In the wonderful, newly-opened National Park Visitor Centre in Ballycroy there's an exhibition describing the area as The Land of Giants. On a Thursday evening in July 2009 a group of boys from that ancient land made their own mark in local folklore.
The blaring car-horns, blazing bonfires and cavalcade of headlights snaking its way through the hills on that Thursday night signaled that the generations of waiting, wishing and wondering had finally come to an end. On an autumn morning in 1889 two far-seeing gentlemen made the day-long journey from Ballycroy to Castlebar to register a GAA club. Last Thursday evening a team of boys proudly wore 1889 on their jerseys as they won the first county title for the club founded all those years ago. For many other clubs, winning a county under 14 - D1 title would have absolutely no impact - it wouldn't even register on the radar, but for Ballycroy it was different. Generations of proudly keeping the GAA flame alive against the odds had produced many cherished memories and undying friendships, but no county title - not one, at any level, at any grade. Survival was victory in itself and dearly treasured, but winning a title was a cherished dream.
At adult level the club was in bother and couldn't field a team when the 2009 season arrived. The club had meant an awful lot to some fine people and there was a sadness in their hearts when the adult team failed to field, but there was also a flame of hope. In 1974, Pat Gallagher had gathered together a group of boys to set in train the the first underage team in the club. That initiative had introduced to football many of the players who would carry the club through the eighties and on towards the millennium. They had created a wonderful foundation and tradition, but as the years passed it became obvious that the club needed new impetus. In 2008 Ballycroy lost an underage county final in heartbreaking and controversial circumstances, but that didn't deter the players or their coaches and as the weeks and months passed they worked and worked to build the foundation on which the future would stand.
As 2009 took shape they were back again, working, grooming, encouraging and building and when July came towards a close they found themselves back in a final again. As the days passed, the excitement grew and any time I phoned home the game was central to all conversations. The final, against Kilmovee, would take place in Bonniconlon, a pitch long-associated with the late Tony Sweeney, a proud native of Ballycroy and long-time resident of the village in the shadow of the Ox Mountains. Life deemed that I wouldn't be present for Ballycroy's date with destiny, instead I found myself at the wedding of my friend Ronan Collins and his wonderful bride, Gillian Flynn. Both come from renowned sporting families and there was a large gathering of Islandeady and Parke football royalty at the reception in The Castlecourt Hotel in Westport. Of course my thoughts were split between the happenings on a football pitch in Bonniconlon and the celebrations in the land of the Carrowbeg, but there's little doubt that when Ronan got up to make his much-anticipated wedding speech all thoughts of football went out the window. It was a stunning, touching, wonderful oration and when his brother, Tony, gave a best-man's speech that beat any you've ever heard we were in dreamland.
Moments later, my phone was buzzing with news from Bonniconlon. My dad had mislaid his mobile somewhere along the sideline amid all the excitement and my good friend, Frank Cormack, had been given the task of relaying news of the unfolding drama. A tight enough half-time lead extended into a bigger advantage coming towards the final whistle and at last, at long, long last Ballycroy were county champions. In The Castlecourt, I could hardly contain my excitement and relayed the great news to many of the revelers as the jives, waltzes and boogeying of all description took centre-stage. In Bonniconlon the excitement and elation was being relayed around the globe by overworked mobile phones before the victory cavalcade turned towards Erris and home. As they moved closer to the Land of Giants the wood was being gathered by those minding the citadel and when they passed through Bellacorick, turned left in Bangor and snaked through the hills towards home, the flickering fingers of flame signaled that the waiting was over. The two men who made the long trip to Castlebar 120 years earlier could rest easy at last.