Identity, existence and the Noisy Neighbours

It is Championship day at last, Leitrim face Roscommon in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, Carrick-on-Shannon this afternoon. The result is a foregone conclusion of course; Roscommon are flying high and have cemented their place in Division One of the National League. They have enjoyed considerable success at Underage level in the last decade so that every year their squad is replenished with fresh and exciting talent. Their forward line in particular is one of the most potent in the Country. The Smiths, Creggs, Murtaghs, Shines and Senan Kilbride would walk on to any County panel. Off the field they have ‘Club Rossie’ one of the most industrious fundraising vehicles in the Country. If you want to compete at inter-county level you need money and lots of it. Roscommon has also produced good club teams that have competed well with Roscommon Gaels, Clann na Gael and St. Brigids going all the way to Croker on St. Patricks Day. No Leitrim club has ever even won a Provincial Club championship (a few near misses granted).

Roscommon has roughly twice the population of Leitrim who languish at the bottom of Division 4 of the National League, propped up by London and Waterford only. If Roscommon are dining at the top table, Leitrim is living on the proverbial scraps. The recession has hit the County hard and many of its finest footballers are now living in Perth or Yonkers. Many Counties have the same problem but those with a small pool of plyers to begin with are feeling it harder. Every year it seems Leitrim have to rebuild their panel. In recent years the Club County Champions have suffered heavy defeats in the Championship. Very few of the top players live in the County and this internal migration to the East Coast is more pronounced than those that move abroad. Why there is a rivalry at all between these two Counties is bizarre? Or is it?

North Roscommon has similar economic problems to Leitrim. It too has declining towns and villages, ageing populations and lack of employment opportunities. The Population of Roscommon is steadily shifting further south and towards Athlone and Monksland. Many of the Clubs in the North of the County compete at Junior or Intermediate level.

Throughout the 50’ and up to the late 1970’s many of the people of North End of Roscommon met their spouses in the Mayflower, a Ballroom in Drumshanbo, whilst many people from South Leitrim found love in the Cloudland in Rooskey. I am the product of one of these unions and my mother still retains her ‘Rossie’ accent and will be hoping the ‘primrose and blue’ prevail today; weight of numbers prevents her from expressing these views too vocally. In more recent decades many inter-county liasions occurred in places like Cartown House, Club 360 or Murtaghs. Many of the children of North Roscommon are educated in Leitrim in places like Carrick Community College and the Vocational School in Drumshanbo. Leitrim have enjoyed regular success with their Senior Vocational School team which is often backed by players from Roscommon clubs like Kilmore, Shannon Gaels, St. Michaels and St. Ronans. In 1983 and ’84 Leitrim won All-Ireland ‘C’ underage hurling titles with many players from Elphin and Shannon Gaels. Children from Bornacoola go to the school across the bridge in Rooskey village. Gene Bohan the mercurial Leitrim forward of the 90’s went to school in Dangan NS in the parish of Kilmore. Many children in Cortober go to school across the other Bridge in Carrick. They meet their friends in the Cinema at the weekend (its on the Roscommon side) or go to the Gym and Swimming pool (on the Leitrim side). Also in Carrick Lidl chose to build on the Roscommon side and Aldi on the Leitrim side – perfectly understandable when you note the colours in Lidl’s branding. Mass-goers in Carrick who like a Sunday morning lie in will trot across the Bridge at Noon to catch Mass in the Patrician Hall. Carrick Town FC play their home games at the Showgrounds – that’s in Roscommon too. In the disastrous Shannon Floods of 2009 it was Leitrim County Council who was first on the scene to help the traders in Cortober with sandbags and pumps.

Some years ago I was socialising in Carrick but across the Bridge in Roscommon in the landmark ‘Gings’ pub. I was with a friend of mine from Carrigallen which is on the Leitrim Cavan border. My mate was home from the States and his ‘Carry Gallon’ accent had not being diminished by his exposure to Uncle Sam. This accent is prevalent all along the Cavan Border from Aughavas to Corraleahan with softer versions of it in places like Aughnasheelin and Ballinamore. Most people familiar will note the preponderance for concluding all sentences with the word ‘lad’. We were out on a balcony overlooking the Shannon and were joined by a young chatty man. The conversation flowed and I asked him was he heading to the Niteclub (Leitrim side) later. ‘No’ he replied adding that he didn’t want to go over the bridge to ‘that crowd’ (all expletives removed in case you are reading before the watershed). Being of sound mind and thick of skin I decided to draw the young lad out a bit more. He then muttered a few more unkind words about Leitrim folk. As we were departing he told us to ‘watch them now’.

The young lad’s views didn’t bother me, one could meet exactly the same attitude from a young Leitrim lad in a hostelry on the other side of the River. Much of this talk is simply banter. What was remarkable though was that the young Rossie did not associate our accents with us being from Leitrim. If we were from Kinlough he would have presumed we were from Donegal and if we were from Gortlettragh we might have a midlands twang and he’d think us from Longford. It begged the question though;  is there a linguistic divide between the Counties? Most linguists acknowledge that linguistic and dialectical patterns are notorious for not following geographical and political boundaries yet DeGruyter found in comparing Gaelic patterns of speech in Ulster and Connacht, Leitrim speakers consistently followed their northern neighbours.

My interaction with the young lad in Gings led me to conclude that his views were formed by his interaction with people in his immediate hinterland who go to the same Shops. Churches and Schools, who swim in the same swimming pool, go to the same conema, read the same local paper but just happen to live on the other side of a relatively narrow river. His constructed view of ‘Leitrim’ was really just his view of Carrick-on-Shannon. He never associated our accents as being from Leitrim at all. But maybe I too was looking at things too narrowly? Are there any real historical differences between Leitrim people and their Rossie neighbours?

I believe there is evidence of divisions, they are deep and might go back millennia. Leitrim is in the Province of Connacht and it is common when talking about the Province to reference it as being west of the Shannon. But the people of Leitrim live North and North East of the River Shannon. It is the rest of Connacht that must cross the Shannon to come to Leitrim! Immediately Leitrim is geographically distinct from the rest of the Province. Natural boundaries like Rivers can become political boundaries also.  With such boundaries it is important to secure weak places such as shallows which can be easily forded. Such a place exists between the villages of Drumsna and Jamestown where there is a sharp loop in the river. The Doon of Drumsna was constructed here. The Doon is an Iron Age Ditch and is one of the oldest artificial man-made structures in the world. It contains an earth and stone wall which stretches across the peninsula created by the loop. It is estimated that it would have taken 10,000 men two years to build with half a million tonnes of soil and about 60,000 trees. The Doon is built entrirely in Co. Roscommon and was obviously built to defend against attack from the northern neighbours on the other side of the river. The Doon marks the boundary between the ancient Kingdoms of Connacht and Ulster. Such a mammoth Undertaking must have been justified.

 So are Leitrim people really Ulster folk in disguise? This would be the makings of another blog post but for now I would simply argue that yes they are.

In early medieval times Roscommon was dominated by the O’Connors and Leitrim was the seat of the O’Rourkes of Breifne. These clans skirmished a lot. The O’Connors never could fully rely on the O’Rourkes who often backed the Northern Ui Neill in conflict. Cattle raiding was common. If the men of Breffni got back across the river and up into the Mountains they  could enjoy their steak unmolested. Occasionally counter raids by the Rossies (called a ‘Hosting’ in those days) would yield fruitful rewards too. This may be the source of the modern accusations of sheep stealing and other depravities levelled by rival supporters.

In the 1790’s thousands of people were forced to leave their homes in Ulster after sectarian atrocities there. The Battle of the Diamond took place near Loughgall in 1795 between rival gangs of Protestants and Catholics which led to the setting up of the Orange Order. The persecution of Catholics by Protestant gangs calling themselves ‘Peep-o’-Day Boys’ intensified. One contemporary account states;-

“Any of us that are Catholic here are not sure of going to bed that we shall get up with our lives, either by day or night. It is not safe to go outside the doors here. The Orangemen go out uninterrupted and the gentlemen of the country do not interfere with them but I have reason to think encourage them in their wickedness…The Orangemen go out in large bodies by day and night and plunder the poor Catholics of everything they have, even the webs of linen out of their looms…

Any of the Catholics they do not wish to destroy, they give two or three days notice to clear out of the place by pasting papers on their doors, on which is written “Go to hell or to Connaught”. If you do not, we are all haters of the papists, and we will destroy you.”

John Shortt 1796

It is believed that in 1795 alone over 7,000 people were expelled from Armagh. A large amount of these refugees found sanctuary in Leitrim and North Longford and West Cavan. The land wasn’t great but they were safe. These people were the Ultachs and they are the ancestors of many Leitrim people. Ultach surnames include McHugh, Quinn, Gallogly, Gilhooley, O,Neill, McEneaney, McGoohan, McGahern, McCartin, McKiernan, McWeeney, Maguire, Clarke, Shortt, Cafferty, McCaffrey, O’Doherty, McNulty and Mulligan to name a few. Many of these names have appeared on a Leitrim Team Sheet over the years and today is no different.

Even the topography of the Counties are vastly different, the soil in Leitrim is generally poor with a few pockets of good land, in Roscommon the soil is generally good with a few pockets of poor land. Leitrim is mountainous and Roscommon is flat (Arigna excepted). DBC Pierre once described Leitrim as follows –  “It was a landscape from a dream, unmanicured, informal, raffish and intimate in its beauty, changing textures all the time. If Kew Gardens were the grand salon of a mansion, this would be its teenager’s bedroom.”

So maybe despite some romantic dalliances between the opposite sexes and opposite sides of the River this century there really are inherent historical, cultural and dialectical divisions between the Counties; this coupled with proximity has contributed to a long and sustained rivalry. It is generally though a friendly rivalry with well-defined roles, Leitrim always the perennial underdogs but resilient enough to cause a shock every now and again.

Roscommon will be very confident of a win today, their supporters will be cocky, surely, surely Leitrim cannot upstage them! It is unlikely, these teams are operating in different company these days but there is nothing like a local derby to narrow the odds of what would be the upset of the summer. Leitrim will give it their best shot. If we lose we won’t dwell on it, we’ll all be at work in the morning and life will go on for us. We don’t want any pity or sympathy from Sunday game panellists, a few more quid from Croke Park to help our clubs would be helpful. Despite the bare trophy cabinet we are proud to be part of a wider GAA community. For us the GAA is more than just silver ware, it is our identity, it is what we are. We might be small in numbers but we will keep at it and every now and then we will get our small victories and they will sustain us until the next one. We thrive on boxing above our weight. Perhaps this is what some commentators don’t get. Yes we are realists, yes the odds are stacked against us but we are still in it to win. Why else would we persevere at it?

Cul campsDespite the long odds those of us who travel to Carrick today do so in hope. Our grounds are named after our native son, Sean Mac Diarmada, a man crippled by polio but not by defeat. He knew his legacy would be strong and would last. In many ways our teams are like this and though victory may not be our lot we know there is a bigger picture. This is why every Saturday morning at 10.30 am our club grounds are full children learning the basic skills of the game that defines our culture. As long as those kids keep coming through the gates in places like Glenfarne, Aughnasheelin, Drumreilly and Dromahaire our identity is secure. The result today won’t alter that, win, lose or draw. Liathroim Abu!


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