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A border ramble on All-Ireland Final Sunday

Sport

TOGGED OUT Pictured in Gibbons’ Bar in Shrule last Sunday afternoon was proprietor Ronan Gibbons with staff Sinead Lee, Cathy Sheridan and Jennifer King. Pic: Conor McKeown

The village of Shrule, on the Mayo/Galway border, came to a standstill last Sunday afternoon

Feature
Michael Gallagher

THE river runs through it.
At the end of the street in Shrule, the Black River separates two peoples, two identities, two tribes who live happily in one another’s pockets almost every day of their lives — except when football comes into the equation.
On football days, the Black River becomes the defining line, the border, the difference between elation and devastation; the separation between a good week and a bad year.
“Sit down beside me quick,” the maroon-clad wife encourages her husband just before 3pm last Sunday as Gibbons’ Bar begins to throb. “He’s 45 years sitting beside you, he’ll be alright back here for a while,” a voice answers her across the pub floor as temporary lines are drawn, even between spouses.
“That’s the way it is here. Once the football takes over, nothing else matters,” Ronan Gibbons explains across the counter.
His drinking emporium is the first in Mayo, the last in Mayo, the only one with 43 steps between it and Galway grass on the southern bank of the river.
“They’re the 43 precious steps,” Ronan’s brother, David, explains. “If they cut me, I’d bleed green and red. My mother is within there in the kitchen praying for Galway and good luck to her, but everyone to their own,” he added, pointing to his sibling sporting a Galway jersey.
Ronan Gibbons is a Mayo man to the very core of his being, but on Sunday he wore the maroon and white of Galway – not for business purposes or a bet or any other mad reason.
He wore the jersey to honour those who had gone before.
“Our grandfather, David Mitchell, was on the Galway team of ’34 who won the All-Ireland. That was the first time they ever wore the maroon and white and that’s why I have it on today.
“He went on to be an engineer on the building of the old Hogan Stand, so I’m very proud of him,” Ronan explained as all eyes focussed on the big screen over the fireplace.
A newspaper cutting featuring near-neighbour and former Mayo star, Trevor Mortimer, sits on one side of the telly opposite a framed picture of the Shrule badminton team of yesteryear as the lights go down and the Galway guests breathe a little deeper.
On the screen, the team comes out to a great big Galway roar, they get their picture taken and head down to the goal.
In Gibbons’ the nerves are coming to the fore. One gentleman at the bar has an abscess on his tooth and every time he opens his mouth it sends a dart of pain straight to the brain, but he manages to slide another drop of porter past his lips as the teams are introduced to President Michael D Higgins.
Outside the door, the last fags are being sucked, and the last prayers are being muttered skywards as the young men of Galway march behind the band and face the flag above the stand.
Then, a loud hush descends upon the famous bar first opened in 1925. Men, women and children become entranced by the colours dancing across the screen as history awaits those courageous enough to grasp it.
Galway start well. They’re three points clear in a matter of minutes when a voice from the lounge screams, “We have them!” Along the back wall a few trusty Mayo men say nothing. They’ve seen it all before and know there’s a long, long way to go.
Mike Sweeney has arrived from Glencorrib. The big man has been following Mayo all his life and loves football.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing Galway win. They’re our neighbours. I’ve been following Mayo all my life and always will, but we’re not going to win it this year, so why not Galway? I’ve been following Mayo since 1967 when Seamus O’Dowd ran 60 yards to score a goal to win the Connacht final. I was in bed with the measles and my father brought the radio up to the room. I was lying there imagining the scenes in Salthill that day and I was hooked.”
Soon, Mike’s thoughts are interrupted by a roar greeting a Shane Walsh stunner in Croke Park. However, things are beginning to tighten up as Kevin McStay’s voice comes through the speakers to ask: “Who are you going to kill to win the ball? That’s the way you win the All-Ireland.”
Half-time arrives and everyone takes a breath. Out the back there’s a lad in a Kerry jersey. What part of Kerry is he from?
“He’s young Jamie Toher from Glencorrib, he’s not from Kerry at all,” Ronan explains as empty glasses are quickly replenished.
As the second half begins, the local Shrule-Glencorrib footballers and their supporters are arriving back after a league game in Achill. Adrian Moran, Evan Cawley, Ruth Cawley and the Craddock clan come through the door to experience All-Ireland final day in the village.
Schoolboys Finn and Cillian Craddock are determined to enjoy themselves. When Kerry score, one of them celebrates, when Galway do likewise, his brother dances across the floor.
They can’t lose!
The place is rocking when Galway go two clear after 46 minutes. It gets quieter nine minutes later when Kerry go in front.
“We badly need fresh legs,” a voice roars as the man with the abscess attempts to roar at the screen and nearly falls off his stool with the pain.
Five minutes from the end, Galway draw level and an ear-piercing roar cuts through the air.
“Is there someone caught in barbed wire back there?” one of the more composed drinkers asks as history beckons the young men of Galway and Kerry.
“It’s a free out, it has to be a free out!” a Galway man screams at the telly as John Daly and Killian Spillane clash.
Unfortunately for those in maroon and white the referee gives a free in and Kerry go in front as time ticks away.
In Shrule, the maroon crew yearn for a Galway score but the only white flags being raised are at the other end of the pitch.
Slowly, the realisation of the situation begins to dawn.
The final whistle brings southern celebrations and western devastation. By the Black River, Galway hearts are sore, but proud. Most of their Mayo neighbours sympathise and offer words of comfort before shouting at Ronan to ‘put on another pint’.
The man with the abscess orders a chaser to dull the pain. Along the back wall, the Mayo men talk among themselves.
They’ve seen it all before.
It’s only football after all.

 

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