Ulster final day in Clones. To the uninitiated, it might seem like much of a nothing, really.
A local sporting skirmish played out in a former thriving and somewhat dilapidated market town that clearly was quite the spot in its time, but has drifted into decades of being a backwater.
That is until the Ulster final comes to town. And then it gets on the glad rags, applies the war paint and looks like the grand old dame of old.
A few years ago, Joe Brolly took aim at the town, the venue and the, ahem, entrepreneurial spirit of the locals on match day when he wrote a column.
“Clones is the Bangladesh of Ulster,” he began.
“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.”
Colourful stuff in his trademark mischievous streak it may have been, but the point was missed with the sign-off that: “The sooner Casement is built, the better.”
Casement might be handier to reach for Joe, but the entire vibe of Clones and St Tiernach’s Park is that it is like stepping into another world, where the clocks stopped somewhere in the 1950s.
The history of the town itself is riveting. Stuck out there in west Monaghan, tight to the Fermanagh border, the creation of the border cut it off from the natural economic hinterland.
There are the remains of an Augustinian Abbey, a round tower and a 15ft tall High Cross.
The town was used to great effect in the film adaptation of Clones-born writer Pat McCabe’s masterpiece ‘Butcher Boy’, which prompted an annual Film Festival.
The town was mentioned by former DUP leader Arlene Foster in January 2018 when addressing the Killarney Economic Conference, when she said: “I grew up only a few miles from the Fermanagh and Monaghan border. I saw for myself growing up how, even during our darkest days, we shared close economic, cultural and social ties across the border. My own grandmother used to travel back and forward across the border on a bicycle to sell Irish lace in Clones.”
That summer, she made a quick visit to the Lough Erne Resort to wish the Fermanagh team the best of luck in their upcoming Ulster final against Donegal. Some frantic diplomacy and she became the first DUP leader to attend the Ulster final a few days later, cheered by spectators as she took her seat in the Gerry Arthurs Stand that had many onlookers in a state of astonishment.
It was Donegal who won that game, of course. Their people have become old hands at this gig.
It might be a component part of the collective personality of Donegal people to play things down, but they are truly living through their Golden Age of Ulster success.
This is their 10th final since 2011. By now, they know every nook and cranny of the place. The best roads to snake up undetected, the parking spot that most passed and never noticed.
The optimum time to take on board the carbs — still the staple of sandwiches out of the boot for families, while those on the boozy buses plump for something with a bit more fat and grease for soakage purposes.
A man called Christy Murray from Raphoe will be there on Sunday with his bagpipes as the unofficial ‘Donegal Hype Man’. The skirl of his music will carry up and down Fermanagh Street and around the beer gardens.
When he spots a knot of opposing fans, he instantly disarms them by playing a signature tune from their county. ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ will be in his armoury this Sunday.
But soon he will revert to type, with a blast of ‘The Hills of Donegal’, pausing to bellow “UP DONEGAL” to the cheers of onlookers.
As for the Derry fans, many are getting their first taste of unfiltered final day in 11 years.
That day was the start of the Donegal juggernaut. Managed by Jim McGuinness and assisted by current Oak Leaf supremo Rory Gallagher, the crowd was 28,364.
But the Derry crowd on the day is estimated at around a pitiful 5,000.
There may have been some context for Derry fans. In their earlier rounds, they were irresistible in beating Fermanagh by eight points, but only 5,646 turned up. The Fermanagh support was cut to the quick by a mass walkout of players from the panel during the league.
Things are different in the Oak Leaf County this week. They have got rid of their 12,000 ticket allocation. That’s before others source tickets through the other outlets. Those handling the demand admit they have not seen anything like this for 25 years.
They believe in this team. They believe in Rory Gallagher. They believe in Brendan Rogers, in Chrissy McKaigue, Padraig McGrogan, Conor Glass and Benny Heron.
When 3,000 tickets were put up online last Friday, they went in eight minutes, nearly all club orders.
In Magherafelt two weekends ago, the O’Neill’s shop sold out of Derry jerseys. Last weekend there were massive queues for the replenished stock.
Cumann na mBunscol, the organising body of primary schools’ GAA, have been a huge factor. They organise ‘red and white’ days in the schools, sweeping children up in the excitement.
In such an environment, no parent wants to be the one to tell their child they will not be going to the big dance.
Some day, all of this will be gone and the Ulster final will be played in a modern stadium, with luxuries such as working toilets. Until then, this is more than a game.
In 1995, the Cavan poet Tom McIntyre went along to the final and wrote the following words: “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?”