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The champion of Erris


FAMILY GATHERING In Corclough, Belmullet the Diver family watching their daughter, sister and auntie Sinéad en route to a tenth placed finish in the Olympic Marathon. Pic: Ecardo Baader

Sinéad Diver’s remarkable Olympic story was rejoiced in her native land at the weekend

Michael Gallagher

It’s the land where the ocean ends and the world begins in a blaze of beauty, however on Friday as darkness fell, Belmullet was quieter than usual.
The Erris capital is renowned as a place of wonder, welcome, fun and friendliness, but as daylight slipped away it was gripped by nervous anticipation.
Local woman Sinéad Diver was just minutes away from taking her place on the start line of the Olympic Marathon 5,548 miles away in Sapporo, Japan and there was a sense of breathlessness in the place.
John Shevlin’s famous green and red Mayo car cruised through The Square as Irish, Australian and Olympic flags fluttered in the breeze.
Television screens flickered inside windows of homes along American Street and that scene was repeated all along the peninsula as families settled down to watch one of their own represent Australia on the greatest stage of all.
In Corclough, a few miles behind the town, The Eagle Bar was the centre of the world. James Lavelle’s famous hostelry had large-screen TVs situated at each end of the bar and once Covid certs were checked and patrons took their seats, it was time to warm up for the big event.
The Diver homestead stands less than one hundred steps from The Eagle and some wondered if the clan would make an appearance, but James had breaking news.
“The family are there with Eddie and Bridie and they’re watching it together. You never know though; we might see them later on,” he stated with a glint in his eye.
As Sinéad and the other athletes from all across the planet took their place on the start line in Sapporo, Paddy Lavelle, the patriarch of the host clan took his place at the family table near one of the TVs.
Paddy was in good company. The Lavelles had togged strong. Throughout the evening they had arrived from near and far to be present for the night of a lifetime. Corclough is always home!

The craic and the slagging
After 2km of running the first big cheer erupted when Sinéad got a mention on RTÉ, but the searing heat was the main topic of conversation in The Eagle as the commentator told his audience the runners were looking for shade.
“It’s raincoats they’d be looking for if they were running here tonight,” a voice responded from one of the booths.
Soon, the television coverage was interrupted for a commercial break and the crew in The Eagle took the opportunity to discuss their own athletic ability.
“How far would we be able to run if we were in it? I’d only make it down the road there to the school,” Beatie Prendergast asked and answered her own question.
“It’s the shoes Beatie. If we had the special ones they have, we’d be flying too,” Marie Gibbons replied with a grin.
In a nearby booth, Dessie Hefferon noted the brilliance of the runners but posed a rather unique challenge for them.
“They’re mighty surely, but how good would they be on our awful road between Castlebar and ‘Corick. If they could run fast on that they’d deserve Olympic medals,” he told the pub.
At the other end of the room a group of lads were pointing at the screen. They could see the Corclough woman and the air tingled with pride in the cosy bar on the edge of the ocean.
At the family-table the phones were buzzing. Laura Gibbons was text-talking with her uncle, David Lavelle, in Sydney. He was watching the Australian coverage of the race and sent news that Sinéad was running steadily as she passed halfway.
“She’s amazing but imagine what it would be like if she finished in the top ten or 15,” Aoife Gibbons said into the ether as the rest of the room remained too nervous to even contemplate such immortality.
Being the excellent host he is, James Lavelle, produced a hearty mug of tea and Mikado biscuits for the press table, where Dessie Hefferon had taken on the role of Sky Sports correspondent.
“We’d share these with the rest of ye, but we can’t because of the Covid regulations,” he told those at other tables, while holding up the packet of biscuits.
However, thoughts of tasty Mikados were soon banished as Laura’s phone buzzed with news that Sinéad was 16th.

The crescendo
“Oh my God, she’s picking them off,” Marie exclaimed as she cast her eyes back to the television where the lead group was down to just four runners.
The closing stages were nerve-wracking in The Eagle. RTÉ weren’t saying where Sinéad was placed but texts from David in Sydney were greeted with joy every time they arrived.
“She’s 14th.”
“She’s 12th.”
“She’s bloomin’ 11th.”
The crew in The Eagle could hardly contain themselves. Their friend, neighbour and cousin was going to finish 11th in the Olympic Marathon. It was almost impossible to comprehend.
When Kenya’s finest, Peres Jepchirchir, ran through the tape to win the gold she received a standing ovation in Corclough, but there was only one woman The Eagle wanted to see.
As another Kenyan was followed home by an American and the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh runners came though the finish line, silence reigned by the ocean.
The eighth woman came around the corner, and the ninth was quickly followed by the tenth. Then, a flash of gold and green came into view and Corclough erupted. Sinéad was in the home straight and when she found the burst of energy to pass the woman in front of her it was time to party in Corclough.
They might have been happy in the eastern Kenya, but they were dancing in the moonlight in Corclough. The Eagle never had a night like it.

The Eagle has landed

Michael GalLagher

In Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, the locals were celebrating Peres Jepchirchir’s victory in the Olympic Marathon. More than 7,000km away in Corclough on the west coast of Ireland the locals were dancing with delight celebrating the run of a lifetime by their heroic neighbour Sinéad Diver.
Lavelle’s Eagle Bar echoed to cheers, applause and utter joy. The emotions guarded so tightly all night were let loose at last.
The drink had long stopped flowing, but nobody needed liquid stimulation to pay homage to their neighbour and friend.
The Erris heroine’s talent, passion, power, resilience, courage and humility had given Corclough its proudest night and those in The Eagle were temporarily overcome with emotion.
Then, as heartbeats returned to something resembling normality, the man of the house, James Lavelle, stood in the middle of the floor and said, “Come on, we’ll all go down to Divers’.”
It was a brilliant idea. The home of the Olympic star is within shouting distance of The Eagle, and the Divers are the most hospitable of people but what they’d think of a mad bunch of revellers arriving at their door in the middle of the night was anyone’s guess.
Dessie Hefferon sprang into action. He grabbed a pole with an Olympic flag and prepared for the maddest, most impromptu Olympic parade the world had ever witnessed.
Out into the darkness they went. Hefferon bearing the flag; Máirtín Gibbons on hand to assist if needed; James Lavelle, Laura Gibbons, Aoife Gibbons and Yvonne Byrne near the front of the group. Behind them, Marie Gibbons, Mary Lavelle, Beatie Prendergast and Brian Lavelle were among those encouraging the stragglers to keep up.
Liam and Emer Lavelle, Karina Diamond, Helen Murphy, Ian Togher and a trusty group of back markers kept the flag-bearer in view and soon the merry band were in Divers’ front lawn as the breeze blew in from Eagle Island.
That’s when the Diver homestead sparked into life. Curtains were pulled back and curious eyes peered out at the invaders. Hefferon knocked on the door and moments later the Olympian’s family, their neighbours and friends were immersed in hugs, tears, yelps and yahoos. The beautifully manicured lawn would never be the same again.
Cameras flashed, videos recorded history and happy tears were carried away on the wind. Eddie, Bridie and the family had experienced a night of stark and wonderful emotions in front of their television, but they still found time to dance in the dark with the band of revellers in their front lawn. There never had been a night like it before!
Some time later, as the clock began to move again, this scribe left the Erris nation behind. The trail through ‘Corick, which took Sinéad and so many, many more to the four corners of the world was silent and dark, but at the edge of the horizon there was a hint of brightness, a hint of hope and possibilities. Sinéad Diver had followed that light of hope to the horizon and seized opportunities few could ever have imagined.
She had taken on the world and given a group of family and friends the chance to walk behind the Olympic flag on a windy August night on the edge of the world. There never had been a night quite like it before.