I wrote the piece below in early February, on the day of the first match of the year.
This morning, three months later, we make our way to Thurles to do battle with our great old enemy in their lair. We’re not confident, how hard is that for a Cork person to say, but we’re not. This Tipp forward line is something else, and those Mahers…
Anyhow, now it’s May, not February. It’s warm, not cold. The sod is firm, not soft. And there’s a lot more at stake. It’s championship. There will be blood.
And we keep the faith.
Up the rebels!
The First Match of The Year
We went down to Páirc Uí Rinn last night, for the opening league match of the year, Cork versus Clare. It wasn’t any great hardship, only a twenty minute walk down The Boreenmanna Road.
It was cold, though. A bitter easterly blew into our faces along the road and cut across us in the stands. The kind of wind too lazy to go around you so it just goes through you.
There was a familiar sense of renewal and reawakening around the ground, among the 5,000 or so atendees. The first match of the year. That old feeling of purpose. Like the daffodils and the crocuses flowering in our garden, whispering faintly of summer’s warm hopes, there we were in the bitter cold of a dark February night, envisioning bright sunny Sundays in June, July and, if we’re lucky: August. And if we’re very lucky, in seven month’s time, a September pilgrimage to our very own Mecca in Northside Dublin.
Yes, another winter is fading, giving way to the flowers and the birdsong and the cock-step stretch of the evenings. It’s time to dust off the hopes and dreams again. It’s what we do. But we know the ropes, too – we’ve been through this before. Things haven’t been great down here on Leeside for the last few years, and that’s an understatement; our chances are slim. We know that, but we still turn up, and still we let ourselves hope.
Two young boys were sitting next to me in the stand – two brothers, the image of each other, with freckles and dark hair. Solemn in the way that small boys can be, taking it all in. A bag of sweets in one hand, a hurley in the other. Perished with the cold, but too excited to care. Chattering away to each other about how far out from the goal they can hit the ball over the bar, how many points Patrick Horgan will score, what a great goalkeeper Anthony Nash is.
The parents of one of the new young breed of Cork hurlers were sitting a few rows down, watching their son excel in his first competitive game for his county. And I wondered: what a flood of thoughts and emotions must be flowing through them as thousands of people cheer on their son. And how, only a few years before, they would have brought him out on cold nights to watch games such as this one, sweets in one hand, hurley in the other.
After the game (we won) we walked out of the stadium and back down the same road, looking forward to getting in out of the cold. We passed a small group of Clare people and I thought: fair play, they have a two hour drive or more ahead of them before they reach home – that’s real commitment.
And I thought of the Tyrone supporters who came over the border last night and down the N2 to Dublin to cheer on their team to a draw with the mighty Dubs. And the Mayo stalwarts who travelled all the way to Austin Stack Park in Tralee to witness the men in red and green beat The Kingdom. And then drove all the way home again, late into the night.
And the great hurling people of Tipp, who made their way to Croke Park to acclaim the All-Ireland champions in their first game of 2017. And today the Down faithful are taking the road to Cusack Park in Ennis, and the Galway faithful are making their way to Brewster Park in Enniskillen, and the Deise faithful are driving up to the lion’s den that is Nowlan Park in Kilkenny.
And faithful is what these men and women and children are. They keep the faith, year after year.
Now, I’ll never meet these devoted pilgrims and if I did, I’m not sure how much we’d have in common. But sitting in the cold last night, cheering on our teams of bright young heroes, we were all one and the same.
Sitting beside solemn boys and girls, with their sweets in one hand, with their hurleys in the other, with their hearts full of hope and their heads full of dreams.