I’m in West Kerry, on holidays. I’m standing outside Paudie Ó Sé’s pub catching my breath after a fervid two hours of championship hurling magic conjured out the air by Tipperary and Wexford. Sandmartins weave a dreamy thread of air above me. A benign sun pulses light and heat, easing away the dark intensity of the match inside. I check my pulse: 89 bpm – good.
When Séamus Callanan scored his transcendent goal after ten minutes of the game – delaying and delaying and delaying the hit until the ball was the apex of its third bounce – I felt my breath catch and my heart lose purchase and my ears buzz and I had to put a hand on the counter of the bar and calm myself. The fitbit showed my heart-rate then at 103 bmp – not good.
I was with a friend from Tipperary, so I was rooting for the boys in blue and gold – but I would have been, anyway. ‘You like giant-killers,’ Hugh McIlvanney once said to Simon Barnes, ‘I like giants.’ I’m with McIlvanney and I was the day before too, cheering on Kilkenny against Limerick – favouring the old gods, crusted and grey, against the new Johnny come lately kids on the block.
The pub was – as Kevin Barry might say – dark as passion. Pictures of the famous smiled down on me. Paul McGrath, Nick Faldo, Mick O’Dwyer, what looked like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Bono, Brian Cowen, Barry McGuigan, Robert de Niro, George Best, Paul Newman, Charlie Haughey, Bobby Moore. For the Kilkenny Limerick game my attention was taken by a former Irish rugby international and the four women he was with. Three of them were in their prime – my age or so – the other was a young woman. They had been at the Killarney Races, they told me, and they glowed. We watched on, the six of us, as Kilkenny crushed young hopes, their cold will as implacable as the Atlantic Ocean over beyond.
The pub was strangely non-committal about that game, until a few Limerick people began to hum affirmation when their men whittled back some of a nine point deficit. Myself and the rugby international braced ourselves against the intensity of Kilkenny hits, the claustrophobia of the Limerick players – hemmed in from all sides by a brutal crushing unrelenting black and amber hurling dúchas.
Much more passion floating around for the Tipperary Wexford game – pheromones of refereeing injustices mingling in the air with the smell of fried fish, bright porter and a deep and familiar desire. There is Tipp ecstasy as an insurmountable obstacle is surmounted and fourteen overcome sixteen.
What is happening here? What are we doing?
This is what I think.
I think in these moments we are not watching young fit, strong men men play a game or act out a vivid drama. I think in these moments we are these men, a better version of ourselves. We are these men and they are us. We/they are abrogating our losses, righting our grievances, banishing our weaknesses and correcting all the mistakes that have blighted our lives. This is a different time, outside the lives we live and inside different lives – better, brighter and more true.
And it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose, or what sport we’re playing, or what county we come from, in this time. Through the men and women we watch on the screen or on the pitch we are stronger, younger, fitter, better. Winning is the best thing but losing is the second best thing because we are doing something right for a change and something worthy and something vital.
Under the gaze of John F. Kennedy, Pope Benedict, Aengus Fanning, Jackie Healy-Rae, Sam Allardyce, Gay Byrne, John Hume, Lee Harvey Oswald, Bobby Kennedy, Erskine Childers, Westmeath footballers whose names I don’t know, horses jumping Beecher’s Brook, Sinead O’Connor and Ógie Moran I am not myself, but the young fit and adamant men in Green and White and Black and Amber and Blue and Gold and Purple and Gold out there on the sweet grass of Croke Park. And it feels good. Being TJ Reid and Noel McGrath and Lee Chin and Dan Morrissey feels great – which is why we do it in the first place and why our hearts race and our eyes widen at the sight and sound of it all.
Outside the pub, as this other version of reality seeps back in, under the sky and the sun and the sandmartins, my breath slows and I am become myself again. I walk down to the beach to feel sand between my toes and to look up at the regatta at Ceann Trá and at the azure water of the bay and over at Iveragh and to listen to children shriek joyfully in the water. I turn and walk back the way I came, past flowering Fuschia and Foxgloves and Purple Loosestrife and Montbretia and Bindweed. I walk back up the road towards high Cruach Mhártain beyond, in the balm of a sunny West Kerry July evening, and I turn left at the crossroads, for home.