We gather in the usual way, a bit earlier because of the 2pm throw in. A driver, three passengers, all living in Cork city. We’ve done this many times before. Pickups, then heading for the Jack Lynch tunnel. The novelty of the Cusack Park venue rendering us a little more giddy than usual, perhaps. Good to be together, too, on a summer Sunday morning, with a purpose, a shared endeavour. We know this, we don’t take it for granted.
The countryside calmer, less flowered than the last time we took the road from Mitchelstown to Limerick. Nature has gotten down to the serious business of a summer’s growth and we’re at the serious end of a championship, too – live or die. Talk of Galway’s amazing fall from the championship of 2019. Talk of permutations, Denis Hurley’s eight possibilities – each discussed and written off or admitted an option. Hoping we won’t need Tipperary to do us a favour today but acknowledging that we might. The serious option that Cork’s summer of hurling could be over by 4pm. We’re not stupid, we’re not young.
Parking well inside the town of Ennis, and meeting the trickle of fans moving towards Cusack Park. The newness of the location mingles with the familiarity of the situation. We try to remember the last time we were in Ennis. A wedding, a passing through before the motorway, an Under 21 match, a conference. We’re early, so we head to the pub. This shared communion, with others of our tribe. Not the Cork tribe, but the hurling tribe, including the Clare people adorned in saffron and blue. We’re all in this together. Yes, there’s a them and us, but really it’s just us.
We meet old friends, we chat and catch up. We have a drink, we eat some food. We commune. We are at a gathering, a ritualised assembly of the tribe. The sportswriters call this battle, war, combat. It isn’t. Even with what’s to come, the clatter of bodies driven by directly opposing purposes within the codification of an old and indigenous form of play. Even with the shouting, the desperate conflicting needs and all the life stories lived, creating 16,856 different types of need – we do this together, it’s a contract we have all agreed to and which we will all fulfil in all seriousness and with rigour.
Our heartbeats quicken at the ground, on the terrace behind the western goal – another novelty, we’re normally in the stand. The pipe and drum band plays, stirring emotions up towards the surface. We watch the teams take to the field and warm-up. We sing to the national anthem and are further aroused. We are ready.
The game begins and we are quietened by Shane O’Donnell’s humbling early goal. We grow loud again as Pat Horgan responds. The game steadies itself into its timbre – Clare leading, Cork chasing. Clare pushing ahead, Cork pulling back. We shake our heads at the tentativeness of the Cork players, the pressure the full-back line is struggling to sustain. Clare’s purpose will not be outdone. Kelly goals and it’s a wonderful thing, a sweet dagger stab. We shout at the referee that Cadogan hasn’t fouled and shouldn’t be booked but we’re not fooled by our own denials.
Rain falls and we get wet and we shout at the Cork players, the referee, the Clare players. The second half begins in a Cork upsurge and we shout at the Cork players, the referee, the Clare players. Rain plummets, a sea of water falling from a black thunder and lightening sky. Clare push back and stride ahead and our want turns to need, to desperation. We rage at the push by Gerry O’Connor, we rage at the time wasting of the Clare backs and goalkeeper. We rage at the clear fouls unpunished by the referee. We rage at the false touches by the Cork players, the unsticking of the ball to hand. We are soaked and we shout louder. We shout loudest when Horgan scores his second goal and hope is restored. But Clare’s purpose will not be outdone. The referee is blind, stupid, knows nothing about hurling. The Clare backs are fouling, fouling, fouling, wasting time and nothing is being done. We need substitutes but they aren’t working. The clock is ticking.
Desperation as the game is wandering out of sight. The shaking of heads, the shrugging of shoulders. The rain has stopped but we don’t notice. Our time is shrinking, disappearing. We hear of Tipperary’s leading score in Thurles and we are solaced. We curse Clare and the referee and the referee and Clare a few more times until the game is ended and we begin to move away. We are soaked – we’ve only begun to notice how properly wet we are when we walk and our saturated clothes press against our thighs, our saturated socks squelch in our shoes, our saturated hair drips on to our necks.
We are deflated by the performance of the Cork players. We can’t find good things to say about them, so we say little. We talk about playing Laois or Westmeath. We wonder if the game could be in Portlaoise or Athlone. We smile at the novelty of it. We go straight to the car, we don’t have the stomach for pints, or for spending any more time in Clare than we have to. We begin the journey home, listening to the comeback of Roscommon in Salthill. We can feel the surging ecstasy of the primrose and blue streaming through the radio as the car heads southward and for home.