My father, Cormac, attended his first Donegal football match in 1937 at the tender age of 5. His uncle George, a footballer of some note, made his bow for Donegal in the first round of the championship against Antrim that year and brought my father with him to carry his boots.
In such a simple manner was a lifelong love affair with Donegal football born; it was an affair that would frustrate, enrage, surprise, disappoint, amuse and delight in approximately equal measure throughout his 68 years following his beloved green and gold. But it was a love to which he was eternally faithful even in its darkest days.
Exiled in Leitrim from the early 70s, the fortunes of Donegal football and the county team became (to my innocent eyes at least) a crazy obsession for my father; normally an intelligent, calm and prescient observer of life, he was apt to lose all sense of reason and reasonableness at the thought, sight or subject of Donegal football. In the pages of the Democrat, from 1987 to his death in 2005, he chronicled the journey of successive Donegal teams in their quest for glory under the pseudonym of The Follower.
It is hard to describe just how consumed by Donegal football my father was. He literally ate, drank and slept it. It dictated his moods and dominated his view of the world.
Now I know my father loved me dearly, as any father loves a son. But there were genuinely times that all in our family wondered where we stood in relation to Donegal football! For instance, growing up in Leitrim, it was always my dream to some day play for the county; in 1990, that chance finally arrived when I was picked to play on the Leitrim team that would face (wait for it) Donegal in the U-16 Ted Webb Cup. Just before I got out of the car to go into the dressing rooms, the Follower asked for a quick word. He was proud of me he said, his only son going out to play his first intercounty game. He wished me luck, said he hoped I’d play well but that despite all of this he wanted me to know he’d be cheering for Donegal and he hoped I understood!!
On another occasion, when a Donegal championship meeting with Down in the late 80s clashed with my sister’s confirmation, The Follower was entirely indignant at my mother’s insistence that he attend the confirmation and not the match! In the end it was only the intervention of the Parish Priest that swung the debate – the Padre felt (most reasonably in fairness) that while missing his daughter’s confirmation to attend a Donegal game was pretty much his own business, abandoning the rest of the children he had prepared for the Sacrament as Master of the local school was a rather more serious matter entirely!
Thus you will appreciate there is no hint of exaggeration when I say that he considered 1992 to be the pinnacle of his entire life! He told us with a tear in his eye after Mayo were beaten in the semi-final that he could die happy knowing he had lived to see Donegal qualify for an All Ireland final. He had no intention of dying of course (at least not until he knew whether it was Manus or Tommy Ryan that was getting the nod for the final!!) but there was no doubting he meant every word of it.
That glorious September game will doubtless be recalled elsewhere in these pages. Suffice to say, it was the magnum opus of a generation of sublimely talented Donegal footballers. I will never forget the emotional post match reunion with my Dad at the back of the Hogan Stand perhaps an hour after the final whistle. Despite being a man who thoroughly enjoyed a drink throughout his life, he had his mind made up that there would be no drinking in the days that followed - he wanted to remember every wonderful moment of the day and the celebrations unaffected by any illusionary effects the alcohol might generate!!
In the weeks after the final, the Follower did as his alias suggested he should – he followed! As Sam made his way through the towns and villages of Donegal, my dad disappeared for sometimes days on end as he kept on the trail of Donegal’s newest citizen. Nobody minded that he was missing – it was his time, his moment and we understood that instinctively.
And a few weeks later he was enormously proud to greet his good friend and then Donegal goalkeeper Gary Walsh at the door of our house in Leitrim, Sam Maguire in tow. As my mother and sisters lined up to get the pictures taken with the affable Ballyshannon man, The Follower, in his own inimitable style said simply “Nunc Dimittis”. It was a biblical reference to the Song of Simeon - “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation”
Mind you, the Follower continued to ruminate on the fortunes of Donegal football in these pages right up until his death in 2005. He gloried in Donegal’s successes; he despaired in their defeats. He watched the video of 1992 once a week for 13 years. He must have known the commentary off by heart!! And I swear he visibly tensed in his seat every time Charlie Redmond stood over that penalty at the Canal End. He was never fully sure it had all really happened you see and he dreaded that on one of those showings, Charlie just might find the back of the net!! Years and years of disappointment and hurt will do that to you I suppose.
Unfortunately, The Follower didn’t live to see the current crop in action, but he would have approved enormously of what they have achieved in the last two years, and especially in the face of what has often felt like begrudgery from the broader GAA and media world. He would have approved heartily too of Jim McGuinness being at the helm. He always had a soft spot for big Jim.
But it is the character of this Donegal team, their willingness to work until the last drop of sweat has fallen from their brows, their togetherness on the field, their desire to triumph against the odds and against the perceived wisdom of how football has always been played, that would have resonated most with the Follower. For these are the very characteristics – of hard work, unity and innovation - that for generations have sustained and distinguished Donegal men and women, and made successes of those who have had to leave the rocky soil of the North West to seek a better life in Glasgow, Birmingham, Boston or Brisbane.
Another favourite Latin refrain of the Follower was that of “Per ardua ad astra”; in simple language it means “by hard ways to the stars”. This Donegal side have chosen and bought into hard ways of a type endured by no other Gaelic Football team in the history of the sport.
I trust on Sunday they will finally reach their stars.