Many of the Big Apple’s Leitrim supporters will be heading to Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers this Saturday, February 12, for the finale of the 50 Mile Challenge.  

Last year, the Leitrim Supporters Club launched this initiative for the month of January with a two-fold goal – firstly, to enhance general fitness of the county’s residents, and secondly, to generate badly needed finances for the Leitrim team.  

The project was a resounding success as local residents were regularly seen pounding Leitrim’s highways, byways, and boreens from Annaduff to Kinlough, in all sorts of weather.

This year, the 50 Mile Challenge was embraced more enthusiastically, prompting comedian Seamus O’Rourke to claim that if there was a census done, you couldn’t count Leitrim people as they were nearly all out walking, jogging, and running, notwithstanding that the county has the smallest population of any county. 

Naturally, Leitrim people on this side quickly embraced the challenge, and soon they were hitting sidewalks, pavements, and parks regularly around the Big Apple’s five boroughs, stockpiling the miles.

On the coldest day of the year, over 100 hardy souls showed up to complete the last few miles of the challenge. Of course, the bond between native and emigrant is strong, and as James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry, stated, “The savage loves his native shore.”

Sure there’s a sizeable influx of Leitrim exiles scattered throughout the tri-state, but the biggest concentration is at the juncture of St. Barnabas parish in Woodlawn and McLean Avenue, the Emerald Mile, in south Yonkers, prompting a journalist from the Irish Independent some years ago to label the area “Little Leitrim.” 

At one stage, the St. Barnabas football team had 12 starters with Leitrim origins as well as the backroom team being from the home county. Basically, the article chronicled the strong attachment that these exiles have to the homeland and the home county. 

That bond is currently accentuated by the fact that Seamus and Caitriona Clarke, proprietors of JP Clarke’s on McLean Avenue, are the major sponsors of the Leitrim team. In many ways, the popular bar and beer garden is a home away from home for many of New York’s Leitrim exiles.

So far this year, over 200 folks have signed up to complete the 50 miles, and they will meet in Tibbetts Park for the grand finale of the challenge. There they will be greeted by Enda Stenson and Martin McCartin, County Board officials, and of course, the former great Mayo footballer Andy Moran. 

Moran, a former footballer of the year, two-time all-star, plus a host of other accolades, is the current Leitrim manager. He will be at the starting line to set the runners/walkers off and at the finish line to greet the finishers. 

Maybe, perhaps in a gesture of sporting ecumenism, a few Mayo folks might show up to help Leitrim’s cause. After all, Leitrim have been Mayo’s greatest supporters, especially when they get outside of Connacht.

When the walking/running is finished, all will head up to JP Clarke’s for refueling and refreshments, and I’m sure any lingering exertional pains or aches will be soon alleviated with a few copious potions of nature’s oldest anesthetic.

Then the second part of the program begins, namely the launching of Moran’s book, "Lessons Learned in Pursuit of Glory."

This is a very compelling account of his football journey. Moran, one of the most respected and admired footballers of his generation, details how sport influenced every facet of his life, highlighting the teachers, coaches, managers, teammates among others who inspired or influenced along the way.

The title is certainly very appropriate, and the book should be required reading for any young athlete but especially Gaelic players. It certainly makes great reading for all GAA folks, but none more so than for the band of loyal Mayo supporters who have lived through decades of agonies, ecstasies, and near misses. 

Saturday afternoon will be an opportunity for these folks to meet their hero, shake his hand, and get their autographed copy of this highly acclaimed book by one of Mayo’s greatest players. Mike Morley, chairman of New York’s Mayo club along with some players and officials, will be there to make a presentation to unquestionably one of the greatest in the modern era.  

Besides the book launching, there will also be another launching – the unveiling of the new Leitrim jersey. This is a big occasion, and naturally, two all-star models have been engaged to strut stuff on the runway, namely Martin Furlong and Moran.

Furlong is the former Offaly goalkeeper whose lengthy list of accolades includes four All-Irelands (three senior, one minor), four all-stars, one footballer of the year, seven Leinster championships, and three club titles. 

The former great shot-stopper from the sixties to the eighties will model the goalkeeper’s jersey.  Moran will model the outfield jerseys.

The New York Leitrim Ladies, who have become a formidable force on the Big Apple’s playing fields, will also have their moment in the spotlight as Sharon Redican and Lisa Sorohan among others from the squad will be modeling the McKeever sponsored jerseys as well as the County Board sponsored sportswear.  

Joan Henchy, chairperson of the New York GAA, will also be in attendance for the occasion. It’s reported that the Big Apple’s GAA leader will make a very important announcement that should be music to the ears of Gaelic Park patrons.  

Dawn Doherty and Frankie McCormick as well as DJ Don will be providing entertainment. Incidentally, Dawn and the Aisling Center’s Band won great plaudits for their performance on Ireland’s most-watched television show last year, RTÉ's Late Late Christmas toy show.

I’m sure Seamus and Caitriona, proprietors of JP Clarke’s and sponsors of the Leitrim team, will ensure that all are well looked after for the evening, and the craic should be mighty. Hope to see you in either Tibbetts Brook Park or JP Clarke’s, or better still in both.

*This column first appeared in the February 9 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.