So here’s a question. Do you remember a time when Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach of Ireland? Some of you do, most probably don’t. Do you remember a time before the Celtic Tiger, the cold war, the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union? No? Do you remember a time before mobile phones, before the internet? Maybe. Well how about this then. Do you remember a time when Carlow played Division 3 football?
Carlow. Car-la. The Scallion eaters. Richie Kavanagh. Oh Carlow, we hardly knew you. There’s always been something distinctly unglamorous about Carlow. Locked in the middle of the country, right beside the most successful hurling county in the country, and the “garden” of Ireland on the other side, for a lot of the time, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. No-one ever goes on holiday, or a day trip, to Carlow. No one gives it a cool moniker. No one gives it the time of day. But it’s there, the second smallest county by area, the third smallest by population in the country, and for a small percentage of people, it means everything.
It’s always been a bit of struggle for Carlovians to get attention. Nowadays, you can point to Sean O’Brien and Saoirse Ronan and Kathryn Thomas and say, well there IS some pizzazz associated with the county, but that’s never really filtered itself down to the county’s football team. The lack of glamour extends to the attire as well. Is there a more unsexy jersey in the whole of the GAA than the Carlow jersey? It’s always been a pet theory of mine, that success is somehow interlinked with the attractiveness of one’s jersey.
Now I know I can automatically hear the guffaws of almost everyone reading this, but just think for a moment of the most successful teams in world sport. The New Zealand rugby team. All Black. No one else plays in all black do they? Already, when you see those shirts on the field, there’s an air of mystique about them. There’s something so sleek about those jerseys, with that little silver emblem, that immediately, there’s a level of intimidation that comes with it. So the minute you walk onto the field to face a New Zealand side, see those jerseys and that haka, well, a lot of opponents are already dead.
Or what about Real Madrid? All white. It’s such a pristine elegant look, that when Don Revie was trying to build his Leeds United footballing empire in the 1970’s, one of the first things he did was copy that beautiful snowy kit. Or think of how Bill Shankly changed the Liverpool kit to an all red combination in the mid 60’s, and it led to an unprecedented two and a half decades of success.
And people might say, “Well, what the hell does a jersey have to do with the success of a team?” and yet when two of the leading Brittish football coaches of the past century, decide to change their team’s kit to improve their club’s fortunes, you’d have to conclude there’s something to it. Even in the GAA, Dublin changed their attire in the early 70’s, from a conventional blue shirt and white shorts, to a more eye catching blue jersey and navy shorts, and they had one of their most successful decades ever.
So when you see the likes of Real Madrid and New Zealand strutting onto the field, and then contrast it with those Carlow men ambling on, looking like a traffic light or something you’d see in the gay pride parade, the opposition must just be thinking “Well, how the hell are we supposed to takes these guys seriously?” And for a long time, Carlow played like that. For a long time, Carlow played, how you’d expect one of the smallest counties in the country to play.
So for years the Carlow man has had to humbly accept their lot living in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbour, picking up All-Irelands like they were going out of fashion. And for a time you’d wonder if it was all worth it. Sometimes you’d curse yourself for not having being born a few miles over the border, or for living in a county that struggled to play two sports (Carlow have recently played in Division 1B of the National hurling league) while Kilkenny just specialized in one.
Or you might see Eire Og in club football or Mount Leinster Rangers in hurling almost, almost, climb the mountain of All-Ireland success and you’d think “Well maybe that could be us one day” but really you would be afraid to allow yourself believe it. Because, at the end of the day, it’s Carlow isn’t it?
So yes, you could have looked at that single Leinster football title from 1944, given it a polish and said, “Well, at least we’ve got that” but there’s a desire in life, for people to create their own memories. And you need a man, a Ger Loughnane or Jim McGuinness messianic type to have that belief that it’s possible. A kind of madness even. To believe that, just because we haven’t done this in years, doesn’t mean we can’t do this in future.
And Turlough O’Brien is that kind of man. The kind of man to spend his life dedicating his life to Carlow football. The kind of man to write a book about great, unknown cycling routes in South Leinster that, in his own eyes, compare with anything else in Europe. The kind of man to stand up for the underdog and say “Yeah, we’re a small county, yeah we don’t have a history of success, but what of it?” Not many counties do. And sure they may have one of the smallest populations in Ireland, but look at Monaghan, who’ve won two Ulster titles in the last few years and play in Division 1 of the National League, and yet they’ve hardly got more people than that little place beside the Barrow.
You see there’s different ways of measuring success. Success could be winning an All-Ireland. It could be winning a provincial title. Or it could just be being the best team, or the best individual, you can possibly be. And from the moment Turlough O’Brien set out as manager of the team, along with his sidekick Steven Poacher, that has been his aim. We’re Carlow. Now lets be the best Carlow that’s humanly possible.
And it helps when you’ve got one of the best midfielders in Ireland in the shape of Brendan Murphy in your side. He was so good that he was contacted by the Australian scouts to play AFL for 2 years and it was only his own decision not to continue for longer. So good that Michael Cheika, the then Leinster rugby coach, was willing to offer him a contract with the team, so impressive were his physical attributes. And he had never even played rugby before! So when Turlough O’Brien walked into the Carlow dressing room, he could look across at that 6’5 Rathvilly colossus, smile, and say “On this rock, I shall build my church”.
But it still doesn’t come easy. If you’re a Carlow GAA man, well, nothing ever does. But there was still enough belief and drive in the likes of Turlough and Brendan and Daniel St Ledger and Paul Broderick that something could happen. And last year was a landmark year. They beat Wexford to win their first Leinster championship game in 6 years. They were the only team to keep Dublin goalless in the championship. They then proceeded to go on an exciting run through the qualifiers where they managed to beat London and Leitrim before facing off against their inspiration, Monaghan, in front of the Sky cameras at Dr Cullen Park.
And they gave them a fiere rattle. So much so, that for a time during the second half, if was almost possible to believe a victory was conceivable. Yet the Farney army turned it around. That’s the advantage of Division 1 fitness over Division 4. But it was a magical summer, so much so that it extended to mid July. And would you believe, for one week, for the first time in years, it was possible for a Carlow man to look a Kilkenny man in the eye, smirk and say “We’re still in the championship lads. What about you?”
But even if a qualifier run was a massive boon for the county there was a desire for something more. Because for 30 years, there had been this albatross across the neck of the footballers and that was the dreaded basement of Division 4 football. And though there had been close shaves and a particularly strong showing in last year’s league, it had always remained tantalisingly out of reach.
But from the start of this year’s league there was that innate determination that this was going to be different. And week by week, they went about chalking off those victories in far flung places like London and Limerick and putting themselves into a position where they could just about believe…well it’s possible.
But they still had to do it. And against Antrim last weekend there was a lot of reasons to come up with excuses for them not to. “We’re up against a county much bigger than ours, who’ve been promoted more regularly, that’s miles away from us….” But Turlough O’Brien doesn’t do excuses. And though it was a grim battle at times, a priceless Darragh Foley goal was the difference in edging them home and sparking wild celebrations.
Now people may scoff at the notion of celebrating such a victory. Colm Parkinson made a point on Sportsjoe.ie during the week of dismissing the county lauding such a moment, and insisted that only a Division 4 title should really be held as an achievement. But while it’s easy when you’ve won a Leinster senior championship in living memory, to mock a mere promotion from the basement division, if you’ve lived almost all your life as a lamb, how can you deny them the prospect of one day as a lion?
And though they may not have won the Division 4 title (yet) they’ve already won a greater prize: the respect of the GAA nation. And though there will always people who will look down and mock the small man in society (it’s called elitism), in that little, unsung, yet still romantic area of Ireland, the likes of Turlough, Brendan and whoever else will forever be giants.