Why do we flock to the four great Sundays of September?


And so, tomorrow, we come to our fourth September Sunday, when the mighty women of Dublin and the mighty women of Mayo do battle to win the Senior All-Ireland Ladies Football Final. And the no less mighty women of Derry and Fermanagh and Tipperary and Tyrone do battle as well. By the way, I don’t use that word ‘mighty’ lightly, I mean it literally. These women are, as the dictionary tells us: ‘powerful, strong, in body and mind’. They bloody well are. And as the song goes: ‘this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.’ This is the real deal. Try it sometime.

So, tens of thousands will flock to Croke Park tomorrow and hundreds of thousands more will watch those women (powerful, strong, in body and mind) on TV or online. And many hundreds of thousands of Irish children and women and men have been journeying the highways and byways of Ireland for the past several months with the same objective in mind.

Why is that? Why do we put on our jerseys and make our sandwiches and get into our cars, and pay our money, and traipse up and down the country from January to September in our droves, when we could be at home in front of the telly or in the pub? And for many people, they are travelling with very little hope of reaching Croke Park in September.

I’ll tell you why. It’s to witness power, strength, in body and mind. And then to feel it, to feel emotion, to feel alive. Because that’s what draws us to sport: it’s the emotion, the feelings. And that’s what it is to be alive: to feel. It’s the very definition of being alive and the alternative, of being dead. But we need to be reminded, and we need to exercise that muscle, that joy, that pain. So we do.

And that’s what these four September Sundays bring us in abundance. You saw it last Sunday and the one before that and the one before that. Oh you did and you remember what you saw. You felt it. You still feel it in fact, and you’ll feel it for a long time if you’re from Mayo.

And who are these people by the way? These women who will grace Croke Park tomorrow with their courage and indomitability, their grace and skill? Well, as the famous song from Sesame Street goes: ‘These are the people in your neighbourhood.’ And that’s wonderful, that’s a thing of wonder. That the supreme sportswomen of their generation, on display tomorrow in a momentous life altering struggle in our very own spiritual epicentre; that they are of us, are among us. Jim Gavin spoke about that very thing in Smithfield Plaza this week when the Dublin fans paid tribute to a historic three-in-a-row.

And that one of the women we’ll witness tomorrow is immortal, will live forever? Well, as they say in business speak, that’s added-value. Now, Cora Staunton may be on the winning team, or she may not be. That’s for the sporting gods to decide. But does that make her less than a hero for the ages? No, no it doesn’t. Achilles, remember, was lost in the Trojan war – although he was the greatest of warriors, he fell.

And that’s partly why we love sport so much, why it grips us and drags us back and forth to the fields of our dreams across our counties and up and down our country, week after week after week, year after year after year. To watch our Achilles win glory or suffer agony. To watch Joe Canning take his place in the Pantheon, to watch Lee Keegan endure another undeserved torment.

And there will be agony tomorrow, just as there was last Sunday for Mayo, and the previous Sundays for Kilkenny and Waterford. There has to be, and we want that too. Oh, we do. The sad thing about sport, and about life, is that glory means nothing if there isn’t agony. And agony is nothing if there isn’t glory; for us to look at and dream of, and covet and wonder about. Think of the dreams of the Mayo football team this week. That’s a thing of great literature and great art. Donal Vaughan is a character straight out of Shakespeare and Euripides.

Because great sport is just the same as great art. The Pieta, by Michelangelo, near the entrance of the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, shows a son in the arms of his mother. Did you see the picture of Joe Canning in the arms of his mother after the All-Ireland Hurling Final? That’s what I saw, when I saw that photo: great art. Timeless art. And when Michéal Donoghue put the Liam McCarthy cup into the hands of his wheelchaired father, Miko? Whom among us was not enriched by that? Didn’t it make us feel, feel alive? Really alive? Didn’t it make us think of our own fathers, our own mothers? Especially if we have lost them?

Art is about emotion, about feelings, and feelings are about life, they define life. And, as the great writer Claire Keegan says, our life is where our feet takes us. To our passion, to our object of desire. So we put on our jerseys, and we make our sandwiches and get into our cars and we pay our money and we go in search of our objects of desire.

And I know this all sounds dramatic and far-fetched, but where else do you see people scream and cheer and shout and weep openly and lose the run of themselves? Where else in life do we allow ourselves and others to show such passion, to leave our guard down with such open abandon? Men especially. In our jobs, in our schools, in our homes? No. You only see it in our cathedrals of sport. This is where we permit our feelings, the things that make us feel alive, full vent. And we are blessed to have it.

And we are especially blessed in Ireland. That the great women we’ll witness play out a Shakespearean drama tomorrow – one showing only, one that has never been seen before and will never be seen again, probably with drama up to the final seconds – that these women are of us, are among us. That’s a rare and precious gift. Young girls will see these heroes at Mass next week, walking down a street, in their school, in the local shop, at the club, and if they ask them for selfies, they’ll get them. They are, at the same time, what we dream of, what we aspire to (to be powerful, strong, in body and mind) and what we are made from. And what does that tell those young girls? What do you think it tells them?

And here’s the greatest gift of all. There’s an Irish saying: ‘An rud is annamh is iontach.’ And it’s true: what’s seldom is wonderful. Ask anybody in Galway. But in this case, in this country, we know that all the drama, all the glory, all the heartbreak and joy we felt this September, whether we’re from Galway, or Waterford, or Cork or Kilkenny, or Dublin or Mayo, or anywhere; all the passion and pride and heartbreak and belonging – all the feelings, all that it is to be alive? Truly alive? We know we’ll feel all those emotions again on the first four Sundays of next September, and the one after that. And the one after that. We know this.

And that’s the greatest gift of all.

Aren’t we the lucky ones? Aren’t we blessed?

Aren’t we, though?

Photo from irishexaminer.com

This article appeared on the website of the Irish Examiner in September, 2017