In a historic week for GAA, Kerry native Edaein O’Connell reflects on the power of victories, however big or small, for rural localities.
Mullinalaghta GAA club made history at the weekend after a shocking defeat of Kilmacud Crokes in the Leinster Football Club Final in Tullamore. However, over 2 hours away in a village called Moyvane, the history books were also being rewritten in a game that might not have gripped the nation but took a firm hold on the hearts and minds of locals.
Nestled in the heart of a narrow country road just outside of Listowel, Co Kerry is Mountcoal clubhouse; the home of St Senans GAA club. A towering structure that might not mean much to you, but to many more it has been a haven of solace. A place were dreams were created and cut short with the same brutality. To those who would grace the hallowed ground of that pitch, they would call it home.
The North Kerry Football Championship (or the NKC as it is affectionately known) is more like a religion. It’s divisive and riotous just like a controversial Sunday mass. Men pray at the feet of players for some form of redemption like a round of confessions and the cup is filled with spirits like the golden chalice after communion. It’s powerful and every county in Ireland has its own version, each as frustrating as the other.
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The underdog story isn’t a new one. It is reworked and regenerated at every chance, and my home club St Senans held that mantle on their shoulders through gritted teeth. In the clubs 84-year history, they had made three finals prior to this, and for each one, the happy ending was never theirs. Two years ago they played Ballydonoghue and the team would say to this day that they never showed up. Losing is a bitter pill, too hard to take for even the toughest of individuals and many in the community wondered if the day would ever come.
The greatest of heartbreaks can give way to the brightest of futures and on Sunday last, a team ignored past failings and rid themselves of their ‘bridesmaid and never the bride persona’, beating the same team that caused them such heartache two years ago.
The heart of a community
This was the victory of victories. One to latch onto and never let go of for the fear that it was never real. However, the greatest victory of all is what this means to a community. Shadowing the events of Mullinalaghta’s win, it’s what these victories, however big or small, can do for a locality.
Behind every great team, is a community of men and women who have dedicated their time to a club and its members. They have stood tall on those rough days spent in the bitter cold, with pinching rain pelting against their skin in barren fields in the middle of nowhere while the score on the board was a roaring negative. Tears have been shed and confidence shattered, but they have stood by with a brave face, shrugged it off and told the collective to get up once more and try again.
They say not all heroes wear capes and men like Robert Barry and Tom Dillon have given more of themselves to the club than to life itself. You may not know those names but you have them in your club too. Those men who would put their heart on the line for a team. Those women who have fed the team and washed the jerseys, driven to endless training sessions and clocked up miles that nobody wanted. They kept heads screwed on and were that comforting hand on a shoulder when the dream was crushed one more time.
They deserve a medal too.
The spirit of rural Ireland
Rural Ireland isn’t what it once was and there are more news stories of it dying rather than any of a re-birth. But this story is a story of revival. Community spirit is a wondrous thing and the reverberations of this event will be felt in the area for years to come. One small win can cause so much unbridled joy for people who thought they would never see the day in their lifetime. The Halfway Bar, a country pub which lies between Tralee and Listowel, had never seen a Sunday like it. It was like finding yourself in the middle of a cattle mart, one small move and your head became lodged in the winning cup. It brought shimmering light and vitality to an area which sees much too many long and dreary nights.
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The local football club in any part of Ireland is the beholder of stories. Every member has one, whether that be of happiness or darkness. Hardship and loss are common denominators for which a way out never seems imaginable. But there always is, and there’s power in the people who will rally around you and make you whole again. St Senans does that time and time again.
On Sunday, relationships were strengthened and mended; primary school friends are now champions and foes are now friends. And sometimes, dreams really do come true. The bitter battle ends and all there is now is a new beginning with a community who have never been more proud. It may not be a story that will make the evening news, but it’s a story which has taken place in every corner of this country. It’s a story of unsung heroes. It’s a story of pain and elation. It’s a story of the road to glory. It’s the story of a community.
And it’s the story of the almighty St Senans.