Neil Loughran: One more for the road

Neil Loughran

THE Castlebar Mitchel’s clubhouse was still humming hours after the euphoria that engulfed MacHale Park died down. Not quite clinking glasses or a seisun to signal spring’s arrival, but craic and conversation consumed well into evening, much more than the day’s events to digest.

For Mayo, the heavy lifting had been done by the time Sunday rolled around. After flying out of the blocks, steadily gathering pace as the League progressed, Kevin McStay could afford to pull up the handbrake a touch at its end.

Showing 10 changes from the team that cruised past Donegal seven days earlier - clinching a Division One final spot - Sunday’s post-mortem was never going to delve too deep, Mayo minds already wondering what might be in store down the line.

It was different for Monaghan. Well, different and the same, given how many times they have faced final day jeopardy – the Farney once more rolling the dice and hitting a six when it mattered, Tyrone’s victory at Healy Park sending Armagh down.

Ultan Sherry, a fella from Scotstown I’d get chatting to from time to time, lived every second of the day’s drama, each update from Omagh a gift from God or a dagger through the heart as the games toed and froed relentlessly until the last. His voice went up about 25 octaves when Monaghan were finally put out of their misery.

As the long whistle loomed, young supporters from both counties congregated in the corners of the ground, standing centimetres the other side of the white line after giving stewards the slip, eventually spilling out onto the field after a false alarm seconds earlier sent them scurrying back to base.

How those moments of utter mayhem are so swiftly replaced by such sobering silence is a constant source of surprise. From adrenalised players patiently obliging the autograph/picture/glove-hunting masses to empty cups and water bottles tumbling through the stand, the groundsman’s meandering whistle and muffled shouts from the concourse now filling an auditorium that, just hours earlier, had so spectacularly come to life.

The cars that lined both sides of the carriageway coming into Castlebar are gone, all headed off in the different directions that brought them into temporary communion, nothing but road from here to there.

And sometimes there is no place like it, those few metres of confinement all the space needed to sift through your subconscious once that blissful big game buzz begins to wear off.

Freed from the monotony of the motorway, passing through the Sligo town of Tubbercurry brought me back to a previous stay in this neck of the woods, when Mayo sent Armagh tumbling out of the 2019 All-Ireland qualifiers.

Booked into a guesthouse for the night, the ghosts of childhood holidays past came flooding back when the huge chunk of leather-coated wood with a room key attached was handed over at reception. Outside the door sat a Child of Prague and a bottle of Ballygowan water, I’m not sure if it was holy or otherwise.

Even the WiFi password has never left me – 54yearsinbusiness. All lower case. And the flower shop in the town square, Guns & Roses. It’s hard to beat an away day.

Further along comes Collooney, and with it breathtaking views of the Ox mountains catching the last of the evening sun. Old Crow Medicine Show’s hillbilly Americana provides the soundtrack, just as it did during a few weeks spent driving through the Rockies once upon a time, before Derek and the Dominos strike up on the descent into Dromahair.

Rab McCullough, the great Belfast bluesman, used to play ‘Key to the Highway’ at the Empire Music Hall every Thursday night. There was a time when we wouldn’t miss it.

Once, determined to get my angsty teenage ramblings into Queen’s University’s student newspaper, The Gown, I approached Rab during a break in the set to see if I could grab a few words.

A gentle, shy soul, he graciously chatted away about his days on the scene and upcoming album. There was only one problem. Well, two. I was three sheets to the wind and, given the impromptu nature of the request, ended up having to scrawl some notes on a packet of Regal King Size that proved utterly indecipherable in the following morning’s haze.

Needless to say the interview didn’t see the light of day. It didn’t matter really - I just wanted to talk to him. Sadly he passed away in 2021, and the Empire will never feel quite the same without Rab.

Through Manorhamilton and Glenfarne, past the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance, out of Blacklion and into Belcoo, it’s The Band from here on home and memories of a magical mystery tour across America in the summer of ’96.

During his earlier days in Philadelphia my brother Aaron bought a dilapidated green Oldsmobile that was capable of ripening bananas in seconds due to a lack of air-conditioning, a foldable windscreen cover bearing the image of four scantily-clad women the only protection from the searing summer sun.

Mercifully it was replaced by a Chevy van that would have brought a cigar-chomping grin to Hannibal Smith’s face and, loaded up with a huge stack of CDs, we headed here, there and everywhere.

The Band’s steady rhythm backdropped every stretch of the journey, including a pilgrimage to Watkin’s Glen in upstate New York where an estimated 600,000 people came to see them, The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead in 1973.

The sound of gushing waterfalls, the narrow, winding gorge staring down at a sea of green, the spirit of adventure and a feeling of freedom like no other - it’s amazing where the road can lead when your mind is at the wheel.