I was trying to remember the last time I was in the Blackrock End and I think it was back in the heyday of the Clare v Tipp battles. Those heady days when Clare were a mighty force on the wane and Tipperary were trying to recreate the vigour they used to exude in the early 90s. Maybe 2003.
I had brought an Austrian friend with me, whom I used to work with at the time. Professor Hans Schnitzer from TU Graz. To show him proper Irish culture instead of diddleyidle. And I remember him turning to me sometime in the second half, a white haired, white bearded distinguished middle European man, could pass for Freud. And he said: ‘You know, Tadhg?’ [Austrian accent] ‘I think the yellow und blue are better than the blue und yellow.’ And he was right – they were. Clare won, handy. And then a deep Tipp voice came from a couple of rows behind, and we heard: ‘That isn’t yella, ’tis gold.’
That was then and this is now.
Now, being a new stadium, a new era for Cork – and not a dominant one, a new paradigm of hurling (more on that, later) and a new companion: young Joe Coghlan of Passage and The Déise.
Now, being a much older me too, but that’s okay, that’s okay. And one thing that struck me was how young all the supporters seemed yesterday. The gangs of young men, the smaller groups of young women. The young couples. The families bedecked in colour, sharing a precious day. A Waterford grandfather on the terrace in front of us with a grandson, maybe six, who wasn’t all that bothered. But maybe some day, when Waterford do make that breakthrough in the years ahead (can’t see it this year with that Galway outfit, sorry), and when Grandad is no longer with him, that boy, a teenager now perhaps, on Hill 16, will think of his Grandfather and give a wan smile and he’ll have to wipe his eyes.
And they played David Bowie at half-time! David Bowie’s Let’s Dance in the Páirc, after the Artane boys and girls had finished their repertoire. I wondered at the time did any other old fogie smile at that – I’m sure the kids accepted it as a given. Hmmm..
So now so.
The Stadium: well, I was impressed and proud. I’m of Cork, it’s of Cork and here we have tens of thousands of Waterford and Wexford visitors coming west over the road to have a look. And it was great to see the Banner saffron and blue, the blue and gold of Tipp around the city on Saturday night, amid the ceol and the waning sun, and Cork City drifting into a weekend evening. What I found most imposing was the space outside the stadium, the generosity of it, the ambition – it made one feel like one was entering a major stadium in a major city, and not Cork.
I was somewhat surprised that I didn’t feel more proprietorial towards the Páirc. God knows I played and trained there often enough. Lost a county final, won a Fitzgibbon final there. But for me it’s always been more about the match than the pitch. More about the what than the where.
Walking down from Maryville, when we met the first of the hordes, and with the rising edifice ahead of us to the north, I felt that familiar quickening of my heart before a match. And although I wasn’t as invested (excited, anxious, hopeful) as I would be for a Cork match, it’s such a wonderful spectacle too. And it’s so deeply embedded in our cultural soul that we take it somewhat for granted.
Even without the tribal response, and with me almost neutral, the game still resonated with other games and memories held dear. Remembered rites.
And the match itself? Nothing to write home about, I heard someone on the radio describe it as a systematic win, but Waterford won’t care. Derek McGrath and Davie Fitzgerald know more about hurling than I ever will and more about training elite teams than I can dream of. And if I’m wincing at two forwards contesting aimless high lobbing balls against four backs time after time, that’s my problem, – not Waterford’s. They’re off to Croke Park in August to take their place in the last four for the third year in succession. Last time Waterford did that? Hmmm.
And there was the usual vigour of big fit men hammering into each other, the breath-taking skill, the speed, the commitment, the guts, the fine striking, the gathering of a ball out of a blue sky, that elegant pass. That sound when a forward fetches a ball and turns toward goal, that sound expressed by thousands of women, men and children full of hope and expectation. The urgency when the final whistle approaches and one set of men are trying to hold and advantage, and another set of men are trying to wrest it free.
There was the spectacle, the drama, the agon. And it’s ours.
And as I write this, news of the draw comes in. Cork v Waterford in the semi-final on August 13th. Galway v Tipperary.
And on it goes. Another year, another match, a new stadium, a new generation.
Epilogue: And later, I went for a puck-around with Joe and Grace down to the Boggy and I had another big city moment. With the expansive blue sky all around us and the last of the sun laying itself low, and its warmth and the shadows lengthening and deepening around us, I felt we could have been in a park in New York City, or Melbourne, maybe, with a different ball and stick. And it felt good.