Reader, I cried.
Cop yourself on, says I, it’s only a bloody a match and it’s only a quarter-final, we won nothing. Then I looked over at Martin and a fine big tear dropped out of his eye onto his cheek and I thought, yes, why not? Why not cry after that experience, that communion, that transportation.
In the 47th minute, I remember looking at the scoreboard, when the match was white hot, a hundred miles an hour, everything to play for, everything on the edge, and the screaming of the Tipperary women behind me was drilling a hole in my skull, I remember thinking that I was going to die. I didn’t think I could take it. I kept saying to myself: calm down, it’s only a bloody game, isn’t it a miracle to be here in the midst of it. Calm down.
And then Tipp goaled and I thought: ah well. And then Lehane’s heroics and I thought, no, we have it. And then Michael Cahalane’s goal, out of a dream, out of a fairy story.
Once upon a time there was a young man and all he wanted to do was hurl, but there was something wrong with his heart and the doctors said he might have to give up hurling. And he was very sad and his mother and father were very sad. But two years later, he comes on as a sub for Cork in the pitch of battle against Tipp on a breezy May day. And he scores the winning goal. And they all lived happily ever after.
I cried. I was a child again, listening in wonder to a fairy story, watching in wonder an adventure unfold.
Okay, here’s a quick question.
Thirty men step on to a pitch, fifteen each from two counties, wielding sticks made from ash. A ball is thrown in. They contest that ball for seventy minutes within a predetermined set of rules and a fairly rudimentary scoring system.
So why do thirty, or sixty or eighty thousand people travel from near and far to watch this contest, investing time, money, and most of all, an enormous emotional capital? And why do hundreds of thousands, a million in the case of a final, watch it on TV, or online, all over the world?
In Thurles, yesterday, we learned again the reason. We hadn’t really forgotten it, but like a teenager stretching her wings, we were beginning, perhaps, to doubt the certainly of earlier beliefs. We walked across the holy sod and basked in it, after the game, amidst our own. We met old friends and shook their hands and shook our heads and wondered at the magic of it all. Somebody speculated if there would be a presentation and there was. We were presented with hope, with pride, with a greater iteration of ourselves, and who we are and where we come from. And what we once were.
We were presented with memory.
The first time I went to a match in Thurles was with my father and I think the O’Sullivans from Waters Place. We were down by the sideline and Con Roche, from St. Finbarrs, just a couple of yards in front of us, took a sideline and the ball went all the way into the net. I guess it was in the late sixties, I might have been eight. It’s my first hurling memory. The marvel of a man doing that.
And yesterday in the first half Tipp got a sideline cut just in front of our seats, and Bubbles O’Dwyer stood up to it, butty and fierce like Con Roche, and with the same magic in his fingers and his feet. He looked left and then right and then he stood back and nonchalantly drove the ball over the bar, from off the ground, maybe from sixty metres out. The marvel of a man doing that.
Last year was brutal, we took a terrible beating in the rain. I wasn’t there, I was on holidays in Japan, but I felt the brunt of it from friends on various media. And to be honest, we weren’t confident travelling up yesterday. Our league form was iffy, a lot of kids were being thrown into the mix – there wasn’t any choice. We’re a lot of things but stupid isn’t one of them.
But the blood is flowing, too, the sap is rising and the swallows are in the air. And there’s a faint hint of giddiness at the start of a journey to a match, too, as if it is the eight year-olds inside the middle-aged men who are hopping into cars and setting off on a great adventure. And sport permits that transformation.
The road up was eerily quiet, no traffic at all until the outskirts of Thurles and I wondered would things have changed, but no. When we rounded the corner into the square, there was the same hype, the same hope, the same noise, the same colours.
And the older of us nattered away, as you do, met old friends, as you do, old intimacies bubbling away underneath, never far from the surface. And we drank a pint, as you do, and wished our new young guns well in the cauldron that was about to engulf them.
How’s all the family? Ah sure good. Sally just finished college, she’s the last of them, now. Did she, already? Lord save us.
How’s Karen? She’s good, busy as ever. Her Mam had a stroke, she’s in the house with us these days. I heard that, fair play to ye.
Any news of Michael? Brian met him in Lanzarote, same old same old, all talk about Chelsea. Nothing new there, so.
Terrible sad about Seanie Mac. ‘Twas. Ah sure ‘twas terrible, and Mary only after celebrating her sixtieth. Poor oul thing, God she was in bits at the funeral.
I heard Tommy got the road again. Oh yes, this time she says it’s for good.
Well? Will we do any good? Oh, God, I don’t know. That full back line… and Tipp will be peppering after the Galway hiding. Still… Still…
What about Cahalane, will he do against Callanan? Ah no. I don’t think so. Sure they tried him in the league and that fella is something else entirely. He is.
The best writer I’ve read on why we watch sports and why we are so engaged in them, is Simon Barnes, ex. Sunday Times. His book The Meaning of Sport (Short Books, 2007) examines this phenomenon.
And there are various reasons to do with identity, feeling a safe type of danger, sport as fake war, admiring great acts and so on.
But the one I like the best is that we watch sport to assuage our need for play. And I mean play in the sense of story or theatre, because pure theatre is what we saw yesterday. The Greeks called it the agon, where we get the word agony from.
We have our protagonist (in red and white) and antagonist (in blue and gold). There is drama, derring-do, heartbreak, unbearable tension, heroic acts, ignominious deeds, great contrasts, highs, lows, the arena, the audience, the actors, and then the climactic finale (tragedy (agony) for some – the great people of Tipp yesterday; a happy ending for us).
And in reading every great book, or witnessing great theatre, or being in the midst of great art, we also stir to the surface what we already know, what we have already experienced in the past. It resonates with the present, in harmony.
That great win in ’90, when Tipp were cock of the walk, with English and Fox and the Ryans, and donkeys don’t win derbies, and the sun came out to greet the Cork team’s entry on to the field and Mark Foley lit up the day with a dazzling 2-7, all our hopes and dreams risen again.
’84 and the All-Ireland Centenary Final, and Pat Hartnett like a Titan from Ancient Greece, half-man half-god, and you know we needed that win too after losing finals in ’82 and ’83. We were lucky enough to get past Tipp that year, in those pre back-door days. I watched that match with Una, a happy memory in the midst of a difficult time for me, even if Offaly didn’t really turn up, which was a real pity for them.
And there was Pat on the sideline yesterday, preparing five young men in particular for the searing blast of battle that awaited them. And how well they did. They were heroes. Like characters in short stories, they will measure their lives in everything that went before the match yesterday and everything that came after. How their families must be floating on air today. Imagine that.
So we keep the faith. We have to.
It reaches deep inside us if we let it. And we should let it. And cry, too, if needs be.
It permits us to be eight again, and we need to be eight again sometimes. We really do.
Photo by Ray McManus, Sportsfile, http://www.independent.ie