When the Donegal full-forward stuck the ball in the net in Breffni last Sunday, he got the biggest cheer of the day.
Having bagged it, he set off down the field, rolling on the ground, jumping about and waving, provoking great delight and amusement among the 23,000 Gaels in the crowd. God knows they needed a bit of half-time entertainment.
Donegal Dynamos, a Cavan Special Needs team, St. Bernadette’s (Letterkenny) and Clanrye from County Down provided it in style.
It was impossible not to feel proud as they strutted their stuff at half-time, the big crowd rising to a very special occasion.
John Haran from Letterkenny (wrongly suspected by Jimmy McGuinness of being my spy in the Donegal camp) is a teacher in St. Bernadette’s and the team manager. The kids range from ages 4-17 and have severe learning disabilities. In St Bernadette’s, they have a ball.
FOOTBALL MAD IN SCHOOL YARD EVERY DAY
Since Donegal began their epic Championship run under Jim, the school has gone football mad. Every day at lunchtime, there is a football match in the school-yard under the watchful eye of Big Haran. Some of the children are not really able to execute the skills due to the extent of their disability but they still throw themselves into it with gusto, grabbing the ball and throwing it around the place.
Others – as we saw on Sunday - have very good skills indeed. They have a ‘Jersey Day’ before all Donegal’s Championship games where all the kids wear the county shirt. ‘Jimmy’s winnin matches’ is top of their charts.
According to the staff, on Sunday past they had the day of their lives. The Ulster Council have been working closely with a whole range of special needs groups. Several of the Council’s full time coaches, including Tyrone All-Ireland winner Ryan Mellon & Donegal’s Paul Callaghan have been giving their time and expertise to the project. The project is called “The GAA for All.” Funded by Peace III money and co-ordinated in Donegal by St Eunan’s, it came to fruition in style in Breffni.
pupils travel from all over donegal
The St Bernadette’s kids travel to school from all over Donegal. On Sunday, they were on the bus at 9 am, buzzing with excitement. “Who are we playing?” asked one boy as he got on the coach. As the bus went through the school gate, another asked “Are we there yet?”
My favourite question though was “Where is Cavan?” followed by “Do they play football in Cavan?” (to which the answer is “Sort of!”)
The boys and girls sang and chattered the whole way down to Breffni. Haran was asked (in his words “a million times”) “Are we there yet?” The Donegal County Board had provided the group with a brand new set of jerseys, togs and socks for the occasion and as the kids pulled on the sacred kit, their eyes were shining.
Then came the big moment. In the games in the playground, the kids all want to be Michael Murphy. Like the immortal scene in Spartacus where the slaves all start putting their hand up and shouting “I’m Spartacus,” come the big day they all wanted to be No. 14. So, Haran did what GAA folk always do in a crisis. He held a raffle. Every name went into the hat. The kids went silent. Haran fished out a folded bit of paper and read out the name of Nigel Rankin. “He went buck mad Joe, I’ve never seen the likes of it!”
When Nigel finally calmed down, the manager read out the team. Then, the whistle went for half-time in the senior game and out they went, bursting with excitement.
They played Clanrye from Down and in the space of 10 minutes, the teams scored almost as much as the seniors managed in 70. Hardly surprising, given that no one marked anyone else. This was classic blanket attack, both teams going forward without a backward glance. Pat would have been delighted.
The match itself ebbed and flowed. A goal for Clanrye. A goal for Bernadette’s. Another for Bernadette’s. A second from Clanrye. In the end, the Down men squeezed home by the minimum, pipping the Donegal lads on a final score of 2-2 to 2-1.
In the other half of the field, the Donegal Dynamos were putting on a show against the Cavan men. All four teams were presented with medals afterwards and as they left the field, they received a huge ovation from the delighted crowds.
“Were they disappointed?” I asked Haran during the week. “Not at all” he said, “they couldn’t give two damns about the result.” It is all they have talked about in school since.
On Wednesday, their last day at school before the summer holidays, all the boys and girls were presented with the photographs of the day.
When the senior game is long forgotten, those extraordinary, joyous half-time games will remain vivid in the memory.