The crowd makes its way down Church Hill in Clones. James Crombie/INPHO
The Big Day Out

The Ulster Final day in Clones is decadent and delirious

Sometime in the future the Ulster final will move to a state of the art stadium in Belfast. All we can do in the meantime is drink in the charm of Clones.

WHEN SURREALIST TYRONE comedian Kevin McAleer was on stage, he liked to tell a yarn of meeting an alien and what you might ask if you had only two questions.

Stuck for some common ground, he decided to ask a question familiar to anyone from rural Ulster: “Are you for Clones on Sunday?”

The next question was, “What way are ye goin’?”

Clones. You’ll miss it when it’s gone. No, you will. The Ulster final day in Clones is decadent and delirious and delightful. 

It is a family day out with flasks of tea and sandwiches gobbled out of the car boot with generations gathered round.

It is a fiesta. A riot. A rave. A contest fixed high up on the sporting bucket list.

It is also, depending on who you listen to, a kip. A dump. A logistical nightmare, traffic clogging the place up like furry arteries.

Where your sympathies lie is possibly a prisoner of your age and range of tastes in nostalgia. But here comes a bold statement when we say that no venue – none whatsoever – comes close to matching the running with the bulls experience of an Ulster football final day in Clones.

You can point to the carnival of Munster final day in Semple Stadium, but the scenes in Liberty Square are more tranquil. Less visceral.

The Connacht football final has a decidedly Sunday afternoon post-Mass feel and anything around Croke Park just feels a step removed with many people in that part of Dublin going about their business blissfully unaware of the day unfolding.

Like many other major grounds around Ireland, its roots lie in the local railway station, a hitching post on the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway that opened in 1858.

Two years before, the finishing touches were put to the impressive Market House with its arcade ground floor. It became a multi-purpose venue.

In 1899, James Connolly called a public meeting to select a worker’s representative to stand for the first Monaghan County Council. Padraig Pearse launched the Gaelic League in Clones with a lecture here in 1906.

It was a halfway house for travelling salesmen and became a medium-sized town full of bustling industry. Soon, it would become the venue for the Ulster final.

clones-music-festival-county-monaghan-ireland-18th-may-1964 Clones in the 1960's. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

However, the first Ulster final wasn’t even held in the province; Monaghan’s replay win over Cavan in 1888 was hosted in Drogheda.

All sorts of places — Newbliss, Belturbet and Blaris in Lisburn — hosted Ulster finals until  1944 when Clones was, with occasional exception, bedded in as the regular venue. The newly-opened Casement Park in Belfast and Breffni Park still got an occasional turn.

The current field was bought for £700 from Samuel Keary, a local Methodist and was opened on 6 August, hosting the Ulster final a week later.

The O’Duffy Stand – named after Eoin O’Duffy, the prominent GAA and Monaghan IRA leader, later involved in fascism – opened in 1950. The Hill was acquired in 1959.

To look at the town now immediately transports you back to a time of the railway’s heyday, though it has been closed since 1957. Barely anything has changed. The sidepaths and traffic lights and other artificial effects nod towards a level of modernity, but it is still rooted in a very 20th century feel.

The regularity of hosting scores of finals gave birth to the kind of yarns and folklore that Clones is drenched in.

Like the 1956 final. Tyrone won their first Ulster title against then kingpins, Cavan. Tyrone were captained by 19-year-old Jody O’Neill of Coalisland. After they had washed off, he carried the old cup down the hill in his hands to the Creighton Hotel, nestled at the bottom of Fermanagh Street.

There he met his father and a number of his friends.

“There was an archway underneath the hotel and there were hay bales,” O’Neill later recalled.

“My father was there with a group of Coalisland people and they wanted to take a drink out of it.”

Once they had their small sup, they urged the captain of the day. “Go on, Jody,” they said. He looked at his father for approval, and he said, “Whatever you like, son.”

He didn’t take the drink.

Until the late 1950s, many made their way to Clones by train. By the end of that decade though, the motorcar was a widespread amenity. Railways were closing down. Weeds outgrew the railway sleepers. They were left to rot where they lay.

In 1959, Down won their first Ulster title, the first step of Dr Maurice Hayes’ masterplan. Some supporters were so delirious with happiness and giddiness, they shimmied up to the top of the goalposts.

In 1995, to mark the first time Cavan had been in the final since 1983, the Anglo-Celt newspaper – who initially put up the trophy for the Cup and by whose name it is still known  – commissioned Tom MacIntyre to write a colour piece about the day.

MacIntyre was the origin story of a sequence of eccentric Cavan goalkeepers from Bailieboro. He won an Ulster Junior championship with Cavan in 1957, briefly played with the senior team while working as a pharmaceutical chemist before devoting himself to the writing life, later lecturing at the University of Michigan and Williams College, Massachusetts.

His travelling companions were fellow writers Shane Connaughton and Dermot Healy, and the prose is awe-inspiring.

“Clones, two hours before the match, the streets packed and rich with colour, sun shining, hamburgers and hot-dogs hopping up and down like eggs in a ponger.
“It’s a Fair, I thought, the Ulster final has become a Fair, a Festival, a Fleadh. Are we starting to learn to enjoy ourselves, I wondered?”

fans-before-the-match-in-clones Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

A couple of personal recollections, if you will indulge me.

My own first experience of the Clones Hill was as a three-year-old. I was there with my parents supporting Fermanagh in the 1982 final.

Somehow in the midst of excitement, I left their side and went for a wander, only for the crackly tannoy to request at half time if the “parents of Dónal Bogue wouldn’t mind collecting him”.

Unofficial reports hold that my father felt I would be safe there until full time.

Growing up just over half an hour away, Clones was simple for us to reach. Our own crowd mightn’t have been involved much but that meant you could enjoy the days on another level. And in the early ‘90s, it was home to the most ferociously-fought games of the time.

Somehow, overheating cars hold a distinct memory. Sitting in my uncle’s car when Brian McEniff strolled by through the traffic and another adult remarking that the jammy get was “probably heading away to lick a big steak now”.

Tailbacks coming to the border, army patrols keeping you waiting, children’s legs dangling out of car doors as the radio brought dispatches from other games.

Childhood gave way to adolescence and young adulthood. I wasn’t so fussed about going with my elders anymore, instead piling into the back of a van or a bus with a warm deck of Smithwicks (we would never have been mistaken for urban chic) and my contemporaries.

I never went as far as selling the ticket to stay in the pub however, but at the turn of the century, Clones pubs and beer gardens blasted out house music and young ones were getting the court – GETTING THE COURT – even before a ball was kicked in anger in the minor match.

If Hunter S Thompson ever covered the Ulster football final in Clones, it would have been this underground scene he would have sniffed out, among those that hit the whiskey early and sold their tickets to the game because, well, it was easier to balance on a stool instead of navigating Church Hill towards St Tiernach’s Park, the stomach either heaving or craving from the scent of frying burgers and onions.

This Sunday, Armagh are back in town.

They are committed supporters, their number swollen in the summer by those travelling on a fleet of what have come to be known as the ‘Buckfast Buses’, named after the popularity of the tonic wine in the Lurgan area, where bars even have bottles set up on the optics shelf.

It’s not always sunny in Clones, though it feels that way in the mind’s eye.

Even so, in this age when the British Government have made a pledge to fund the building of Casement Park, the picture takes on a sepia tone at the corners.

Ulster final day in Clones is in its dying embers. Traditions are dying out. Consumer requirements demand clean toilets, facilities to change babies and a whole lot more comfort than what St Tiernach’s Park can provide.

Those at the coalface aren’t stupid. They see it happening in front of their eyes.

Packie McCarville is proprietor of the aforementioned Creighton Hotel, the type of 3-star venue that would have permanently packed with traders and cattle dealers.

He’s also the Chairman of the Clones Chamber of Commerce, though he likes to jokingly call it the “Chamber of Horrors.”

Brightly decorated and adorned with mouldings, the three-storey venue looks like it was transplanted from the Brighton seafront and has been trading as a hotel since 1884.

“When Donegal won in 1992, they stopped here. Dad would have been friendly enough with Brian McEniff and they would have gone to the golf club for food before matches and Dad would have brought it out. Dad told me it would have been wee salads and sherry trifles and jelly,” McCarville recalls.

“When they won the All-Ireland, they came here on the way back and there was a photo here of me with the Sam Maguire.”

The week before the Ulster final is pregnant with expectation.

“For me, it is the best day in the business. Obviously, finance-wise, but also too for working as long as you are organised,” he says.

“If you are organised and have the right amount of staff in, it is such a buzz. It is not a long day altogether. They come in early last week, but they will be in early even for the 4pm throw-in.

“We used to always get the 2pm game for the Ulster final and the buzz is great, everyone comes on time because they want to be in the town. But the buzz before it… You see the hats, flags and headband boys coming in at 8am setting up. We used to have them in for breakfast.

“You could be sitting there at around half ten, eleven o’clock thinking, ‘Jayz, there’s not much of a crowd around,’ and then a half-hour later it would be wedged. A lot of the buses arrive together around the same time and the place takes on another life.”

The bustling feel would continue after the games as match day reporters from the national newspapers would commandeer the phone lines and shout their match reports down the receiver to beleaguered copy-takers.

McCarville has a clever theory on how the architecture marries with the energy.

“On Fermanagh Street, the buildings are high on either side, so it kind of holds the atmosphere. You can look up the street and then up the hill on the other side and it is just full of people.”

McCarville lived in Belfast and used to tip over towards Casement Park for MacRory Cup matches. He likes the city and believes Antrim should have a stadium to be proud of in Belfast. He knows that Clones will have to adapt in such circumstances.

“I wouldn’t say we ever took it for granted, but I think that the threat of Casement has made us appreciate Clones more.”

But it’s on borrowed time. Amenities need immediate improvement and some work was being done on the seating this very week as it prepares to support Derry and Armagh backsides.

“I think there is a bigger picture to be looked at here. There is so much more can be done but there is a commitment from everybody to say that Clones will have a place in the future.”

a-view-of-a-full-stand-in-st-tiernachs-park Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Not all care for Clones. Joe Brolly sure doesn’t.

Four years ago he had enough and wrote in his column, ‘Clones is the Bangladesh of Ulster. Everything is for sale in this capital of gombeenism. On Ulster final day it is a giant car-boot sale. Every garden and laneway and field entrance has people of all ages holding cardboard signs advertising car-parking for €5 as men, women and children step out onto the roadway like the zombie apocalypse trying to usher passing cars into their patch.’

Monaghan County Council then demanded an apology from Brolly. Bad move. Brolly insisted he should be making an apology to Calcutta for comparing it to Clones.

It brought a sharp rebuke from the Monaghan footballer Fintan Kelly, who responded in a tweet: “So what if families are cashing in by charging €5 to park on their property? You and many more make enough € out of our game, why shouldn’t they? A lot of the car parks on match days are for different voluntary orgs (organisations) around the town.”

Brolly’s tone might have been gently mocking but there is a perceptible tone among a lot of the snobbery directed towards Clones that ignores the interesting things that can spring up in the smaller towns around Ireland.

Such as the €40 million redevelopment of the Ulster Canal linking it to Lough Erne. The historical significance of what happened there in the War of Independence. The birthplace of James Cecil Parke, one of the greatest well-rounded and accomplished athletes Ireland ever produced. The Clones Film Festival that takes place every October with a mix of International and Irish films, shorts and documentaries. 

Kelly’s stout defence showed how fierce Clones people are about their town in the dying of the light. Though his father might be from Galway and his mother close by Enniskillen, Kelly is a proud son of the town.

How ‘Clones’ is Kelly? Well, put it this way. ‘The Butcher Boy’ was written by Clones native Pat McCabe and filmed by Neil Jordan. It was shot in the town. There were minimal adjustments required to set it in the appropriate era.

And, well, we might as well let him tell the next bit of the story.

“You know in ‘The Butcher Boy’, when Francie Brady is taking a shite in Mrs Nugent’s house?” asks Kelly.
“Well, that’s actually my brother’s legs. He was the stunt double. As far as the stunt double went!”

Around three years ago, Kelly bought a house in Fermanagh Street. He was born into a house on that row, and he has returned.

Six doors down, Pat McCabe has returned to live back home and continue his writing, with occasional pestering from the athletic lad a few doors down.

“He’s a quiet man,” says Kelly.

“I would often be chatting to him but he is a quiet man. I am going to have to pin him into a corner some time.”

Kelly’s passion to defend Clones is understandable when he tells you he is on the Clones GAA club executive committee.

“I made my debut in Casement in 2013, I have serious grá for Casement. I want Casement to be built and I really hope they do the job on it,” he states.

“But I just see a jibbing and jabbing at Clones. I don’t like the narrative of running down a town and its people just because there is going to be this brand-new stadium.

“Everyone knows Clones is in need of work. The club we have, we are a volunteer organisation and we are no big shakes. We are at meetings and trying to do our best to apply for grants and funding. The Ulster Council row in behind us a bit, but you need money.

“So it sickens us when you see people posting about the state of the toilets. Yes, they were in bad shape, but you need to see everything. We did miss the toilets, but we went out and fixed them that week for the Ulster final.”

As for complaints about the lack of parking, he cites silage.

“You have to consider the readjustment of the season. We have silage fields that would be cut short in June and July. But we don’t have them now that people can go and park there, because the first cut isn’t ready.

“So that’s why there is added traffic. Silage season is part of logistics.”

The proposed rebuild of Casement Park is set for 2025. Then, logic dictates that all Ulster finals will be moved there.

Clones will survive, but it needs to be tarted up. All the same, there will be many that will miss the old place.

The final words belong to two people. Frank Shovlin is a leading authority on John McGahern and literary author who captured Clones as belonging, “to an Ireland that no longer exists and somehow for one day in the year appears shimmering from the mist, like Hy Brasil”.

And then, to McGahern himself, and a scene from his short story, The Creamery Manager, when two Gardaí are set to arrest Jimmy McCarron for fraud. A few weeks before, McCarron had drove the same two men to the Ulster final in Clones.

He apologised to the two men for their possible guilt by association, only to be rebuked by Garda Casey.

“You gave us a great day out, a day out of all of our lives,” he said.

A day out of all our lives.

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