Sunday, 23 March 2008

Festival Tug O' War

The UH Magazine is very pleased to offer this story by Mr Ivan Knox of Ballybofey, County Donegal. The story won the Finn Valley Voice Literary Award in 2000.

During the Twin Towns Festival of the 1980s, I was on the Festival Committee, and we were getting the events list ready for publication. I suggested that we should think about a Tug O’ War event between the Twin Towns and that it should be pulled across the River Finn and that a Shield and cash prize be made available for the winning team. To all this the committee agreed and of course you are right, I go the job of organising the event. I sought the assistance of Michael Bogan from the Laught, Castlefin, an expert in the Tug O’ War events and he had all the necessary tools for the job.

We decided that the place for the event would be just below the Bridge of Ballybofey and Stranorlar about thirty meters downstream from the bridge itself. We could use the bridge for spectators.

The pull was to be a three stage pull and the team that was most times in the river were the losers. We had a van going between the two towns all that Saturday and when the van was in Ballybofey campaigning for the big event they would be telling the Ballybofey people that the Stranorlar folks were saying about Ballybofey. Then when in Stranorlar it would be visa-versa.

Eight PM on Saturday suddenly arrived and Michael and myself were full organised for the big event. We dragged the big heavy Tug O’ War rope across the river and waited.

The first man to arrive for the Stranolar side was Eugene Kelly, The Glebe, Stranorlar. Eugene being in his usual high spirits was ready to do battle for his town of Stranorlar and by 8:30 the whole of the Stranorlar team had assembled, the whole three of them. There were no limits as to how many people were on each tea. If you felt that wanted to represent your town all you had to do was grab the rope and pull, the rope could only hold so many people anyway.

Michael Bogan and myself took up our position, into our waists in water in the middle of the River Finn. We could not see from our position what was going on in the Ballybofey side but we could see the Stranorlar side, all three of them ready to start. Ballybofey could not see the other side either because of the high banking that goes along the river on the Ballybofey side.

Someone tipped off the Stranorlar side about the number that was on the Ballybofey side, so the Stranorlar side got prepared quite unknown to either Michael or myself. While waiting for the start call they had tied the thick Tug O’ War rope to a big Ash tree that was growing close by and they allowed for a slack piece to get the pull started.

The call came to pick up the rope. The rope went up and the Ballybofey team gained a couple of feet on the ground but could not get another inch. The crowd on the bridge was over packed and they were hurling all kinds of encouragement to their team. Of course they knew the score from their vantage point. They were able to see all that was going on.

Michael Bogan gave the command to stop and restart. The teams dropped the rope and it sank into the mud at the bottom of the river, out of our sight. I moved around to talk to Michael and must have stepped over the rope with one leg. First think I knew was I was flying through the air when I came down I went straight to the bottom of the river. I recovered as fast as I could and surfaced to a big cheer from the huge crowd on the bridge. It was a this point the big Tug O’ War rope was broken and the crowd were hysterical, roaring for more and making all kinds of remarks. Cameras were flashing in all directions and people were wild with laughter. What had happened was that when the pull restarted, the Ballybofey team got to know what was going on in the Stranorlar side and were not going to be out done by their competitors on the other side so they tied the rope to a tractor and the huge pull broke the rope.

As for Michael Bogan and myself things went from bad to worse and the crowd loved every minute of it. We decided to go to the hard ground and do the pull across the bridge itself. But because the crowd had gathered and the Gardaí would not allow the pull to take place, and so we headed off for the GAA training ground just below the bridge. We were no sooner there when we were told we could not pull the Tug O’War there as it was nor for that type of sport, so off we went again, this time to the big car park in Ballybofey. The crowd still screaming and us doing our best to facilitate them.

It was nearing midnight at this stage and we were working with the aid of the car park lights. Both teams were doing their best but Ballybofey was getting the advantage and were almost home when a group of Stranorlar boys could not stand to see Stranorlar lose, so in they went and all hell broke loose.

Well, they fought lives aside and things got so bad at end up the local Gardaí were sent for to quell the situation at around 1:30 AM Sunday morning. The town folk agreed that they would meet in the afternoon at the car part and sort this thing out once and for all. By the agreed time no one showed up and the competition was abandoned to another day, so perhaps that day has now arrived when the two towns will get their just reward to celebrate the first ever Fete of this type of sport. We will have a winner, for this outlandish sport that is now gripping the nation.

Ivan Knox, noted local historian
and seanachaí, of Corcam,
Ballybofey, County Donegal.

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