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All the fun of the Fenians
Speaking as a holder of the Sam Maguire Cup, I can only concur in one GAA correspondent's description of the triumph by Henry Downey's heroes at Croke Park on September 19th as "the dawn of a new era".
Eamonn McCann, 06 Oct 1993
Speaking as a holder of the Sam Maguire Cup, I can only concur in one GAA correspondent's description of the triumph by Henry Downey's heroes at Croke Park on September 19th as "the dawn of a new era". Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, and to be from Derry was very Heaven.
I hadn't expected to be so moved by it. I hadn't expected to be moved by it at all. I'm a Derry city, not a county, man, and therefore into soccer rather than Gaelic. Plus I was in the press box, in my detached professional capacity.
And yet, when the team took the field and Hill 16 over to our left was instantly engulfed in the colours of the county and in an incredibly sustained hurricane of sound, I suddenly realised that not only did I want Derry to win but that I wished this with a sort of desperation which was as foolish in its extravagance as it was strangely sweet to savour.
When the final whistle blew I was fighting back the tears. I definitely hadn't expected that. It was a lovely thing to be able to feel part of. And the pleasure was all the easier to indulge on account of its innocence. It had none of those undertones of sectarian triumphalism that you can't miss if you're at Parkhead on the now rare occasions when Celtic avoid defeat against Rangers, and none at all of the yahoo patriotism which infects a growing minority of Jack Charlton's green army.
And that, I think, helps explain the sour reaction to Derry's triumph of some loyalist politicians.
I legged it to Busaras straight after the match and made it home before midnight to find a packed city centre partying prodigiously, the pubs freely ignoring the licensing laws and the cops keeping a sensible distance. All week long the rumbustiousness persisted. Terry Crossan of Peadar O'Donnell's in Waterloo Street reckoned that the week's takings were well up to Xmas week level.
The Derry Journal estimated that 20,000 turned out on the Friday night to welcome the team to the city. The open-topped bus nudged its way slowly along the quays and into Guildhall Square through a gaudy throng flagged and bedecked and roaring its open-throated adulation. Later, once they'd been squeezed tightly through the crowd and shoe-horned into the building, each of the players was introduced by name from the Guildhall balcony, to successive waves of wild applause. A couple of weeks previously, hardly anybody from the city area would have been able to put a name to a team member at all.
The civic reception in the main hall - free drink, buffet supper, speeches - was a relaxed and occasionally boisterous affair which continued well into the small hours. Councillors and other worthies, including journalists, jostled for autographs and to be photographed with the team, and the cup. All of the Loyalist councillors had been invited, but none showed up.
It isn't just, I think, that they perceive the GAA, accurately, as a specifically nationalist phenomenon. It is also that the air of untroubled celebration which has surrounded recent Northern success in the GAA appears to confirm that Northern nationalists, far from being ground down into misery, might now actually be getting the better of it.
I can easily imagine the dark thought forming in certain minds, that these people who are forever citing statistics about Catholics being more than twice as likely as Protestants to be out of work and Catholics generally getting a raw deal, that here they were, cartwheeling with unrestrained exuberance all the way up from Dublin and across the flag-bedecked province of Ulster and into Maghera to send peals of happiness into the high heaven at three o'clock in the morning, and then erupting into the city where there had never been real support for Gaelic in the first place to carouse all week long and then drink the night away on the rate-payers, these people had half the world convinced that they were second-class citizens!
Naturally, if you like, loyalist politicians felt a certain resentment which expressed itself coming across as bigoted begrudgery. Because here we had displayed in plain bright colours one of the most interesting but little remarked-on aspects of life in the North: that while the objective statistics confirm that Catholics, in general, are worse off than Protestants, it's also true that, in general, Catholics have more crack.
It's more fun being a Fenian.