I picked up John McGahern’s masterful Memory the other day and lazily opened it to a page where he talked about his father. Frank McGahern, a Garda sergeant and an interesting character to put it mildly, came from Gowna.
“I heard it once in a casual conversation with another man about the price of oranges when they were young,” McGahern writes.
“My dad said he liked oranges back then and when he found out he was getting married he bought two dozen oranges in Galway and went and sat on a park bench and ate them all.He felt he could never afford to buy oranges again once he was married.
It reminded me of a time when I was 14 and visiting my great uncle Matt in Belfast. Matt was a GAA reporter who regularly contributed to the Irish News and had a column in the recorder down called Matt’s Cat. He was a founding member of the Carryduff club and a Gaelic football fanatic who wrote his first match report, on a game he was playing, for the Fermanagh Herald aged 15.
We went to Sainsbury’s and I had £2 in my pocket. I was a boy on a mission. I went straight to the bakery section and bought 10 jam donuts.
When we got back to Matt’s I sat down at the kitchen table, removed the paper bag and started snacking. It was five o’clock. In the quarter hour, I had eaten eight donuts. Not to be a pig, I left it for two hours before coming back to polish the other two.
My grandparents were there. I remember they couldn’t believe I ate 10 donuts in two sittings on the same night. But the young boys never finished eating anyway.
This trip to stay with Matt was my first time in Belfast. The second was when I was 16 and knew everything. Me and my friend Eddie (at 18 he was the lead partner in this dumb duo) took the bus on a Friday night. We were going to play a handball tournament at the GAA club in St Paul called the Golden Gloves.
I was in the U17 section; Eddie was enrolled in the men’s C. Our first misstep was when we got on the bus at Cavan station and realized the fare was nearly £20. The budget was immediately under pressure.
We had both told our parents back home that we were going to stay with Matt, and we were – but not until Saturday night. On Friday we would paint the town red. We would worry about where to stay when the time came; don’t bother us!
We got off the bus in the city center and entered the Europa hotel. After drinking two pints each, we tossed our remaining cash on the table and took stock. It didn’t take long to count it, I can tell you.
We then came up with a great idea and made a healthy dose of change in a “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” fruit machine (“this time next year, Rodney…”)… so it was another ten bucks . With no other option, we set off into the night, naively confident, without any research, that we would have no problem finding a hostel and that this dangerous town would be perfectly safe.
After a while a friendly stranger, out for the night with his girlfriend, recognized us for what we were, a pair of lost idiots walking innocently through a very dodgy area with our GAA football bags on our shoulders. He quickly grasped the lay of the land and told us to turn around immediately.
He came with us to find an inn. It was full but he took charge and convinced them to accommodate us. They must have taken pity on us. The next morning we had five cents left between us. We bought two apples and a bottle of water and took a taxi to Andytown for the handball. We both lost our matches; by the time Matt picked us up that evening, we were weak from hunger.
The next day he was covering a Down vs Monaghan National League game in Scotstown and he dropped us off at the house, where we kept quiet about our escapades.
Over the years I have often returned to Belfast for handball but rarely for football. Cavan supporters of a certain vintage have fond memories of Casement Park, where Cavan won Ulster’s famous finals in 1962 and 1969, sinking All-Ireland champions Down in both; but for fans my age and younger, the famous old ground might as well be on another planet.
For the past few years, Casement has been locked up and overgrown as the saga surrounding its redevelopment dragged on. I only attended three games there that I can remember. One was a draw with Derry in 2000, when Cavan looked dead and buried only for Dermot McCabe to hit home an equalizer deep in injury time.
Another was a Championship win over Antrim in 2008 and then a National League first round defeat in 2013. Shortly after, Casement was shut down and the province’s main population center has now passed its guts out. a decade without a proper home to call his own.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Gaelic games saw a lull in the city in general at this time. Handball numbers, once the highest in the country in the 1990s, have plummeted. In swaths of Belfast, in areas where there was once a tradition of Gaelic games, football is the sporting activity of choice.
The GAA has recognized this and pledged £1million to reinvigorate it under a project called Gaelfast, whose regeneration manager is St Paul’s club member Paul Donnelly, who was at the center of our unfortunate handball trip. over 20 years ago.
Donnelly spoke of a “poverty of expectations,” which the GAA is experiencing in the city.
“The transformation of Casement Park is inextricably linked to the renewal of the GAA in Belfast,” he told the Irish News three years ago.
“Gaelfast coaches interact with 4,000 school children each week, none of whom have ever set foot in Casement Park. Without adequate infrastructure and increased long-term investment, the Gaelic Games in Belfast and Antrim will never realize their potential.
It will be interesting to see what effect the renovation of the stadium, which after years of objections and legal battles was finally given the green light last week, will have on the Gaelic games landscape.
Maybe it’ll be about “build it and they will come,” but it will take more than bricks and mortar to turn the fortunes of GAA’s big underachievers.
A few weeks ago I was at Corrigan Park for the Cavan v Antrim game. Cavan played very well; Antrim was abysmal and their manager has since quit after just a year in charge. They seem as far away from a breakthrough as ever.
After that game I met a few friends in the clubhouse bar, some of whom are heavily involved in the game in the city, and all agreed Antrim was miles off the pace. The new stadium will go ahead now, politicians will have their picture taken as they cut the ribbon, but the underlying issues remain and will be much harder to address.
The town itself seems to be on the rise and is a more attractive and safer place than it was when my friend and I were innocently strolling there at the time. But when it comes to Gaelic games, it could be another generation at least before the wasteland transforms.