Sport is all about emotion. It’s why we watch it and participate in it. And yesterday, on the day of the official opening of the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh – on the day too when the Cork senior hurling and football county finals were decided – there were many emotions for those lucky enough to be present and experience them.
My first time going to the new Páirc was in July when Waterford and Wexford played in the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final and on that day, when I turned the corner of Maryville to walk down that familiar hill to the ground, I felt pride. It was a kind of Cork pride too, since I was among Wexicans and Waterfordians. This is ours, it’s special, and here you are visiting – enjoy.
Yesterday the pride was there again, when Ministers and dignitaries came to ‘open’ the ground, and when I was among my own in our new stadium, at the familiar drama played out every year – the ‘little All-Ireland’ as we humble Corkonians like to call it. Partly we call it that in irony and partly … well, partly because when we’re among our own, especially at a sporting event, we do feel that little bit special and chosen.
And there was that sense of belonging, even as neutrals, that this final is part of us, the last great ritual of the Cork sporting year – a good year for hurling in the county, not so memorable for football. A sense of being part of a family, with shared memories – good and bad – and shared hopes and dreams for the year coming.
On the day that was in it, there was another sensation. We were at a point where the past, present and future were intersecting. Remembrances of past games, great and meaningful, glorious and agonising were running around in our heads. That sense of hurling and football reaching out at us from our childhood, when we shared precious moments with those who’ve gone from us forever. That sense too, yesterday, at the opening of an impressive and forward-thinking monument to Cork hurling and football – that affirmation of the future and that our games have a future, that their future is secured. That something very important to us is safeguarded – this feeling makes us relax and breathe more easily. We like that emotion and so we should.
And for me, it was another kind of confirmation yesterday, a personal one – that hurling is immortal, that it was always somewhere within our psyches and our souls and that it always will be. I see it as an eternal sliothar falling from out of a sky into a raised hand. Falling eternally towards a reaching, ready hand. Falling in the past, falling in the present and falling forever in a future where girls and boys will want to reach their hands up and grasp it, and pull it down to them.
There was another emotion too, yesterday: the usual one before matches – that frisson of anticipation, that quickening of the heartbeat before the fray. Even as a neutral there is that feeling, though of course it’s greatly heightened on days when my own club or county are involved.
And finals are especially exciting – it’s the ultimate agony or glory. There’s nothing in between, there’s no ‘next time’. It’s all on the line and the whole summer’s toil and dedication and hope and all the trials and tribulations to get to the final will mean everything or nothing at the end. It’s do or die and there’s nothing in between.
Hence the excitement: the empathy with the inconsolable goalkeeper who made a mistake at the end, a feeling that any ex-player will especially feel because we all know it could have been us. The vicarious feeling of joy with the winners, jumping up and down with their cup among their fans and their families. Even as neutrals we feel these emotions and they are real. They are why we leave our firesides in the deepening of autumn to see the last great dramas of Cork hurling and football play out in the dusk of an October Sunday.
Yesterday it was Imokilly and Nemo Rangers who were reaching up, arms aloft, jumping up and down after the game, mouths open in grins, eyes smiling in joy and in relief – wanting to linger, to milk the preciousness of the moment of all it’s power and potency. The poor men of Blackrock and St. Finbarrs were on the ground, heads down, bodies hunkered down, faces downcast, wanting to hide, not to be seen, to be somewhere away from other eyes, somewhere they could just suffer in peace and lick raw wounds.
Even as neutrals we share in these highs and lows. It’s why we watch sport and read about it and are so invested in it. And if you doubt that sport is about emotion, think about why there is music at our games. What can stir emotions like the sound of a marching pipe and drum? What can stir us to a sense of communion with those beside us like sharing a rousing rendition of our national anthem? This isn’t nothing, this isn’t trivial. We feel too much for it to be a kind of intellectual or academic exercise of detached observation.
This is participation. We are involved. It matters.
As to the hurling match yesterday, it was passionate – passion being the deepest of sporting emotions. For a time in the first half, it seemed as if the great skill and hurling nous and speed of mind and hand of the Imokilly forwards would overwhelm the apparently more ponderous Blackrock team.
But the Rockies showed their pride and desire and ball willing abilities and aerial power and they clawed their way to a climactic finish. In the end they were cruelly undone by an inability to finish in front of goal, whereas Imokilly’s three goals were clung with precision and élan. Very often that’s the difference between teams and for that alone Imokilly deserved their win. Blackrock didn’t deserve to lose, but somebody must and usually it’s the team who doesn’t or can’t finish in front of goal.
No shame there, but pain, yes. Agony yes and there can be no glory without the real lurking presence of that agony in the corners of our consciousness. Early morning sensations this coming winter for those young men when, half-awake in the dark, they will feel something isn’t quite right in their world, and then they’ll remember that dull October Sunday when the match was lost and they’ll shake the feeling off as best they can and get on with their day. That’s what all sportspeople long to avoid, but what most cannot.
And that’s why, come next spring, most of them will rise that bit more brightly when another chance to ensure a different result will come their way. And when they awaken to the hope that this year, their captain, surrounded by his comrades, will skip up those steps and take the cup and raise it high to the new roofs over Páirc Uí Chaoimh stands, to the dull October cloudy skies, to the ambering leaves on Montenotte hill, to the cheers of their families and friends surrounding them.
Because there is always another year if we let it be so. That’s the best thing about finals, win lose or draw. And that’s the greatest sporting emotion of all: hope.
Photo from irishexaminer.com
This piece was published in the Irish Examiner in October 2017