football, but it’s intense and hard fought. There is colour and there is noise and there are hard knocks and tempers fray on the grass and in the stands. The referee, one Maurice Deegan, is not a popular man. The air turns blue more than once.
“Put on the jersey, Deegan why don’t ya? Sure you might just kick a point yerself for them while you’re at it!”
Half time, we stand to stretch the legs, and watch the Tyrone team of ’89 take to the field receive presentations (we beat them in the semi-final that year, I recall). The lady beside me asks where I’m from. I tell her, and she smiles. That smile of pity we’ve come to see and recognise a mile off.
“Ye’ll do it this year, surely. We’re all praying ye’ll do it this year.”
This, from a woman, supporting a Donegal team, who, midway through the second half, are asserting themselves as serious contenders for a second All-Ireland in three years, depending on which pundit you listen to. And she’s praying for us to win. Sometimes I wish we’d win it to hell, just to put every other county out of their misery too.
We’re back. Donegal are pulling away, stamping their authority. Ryan McHugh is sublime. He’s not missing his brother, on the field at least. Big Neil Gallagher is running himself into the ground. Frank McGlynn looks like he’s spent the past month on Copacobana Beach, he’s that brown and energised. But they don’t have it all their own way. Vinnie Corey is keeping manners on Michael Murphy, who unusually hasn’t scored once from play. And Dick Clerkin is not giving up without a fight. Literally.
49 minutes in, and Monaghan get a goal. The stand around me erupts in blue and white and cheers.
But the Donegal fans respond. They shout, they admonish, they bellow, and St. Tiernach’s reverberates to the sound of “Don-e-gal .. (clap clap clap) Don-e-gal!” They’re the 16th man, without a doubt. The men in green and gold quickly regain composure, and start to turn the screw. Monaghan can’t get close enough to score, and they shoot wide after futile wide. The stewards are called into place, and patrons are implored through the speakers not to enter the field of play once the whistle has gone. You’ll see the presentation from where you’re sitting, we’re told. Grim-faced blue and white clad men stride up the steps, head down, heading for the exits. They’ve seen enough.
It’s all over, and around me, and the roof lifts. (There’s no roof, but I couldn’t think of a better way of putting it.) There are scenes of sheer, unadulterated ecstasy. They’re jumping in the aisles, they’re hugging each other. It’s like they’ve never won a game in their lives and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s super. They swarm down the steps, towards the field. They’re not taking no for an answer It’s not long before the tannoy man is instructing the stewards to open the gate. There’s a roar of approval.
On they flood, onto the field, where they belong. This army of football fanatics. They hang off Michael Murphy’s every word, as he thanks the supporters for playing their part. And the Anglo-Celt trophy is held aloft to the familiar strains of the “Hills of Donegal”, and Donegal is partying in Monaghan’s back yard. Tír Chonaill abú! I feel envious that I can only look on from the outside.
We swarm back up towards town. Hordes and hordes of happy and not so happy people stream down the hill towards Creightons. The sun is still shining, and the beer is still flowing. It’ll be a good afternoon regardless. Donegal have won their third Ulster in four years, and Monaghan are not out yet. So it’s not over.
Though my phone is dead, we manage to regroup with ease at the meeting pint. Sarah, Gerry and Sean are smiling. The form is good. We hang around for a pint and to savour the moment, and as we make our way up town and bump into a bigger crew. Everyone’s smiling. We’re in no rush. We’ll let the traffic go.
We make our way back to the field. It’s almost empty. There’s just two cars left. Ours, and the car behind us. Oops.
It’s an easy trip back when you’ve won, and the passengers sit back contentedly. Eyes are closing and heads are dropping in the back as we hit the motorway. (Mine.) We arrive back as the sun is starting to fade, grab some food and it’s home to take it easy, and relive it all on the small screen.
It’s been a great day. And a happy one.
Until next time …