Belfast Telegraph

Devout fans are a marvel

By Declan Bogue

One day on from the massacre in Killarney, which one Kerry writer was moved to compare to the 1923 ambush in Knocknagoshel, it seemed everyone had an opinion on why and how the 15-point defeat of Tyrone occurred.

A lot of people watched it on television. Then they read various match reports and along the way, would have checked out what the taste-makers offered up on Twitter.

When the Kerry writer Con Houlihan was a young man, he used to tip up to Croke Park for All-Ireland finals that Kerry contested and return home late that night.

One morning after, he found himself rounding up cattle for a fair and having ventured into a pub once they had the beasts settled, was assailed with questions from farmers who couldn't make it.

They wanted to know who had played well, when the turning point was. One dealer strongly disagreed with his views. He hadn't been to Dublin, nor had he even 'watched' it on the wireless. Instead, he spent the evening fishing. The imagination is a wonderful thing, as Con would write himself.

Now that televisions are the size of dining tables, it's a sense of wonder that fans would travel huge distances to follow their team. The National League is a great competition when it is on, but compared to the Championship, it feels like the comedian who opens for Led Zeppelin.

We know about Tyrone people and their fanaticism for Gaelic football. As one of their most prominent and active administrators is wont to say, they are 'staunch.'

While grabbing a plate of rashers in a Killarney Hotel on Sunday morning, I spotted some familiar faces. The McGlynn family of Aghyaran go to every Tyrone game, come hail or shine. After each match, Mickey Harte makes time to speak to them and ask their views on what happened over the previous 70-plus minutes.

Driving through the streets, we spotted Fay Devlin, the tenacious corner-back of the '90s, pushing a pram.

It was probably with people like that in mind that Harte said to reporters afterwards: "I feel sorry for the people who have come to support us ... they deserved better. I've told the players that."

The notion of a Derry support has often been used as a punchline to a joke, with the famed reticence of fans to travel from the footballing heartland south in the county and embrace Celtic Park in the Brandywell as the home of Gaelic games.

There have been quite a few suggestions that Dungiven, slap-bang in the middle of that county, should be made de facto county ground, at least for National League games and county finals.

Yet they have their die-hards too. Possibly the longest journey taken by someone in Ireland this weekend in support of their team was former referee PJ Mullan of Coleraine, who is around 80 years of age, and went along with his sons to see the Oak Leafers play Cork, a round trip of 614 miles.

Former county secretary Joe Clarke of Greenlough took a busload of people. Slaughtneil had a delegation of another county secretary Patsy Mulholland, Willie Hampsen and John McEldowney.

Sean Brady of Ballymaguigan left home at 4.30am Sunday morning to drive to Cork and head back straight after the game.

That's before you even look at all the messages on Twitter from fans detailing their trips.

This kind of devotion in an amateur sport is a true phenomenon. Gaelic games are the greatest mass-appeal sports in Ireland and comparable to soccer in other countries. On the continent, only the Ultras go to away games.

In England, the establishment of professional soccer came at a time when unionised mill workers were getting used to the idea of structured 'leisure time.'

No coincidence either that the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire produced the first professional teams, surpassing the likes of Old Etonians and Wanderers, teams populated by former Public schoolboys (Eton and Harrow, respectively).

In the early days of dominance for the likes of Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers and the Nottingham clubs, the working classes found self-expression through travelling and supporting their local soccer teams.

This tradition has carried through to the present day and it must be noted, has always been aided by an extensive rail and train network.

It's been a long time since the rail tracks were ripped up around Ulster. This devotion is harder to sustain, more expensive and exhausting.

For these devotees, there is a light that never goes out.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph