One fine day: Liam McBarron. INPHO
Airborne nuptials

Get me to the chopper! How McBarron beat Cork and flew to his own wedding

20 years on, Liam McBarron recalls how his Erne team took out Cork and he was flown in a helicopter to his wedding just an hour later.

THE MADDEST THING about Fermanagh’s crazy downhill dash to an All-Ireland semi-final in 2004 might not even have been a hastily-arranged helicopter ride to make it to the Church on time for a wedding.

None of it was supposed to happen. In 2003, the county became delirious when they beat Mayo in the Round 4 qualifier and made it to Croke Park.

Waiting there like schoolyard bullies, just revving up to their full potential under Mickey Harte, was Tyrone. Fermanagh were eaten by 19 points.

With just 20 senior clubs, Fermanagh could never afford periods of transition. But big personalities in Paul Brewster and Raymond Gallagher retired and it took until January before the county finally secured former Donegal player Charlie Mulgrew as manager.

Just seven of the 2003 panel started the next time they reached Croke Park in 2004, to face Cork in a Round 3 qualifier on 17 July.

Not many within the county felt that Fermanagh would be still playing football by then. The towering midfielder Liam McBarron didn’t as he and his fiancée Ann Marie made the arrangements to get married on that day.

But then the team got a walkover from a game supposed to have been played on 12 June when Tipperary football folded for the year. After pushing All-Ireland champions Tyrone well just six days previous, Fermanagh now had a full three weeks to prepare for Meath in Brewster Park, a game they edged home by the brilliance of Colm Bradley in extra time.

And then the Cork game was fixed for the Saturday evening.

Problem. A major problem.

Until it wasn’t a problem. The wedding venue was St Naile’s Church in Kinawley, hard on the Cavan border. The reception was in the Slieve Russell hotel, just a mere ten miles away, owned by Sean Quinn.

Between Mulgrew, McBarron and county board man Tommy Curry, they had an audacious plan. McBarron would play the game and then be flown in Sean Quinn’s helicopter the 110 miles home.

Sean Quinn saw to it that the reception would be pushed back a few hours. Fr Gerry Comiskey had no issue if the ceremony would take place at 5pm, rather than 2pm.

“There were so many variables in there. You take your hat off to the likes of Sean Quinn especially. He flowed in whatever way you wanted him to flow,” says McBarron.

He met Ann Marie when he was over in Boston for a summer. Her roots were originally Cork, but mainly Waterford and a large Deise contingent had made their way up the road to Fermanagh. So with that effort made, time was not on their side.

The game itself was agony for McBarron. He was taken off for Peter Sherry on 44 minutes, his nerves jangling.

At that point, Cork were 0-10 to 0-7 ahead. Then Tom Brewster delivered one of his finest hours, spraying the ball around the place, with wing-forwards Eamonn Maguire and Mark Little shooting off in unpredictable patterns of ball-carrying.

The Erne county mesmerised Cork, kicking nine of the next ten scores. McBarron was enjoying the view in the Croke Park sun, not quite believing his eyes either.

“They are a big city, a large county with an incredible number of clubs. And then you look at us, Fermanagh and what are we talking about? 20 clubs with maybe six of them genuinely competitive?” he says.

“When you break it all down to those elements, you have to say that what you have achieved is something astronomical.

“The Cork game was the start of it all. It was an incredible journey and when you speak to others, they all say the same thing. There’s very few things that have compared to it, in my life, to be honest.”

The joy and the novelty of it all, Fermanagh’s first win in Croke Park since beating Kerry in the 1959 All-Ireland Junior ‘home’ final, prompted a pitch invasion.

To their credit, the Cork management team were hugely complimentary. Manager Billy Morgan said, “They were, by far, the better team. We can offer no excuses.”

His selector, Colman Corrigan added, “We were just blown away out there, Fermanagh destroyed us.”

With the game settled, McBarron made a dash to the dressing room. He hastily threw on a polo shirt and he had a Garda escort out of Croke Park and onto the Dublin docks where Gene Gilleece, Quinn’s regular helicopter pilot, was waiting.

liam-mcbarron-and-michael-osullivan Airborne against Cork. INPHO INPHO

As they flew across the border, there was a little bit of idling and spinning around as Gilleece awaited International clearance to come the few miles inside the north. They touched down on the Kinawley Brian Borus pitch and people had already gathered to cheer McBarron, still caked in the sweat of Croke Park.

A quick shower later at the Parochial House and he made it with enough time for the traditional delay from Ann Marie to keep him waiting at the altar.

When he looks back on it now, McBarron’s emotions are of gratitude to his manager, Charlie Mulgrew.

“As an individual I am so in debt to him. He did everything in his power to help me,” he says.

“Even coming into that match, I remember we had a knock around in Clones the week of that game, the week after my wedding

“He didn’t put me under any pressure to come up the road, but I came up the road and I think he was grateful. Afterwards, I took one day off and then got back into training.

“He understood it was one of those tricky situations. You had to spend time with your new wife and all that, but he was aware that there is a life there to be lived, and a big task ahead of us.

“He balanced it really well. I don’t think every manager or every individual would see that in the same light, but he was able to see it.”

As much as the media attention was on him at the time, Ann Marie herself was a footballer for the Dublin ladies’ county team. The week after, she had her own game in the Leinster championship against Laois.

“Still happily married!” laughs Liam at the one thing that might have scuppered this piece.

They have three children, all immersed in Kilmacud Crokes. Seán is on the minor team, Tomás is on the U15s and Julia lines out for the U13 ladies.

He still keeps a tight eye on Fermanagh and was in Brewster Park for the impressive league win over Kildare.

It’s has all come full circle this weekend, when Cork, winless from three games, travel to Ederney to face the Erne county who have drawn with Meath and beaten Kildare before losing to Donegal last weekend. 

McBarron has huge admiration for his former team mate Kieran Donnelly and what he is achieving as manager.

“When he was a player, he was an intelligent player. He was so unlucky with illness. But it doesn’t make him a lesser man as he had it all – he was the full package when he was playing. He was a standout in Jordanstown when he was there, a standout with Fermanagh, always on the first 15, you couldn’t have pushed him off it,” he says.

“And he has a wonderful way with people. I think looking in, he has a good handle with the lads and I think they like him. And you can see that with results in Division Two. He’s doing a lot of things right and he is a great motivator.”

20 years on, still big-game hunting The Rebels. 

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