Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Road to Ballymote

The huge grey metal bulk of the P&O ferry nudged its way towards the Quayside as Paddy and Sean stood on the upper deck in the surprisingly chill May wind. As they regarded the hilly town of Larne for the first time, Sean turned to his friend, ‘I can’t believe we’re actually doing this, Paddy.’ Paddy McLaughlin, smiled at his lifelong friend and replied, ‘Well we are buddy and I’ve got a feeling it’s all going to go well.’ Then, almost as an afterthought he added, ‘I hear there’s no many Tims in Larne so ye’d best keep yer hoops oot of sight,’ Sean nodded and zipped up his fleece before the two friends headed below and prepared to set foot on Irish soil for the first time. Their quest was an unusual one but it was a worthwhile one too. They walked towards the door in the bulkhead and down the stairs towards the exit point. Paddy’s uncle Tam spotted them and shook both their hands. ‘Mind, what I told ye lads, be careful but enjoy it too.’ The two friends walked down the gangplank feeling a little like explorers in a new land. Both of them were excited at the prospects of the adventures ahead. Their odyssey was about to begin.

Their Irish trip was born two months earlier as their supporter’s bus had trundled through the Highlands heading for Inverness. Paddy and Sean were sitting together as they always did on these away trips. Early kick off times had made such trips a pain as the bus had left Glasgow at 7.30am. As they neared Inverness, bus Convener big Phil used the microphone on the bus to address members of the Neil McCallum 1888 CSC in his commanding voice. ‘Right lads, and you too Neave,’ he began remembering to include the only woman on the bus that particular day. ‘We need an idea to raise money for the 1254125 Charity. Every Supporter’s club is doing something and we need to get with it. Any ideas then let me know.’  There was a buzz on the bus as ideas were discussed. Everything from a Race Night to a sponsored darts event was considered but there was always some objection or some reason not to go with any of the ideas. A wag from near the front of the bus called out, ‘Here, Neave you could set up a kissing booth and charge £1 for a kiss, fiver a snog and a tenner for 5 minutes tonsil tennis, whit dae ye say?’ There was a burst of laughter but Neave was having none of it and retorted, ‘Aye, good yin Dixie, it wouldn’t be the first time you paid for a snog eh?’  There was a roar of laughter and some whistling and cheering as a red faced Dixie clamped it realising that Neave was going for his weak spot. Most on the bus knew Dixie had spent a couple of hours of a recent European trip in the red light district of town and that he wasn’t there looking for a Celtic View. As the bus neared the Caledonian Stadium they began to sing a familiar battle cry; ‘Hail Hail the Celts are here!’ So they were. They’d get behind the Bhoys for 90 minutes then think about fundraising ideas once the points were won.

Just over two hours later they returned to the bus in good spirits having seen Tony Watt inspire Celtic to a solid win in what was usually a difficult venue for Celtic.  As the coaches began to pull out of the car park for the long journey south Paddy looked at the shields of the various CSCs looking out for the ones he knew folk on. He soon spotted the James Stokes VC shield from the Gorbals and the Millburn bus from the Garngad. Old Celtic areas like that would always be following the Bhoys. He also noticed a bus from South Shields and then one which had travelled to Inverness from London. True Celts indeed, taking on a 1200 mile round trip like that he thought as the bus passed. Then a mini bus passed and in the rear window was a club shield with a familiar face painted onto it. It was a skillfully crafted image of Brother Walfrid, Celtic’s visionary founder. Below it was the motif ‘Brother Walfrid 1888 CSC.’  A light came on somewhere in Paddy’s head.

‘Here, Phil, I’ve got a belter of an idea.’ Paddy began outlining his plan to raise money for the 1254125 charity in an excited voice. He and Sean would travel to Brother Walfrid’s home town in Ireland in time for his birthday on May 18th. They’d even try to find his old house if it still existed and lay some flowers as a tribute.  Phil listened, occasionally scratching his head and nodding and allowed Paddy to finish before commenting. ‘So let me get this straight Paddy, you and Sean aim to travel from Glasgow to Country Sligo without spending a single coin?’  Paddy nodded, ‘It’s for charity, I’ll beg lifts, walk, anything to make it. The Celtic family will help us make it if we get the word out.’  Phil had heard a lot of crazy ideas in his 55 years but this sounded like one of the more outlandish. ‘Paddy,’ he said in his fatherly tones, ‘Ireland is an island, are you planning to swim it?’ Paddy shook his head in a frustrated manner, ‘The Ferry Phil, my Uncle Tam works on the Cairnryan to Larne service!’  Phil thought carefully about Paddy’s idea for a couple of minutes. ‘Right Paddy, we’ll support you in any way we can. If you can make it to Ballymote without spending a coin then I’ll be utterly stunned but fuck it, let’s give it a go!’ Sean had listened to the discussion in silence, it always amused him when Paddy arranged things involving him without actually asking him first. Paddy turned to him, as if in an afterthought, ‘You up for it mate?’ Sean looked at him, he didn’t need to be asked! ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’ he replied with a smile.

The next few weeks saw Paddy and Sean plan their trip in greater detail. Paddy’s uncle was sure he could get them on the Ferry without charge but the land bound part of the 200 odd miles from Glasgow to Ballymote was another issue. They’d leave Glasgow on the 15th of May which would give them 3 days to get to county Sligo before Walfrid’s Birthday. Travelling through the North of Ireland was an issue they’d need to consider carefully. Not everyone there was likely to help two Tims making the pilgrimage to County Sligo. In fact they’d need to be careful in some areas. Big Phil on the bus was as good as his word and contacted CSCs all over their route and arranged phone numbers and addresses the boys could use if necessary on their travels. There was also a number he told then only to use in an emergency, telling them ominously that the guy on the other end of the line was not a man to be trifled with. Sponsorship poured in as the word got around the Celtic family that two lads intended travelling from Glasgow to Ballymote without spending a coin. They would take no money with them for transport, food or anything else, just a rucksack of clothes and their mobile phones. To prove they’d completed the journey they would post pictures on a specially created Facebook page showing towns and villages on the route. The journey began fittingly enough, like that of Celtic FC,  on the steps of St Mary’s Church in the east end of Glasgow. Most of the members of the Neil McCallum CSC were there to cheer them off. Big Phil gave them an intricate looking silver Celtic Cross to place in Walfrid’s old house if they found it. On the plinth was engraved the words Go raibh maith agat Athair. Táimid ag cuimhneamh i gcónaí.’  What does it mean? asked Sean. Phil wrapped the 10 inch silver coloured cross in a piece of cloth, ‘It means Thank you Father, we still remember.’ Sean nodded and carefully placed it in his backpack. Going on this trip meant they did still remember. The club was founded as a charity and they were keeping the tradition going.

The few passers-by up early in the Calton watched mystified as crowd in Hooped shirts cheered the two lads on at the start of their journey. The words of a suitable song echoed around Abercromby Street in the bright May sunshine as the 60 plus Celtic fans woke up the nieghbourhood with a rousing chorus…

‘We’re on the one road, sharing the one load

We’re on the road to God knows where

We’re on the one road it may be the wrong road

But we’re together now who cares….’

Sean and Paddy took their first snap of their journey and used Sean’s phone to log it onto the Facebook page. It showed them on the steps of St Mary’s and was accompanied by the words ‘Here we go again, we’re on the road again, we’re on our way to Paradise!’ Rucksacks on their backs they headed north towards the Gallowgate as the cheers echoed in their ears. ‘Where ur ye gone ya pair of knobs, Ireland’s that way?’ shouted Dixie pointing in the opposite direction. Paddy gave him the middle finger and a friendly smile and continued walking north. He had a plan and he was sticking to it.  The journey was about to begin!

It took them less than an hour to walk to the Fruit Market in the Garngad area where a quick chat to drivers soon located the one they were looking for. He was the only driver who was going through Cairnryan with his load of fruit and he’d agreed to give the boys a lift. He was a big, red faced Celtic man called Charlie and he had heard of the boys planned journey and offered them a lift right away. ‘No sweat lads, jump in the truck and I’ll get the Rebs on!’ he smiled. Soon they were speeding south towards Cairnryan with ‘Boys of the old Brigade’ belting out of Charlie’s impressive sounding music system. They got through the Wolfe Tones greatest hits and a fair bit of Christy Moore before they reached Cairnryan. Charlie was heading on to Dumfries and then on to northern England but he was happy to drop them at the Ferry Terminal. He popped his head out of his truck window as they waved him off and  shouted, ‘Good luck lads, give my regards to God’s own country!’ Paddy and Sean waved as his truck pulled away, strains of ‘I wish I was back home in Derry’ audible for a few seconds from the truck as it joined the southbound traffic.  So far so good,’ Sean smiled at his friend.  Paddy then phoned his uncle and after a brief conversation smiled at Sean. ‘He’s on the 3 o’clock sailing, he’ll meet us at Gate B.’ Paddy took a picture of Sean by the big sign which read ‘Cairnryan Ferry Terminal’ and posted it onto Facebook with the message; ‘Reached Cairnryan, total money spent: Zero!’ They headed towards the terminal and a white transit van pulled up. ‘Jump in Paddy,’ smiled his uncle. They sat in the back of the transit with the other terminal workers and were soon past security and parked in the shadow of the big P&O ship. Paddy’s uncle led them on board using a crew’s entrance and told them to stay out of sight until he came back for them. They sat in an empty cabin and soon felt the engines throb as the big ship shuddered and slowly left Scotland. The two friends shared a sandwich and chatted about what lay in store for them in Ireland. ‘We need to hitch a lift south and be well on our way before it gets dark.’ Paddy nodded, ‘Best grab some shut eye because it might be a long night once we’re off this ship.’ The two bhoys snoozed as best they could as the ship ploughed its way across the Irish sea.

‘Sean’ Paddy mumbled, shaking his friend, ‘I can see the Irish Coast!’ He could indeed see Ireland through the porthole of their small cabin. They headed up the clanking metal stairway to the top deck where they had a better view of the land that they had never set foot on yet held such a place in their family histories. Paddy’s Uncle approached them and gave some last words of advice, ‘Get a lift from an older person if you can. Don’t talk politics, football or religion and call each other some nickname that doesn’t give your background away. 99% of people here are sound but like everywhere you’ll find the odd idiot. Don’t wander too much and stay on the main roads if you can.’ The two pals listened and nodded before heading for the steps that led to the exit from the ship and their first footfall in Ireland.  They cleared the terminal in 5 minutes flat and were surprised at the complete lack of security or checks.

Sean told Paddy to wait with the bags while he asked a few people outside the Ferry Terminal if there was any chance of a lift to Belfast or beyond. For 10 minutes Paddy watched in silence as his gregarious friend used his considerable charm on the locals.  Sean wandered back towards him with a smile on his face. ‘Managed to wangle a lift to Belfast mate but for the next while I’m going to be Colin and you’re Billy, OK?No probs Sean!’ Paddy replied. ‘It’s Colin, ya dick!’ Sean smiled at him. They got into a Renault car with a well-dressed elderly man who waited patiently until their bags were loaded and seatbelts on before pulling into traffic on the aptly named Coastguard Road. ‘Sam Coulter’s me name,’ he began in a soft accent, ‘So what brings two nice Scottish boys to Ulster?’ Sean spoke first, ‘Visiting relatives. Family funeral down Dungannon way, Sam.’ Sean had obviously thought his cover story out so Paddy kept quiet for now. ‘Ah it’s a nice wee town Dungannon,’ said Sam, ‘A lot of papists there but not a bad place at all.’ Paddy, sitting in the back was glad Sean had the passenger seat. Did people really use old fashioned words like ‘papists?’ he thought. As he mulled this over, Sam went on, ‘I’m going as far as Belfast but I can drop ye near the motorway. I’m sure you’ll get a lift from there.’ Sam them pushed an old style cassette tape into his music system and smiled. ‘A few wee tunes to make you lads feel at home.’ The shrill sound of flutes and the staccato rhythm of drums filled the car as a deep voiced Ulsterman began to sing.  

‘Sure it’s old but it is beautiful

And its colours they are fine

It was worn at Derry, Aughrim

Enniskillen and the Boyne…’

Paddy almost choked on a snicker bar he was eating and squirmed in the back of the car as the song continued. He was glad the old chap didn’t ask him to join in. The short journey took the friends past names they had only seen on news broadcasts; Ballynure, Ballyclare, Dunmurry till at last they reached Belfast. Kindly old Sam dropped them at the Albert clock near the city centre and waved to them like blood relatives, ‘Safe Journey lads!’ he called as he drove off. Sean looked at Paddy waved at the nice old gentleman before glancing at each other with a smile. Sean laughed ‘Right you ya big papist, let’s get yer pic oan Facebook.  Paddy shook his head with a smile, ‘Nae bother Colin, eh Sean!’ They laughed, breaking the tension of the car journey. Despite his politics, Sam was obviously a decent old chap. The picture of Paddy at the foot of the Albert Clock was duly posted with the sentence ‘Arrived in Belfast, Total money spent: ZERO’

Sean phoned one of the numbers big Phil had given him and within 5 minutes a red fiesta screeched to a halt at the kerb and a cheerful, red haired young man wearing a Celtic shirt from several seasons ago jumped out and shook their hands. ‘Sean and Paddy is it?’ he said in a heavy Belfast accent, ‘Big Phil said to be helpin you lads out so you’re coming for a bit of tea at the Rock afore ye get on with your journey.’ They drove through the unfamiliar streets with their new friend who called himself ‘Knocker.’ Sean asked how he had come by this unusual name. He smiled and replied, ‘Let’s just say, I’ve knocked up a few girls in me time.’ Paddy somehow doubted this explanation as ‘Knocker’ was no Brad Pitt. Knocker pointed out many landmarks as they travelled through Belfast. The various murals recording the history of the troubles, the much bombed Europa hotel and the peace wall which so visibly divided the communities. There were huge gates on main roads intersecting the wall which could be closed at times of tension. Sean looked at some of the hopeful graffiti sprayed onto the big concrete symbol of division. One sentence said; ‘The real barriers are in your minds.’  Very true, he mused.

The Rock’ turned out to be ‘The Rock Bar’ on the Falls Road.  Knocker pulled up outside and led the lads to the front door. Inside, there was a cheer from the crowded bar as they entered. A ruddy faced bear of a man called Barney welcomed the two travelers. ‘Great to see you boys, we’ve been wondering if ye’d give us a bell. I want ye to sit, have a few beers, a bit o’ grub. We’ve arranged a wee lift for ye tomorrow to take you closer to Sligo.’ Paddy thanked him, feeling a warm glow inside that they were among friends, among the Celtic family. The Bar was decorated with bunting consisting of a long string of small Irish tri-colours. On the wall were framed Celtic shirts and pictures of various Celts who had visited the bar.  Hands were shaken, backs slapped and the two friends returned the many smiles they received. Knocker led them to a table where two tall pints of Guinness awaited them. Paddy smiled at Sean, ‘Celtic family is great eh?’  Sean smiled at him, ‘Salt of the earth, Paddy boy, salt of the earth.’

An hour later the two lads had been well fed and the beer was beginning to  mellow them. Knocker told them many of the stories and legends of the Falls Road area. He was a mine of information about incidents, happy and sad, which occurred in the area over the years. A couple of guys with Celtic shirts on arrived with their guitars and set up on the small raised stage and soon the whole place was rocking to songs old and new. The beer flowed and Paddy and Sean sang along with their newfound friends….

‘Have you heard of the big strong man, he lived in a caravan

Have you heard about the Jeffrey Johnstone fight? Oh what a hellva fight?

You can take all the heavyweights you’ve got,

We’ve got a lad who can beat the whole lot!

He used to ring the bells in the belfry now he’s gonna fight Jack Dempsey!’

The bar rocked all night as Sean and Paddy slowly got drunk and had the time of their lives. They did remember to post a picture on the Facebook page of them in the Rock looking very merry in the middle of a happy throng of Celts, beneath it Sean wrote ‘Among friends in Belfast. Money Spent: Zero.’

The next morning they awoke to the smell of sizzling bacon. Sean’s head was pounding and his mouth dry from more drink than was sensible. He focused on the strange room he was in, trying to piece together where the hell he was. He looked at the unfamiliar ceiling as his mind slowly refocused and pieced together last night’s events. Paddy was snoring on a camp bed to his left and their rucksacks were neatly placed by the wall. The small room was decorated with Celtic and Cliftonville posters and flags. Beside the window was a framed picture of Bobby Sands, smiling his gentle smile. At the bottom of the picture were the words, ‘Our Revenge will be in the laughter of our children.’ Knocker entered the room in his usual cheerful mood, ‘Morning lads, time ye were up and about. I’ve made ye some breakfast and yer man is coming in an hour to give ye a lift,‘Thanks Knocker,’ said Sean, ‘I don’t remember coming here last night but that was some night in the Rock. Great people there.’ Knocker smiled, ‘Aye, they are that. Ye seemed to know all the songs though, loved your version of the Old Brigade! It was a rare oul night right enough!’ Sean blinked at him, ‘I was up singing? Jesus, I sing like cat getting choked.’ Knocker smiled, ‘Ach, ye did well, we all belted it out anyway so ye’d not be heard above us lot anyway.’ An hour later the two pilgrims were showered, fed and ready for the road again. ‘Bernie will drive ye to Enniskillen,’ said Knocker, ‘He delivers fish so his van will smell like a Linfield Supporters bus but he’s a good lad.’ As if on cue a horn sounded outside. Knocker smiled, ‘Safe journey boys, the Rock is sponsoring you for a few quid. It’s a good cause and good to remember why Celtic started in the first place.’ They left Knocker with a handshake and hug and a promise to return to Belfast on the way home.

Bernie Corrigan, a stout middle aged son of the Falls with a mop of grey hair and a face which was at once friendly and tough, smiled at them ‘I can fit you fellas in the front with me but yer bags will need to go in with the fish.’ They headed out of Belfast past more of the murals which recorded the turbulent history of the city and remembered the ghosts of former times. The two friends had probably worried most about this part of the journey but they had found nothing but warmth and humour in Belfast, even from old Sam. Bernie put on his music and they travelled through the lush green countryside with Foster and Allen booming out. Sean smiled at Paddy, ‘They like their music the Irish eh?  Paddy rolled his eyes, Foster and Allen not quite to his taste. Bernie glanced at him, ‘Oh yes we do that, young fella, I’ll get some Danny O’Donnell on later. Now that boy can sing.’  The two friends endured Bernie’s unique musical taste for a good hour and a half as they rattled down the M1 and then the A4 towards Enniskillen in his pungent smelling fish van. ‘I hear you boys are going on to Sligo?’ Bernie said, ‘Fine County and decent people.’ Sean nodded, ‘Aye, Bernie, going to Ballymote where Brother Walfrid came from.’ Bernie smiled, More of a GAA man myself but sure we all know about Celtic. We know about Walfrid too and yer man Sean Fallon, both Sligo boys.’ Bernie, for all his poor taste in music told them fascinating tales of the troubles in the border country and of the money some made smuggling. ‘Some of the big houses you’ll see were paid for by smuggling petrol and pigs, not in the same truck you understand but the European Union had its pockets picked here all right!’  Paddy smiled, ‘And they say the Irish are slow!’ Bernie grinned, ‘Aye, slow as a feckin cheetah!’ They laughed as the passed the sign which said, ‘Welcome To Enniskillen.’ ‘Nearly the end of the road for me lads,’ Bernie said, ‘But I’ll be droppin ye at a pub in town where I know a good friend of Celtic will be meeting you. Knocker was after setting it up for ye so you’ll be fine.’  He stopped his van by the kerb in Forthill Street. ‘Willie Ramblers Pub is over there, ask for Declan Brennan and he’ll keep ye right,’ They both shook Bernie’s hand and thanked him for his kindness. ‘Sure it was nothing at all, I was going this way anyway and ye seem decent lads,’ he relied in his strong Belfast accent. ‘Declan Brennan mind! Fierce Celtic man he is too, good luck to ye now!’ With that Bernie pulled into the traffic and left the two friends in the town of Enniskillen.

It was mid-afternoon as they approached the front door of Willie Ramblers Bar. It was set in a one storey high building which ran along Forthill Street. Next door was a Chinese takeaway and to the right was what appeared to be an amusement arcade. It was in many ways typical of small town Ireland. As Sean pushed the door open music drifted out towards him. It was the unmistakable tones of Christy Moore… ‘Ooooh Lisdoonvarna, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon Lisdoonvarna.’ Once Sean’s eyes adjusted to the low light he could plainly see that it was sadly not Christy in person but a CD playing somewhere. He eased his way through the noisy, crowded pub and approached the long Bar.  The Barman, a tall thin man with a moustache a seventies porn star would be proud of looked at them with the blank face he no doubt reserved for strangers. ‘And what can I be getting for you lads now?’ Sean smiled, ‘We’re looking for Declan Brennan mate. Is he in?’ The Barman’s eyes narrowed and he said in a suspicious voice ‘And who wants to know?  Paddy noticed that most of the drinkers in the bar had gone very quiet and were watching them intently. It seemed as if old Christy Moore was the only sound in the pub. Sean continued sounding braver than he was feeling, ‘He’s helping us reach Ballymote in Sligo, we were told we’d be in here.’ The Barman stared at them as the bar stilled to absolute silence. Sean was quietly quite worried about this turn of events. Had they got the wrong place? Was this a loyalist pub? Suddenly the lights went up and there was an almighty cheer! The Barman smiled as the music changed to a tune the boys knew well began and the whole pub roared out…

‘Hail Hail the Celts are here

What the hell do we care, what the hell do we care

Hail Hail the Celts are here, what the hell do we care now!’

Sean looked at Paddy, ‘What the fu…’ A tall dark haired man of about 40 with a beard intersected by a wide smile shouted through the din, ‘I’m Declan lads, we’ve been expecting you. Welcome to Enniskillen!’ Sean and Paddy looked bewildered. ‘Sorry we had a wee bit of sport with you there,’ Declan went on but you’re our guests now and our hands and hearts are open to you.’ He extended a big labourer’s paw which squeezed Sean and Paddy’s hand in a grip like a vice. ‘We’ll get ye some grub and a few beers and then I’ll be driving you down to Sligo.’ He led the two friends to a table where a crowd of younger Irish lads and girls smiled and patted their backs, ‘Followed your journey on Facebook,’ A slim red haired girl began, ‘Thought you might have run into a bit of bother in Belfast but those lads at the Rock are great, knew they’d see ye right.’ Paddy and Sean relaxed, among friends again. A young man with an untidy mop of black hair and a style best described as ‘Irish-Goth’ smiled and chipped in, ‘Thousands of likes on Facebook, yer journey is being watched by Celts all over the place. Ye better make it to Ballymote!’ He smiled at them as a tray laden with Guinness and what looked like vodka arrived. Declan smiled, ‘Food on its way and remember, you have to make it to Ballymote without spending a coin. So no buying of rounds or such like, You’re our guests and you’ll find no more hospitable people than the Celts of Enniskillen!’ Declan was right as the drink and craic flowed and the two travellers revelled in it all. The crowded bar was in good voice too as ‘Viva La Quinta Brigada’ boomed out and they all joined in. Then they began to sing familiar song, one more suited to a couple of Wayfarers heading for the home town of Brother Walfrid…

By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling

Michael they have taken you away,

For you stole Trevelyan’s corn, that the young might see the morn

Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay’

Paddy and Sean, again mellowed by drink and happy among their new friends, joined in the song, singing with all their hearts. It amazed them the bonds which joined the Celtic family so tightly together. Paddy was near tears as he joined in the song and Sean’s eyes were closed as the entire Bar sang the chorus with a beautiful togetherness…

‘Low lie the fields of Athenry

Where once we watched the small free birds fly

Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing

It’s so lonely around the fields of Athenry,

They passed some happy hours in that pub in the fine town of Enniskillen among some of the nicest people they had ever met. It was nine in the evening and the sun was waning in the May sky as they left the Bar with the thankfully sober Declan to continue their journey south. Another photo of the two friends with the Enniskillen Celts crowding around them was posted on their Facebook page under the caption, ‘Willie Rambler’s Bar, Eniskillen! Almost there! Total spent: Zero.’ Sean read the Facebook page for a few seconds, ‘Big Phil’s posted, said we look pissed in every picture we’ve put on so far!’  Paddy laughed, ‘He’s feckin right there then!’

They shook a hundred hands before they found themselves in the back of Declan’s large BMW and heading south. Like every other Irish person on the planet, Declan enjoyed his music and as Sean and Paddy sat in the back of the car, beautiful and haunting Gaelic music of Clannad swept over them. Sean, the worse from numerous drinks in Willie Rambler’s was rocked to sleep as the car crossed the border into the Irish Republic. Paddy read the road signs as Declan filled him in on more of the stories and legends of this part of Ireland. He spoke not only of the troubles and their effect on the area but also of the tales and folklore of Ireland. Paddy learned of Cuchulainn, the children of Lir, Finn MacCool and the stone circles which dotted Ireland. He listened, spellbound by the mythology of Ireland and Declan’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject. ‘There’s a statue of Cuchulainn in the Dublin Post Office to commemorate the men of 1916. When his enemies came for his head they say he turned into a flock of swans and flew off.’ Declan said as he turned onto the N16 road which led to the town of Sligo. Perhaps it was the drink, the haunting music and Declan’s enthusiasm for the old stories and legends but Paddy was enthralled by the tales and legends he heard. He realised that he hardly knew Ireland despite his grandparents being Donegal folk.

Declan knew his stuff all right but he soon switched to those other legends which Paddy knew well, the Lisbon Lions, Neil Lennon, Pat Bonner, Tully and Sean Fallon. Paddy was grasping just how deeply embedded in Ireland Celtic’s roots were and how proud many Irish folk were of Celtic. He was looking forward to finally seeing Ballymote the place where Andrew Kerins was born and grew up. The place where, in a sense, Celtic had their beginnings too. Declan drove through the quiet streets of Sligo in the gathering darkness. The centre of the town still had people milling around but it was clear that it was late and most folk were heading home as the bars closed. He stopped by the river in Markievicz Road and turned to Paddy, ‘Best wake Sean up, I’ll phone a good friend here and he’ll be putting you up tonight.’ Sean grumbled as Paddy nudged him. ‘We’re in Sligo mate, get yer ass in gear.’

Tommy Brady appeared from a nearby house. He was a cheerful looking man of about 35 who sported a crop of untidy red hair and walked with a decided limp. ‘Here’s Tommy now, best not to mention his limp,’ said Declan as he helped the lads get their bags out of the car. Sean looked at Paddy and shrugged, Tommy’s limp was his own business. The introductions were made and Tommy used Sean’s phone to take a picture of the two Glasgow boys and Declan standing by the river in Sligo with the bright new flats on the opposite bank in the background. Sean soon posted it on Facebook with the message, ‘Half pissed, tired but safely in Sligo! Total Money spent: Zero’ They thanked Declan as he smiled at them, ‘No problem at all lads. Good luck with yer journey, you’re almost there now.’ They watched as he drove off into the night, his tail lights blinking in the darkness. Yet another good guy they had met on their journey.  Tommy, who said he was a distant relative of Sean Fallon, led them to his guest house which was getting ready for the coming summer season.  He fed them well on cabbage and bacon and then sensing their tiredness, showed them the room they’d be sleeping in. ‘I’ll wake you in the morning lads, have a good rest now, It’s Walfrid’s birthday tomorrow so I’m thinking you’ll be heading for Ballymote. I’m working myself up in Derry tomorrow so I can’t take you unfortunately but you’ll get a bus in town every hour.’ With that their kind host left them to rest and soon the two friends were fast asleep.

They slept as only tired men with a good deal of alcohol in their systems can sleep and awoke with streams of bright May light pouring in the window and the sound of gulls somewhere squabbling. Tommy had left a note on the kitchen table for them. It said: ‘I let you lie on as you were both very tired. Food in fridge, help yourself. Bus to Ballymote is number 471 from the Bus Station in town centre. Have a good day.’ Sean made Paddy some bacon and eggs and the two friends sat at the kitchen table discussing the last couple of days and the kindness they’d experienced since they set foot in Ireland. Tommy’s small guest house didn’t appear to have any other guests and it amazed Sean that he trusted two strangers enough to leave them alone with the run of the place. ‘That’s the Celtic family for you Sean,’ said Paddy. His friend looked at him, ‘Let’s get cleaned up and head into town and get the bus to Ballymote. I can’t wait to see Walfrid’s home town’ Two hours later they were in the centre of Sligo boarding the number 471 bus to Ballymote. At last their quest was almost complete and they had still not spent a single penny.

The driver looked at them expectedly as Sean stopped short and said to Paddy, ‘Mate we can’t pay the fare!  We’re so close and we’ve not spent a coin, we can’t spoil it now!’ Paddy looked at the driver and decided on direct honesty, ‘Listen mate, here’s the thing’ he began, ‘We’ve travelled from Glasgow all the way to Sligo for charity. We need to get to Ballymote without spending a coin. We’ve visiting Brother Walfrid’s birthplace, is there any chance you could let us on without paying?’ The driver, a young, dark haired man in an ill-fitting uniform looked at Sean’s Celtic shirt, ‘The Inspectors would have me job if I did that lads.’ Paddy’s face fell, ‘Right, we’ll walk it. How far is it Pal? The young driver looked at them, surprise on his face ‘It’s about 13 miles but ye can’t be taking on a walk like that. The weather’s due to break later.’  Before Paddy and Sean could turn to leave the bus the driver stood awkwardly in his compartment, his hand digging into his pocket. He brought out a 20 Euro note and put it in the slot of the ticket machine. ‘Sure, I’m a sucker for a sob story and well isn’t me old Da a Celtic fan. Consider this my donation to the charity.’ He printed two return tickets and told the two young Scots to sit. Paddy choked up a little and shook the driver’s hand. Sean asked his name, ‘We’ll put your name on our Facebook page, you’re a generous man.’ The driver smiled and looked a little embarrassed, ‘Sure charity is its own reward and I’m not the kind for advertising my good deeds.’ They never did find out his name. They slumped in their seats ready for the final leg of their journey.

The near empty bus trundled through the lush green fields of Sligo, through the small village of Collooney before arriving  shortly after that the centre of Ballymote. The driver dropped them at Gormley’s Bar and as he pulled off again shouted, ‘Last bus back to Sligo is half past nine tonight!’ They waved him off and then looked around another typically Irish small town. In the distance was they could see the steeple of a church but their first job was to take a picture and get the news onto Facebook that they had in fact made it to Ballymote. Paddy took off his jacket and stood outside Gormley’s in his Hoops. The picture was posted on Facebook with the words: ‘Arrived in Ballymote on Brother Walfrid’s birthday! Total spent: Zero! We made it so get the 1254125 donations paid!’

They entered Gormley’s Bar with the intention of asking the locals if they knew where Walfrid’s cottage was. The Bar was completely empty apart from the dark haired girl behind the bar who smiled at Sean and seemed to look right into his eyes, ‘And what can I be getting for a handsome fellah like you now?’ she smiled. Sean’s cheeks flushed slightly but returned her gaze and her smile too before saying, ‘Actually we’re looking for some directions, I wonder if you can help?’ She leaned on the Bar not breaking her gaze, ‘Oh, I’m always happy to help a good looking stranger out, what is it ye need to know?’ Sean replied, ‘We’ve travelled all the way from Glasgow to Ballymote and we want to find Brother Walfrid’s house. Any idea where it is?’ Her eyes widened, ‘Are you the two lads with the Facebook page?’ Her smile widened, ‘Sure haven’t we all followed your progress! Wait till I tell me brother!’ She turned and called to the kitchen area which was through a door behind the bar. ‘Tony! Will ye come and see who’s in the bar, only those two Scottish hobbits that’ve been wandering all over Ireland!’ Sean looked at Paddy, ‘Hobbits? She must have heard about your hairy feet.’ Her bother appeared dressed in an apron which didn’t quite cover his black Celtic away shirt. His grin was as wide as the Clyde, ‘Paddy and Sean is it? This is fantastic! Ye must take a picture in the bar for your Facebook page. You get in too Saorise.’ The two friends stood with the dark haired Saorise between them as Tony used Sean’s phone to take the picture. Sean felt a familiar and pleasant feeling as Saorise slipped her hand around his waist for the photo. It was duly posted on the Facebook page with the caption ‘Gormley’s Bar, Ballymote, with our new friends Saorise and Tony. Total money spent: Still Zero!’ Tony insisted on feeding the two friends and Saorise, still it seemed a little smitten by Sean sat with them chatting about the new Brother Walfrid Memorial Park in Ballymote. ‘Sure it’s just up the road, they have a grand statue of yer man there too. Most famous fellah this old town has ever produced.’ They arranged for Saorise to take them on a tour of the Park and then out into the fields where Walfrid’s old home still stood, albeit in a ruined condition. In the meantime a huge plate of food was set before them and Saorise pulled them a pint of Guinness barely taking her eyes of Sean. ‘Think she fancies you mate,’ Paddy said quietly. Sean smiled at him, ‘No shit Sherlock, need to get you on Mastermind eh?’ They both laughed.

Two hours later Sean, Paddy and Saorise strolled through the Brother Walfrid Memorial Park in Ballymote. Some children were playing and laughing and Paddy watched them running past. He smiled to see one was wearing a Celtic shirt.  The well laid out park did indeed have a bust of Brother Walfrid on a stone plinth. It was set against a circular Celtic crest and was in Sean’s opinion, a thing of beauty. ‘What a fantastic tribute to the founding father,’ he said, ‘he’ll never be forgotten here or in Glasgow.’ Another photograph was taken and duly posted online. They wandered the park in the bright evening sunshine pleased and also proud that they’d managed to complete their quest.  ‘Just one last place to visit,’ said Paddy looking at Saorise. She nodded, ‘His old house is fallin’ down but I know where it is. It’s out in the fields, so we’d best get going.’

They walked for what seemed a long time, out of the town along lanes and across fields of deepest emerald. Saorise then led them through a gap in a hedge to where the ruined walls and caved in roof of a small but, in its time solid, cottage once stood. ‘This is it Sean,’ she said quietly. ‘A hundred like it around here. The hunger killed thousands in the old days and drove thousands more away.’ Sean looked in silence at the dilapidated cottage, imagining a young Andrew Kerins running around it as a boy, sleeping beneath its sheltering roof, eating with his parents and his brother Bernard. ‘This is it then,’ he said feeling emotions welling in him, ‘This is where it all began for Walfrid and for Celtic.’ Paddy nodded and placed his rucksack on the ground. He took from it the Celtic cross given to him by Phil from their supporters’ bus. ‘Here Sean, you do it mate.’ He said, his voice breaking a little and a lazy tear rolling down his face.   Saorise looked on as Sean ducked under the low lintel of the front door and stepped inside. He looked at the fallen timbers and stonework and picked his way towards the wall with the still recognisable remains of a fireplace and chimney. He found a gap in the stone wall about five foot off the floor and placed the cross in it mumbling quietly, ‘God bless you Walfrid, we’ll never forget you.’ He looked around one last time, ‘I’m glad we came Paddy. It’s a day I’ll never forget.’ As he left the cottage a startled bird cawed and flew out of the cottage into the clear blue sky. Paddy smiled, ‘Oh baby let the free birds fly!’ Sean joined Paddy and Saorise outside the Kerins family cottage for one last photograph.   Saorise pictured the two friends in their beloved Hoops, arms around each other outside the ramshackle old house where a good man was born more than 170 years earlier. It was posted on their Facebook Page with the words: ‘Walfrid’s Cottage and Journey’s end.’ Almost as an afterthought Paddy paraphrased Neil Lennon by adding,  ‘For Celtic, though this wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning. Hail Hail.’

They wandered back towards Ballymote passing other ruined cottages from the days of An Gorta Mor. ‘It’s hard to believe all the people who had to leave these places,’ said Sean. Saorise nodded, Same all over Ireland, Sligo  lost about a third of its people back then.’ Paddy shook his head, ‘Sad old days.’ Saorise’s face changed and she smiled changing the tack of the conversation, ‘The pub will be full tonight, we’re having a great big party to mark your achievement!  It’s a time for celebration!’ Sean smiled at her, ‘You’re right, Walfrid would want us to celebrate his life.’ Paddy agreed, ‘He’d want us to celebrate the fact that we made it and so did his club.’ Saorise looked at him, ‘God, you boys really love that football club don’t you?’ Sean smiled at her, ‘It’s part of us Saorise, just as those old cottages are part of your story, Celtic is part of our story, part of who we are.’  She nodded, ‘A grand old team right enough.’

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