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Two good Erris stories

Second Reading
“Michael, by far, was the best footballer in our class. Some of my friends who were doing well with the Ballina Stephenites under-age teams found this difficult to accept. He was not just a good Sligo footballer, which if we knew the meaning of the word, we might have called an oxymoron.”

Fr kevin HegartyFr Kevin Hegarty

OUTSIDERS may find it hard to credit, given the dominance of the Corrib gas controversy in the headlines, that there are good news stories out of Erris, as two recent events testify.
In November 1884, seven men gathered in Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles to found the GAA. Their meeting had profound social, political and cultural consequences for sport in Ireland.
One hundred years later, eight men met in the Anchor bar in Belmullet to establish Erris United soccer club. There is some confusion as to the number who attended the meeting, perhaps caused by the length of time spent in the bar. Nevertheless that happening was of huge significance for soccer in Erris.
After a rocky start, Erris United, now Iorras Aontaithe, has gone from strength to strength. The club has won national prominence and, at Carne-Nash, have excellent playing facilities. There is a joy and enthusiasm about the club that is inspirational. That was especially evident at the recent dinner dance to commemorate the silver jubilee of its foundation.
The other event was the retirement function of Garda Michael Farrell, after over 30 years faithful service in the barony of Erris.
This even sent me down memory lane. Michael and I first met as students of St Muredach’s College in Ballina, just after the summer of ‘69. That summer saw a general election which returned Jack Lynch to power. As children we were not much interested but there was local pride that Mary Robinson of Victoria Terrace was elected as a senator for the Trinity  College constituency.
July saw the first landing of a man on the moon, for which we were glued to the television. In August there was an event of almost comparable magnitude. Mayo failed, by just one point to Kerry, to reach the All- Ireland football final.
All summer long we awaited our transfer to secondary school, with a mixture of expectation and trepidation. Those of us who attended Scoil Pádraic in Ballina were sad leaving it. Then a new school, it was bright and spacious. In Nicholas Baxter we had the best teacher I experienced in my years of education.
In contrast, St Muredach’s College, a dark building overlooking the Moy, looked grim. Older people told us we were lucky to have the opportunity of going there. We found it hard to believe them.
They also told us, with ill-concealed glee, that the college priests would put ‘smacht’ on us. They seemed stern men, who usually wore long black gowns with flaps, that we later learned were soutanes. Sometimes they said Sunday Mass in the Cathedral, where they gave polished homilies.
On the first day of September, we first years huddled in a corner of the college yard. Older students strode around, with the confident air of people who had conquered the place.
Eventually a priest came over to us and ordered us into the study hall, where we were divided into classes.
It was there that I met Michael Farrell for the first time. From Dromard, in Sligo, he was a boarder. Here we pitied the boarders. They had to spend all the term in the college, occasionally allowed out to see a film in the town. Ballina in the 1970’s was no Las Vegas but at least, when we walked out the college gates each day, we could look forward to freedom, home-cooking and the hope of girl friends.
Michael, then, was kind and humorous, with a serene detachment from the rigours of college life. He helped us overcome our prejudices about Sligo people. Living on the border between the two counties, we did not like them. We felt that they looked down on us, that they saw Mayo as a mixture of backward people and bad land.
Many years later, a friend, Fr John George McHale, told me, when he was a cathechetics advisor, he found himself in a glum school in a remote part of West Sligo, shortly after the foundation of Trócaire. As a prelude to telling the students about Trócaire, he asked them where in the world were people starving and living in shacks. There was no response until a young boy tentatively offered the information, “Back in Mayo, Father.”
Michael, by far, was the best footballer in our class. Some of my friends who were doing well with the Ballina Stephenites under-age teams found this difficult to accept. He was not just a good Sligo footballer, which if we knew the meaning of the word, we might have called an oxymoron. He was a great footballer who happened to be from Sligo. At midfield he often commanded the park with a kind of languid grace.
Michael was an excellent community policeman. What that means, for me, is succinctly telescoped in Frank O’Connor’s story, ‘The Majesty of the Law’. In the story, the Garda sergeant visits Dan, an old man who was convicted of assault at a local fair and has refused to pay the resultant fine. The sergeant spends time with him and enjoys his hospitality. they talked of the old days in Ireland. It is only when he is leaving that the purpose of the visit becomes clear. He has come to tell Dan that he will have to go to jail if he does not pay the fine.
The sergeant respects and understands Dan and yet carries out his duty. That is the kind of policing that Michael Farrell exemplified as a Garda.
In the last few years Michael has been afflicted by MS. He has borne his fate with great dignity and without self pity. His attitude testifies to the truth of Ernest Hemmingway’s aphorism that true courage is grace under pressure.
To him, his wife Mary Jane and family, best wishes for the future. The huge crowd at the function in the Broadhaven Bay Hotel last Thursday was a sincere expression of the community’s affection for this Sligoman who has become a genial king in Mayo