What I Feel when I’m on The Pilgrim Path to Croke Park

croke park

All of the 71,000 souls who took the pilgrim path to Croke Park yesterday to live the moment in Limerick’s exquisite win over Cork experienced a scatter of emotions. Not just those who travelled, either – but hundreds of thousands of others who watched or listened in. Here are some of mine before the game.

A sense of intention, of purpose, when I wake in the holiday home five minutes before 6am. Up and at ‘em. Here we go, here we go, here we go, and all that. Mount Brandon is stretching itself up into clouds, as it usually does. The gate leaves a creaky grumble when I free the latch. The water on Smerwick Harbour is a slate grey, waves flecking the surface.

Some fun when I pick up three young men outside Dingle. Walking to Inch, no less, as you do when drunk and young and after a night of nights. Than you SO much, oh my God, you are SO kind. They had a heated discussion whether or not to get their bus, scheduled at 8. The two who favoured staying another night would win out of the sensible one, who said they could sleep on the bus.

The first swell of anticipation at the terminal in Faranfore, when other hurling people arrive. Mostly wearing the green and white. A family of three, a mother and father and grown daughter, sat beside me and discussed a recent holiday in Portugal. His back was killing him but his daughter had left the Difene at home. The good news was that he had been far worse the day before. Ten times worse.

Belonging. These are my people after all. A father and a young son – no colours, but Cork I think. The son, maybe 13, retreats to his phone. The father has a faraway look in his eyes. Looking inward or back to when his father brought him, maybe, in a Cortina, or a Granada if times were good. Maybe he was wondering what his father would have said to the idea that they’d be flying to Dublin to a game, not driving at all.

Ease, comfort, maybe when the plane takes off on time and I’m reading the Sunday Independent and all the punditry that surrounds such days. I want it, too, not that there’s any great truth to it all. Paul Kimmage’s piece about Floyd Landis blows everything else out of the water – now there’s truth. I was in there, in that room, in that cabin with Landis and a bottle of whiskey. On a street in Paris many years later as the peloton flashes by – that sound of narrow wheels on cobbles. What was in his eyes, at that moment? After all that had happened? What did he see, then? As usual I wanted to look at it all sideways, through Landis’ father’s or mother’s eyes. Or Armstrong’s.

Slight disbelief to be outside Dublin Airport at 10am, when moments before I was passing through Miltown and Firies. Blessed. Privileged.

Envy, perhaps loss, when overhearing a father and son’s intimate conversation on the bus into town, knowing I’d never have it, from either perspective, on the way to a game. I’d seen them in the terminal. The man was over 80, erect, knowing; the son maybe 50, less sure. The son had his hair slicked, a fine head of hair. It seemed to indicate insecurity. How’s your leg? Very good since I got the injection. You’re not wearing any colours. I’m neutral today. God they’re very expensive looking headphones. Sure I have to have them if I ever want to listen to music – your mother never like music at all. Mary works in a bank around here. She likes that job. She doesn’t, she hates it. What? I thought she likes it. No, she hates it, a bunch of numpties telling you what to do. A job’s a job.

Wellbeing, a wave of it, on O’Connell St. The rightness of it all. To be here, doing this. All this. Cork and Limerick people walking by. The day about to unfold before me, like a well-known path viewed from the top of a just-mounted hill, winding its way homeward.

Communion, communality when I touch base with my own, heading north in cars, hours away. To be part of the collective, what I’ve always wanted but could never quite manage. I phone Ray who’s just off the train, walking into town. We arrange to meet in The Palace Bar. I eat the full Irish in some super-pub near O’Connell’s bridge. Food rarely tastes this good.

The feel of home, catching up over pints. Of identity. Ritual. Ray has suffered a bereavement and I want to talk to him about it. To listen. To find out how things are with him and his lovely family. Kieran another great friend, his brother, arrives with his son, Michael. My God the height of Michael, he’s not far off his dad’s 6 foot plus. A kind of joy, not hindered by the porter, as the conversation weaves itself around us, as natural and full of grace as birdflight.

As we’re about to leave the pub, Sean South breaks out from inside the back room – the lads from Limerick have begun early. The emotions move from my chest to my gut. To an older place, where I’m reaching outward from, not inward. The day is more charged. Music will do that. We are here for a contest, a confrontation. It’s them and us and they have laid down the challenge. It’s a reality check. Shit is about to go down.

Anticipation again as we walk up Gardiner’s Hill toward our Mecca. The flow of people generating a sense of resolve, of relevance. The first sight of the stadium is a physical pull, like gravity, a kind of free-fall towards it. Like the beginning of heads moving together for a kiss.

Inside the ground, under the Hogan Stand I meet my friends. Joy. Regeneration. Then the walk up the steps and to our seats. The players are warming up. The stadium, enfolding. The pitch, charged in green. The red and white, the green and white. The sound flowing, expectantly. The challenge, alive. The moment. The exhilaration. The thrill. The wonder. The awe. The joy of it all.



To be continued…