NORMALLY, the distance from the Burlington Hotel on Upper Leeson Street to Pairc Naomh Columba, the home of Glenswilly GAA club, is 260 kilometres or so - but last week was no normal week in Donegal.
Jim McGuinness said after the All-Ireland final victory over Mayo last Sunday week, the journey home would be the best of their lives. So, at 11.35pm on Thursday, the bus driven by Kevin McAnaney made its 40th and last stop after 867 kilometres at Michael Murphy’s home ground.
Tradition implies Tuesday is captain’s day but the volume of well-wishers forced a two-day postponement. As Murphy stood overlooking his neighbours alongside Neil Gallagher and Gary McFadden, there was a tear in his eye.
“I want to thank the management and players, my club and parents” he said. “You all made my lifetime dream happen.”
With Sam Maguire glistening from the family owned McGuinness bus, on Monday afternoon the Donegal entourage, flanked by Daniel O’Donnell and Majella, departed the Burlington and for Cavan’s Kilmore Hotel. They were greeted by 1,500 - many of green and gold persuasion and others of blue and white.
In Fermanagh, McGuinness stepped off in the rain and walked sombrely to a roadside cross outside of Lisnaskea, the spot his brother Mark lost his life in a road traffic accident in 1998.
McGuinness, the sole passenger that fateful day, bowed his head and prayed in silence as he placed Sam Maguire by the cross, leaving the green and gold ribbons from Croke Park at the memorial.
The PSNI escorted the bus to the border before McGuinness and Murphy carried the trophy into Donegal at the Termon Bridge in Pettigo, given a guard of honour by the local GAA club’s members.
After a stop-off in Laghey, who form part of David Walsh’s Naomg Bríd club, it was onward again. Twenty-thousand supporters filled the Diamond.
The Four Masters players - Karl Lacey, Barry Dunnion and Paul Durcan – were first from the bus with Sam in Durcan’s safe hands. Daniel and McGuinness gave a stirring rendition of ‘Destination Donegal.’ Night ran into morning.
Tuesday’s journey went from Bundoran through Ballyshannon, Stephen Griffin’s Mountcharles, Dunkineely Killybegs and onto Kilcar, where Patrick McBrearty plays his football. Mark and Martin McHugh went to the grave of their grandfather and father, Jim, who died last October.
Both had stood in the same spot three days’ earlier promising to do all they could to bring Sam on their return. Jim McHugh’s first anniversary is today. Dunnion also took Sam to the resting place of his grandfather, Barney Shovelin.
They popped into the Slieve League Bar in Carrick, run by Noel Hegarty, a corner-back in the 1992 All-Ireland winning team, and onto Ballybofey with Martin O’Reilly and Ardara, home of the captain of 20 years ago, Anthony Molloy, and Paddy McGrath.
It had been a tough year in Ardara after Martina Maguire, who would’ve been 17 that very day, died of cancer in January. Then, in June, her cousin, 24-year-old Tomas Maguire, who was offered a place on McGuinness’s panel, was killed in Australia. McGrath was Maguire’s closest friend.
“Martina would’ve been here with her beautiful smile to welcome home the team,” MC Paddy McGill said. “We think of her cousin Tomas, who was a legend. Their families and the club would like to thank Jim and the panel for recognising their memories.”
Tuesday’s final call was Letterkenny, where, at 12.45am, some 9,000 greeted St Eunan’s Rory Kavanagh and Kevin Rafferty. Kavanagh joined musician Rory Gallagher, singing “Jimmy’s Winning Matches.”
Wednesday wandered to from Milford to Michael Boyle’s Termon, where 24-year-old Andrew Duffy had played. Duffy lost his life after Donegal beat Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final, drowning in the Royal Canal near Binn’s Bridge in Phibsboro.
“A young man went to support us but never came home,” McGuinness said. “It would be remiss of me not to mention him as sadly it’s something we’re all familiar with. I’m happy we were able to bring the cup back in his memory.”
After Fanad and Downings, there was a proud moment for the St Michael’s club in Creeslough and Dunfanaghy with Colm and Antoin McFadden, Christy Toye, Martin McElhinney, Peter Witherow and Daniel McLaughlin all on the panel.
As darkness threw its cape, following Falcarragh, brothers Eamon, Neil and Peter McGee took Sam to their mother Anne McElaney’s, with 600 outside the house in Gweedore. Annagry, Adrian Hanlon’s Dungloe and Lettermacaward were next, before, at 1.45am, Glenties - the hometown of McGuinness, Anthony Thompson, Leo McLoone, Dermot Molloy and Marty Boyle. Flares lit up the night.
“I used to pick up balls as an eight-year-old for Jim when he trained,” Molloy said. “I loved him then and I love him now. He’s unbelievable.”
Glenfin, Frank McGlynn’s home, started Thursday before Killygordon, Castlefin, Lifford, Raphoe and Convoy. Here, Murphy and Kavanagh took Sam into the latter’s grandmother, 98-year-old Susan.
They proceeded through Thomas McKinley’s Newtowncunningham and then Burt, the homeplace of Murphy and Kavanagh’s mothers, Mary and Agnes. Inishowen then took centre stage – Muff, Moville, Carndonagh and Malin, where Declan Walsh is from. Ryan Bradley’s Buncrana came after Clonmany.
McGuinness apologised for the laterally whistlestop tour due to the need to make Glenswilly, promising to take Sam Maguire to every town, village and school over the coming months.
“It’s been a long bus ride,” a hoarse McGuinness said upon arrival in Glenswilly. “Four days solid with 50 people in a confined space. You can imagine what happens in that environment but what we have experienced since we were waved off in Donegal Town last Saturday has been phenomenal. Just incredible.”