It’s been a great few weeks for UCC and for sport in the college. It’s wonderful to see photos of young people with smiles on their faces and silverware in their hands. As someone who was once lucky enough to have my hands on such silverware (The Fitzgibbon Cup, many moons ago), it’s bringing back a lot of memories.
I know I’m not the only one thinking back, and I know I’m not the only one remembering old team mates and friends. I know too that I’m not the only one remembering one special person in particular these days – that special person being Paul O’Connor, whom we lost in 2012.
When I went to UCC’s Fitzgibbon Cup Quarter Final against IT Carlow in the Mardyke a few weeks ago, it seemed to me that I could see Paul in everything. In the grace of Mark Coleman, the way he ghosts over the ground; his elegance and the way he conjures time out of the ether like a magician. In the pride of Eddie Gunning and Evan Sheehan when they see the words ‘Na Piarsaigh’ under their names in the programme, and how proud Na Piarsaigh are of them. In John Grainger’s energy, up and down the sideline, encouraging the UCC players. In the steely eyes of Tom Kingston and Ger Cunningham, their hurling intelligence evaluating countless interlocking possibilities. In the joy with which the students on the sideline carry their youth, as lightly as drawing breath. In the iconic black and red jerseys, with the white skull and crossbones. In the mist descending from a night sky, the soft earth of the pitch, the pock of a hurley hitting a sliotar, the thud of bodies coming together, the echoing of cheers when scores are taken.
One of the last times I met Paul was on that same pitch, a few months before he died, when he coached UCC to win the Fitzgibbon Cup (again) that year. I went on the pitch afterwards to congratulate him, and I’m so glad now that I did, I’d normally keep to the background. And I touched the side of his lovely gentle face with my hand and said, well done, kid. And he smiled his smile and he said thanks Tadhgie. He used to call me that, which very few people outside Mallow do. And I was glad he did, I’m glad he did.
I’m glad I hurled with Paul for four years in UCC and that I was able to call him friend. I remember so little of games I played in but I remember one wet match in Maynooth (the words ‘wet’ and ‘match’ go together in Fitzgibbons like the words ‘pride’ and ‘jersey’) and Paul was surrounded and I called for a pass and he dummied a pass to me and then turned and hit the ball over the bar off his left from fifty yards – and it was so beautiful. It was so beautiful, and so was he. I was grateful for the memory, as I stood under floodlit rain that night in the Mardyke watching this generation of young men hurl, because in that memory and on that sideline, I felt that Paul was close by.
Helen McDonald, in her magnificent evocation of grief and healing: H is for Hawk, wrote: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’ That reckoning came to me at the Mardyke a couple of weeks ago, because I wasn’t just thinking about Paul, I was thinking of other losses too and other regrets. That’s what happens at games and it’s strange because they are only games after all. But somehow the emotions we tamp down, day in and day out, emerge in these moments – somehow sport lets our guard down and into full sight these memories creep, unbidden. Ask anyone from Limerick about the emotions let loose by a certain game last August.
We lost Paul, but we didn’t, either, and we never will. As long as there are beaming young men and women wearing skull and crossbones jerseys with shining cups held high. As long as UCC defends its titles and wise heads come together to plan the next campaign. As long as new hurlers appear to Autumn college training to test themselves against the best players they have ever faced. As long as old hurlers remember the time when they were young and how oddly wonderful that was.
Paul graced so many lives, including mine, and I was thankful, amid the reckoning of my loss that night. And I was heartened because in that gratitude I knew he will never be gone. He will always be close by, if we need him.
This was my consolation as I passed again through that familiar Mardyke gate and turned left for home, walking through the night rain.