“I swear by the oath of my people”, said Cú Chulainn, “I will make my doings be spoken of among the great doings of heroes in their strength” – Cú Chulainn of Muirthemne by Lady Gregory.
Heavy hearted after yesterday’s painful replay defeat by Clare in an All Ireland Final, I went out of the house this morning to get some groceries and try to distract myself. When I opened the front door I heard young girls laughing, as they played hockey in the rain at Ashton across the road.
And I thought: isn’t sport amazing?
In the pub before the match yesterday myself and my brother Dermot talked about what sport gives us and why it is so enthralling to us. And why we so eagerly put ourselves through the stress and anxiety we were about to experience. We are not young, we’ve been through this many times before, we know the cruelty as well as the generosity of sport…
I reckon there are three main reasons why sport so consumes us. Add another for hurling.
There is the tribal element. We support our tribe against the other ones. We want our tribe (team) to be the best. To conquer. We are the kings of the castle, get down you dirty rascals. We wear the colours, we sing the songs, we share this with others of our tribe. Our tribe is Cork, we are proud of this and our great sporting legacies, and yesterday we lost, but we supported our own as best we can. Yesterday only two tribes were giving voice to their pride and hope but all other tribes could also rejoice in the glory of what was given to them yesterday by those men on that fair field..
For all there is the thrall of seeing great acts of derring-do by magnificent men and women (heroes and heroines) under the fiercest of pressure. It is a rare privilege to witness a 19 year old boy, who wasn’t even supposed to be playing, score 3-3 in an All Ireland final and win the cup for his adoring county, in front of 82,000 people, in the white heat of a cauldron, against a previously rock solid defence. Or to see a goalkeeper run the length of the pitch and hammer a ball past 12 or 13 hurlers in the goal, with the skill and power that has never been seen before – that alone, as Anna said to me, is worth the entry price. We need heroes, God help us. And those men are real heroes, make no mistake about it.
Then there is our love of, our need for, the contest. The agon, as the Ancient Greeks called it. The thrill of watching two teams or two boxers, or a group of athletes battling it out for the glory, the prize. It’s deep need inside us to experience this. All the great art and drama has to have an element of tension, of contrast, to make it great. It’s partly what makes us human. And what dramatist would dare to write a play so far fetched whereby at the very last moment, with defeat inevitable, after a wonderful but ultimately doomed effort, against a ‘greater’ foe, having given everything, with incredible acts of heroism by all the players, a lone and unlikely hero arrives to save the day. Step forward Domhnall O’Donovan, you are a hero, glory and fame for the rest of your life is yours. Your children will be told by old men and women of the glorious feat you achieved in 2013 – this is not an exaggeration, by the way. When Waterford won the Munster Championship of 2002, men quietly left their homes and families and visited the graves of their fathers to share the moment with them. It’s a big thing. Every man woman and child from Clare will remember for the rest of their lives where they were and whom they were with, and what they did, on that immortal September day in 1995 when Anthony Daly lifted the cup.
In the case of hurling, there is further the great beauty, grace, skill, speed and power of the game itself. It is a truly great sport. And yesterday we saw it at its best, not a dirty stroke, no trace of the cynicism in other games. And it is the national sport of Ireland, our national game, ours alone, nobody else’s – it is built into our psyche, it is part of us, deep in our genes – and we are very fortunate indeed to have it. Not for nothing did Brian O’Driscoll recently say that Henry Shefflin was Ireland’s greatest ever sportsman. We have lost much in recent years, but we still have hurling. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh says that the All-Ireland Final day should be our annual national holiday, on the first Sunday of September – instead of a dreary March day to commemorate some proselytising Welshman and the generations of so-called “Catholic” persecutors he brought us. Hurling is written in our lore, our mythologies, and yesterday we saw again feats worthy of our ancient heroes and a new legend was written, with a new Cú Chulainn, a new Setanta.
And I can say: “I was there”. I gave witness to that. Even though it broke my heart.
And today I hear the girls laughing at their own sport, their dreams of heroines behind the smiles of their eyes in the rain.
And today our own heroines (God bless each and every one of them) again do battle in the All Ireland Ladies Football Final – this time with the tribe of Monaghan in Croke Park where new will legends arise and be witnessed by their faithful.
Written September 29th, 2013, the day after Clare beat Cork in the All Ireland Final Replay.