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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
# ups and downs
The community that wouldn't die - 90 years without a home, 60 minutes from a Leinster title
No one gives The Downs a chance against Dublin giants Kilamcud Crokes today but this rural club has been defying the odds throughout their history.

WE BEGIN IN Mullingar courthouse because that was where The Downs ended up.

This was early 1981, a year after Charlie Haughey told the nation they were living beyond their means. But in this pocket of Westmeath, Charlie’s advice went unheard.

It had to be that way for here was a club that was dependent on the goodwill of farmers for the donation of a field to play a game.

And more often than not, that’s all they got: one game, when goalposts were erected on the morning of a match and dismantled after it, before the whole process would begin again the following week.

It was no way to run a football club, particularly a successful one, one that gathered five junior and five senior Westmeath titles across a 10-year period prior to their court hearing. If you think that’s impressive, consider this. They did it without ever playing a competitive match at home, because essentially, The Downs didn’t have one.

What they did have – from the late 1950s on – was a three-quarter length pitch with a sandpit at the end, one they ‘rented’ for a minimal sum from a local farmer. That didn’t stop them reaching a Leinster final in 1972/73 but by 1980, as Ireland faced into a decade-long recession, it was clear they needed a more sustainable plan.

The more daring members of their committee came up with one. A house could be theirs, they were told, so long as they could deliver the funds and flip it on the market. They thought of how to do it, putting the house up for raffle, 1000 tickets sold at £50 a pop. Mortgage on the house cleared, profit for the club made; the field was bought. Then came a knock at the door. A summons had been issued for the club’s chairperson and secretary to answer charges of breaching the Gaming and Lotteries Act.

Fraught times. The hearing got put back.

Still they waited. A second delay was followed by a third and then a fourth. In the end nothing came of it. No prosecution, no charge, and you have to imagine the judge admired the audacity of the club’s ambition as well as the sincerity of their purpose, for it wasn’t just a field these people were hoping for; it was the resurrection of a community.

**

WE MEET IN the pitch bought by those house-sale profits. It’s a Wednesday morning. Visibility is low. Car lights blink yet the mist fails to discolour the beauty of this tree-lined place.

Wooddown Rackers was the club’s former name and you can see why. Foresters have worked in this area going back centuries. Later farmers and shopowners joined them, each business dependent on their neighbour, one set delivering the meat they ate for their dinner, the other the firewood that warmed their homes.

So, long before Gaelic games was organised to include competitive fixtures, the people of The Downs already knew the concept of teamwork.

They still do. In the clubhouse, pictures adorn the walls, the earliest from a team in 1913; later ones from championship winning sides in the 1960s, 70s, 1980, 2003 and 2005.

In the accompanying captions, names keep reappearing, Corroon, Murtagh, McCormack, Conroy, Tuite, Egerton, Loughlin, travelling through time, from before the War of Independence to now, the club’s previous county titles sandwiched between the birth of Facebook and arrival of Twitter.

In the club bar, trophies sit on a shelf, the Flanagan Cup, presented annually to the champion footballers of Westmeath, being the most visible. Tomorrow they play for another Cup, the Leinster club championship. Kilmacud Crokes, the Dublin juggernaut on the south side of the city, stand in their way.

shane-walsh-after-the-game Bryan Keane / INPHO Kilmacud and Galway star, Shane Walsh. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

No one gives The Downs a chance, heavily persuaded by the fact that Crokes have 4,500 members, the Westmeath club just 500.

If this reminds you of a certain story about David and Goliath, it shouldn’t, because no one has been considerate enough to offer The Downs a sling. “We’re a modest club,” Aiden McGuire, their current chairperson, says, “but don’t be fooled by that. We’ve always had a determination about us.”

They’ve had little choice. The Downs’ original settlers had to show resilience just to build homes and roads out of what was then a forest.

Once upon a time, before the N4 motorway was built, Ireland’s main route west cut through this road, bringing commuters into the place, where they could shop at one of the area’s three stores or buy stamps from the local post office.

One by one those places closed when the by-pass opened and all that was left in The Downs were a National School, houses and road signs pointing in one direction towards Raharney and Ballivor, and in another to Mullingar. And of course there was the GAA club, bought and paid for by that audacious house raffle in 1981.

“It’s the hub of the community,” says McGuire, “its anchor.” That much became clear when another recession brought another plan, to erect a clubhouse, complete with a bar and a hall that hosts drama, bingo, wheelchair groups and, in recent years, a number of Nigerian weddings. “Lovely people; they decorate the hall so spectacularly for each reception,” says McGuire. “They have been special days.”

This year there have been special days on the pitch, too.

Second favourites when the Westmeath campaign began, it was quickly clear they could reach their first county final in 17 years, staying unbeaten through the group stage of the championship, beating their bogey team, Tyrrellspass, in the semis.

That brought them face-to-face with St Loman’s, the dominant team of the last decade in Westmeath. Underdogs then, they played the conditions better, backboned by a third of the team who’d been on Westmeath’s successful Tailteann Cup squad.

If that experience helped then so too did the additional half-dozen squad members who’d grown used to big days with their sister hurling club, Clonkill, including Brendan Murtagh, the one survivor from The Downs’ last championship in 2005.

Nearing his fortieth birthday, Murtagh has the second highest collection of county medals (between football and hurling) in Westmeath and is a calming influence on a young team. Another dual player, Niall Mitchell, scored the key goal in the Westmeath final, while a third, Luke Loughlin, was inspirational that day.

niall-mitchell James Crombie / INPHO Niall Mitchell is a star on The Downs team. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“The club was buzzing that night when they came back with the Cup,” says McGuire as we walk around this giant building they managed to build for a scarcely believable £120,000 in the ’90s.

Another recession, the 2008 crash, brought another plan: nearly €400,000 raised to build a 500-seater stand and terrace that can house another thousand spectators.

“We wouldn’t have done any of those things if we didn’t have unbelievable support from our community,” says McGuire.

That’s the success story. It isn’t just the march to a Leinster final – brilliant though that has been – it has been the absolute refusal of a group of people whose fathers, mothers and grandparents invested roots in the place to let go of their heritage, their name.

Urbanites might scoff at that statement, dismiss its relevance, be ignorant of how deep a person’s connection to a place can be, how a road, fields and woods in an area can mean so much to so many.

For the rest of us, The Downs is somewhere you have driven past on your route along the N4, possibly noting the tidy grandstand near the motorway or the signpost that bears The Downs’ name.

In all likelihood, you’ve just driven on, bypassing the next townland or village, oblivious to the joy, heartache and hardship that goes on in these places, the purpose that so many possess to prevent a community from disappearing.

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“I don’t know if it is (government) policy or not but there seems to be an urbanisation drive in Ireland,” says McGuire. “But people here, in this rural pocket of Westmeath, generations have been here for centuries, quite content to stay here. I know why, it’s a special place.”

He remembers when he first came here, 54 years ago, a child of Cork, moving to the area with his parents after his father switched jobs. That was the summer of the Mexico Olympics, the McGuire children pestering their father to buy a TV so they could watch the Games.

Across from their new house, they played their own games on that farmer’s field with the sandpit, now home to the Leinster finalists. And when McGuire and the brothers weren’t playing, they were watching, seeing a particularly brilliant senior side emerge from this new community of theirs, one that would win five county titles in seven years and reach a Leinster final of their own.

McGuire would finish his playing career with two county titles before he progressed from the field to the committee room. Dozens of others did the same, fighting to preserve the name of a club and a place.

As you stare at the dozens of photos from around the clubhouse, the national and provincial Scór champions, the 11 county title winning sides from 1918 to this year, and when you recall the blocked up road near the club’s entrance, that’s when you join the dots.

For that road – which locals call The V – once brought you to either Mullingar or Dublin. In recent decades some government official gave the order to put bollards across it while another jobsworth ordered the post office to shut.

That’s when this GAA club came into its own, when its members consciously or subconsciously made their own silent protest against official policy, reacting to the bollards going up on their road and the lock closing on the Post Office with physical and emotional constructions of their own.

First there was the clubhouse, then the gym, finally the stand, but beyond that something deeper stirred, a self-awareness that people within the area weren’t all necessarily interested in Gaelic games and that their hall and facilities had to open up to everyone.

You sense it has, and quickly see why they’ve been able to sell these massive building projects back to their own people, their way of letting the rest of us know that they’re still here even if the road out has been closed.

“When the game is on, the players’ focus is on the job at hand, winning the next ball, getting the next score,” says McGuire. “Our community may not be foremost in their mind during the 60 minutes, we all understand that. But when the whistle blows, they are back living among us, conscious of who they are.

20221130_112751 Aiden McGuire at The Downs' pitch.

“Identity is very important to us. We are here a long time and are proud of our tradition without being vain about it. There wouldn’t be any airs or graces about us. We consider ourselves an ordinary club.”

Yet they’re doing extraordinary things, following up their Westmeath title with this march to a provincial final beating the champions of Louth and Meath en route.

While this has all been happening in public view, privately the Cup they fought so hard to win has made its way to the gravesides of former club members, one to Kevin Molloy’s, who their park was named after, others to the graves of six different young people who lost their lives in recent times.

“You don’t forget good people,” McGuire quietly says.

Those memories will be stored for today’s final at Croke Park, as they face Goliath dressed up in maroon. David mightn’t have as many members, mightn’t have been able to persuade an All-Star forward to join from the Galway senior footballers, but he is backed by something special: a community that wouldn’t die.

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