SAM-arathon time in Donegal

The Donegal team, Jim McGuinness and ‘Sam Maguire’ are taking the leisurely route around Donegal, since the latter’s forced exile from the county after 1992. Back in the hills ‘Sam’ wants to savour every moment of his return journey, throwing touring schedules into a flurry of phone calls, mysterious spottings and delightful delays that only ‘Sam’ himself would have the temerity to take in his stride.

The Donegal team, Jim McGuinness and ‘Sam Maguire’ are taking the leisurely route around Donegal, since the latter’s forced exile from the county after 1992. Back in the hills ‘Sam’ wants to savour every moment of his return journey, throwing touring schedules into a flurry of phone calls, mysterious spottings and delightful delays that only ‘Sam’ himself would have the temerity to take in his stride.

But when a people has waited this long for the return of a loved one, time and tide mean little. A GAA County Board statement summed it up: “No doubt the times will change due to delays along the way.” And for good measure a few extra stops have found their way onto amended schedule listings. And why not!

The fast and the furious nature of Sunday’s famous victory over Mayo in the 2012 All Ireland senior football championship final at Croke Park has now been replaced by a kaleidoscope of simmering spontaneity that is a combination of chaos, creativity and conjecture.

People, young and old, have been soaking up the sheer joy and emotion of Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland success. It seems as if second time around, the taste on the lips is that much sweeter.

Never before has the Diamond in Donegal Town sparkled so brightly, for a tumultuous homecoming celebration, as it did on Monday night. In acknowledging a unique group of talented gaelic footballers and sportsmen, under the tutelage of a visionary from Glenties, it not alone bestowed great pride on the people of Donegal, but signalled the collective resurgence of a confidence that has for far too long, remained dormant. Pettigo too, finally got its magical moment at the Termon River.

The official tour of the county began in Bundoran early on Tuesday afternoon and in the hours and days since, the team have stopped everywhere and anywhere they have been welcomed; posed for pictures, hugged grandmas, traumatised over-enthused teenagers, kissed and cuddled babies like broody mothers, signed thousands of autographs, jerseys and posters. Homage has been paid by politicians and school principals, press and poets, even pets and parish priests. It was just wonderful to behold.

The team also exchanged friendly banter with supporters and fans, family and friends. And it is obviously clear that they are enjoying every single minute of it.

Donegal, the champions, 33 players in number, have exuded a modesty that entitles them to even greater integrity and applause, in the weeks and months ahead.

They eventually got to Letterkenny well after midnight, closer to 1am yesterday, but again, thousands of devoted ‘Donegalians’ were still more than happy to burn the midnight oil. The stamina training of Jim and Rory and the backroom team was really being tested for the first time. Earlier, an emotional Ardara saw the coronation of King Murphy as Anthony Molloy was finally allowed to hand over the King of the Hills mantle.

Last night it was Glenties who welcomed home the heroes of 2012 and never was a louder cheer heard in that part of the county. Jim had achieved what he had set out to do. It had been many an hour since they left Milford earlier yeste.

The provisional plan for today Thursday is (and take it that provisional times specified are not realistic given the enthusiasm shown so far): Glenfin 12 noon; Killygordon 12.45pm; Castlefin 2pm; Lifford 2.30pm; Convoy 3pm; Newtowncunningham 3.30pm; Burt 4pm; Muff 4.15pm: Moville 4.45pm; Carndonagh 5.15pm; Malin 5.45pm; Urris 6.20pm and Buncrana at 7.30 pm.

There have been some poignant scenes as well. A normally reserved Martin McHugh giving his son Mark an emotional hug in the aftermath of the final whistle whirlwind. Karl Lacey and the boys visiting Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin. And later on Monday in Fermanagh, it was Jim McGuinness paying tribute to one of his own heroes, brother Mark, tragically killed in a road traffic accident in August of 1998.

Jim placed the ribbons that had 24 hours earlier adorned the Sam Maguire Cup, around the small cross which commemorates his brother’s sad passing. There had to be a smile that beamed all the way from heaven to Carrickmacusker, near Donagh. Private emotions that all of Donegal empathised with.

No doubt, just like Donegal people all the world over, many of whom had travelled home for the occasion, also shared their own private emotions, after the game was over.

Meanwhile ‘Sam’ will continue to savour his return to Donegal. He will recall the many years of forced exile in locations like Kerry, Cork and Dublin revealing that, at one time, he thought he would never escape back home.

And with a name like Maguire, he said he was inspired by another great Donegal leader of men, Red Hugh O’Donnell, who bravely escaped from Dublin Castle in 1592. Tir Chonaill abu!