“SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL” tweeted the Derry county board moments after Slaughtneil’s remarkable victory over St Vincent’s in the All-Ireland club football semi-final last Saturday.
The tweet was accompanied by two Google Earth images. One showed the St Vincent’s grounds in north Dublin city, hemmed in by housing estates; the other Slaughtneil’s Emmet Park, surrounded by fields, a handful of farmhouses and, well, not much else really.
Cheap shot, maybe – “ungracious” according to Dubs legend Alan Brogan – but a fair cop at the same time. How could you not remark on the difference between the two clubs, the tiny rural townland defeating the mighty city stronghold. This was, quite literally, the little streets being hurled upon the great – and the little streets won.
I was in Newry last Saturday, supporting the ‘great’ as it happens. My house is just out of picture in that snapshot of urban sprawl and my son goes to mini-leagues at Vincent’s every Saturday morning.
“Do you want to go to the St Vincent’s match?” I asked him.
“St Vincent’s? My school?”
“No. You know GAA on Saturday mornings? That St Vincent’s. They’re playing in a big match on Saturday.”
“Can I play?”
“No. They actually have an adult team as well. They wear the same jersey you have, white and blue.”
“We’ll have sweets.”
He fell asleep in the back of the car as we approached Newry, so missed his father swearing through Saturday afternoon traffic in the Mecca of cross-border grocery shopping. The car ditched on a pavement, he was hastily awoken and dragged into Páirc Esler, where 20 minutes of the first half had elapsed.
Things were going more according to plan on the field, where Vincent’s edged to a 0-6 to 0-5 half-time lead.
And that’s when the cold bit. 3°C, feels like -4°, the phone said. I’d been feeding the boy a steady supply of jellies, but this was no day for Haribo alone.
“I’m freezing. I want to leave.”
“Let’s get chips.”
Back at our seats for the second half, hands clasping hot, greasy brown paper bags, we settled in to enjoy Vinnies’ latest triumph. “Vincent’s are invincible!” he cheered, mood much improved.
But Slaughtneil had other ideas, their players appearing to bounce off the Páirc Esler tundra, Chrissy McKaigue having the game of his life on Diarmuid Connolly. The referee wasn’t helping matters, in our blue-and-white tinted eyes, blowing up Vinnies incessantly and absolving the Derrymen of all sins.
“If I was playing, I would kick the referee up the bum!”
“Hey! You have to have respect for the referee!”
“What does ‘respect’ mean?”
(Note to self: he’ll love the Ulster Championship).
The final whistle is blown and the Slaughtneil supporters erupt. I turn to the boy and find him in floods of tears. And we’re out of jellies too.
Two Slaughtneil women stop celebrating to sympathise. “Ah the poor wee lad, never mind wee fella!”
“Cheer up son, can’t win ‘em all,” I say, pulling a Cadbury’s Creme Egg from my pocket.
Of course, St Vincent’s are only my adopted club. A day earlier, Brian Feda Ó Dónaill had been in touch from my home club, CLG Naomh Muire in Donegal’s Lower Rosses, about promoting this year’s Wild Atlantic Adventure Race, a now-annual event run by the club which has the spectacular northwest Donegal coastline as its backdrop. Last year’s race attracted over 400 competitors and this year is expected to exceed that.
W.A.A.R. (as it is brilliantly abbreviated) was born of the remarkable energy and enthusiasm around Naomh Muire that has seen the club not only survive through difficult years for rural Irish communities, but thrive.
They recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1991 junior county title win. Back then, the club’s Mullaghderg Banks ground was a rutted patch of not-particularly-flat ground bounded by a lake on one side and, well, not much else really.
Now, it is magnificent. They have a superb floodlit pitch with accompanying training ground and a spacious car park dominated by an impressive clubhouse. All built at a time when the prevailing narrative was that recession and emigration were destroying GAA clubs in the west of Ireland.
Despite it being almost two decades since I displayed my modest talents for them on the field, I had always regarded them as ‘my’ club. When you move to a city you form bonds and relationships, networks of friendships and work connections. But you are never truly ‘from’ there. You move from apartment to flat to shared house. You have no sense of place in the way you had at home, and with your home club.
But then you have children. They act as roots, their lives growing into the community that you happen to find yourself in and anchoring you for the first time in years. You find yourself going to the local GAA club and chatting to other parents; or popping in one Saturday afternoon before Christmas to meet Santa AND Sam Maguire; or driving to Newry on a bitterly cold February Saturday.
Clubs like Slaughtneil and Naomh Muire do remarkable things in rural Ireland. But clubs like St Vincent’s do something remarkable too. When you look at that Google Earth image you see rows of houses and busy traffic-choked roads. But you don’t see the community ties that run invisibly through those streets like veins, and bind people together in an environment that could otherwise be cold, faceless and atomised.
GAA clubs don’t just provide a sense of identity and connection in small towns and villages; they also do it in cities, helping to humanise the concrete sprawl. Small is beautiful, but not everything beautiful is small.
When we get home from Newry I ask if he enjoyed the day. “Yeah. Apart from when they lost. And it was a bit cold.”
“Maybe we’ll go to another match soon?”
“Yeah. Or we could go to the Lego Batman movie?”
Fair enough. I’ll get the sweets.
The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!