It’s a summer Sunday morning and you’re on the road in South-East Limerick. From your passenger seat you watch the blossoming hawthorn ribbon the countryside. There’s a cycling charity event on the road and the going is slow, so you have time to enjoy the undulating view. Hawthorn enfolding fields all shapes and sizes – good land, middling land, fallow and scrub. Draping the livestock in the promise of a summer of plenty, a promise older even than the old promise of hurling’s plenty. The whiteness against the green seems so right somehow, you wonder if nature is sending you a message about what is due to unfold in the Gaelic Grounds later. You wonder too if the flowering was ever so profuse or elemental as this year’s or if it’s just that your eyes have been newly opened, somehow. On to the north, through Ballylanders, Garryspillane, Knocklong, Hospital, Herbertstown and Ballyneety – all of them laden down with the green and white flags of victory and you have to smile.
You enter the grounds of the stadium and a steward says: About time ye turned up, and you laugh. It’s true, Cork are well outnumbered today but that’s okay and as it should be. You and your friends have been commenting on that very thing since the pints and grub The Locke Bar. Well if they can’t come out to support the All-Ireland champions it’s a bad lookout, somebody says. On Thomond Bridge a Limerick man is showing his children the Treaty Stone and explaining its significance. The boy is wide-eyed but the daughter – she’s going to be lanky – already knows the story and she throws her eyes up and you have to smile.
In the stadium before the game there are three young Limerick boys behind you providing a running commentary. Look at Aaron Gillane and Kyle Hayes warming up, they’re on fire, they say. Mike Casey will bottle up Horgan, they say, Hoggsie boy, they say, mocking a high pitched Cork accent and you have to smile.
The little Cork boy with his mother on the row ahead is more circumspect and nervous. He’s looking back at the older Limerick boys, trying not to be noticed by them and taking it all in. He’s wearing a hoodie and jacket over his Cork jersey, hedging his bets, but after half-time (lots of Pringles, he puts away half a carton) when the Cork momentum is rolling as unstoppable as The Shannon, off comes the jacket and hoodie and the red is let loose and he’s clenching his fists and looking back at the Limerick lads more boldly and punching the air and you have to smile.
Two young Limerick couples arrive late in the seats directly in front of you and cause a kerfuffle because the people already in the seats are in the wrong seats and you can’t see and you’re annoyed. Later, when you take them in, you notice the young women aren’t hurling people. The blonde is classy; she is wearing a long camel hair coat. The dark woman is wearing a leather jacket. The men are attentive. Are you enjoying it, one of them says to leather jacket and she nods. She takes off the jacket and she has the shoulders of a swimmer. Camel hair coat leaves it on, she’s a skinny thing and not very engaged but she claps when when Alan Cadogan scores a wonderful point and you have to smile.
And Eoin Cadogan says Bring it on Aaron and you have to smile.
And Mark Ellis says Really, Kyle? and you have to smile.
And Niall O’Leary looks born to it and you have to smile.
And in the second half, Mark Coleman commands the ball to come to him and the ball obeys and you have to smile.
And Seamus Harnedy and Bill Cooper are leaders and you have to smile.
And Daniel Kearney is linking linking linking and you have to smile.
And Darragh Fitzgibbon is driving driving driving and you have to smile.
And Alan Cadogan is floating into space and you have to smile.
And Aidan Walsh and Luke Meade are grafting and you have to smile.
And Pat Horgan is a god and you have to smile.
And when young Robert Downey is injured he doesn’t want to come off, and he has to be led off by a medic such is his desire to stay, to play on. And he moves a little away from the medic, almost as if he can hide and avoid his substitution, out there on the open green grass surrounded by white lines. Under the gaze of 31,000 people. And the medic takes his arm and leads him on again and Robert bends his head above his impossibly long frame and submits, and when you see this you cannot smile – your eyes sting.
And later, outside the Hunter’s Rest in Mitchelstown, you hear and then see swifts, the first you’ve seen this summer. A little squadron of five, screeching above, powering by – the fastest bird in the world in level flight. And you think of the swifts of Collioure that summer and the little rooftop balcony you and Ciara use to go up to at dusk; the swifts so profuse and close you thought you could touch them. And you think of summer evenings replete with swifts in Gruissan and Cinqueterre and the narrow high streets of Thessaloniki. And the heavy Mediterranean heat, physical in its still intensity.
Apus apus, the wonderful swift, thought by the ancients not even to have feet, such was their propensity for flying. To prepare for flight, chicks do press ups with their wings in their nests. When they do fledge they will never return to the nest nor their parents, but will fly without ever touching land for the next 1,000 days, non-stop, migrating three times. Then they mate in the air (the only birds to do so) and then they will gather nesting materials in the air (including butterfly wings) and build their nests. They will sleep, while flying, reducing their temperature and becoming torpid. A ringed swift found in Oxford in 1964 was eighteen years old and is estimated to have flown four million miles – or to the moon and back eight times.
All this and much more goes through your mind on that Mitchelstown street, on that summer evening, as you look up at the birds. Until your friends are calling you: Come on to fuck or we’ll miss The Sunday Game, but you stand there for one more pass by the swifts. And the swifts oblige.
And you have to smile.
Photo of swifts: https://www.leinsterexpress.ie