At the end of Slaughtneil’s ‘Up for the Match’ on Friday night, it was time for predictions from the panel.
“Corofin are a brilliant team,” I said, “Superb skill set. Very sophisticated understanding of the game. A different level than anything you have faced so far.”
For the first time all night, the packed hall was silent. Uneasy. I went on to point out they had absolutely crushed a superb Ballintubber team before making light of St. Vincent’s in the semi-final. Paddy Heaney stepped in at that point to retrieve the situation.
“They are not a brilliant team. What have they won? What have they won Joe?”
“Well, six Galway & three Connaught championships in the last eight years.”
“Have they won an All-Ireland in that time?”
“No, Paddy, you know they haven’t.”
“Well, when they win something, we can call them a brilliant team.”
A big cheer went up. Relief flooded through the hall.
The night started with everybody being served curry or stew from steaming vats. The hall was packed. Some rather fetching sofas had been brought in from McKeefrey’s for the panel. BBC NI’s Mark Sidebottom was the compere. They couldn’t afford Jackie Fullerton. His first question, directed at me, was somewhat antagonistic.
“Do Cliftonville not have a match tonight?” I asked, “Or Dungannon Swifts?”
The crowd roared. The tone was set. The atmosphere electric.
Each time Anthony Tohill spoke, you could hear a pin drop. He was a touch crabbit for some reason, so there was a frisson of tension in the air. Greg Blaney completed the quartet. The debate was most entertaining, with meaty questions being fired from the audience throughout. Paddy Heaney marvelled at the ambition of the Slaughtneil community. In and around 1980, they decided to host a disco for juveniles at the clubhouse every weekend. To make that a reality, they hired buses. Club members drove those buses to every part of the county to Maghera, Ballinderry, Dungiven, Newbridge etc, where they loaded up with teenagers. At the end of the night, they drove them all home again. In between, there was what I like to describe as the beginnings of the sexual revolution in rural Derry. The Slaughtneil disco was an iconic event. Every teenager in the county went. Heaney described how he and his mates walked the four miles there rather than get the £1 bus becausem, “in those days, that pound represented four cans of lager.” When the car lights hit the pitch all you could see was teenage boys and girls ‘wrestling’, dotted all around like rabbits in a meadow. Throw in the odd fist fight and this was as close to Sodom and Gomorrah as any young Gael was ever likely to get.
All the while, money was pouring into the club coffers.
They haven’t squandered it. Being there again on Friday night was to feel good about what they have created on this mountainside. Everyone, even the girls, were wearing the Slaughtneil tracksuits, save for one woman who turned out to be from Lavey. Another thing about them is that they have a staggering array of club hats. Beanies, ski hats with toggles that tie under the chin, skull caps, the works. Or so I thought. I was getting a picture with some of the younger boys and I asked them about this.
“No Joe, you can’t buy these. We buy the hats and get the club badge sewn on.”
As an aside, the previous Sunday I ran into Patsy Bradley and two of his team mates at the Derry match in Celtic Park and asked them to come in for a selfie.
“Jaysus Joe, selfies are for young boys,” said Patsy.
Their ‘Up for the Match’ threw in at 9.30pm. From about 11pm onwards, Mark Sidebottom, who in fairness did an expert job as anchor, began asking the crowd, “Will we stop now, or go on for another 15 minutes?”
Every time, they bayed, “Keep going.” When he blew the final whistle, it was 1.10am. As I was leaving, the girls were offering me a bag of buns to take with me.
Turns out Corofin are a brilliant team. Nothing Slaughtneil can do about that. The people will be hurting for a few days, as will the lads and for that I feel sorry. But in truth they have nothing to feel sorry about. Tomorrow, the club and fields will be packed once more, with boys and girls of all ages kicking ball and wielding hurls. The Irish classes will resume. The vats in the kitchen will be steaming. Buns will be baked. Badges will be sewn onto beanie hats.
As I dropped Paddy Heaney home on Friday night, I mentioned that I had never been to Slaughtneil disco. He was incredulous.
He looked at me sadly for a moment, then shook his head.
“Is it any wonder you are the way you are?”