It's not the prettiest place even when late summer's red sun is sinking beneath the furthest pines and the hum of the day's traffic is waning slowly. It's northern raw and hauntingly dark and the population sprawls like any rural community outgrowing itself. Here, memories of the bad times slash like a razor. In these weeks of happy anticipation even mere conversation can open old wounds.
The big roads of the "wee six" are laid like black ribbons all round and for most of us daytrippers and rubber-necks, Ballygawley is nothing but the name on a large roundabout. Half the directions you've ever received to places north of the border involve a pivotal moment when you take the nth turn off the Ballygawley roundabout. And keep going.
Yet tomorrow is their day. More than it is anybody else's day it is Ballygawley's. For Tyrone, Ballygawley is the pivot. Ballygawley is the source. Football Central.
Ballygawley begat Errigal Ciarán and Errigal Ciarán begat Peter Canavan. Enough for you? Or perhaps Peter Canavan begat Errigal Ciarán. The story of the club is a story of the spirit and the hunger and the passion which has defined Tyrone football for the past few decades as the county has closed in on an All-Ireland. Canavan is at the heart of the creation story.
Press rewind. Hold your finger down for a while . . .
Barry Canavan, the big brother (one of) was in New York. Enjoying life. It was 1982. Hair was bigger. Mankind had yet to discover email. The letters kept arriving from home.
A few years previously Barry and a couple of friends had thought up a way of keeping the parish of Ballygawley entertained during that time of the year when sensible folk stopped playing Gaelic football. The parish of Ballygawley was naturally divided into four segments. The Canavans for instance lived out in Glencull, a large tribe bristling with football promise. Glencull would play the other three areas of the parish in a four way league.
For a little while it was fine and it was fun. Then Barry went to New York and by the time the letters started arriving things had gone awry. Glencull's Mickey Harte had been sent-off one evening in a match against Ballygawley. Fine, but when it came to disciplining Mickey Harte there was no tendency to dispense a quiet slap on the wrist and get on with things.
There were stern elements in the club who were no fans of Mickey. It was proposed that he be given a suspension which would begin at the start of the following football year.
"There were a couple of other things as well," remembers Canavan now. "They ran down Stephen, my brother, and a couple of other players saying they never played as hard for Ballygalwey as for Glencull in this parish league. It was very upsetting for people and Glencull just said no, they weren't going along with it. Cathal (McAnerley) was the chairman at the time. He's from Glencull. They asked him to leave the meeting while they discussed the matter. He said if he left he wouldn't be back. They said 'well we'll see how we go on without you'."
They got on for nine long years without each other. Glencull went their own way. Ballygawley played on without them. Nose separated from face while face pretended not to notice.
"Looking back it's totally ridiculous," says Paudge Quinn, who scored that goal against Kerry in the 1986 All-Ireland final and who grew up on the Ballygawley side of the parish. "People were married through each side, there was cousins involved, families. People avoided each other, didn't talk. I never heard of very unpleasant circumstances but it was just sad. More sad than bitter, if you know the way."
More sad than bitter. Glencull had a field to their name. They played nine-a-side tournaments in the field and lived for nine years on a diet of challenges and tournaments. For nine years Glencull tried to affiliate independently to the GAA and for nine years they failed.
Careers were ruined. Stephen Canavan was a county minor a couple of years before the split. For many in Glencull the All-Ireland final of 1986 was the lowest point of the wilderness years. They knew Stephen Canavan should have been playing, would have been playing. They knew the difference he would have made. Instead Paudge Quinn from Ballygawley scored a goal. Tyrone looked like winning it. They lost it. How twisted were the emotions in Glencull that night.
"It was hard on lots of us," says Barry Canavan, "I didn't lose an intercounty career but I watched Stephen lose his. I was one of the older members. I had a lot of a lot of friends, guys like Paudge Quinn and co who I'd played with in Ballygawley for years. I missed them.
"Peter (Canavan) had no connections with Ballygawley. I had a lot. I'd to go occasionally and watch them play, missing out on championships. We'd have gone to their championship games."
There were strong friendships beforehand and in most cases they survived. Glencull men and Ballygawley men would go out and do the hardest thing. Abstain. They wouldn't talk about football all night. That virtuous abstinence was its own punishment.
Barry Canavan sometimes broke ranks and strolled into Christopher Quinn's pub in town. Crossing the threshold was breaking an unwritten law in Glencull but his old Ballygawley friends and team-mates were in there. He missed them.
"People stuck to their paths. There were fellas who you knew it would be trouble to bump into. You avoided each other."
Nine years. Glencull raised £30,000 in a draw when feelings were high and kept fundraising. They hit the roads. Every Sunday convoys of players headed away to play in games that meant more to them than anyone else.
Fifty or 60 people would come to the occasional meeting to discuss the ongoing campaign for Glencull to go out on their own.
Every year they believed their constituency of about 100 houses was about to become a fully-fledged club. Every year they were rebuffed. They kept on playing for the sheer love of it. Mickey Harte was their best player and their inspiration. They realised after a while that other clubs around Tyrone liked keeping Ballygawley in a weakened state and were most obliging with challenge games and tournament invitations.
What could they do? They played and played. They travelled to Armagh frequently. They reckon they played every single club in Fermanagh. Wherever there was a match they would go to.
Careers drifted past. Pascal Canavan never played under-16 or minor competitions. Peter Canavan missed the entire gamut of underage competitions. Eventually a Tyrone mentor persuaded him to join Killyclogher hurling club as a flag of convenience to get picked for the county minor side. Word of his wonder had spread far and wide by then.
Life in the parish settled back into its routine. Fr McPeake, the parish priest, was inscrutable in showing no interest or favouritism to either side. Occasionally he would make the odd diplomatic foray but at the first feel of resistance he would withdraw again.
In the late 80s several things came together though. Ballygawley Ciaráns reached a county final. They had been threatening to win a title for decades.
"Well, we got to the county final in 1989," says Séamus Horisk, a former chairman, "and it was a huge feat in the sense that - I shouldn't say this, I suppose - those of us at the Ballygawley end only had three quarters of the available squad. We were well beaten by Coalisland. We knew we were still there or thereabouts, though. Maybe it gave people the idea that if we were united . . . I know that on the day in 1989 they were supporting us in Glencull. It was still uncomfortable, there were still arguments and differences of opinion but football was getting people excited again."
Not long afterwards help came from the unlikeliest of sources. From Armagh. Fr Seán Hegarty, who had spent much of the 80s managing the Armagh county team, moved to Ballygawley as a curate.
He saw the lay of the land quickly and identified the most charismatic man on each side of the divide. Barney Horisk in Ballygawley. Seán Canavan, father of all the Canavans, in Glencull.
He chose well. Seán Canavan was a butcher, a part-time farmer and a football addict. His son Peter, the second youngest of 11 kids, was growing to greatness without a stage to express himself on. Barney Horisk was a self employed man running a car washing/valet service from his house on the edge of town on the road to Dungannon. Both were men around whom people gravitated for football conversation and opinion.
In Barney Horisk's house Mondays were for post-mortems, late in the week was for more idle speculation. Young players loved Barney, he would charm management on their behalf, explaining that a young fella needed a holiday and he'd be back for the second round, etc. And they listened to Barney because he might be taking down nets as it grew dark one night and putting out flags while it was still dewy the following morning.
Fr Hegarty worked his magic. In fact, it was easier than that. Everyone you speak to in Ballygawley or Glencull says the same thing.
"He lied to us all," laughs Cathal McAnerly, "but I suppose he has the connections to get himself forgiven." "He spun us all tales" says Paudge Quinn.
"Basically," says Barry Canavan, "he'd go to one end of the parish and announce at a meeting or in company that the fellas at the other end of the parish had had enough, that they were willing to sit down and talk. Then he'd go to the other end of the parish and say the same thing. Nobody was ready to talk really but he got everyone thinking about it."
"I remember," says McAnerly, "that he got us all together in his house and not too late in the evening he said he had an early start the next day and asked us to leave. He said to me afterwards he went upstairs and looked out the window and we were all standing on the road discussing what had gone on and he knew he had us. We were standing there talking together."
People in Glencull understood after 1989 that Ballygawley weren't that far away from a title. People in Ballygawley understood what was missing; The Messiah. He lived in Glencull. His name was Peter Canavan.
Barney Horisk stuck his neck out on the Ballygawley side. Made arguments that made sense. Seán Canavan did likewise on the Glencull side. Meeting followed meeting and in 1991 a new club was born. Errigal Ciarán take their name from the proper name of the parish.
The blue and white of the old club was augmented by a little gold from St Malachy's, as the Glencull end called itself.
The story was just beginning. So too was Peter Canavan's career.
They have five Tyrone championships now. A couple of Ulster titles. A national Féile title at under-14. More kids than they can handle. Three pitches, a stand, floodlights and the star on a county team which is on the cusp of an All-Ireland. They bristle with energy.
"The years of the split were as hard as any individual wanted to make them," says Paudge Quinn. "The fact that we came together showed there was a lot of common ground and respect amongst everybody. That would be the bedrock upon which the club was founded. It would mean an lot to Tyrone football too."
They nailed together an interim committee with four people from each side of the division, Barney Horisk being one of them. Fr Hegarty was the first chairman.
They lost a few pilgrims along the way. Barney Horisk had a very big say in how things went on the Ballygawley side and once he stuck his neck out with the Ballygawley people they followed.
Glencull was a little different, though. A small bit of bad blood lasted to the end. When Glencull had splintered off there were a lot of people who hadn't been strong GAA people who became filled with passion and announced themselves strong GAA people. They were Glencull through and through. GAA was secondary to their passion. They lost some of those folk at reconciliation time. Almost everyone else couldn't wait to play football.
They rebuilt their club wisely, the thought and love that went into its construction served as a warranty against malfunction.
"We took a decision early on that there would be a term of office of three years for any position in the club," says Cathal McAnerly, the current chairman. "That has meant that there is always new energy and new ideas coming through. We haven't gone stale yet."
For the first year they entered three teams into Tyrone competitions. Part of the package was that, for the first season, the Glencull team would be allowed play together in Division Three. They waltzed to the title and surprised themselves by losing in the championship.
The senior championship was something else. They played Dungannon in the first round and through the parish the sense of anticipation made sleep a fugitive.
"What a spirit," says Paudge Quinn "I'll never forget that night. Something totally new. We beat Dungannon 0-13 to 1-5. I've never played on a championship team with so little preparation. We just pulled together, though. Fr Hegarty won the game in the dressingroom that night. It was an unreal feeling, all these people together, so much talent there. It took him to articulate it."
That was the real start. Canavans back playing with Quinns. Memories flooding. When Mickey Harte and Paudge Quinn began playing they were always centre forward and full forward on the same team. Then somebody took nine years away.
Trillick beat them in the next round but that was the start of it though.
Their first county championship came in 1993. They beat Moortown in the final. Peter Canavan captained the club. The following year was sweeter perhaps. Canavan scored 3-27 through the championship. They beat Carrickmore in the final. Nothing better than beating Carrickmore. This time, this period of success and unity, it was better than anything that had gone before.
This is a northern story, however. Grief caught them eventually. Nowhere else is the real world so rudely intrusive. Every innocent thing carries the potential to break your heart and for Errigal Ciarán grief caught up them when they were least expecting it. It caught them on the day they won their first senior league title in 1996.
The circumstances were a little strange, for sure. Firstly, it was December 22nd. The league had mainly been played off early in the year but then due to Tyrone's prolonged involvement on the intercounty scene the competition was shelved and when the county board got around to looking at it again they decided to allow the top six teams to play off for the title.
Given that Carrickmore had been unbeaten all through they were a little sore about this. That the year should come down to a battle with Errigal Ciarán made Carrickmore less happy still.
"It was very late in the year," remembers Séamus Horisk, "and we were playing at a neutral venue, Fintona. We were winning and there was a row with a couple of minutes left. It was a sad day for everyone, including Carrickmore in that they lost a lot of credibility that day. They had a number of players suspended. We had one suspension."
"I was chairman of the club at the time and I watched the match with Barney, my cousin. As I was chairman and we were winning I got up near the end and left the stand and headed towards the pitch for the presentation. Then the row started, a vicious free-for-all."
In fact the game had degenerated into a series of running brawls. Referee Michael Hughes had already sent-off two players from either side when the play resumed late on. Errigal were three points in front and about to take the league title. Then chaos exploded.
"In the middle of it all I saw a commotion on the far stand," says Séamus Horisk. "Somebody came for me. Barney had died during the row. An aneurysm. It has to be said, he was going to take it anyway. It was going to come sooner or later. It wasn't the result of the row. No blame on anyone in the row but it was a sad, sad scene for all involved.
"I could see his son Paul, who had been playing for us, scaling the wires. People all around Barney. It was a black day on all fronts. The row in which a couple of our lads were injured and losing Barney, who would be buried on Christmas Eve, leaving behind a young family."
"Barney Horisk's passing was a huge blow," says Paudge Quinn "You know the sort of club man he was: 'whatever has to be done I'll do it'. That was his view. He'd stand and do umpire one night, take out a reserve team the next day. He lives on through Paul, though. Paul is on the county panel this weekend. A really good footballer who goes on ahead and does his own thing, the right thing."
"It happened on the Sunday before Christmas," says Cathal McAnerly. "It was just devastating for people. His passing left a huge whole in the club."
And this year, just before the Ulster final, another pillar vanished. Seán Canavan. Two great oaks who had bent towards one another suddenly vanished from the local landscape.
"To lose Daddy just before the Ulster final was a bad blow," says Barry Canavan. "He'd been in great form. He was looking forward to this roll that Tyrone are now on. He loved it and he was the top critic as well for the team. More effin' and blinding you have not heard. It was another hard loss for the club to take."
"Those things, those losses, all we've been through," says Cathal McAnerly, "they make us what we are as a club. We've had hard times. Together we've come through them."
They roll on. Every setback and every success making them stronger. They know the purity of that which they love. They know its importance.
"A lot of what we have comes from the leadership of Peter Canavan," says Paudge Quinn. "Club is first. Peter's talent leaves him ahead of everyone. And Pascal there as a leader too. Club. Club. Club. It's always first for them."
A picture comes to mind. A picture drawn from another unhappy day in Errigal Ciarán history but a moment so illustrative of the club and of Canavan that it is worth taking down anyway.
It was the night in 1998 when Peter Canavan's jaw got broken, the night of a challenge match between Errigal Ciarán and Dungannon Clarkes at O'Neill Park in Dungannon. A Tuesday night challenge in early summer with the elements and the mood all wrong.
We needn't lengthen the preamble with excessive detail. The game was ugly. One outbreak of violence ended up with Peter Canavan's jaw being broken in three places.
The game was abandoned. In the shower-room afterwards Dungannon player Barry Gormley suffered an assault and was knocked unconscious. He was lying on the floor, naked, with a broken jaw when other parties arrived on the scene.
Here accounts converge. There was a stand off of naked men. The Dungannon contingent were furious, baying for retribution. Yards away in a circle around Peter Canavan were the entire Errigal Ciarán team. Shoulder to shoulder, ready to go to the end.
"I suppose," says Barry Canavan, "everyone knows that Peter would do anything for anyone in the club. Some clubs have that special thing."
Onwards and upwards. Barney Horisk and Seán Canavan passed away. Fr Hegarty, having come from Armagh, moved on to Carrickmore, from where dispatches say his health hasn't been good.
There are a new generation of Canavans coming through. Barry and Stephen have contributed sons to the under-14 and -16 teams. Pascal has three girls, though, and the club is dabbling in women's football just in case genius lurks among them.
The future dazzles them as they gaze at it from the high ground. Club. Club. Club. They say. First. First. First. The words of Peter.
© The Irish Times