The Gaelic Athletic Association of Ireland has a lot to answer for. It gave birth to a beast that creates rifts in families, causes even the most level-headed folk to turn fanatical and deranged, and inspires a profound and unshakeable loyalty and pride.
I am speaking, of course, of the ruthless and magnificent game of hurling.
The Irish people as a population have an incredibly strong sense of identity – pit us against any other country in the world and we will rally together in a single force. But when it comes to inter-county relations we will resolutely separate into individual factions, embracing our counties as fiercely as a child clings to their very first All-Ireland final ticket. What’s interesting are the circumstances which influence people in establishing their county identification – sometimes their birthplace or the length of time they’ve lived in a particular region do not necessarily factor into it. Or else they are the most important factors of all.
Take my own family as just one barely-comprehensible example. My mother was born and raised in Cork but her father was a Clareman so, naturally, she and all her siblings grew up supporting Clare. My brother was born in Kilkenny and was only five years old when we moved away, barely old enough to hold a hurley and sliotar, but he has been a staunch Kilkenny supporter ever since. I myself was born in Kilkenny too but had such a nomadic childhood, also living in Waterford and Cork, that I couldn’t seem to identify with anywhere until, when I was thirteen, we finally settled in Tipperary. I now live in Kildare but I spent my formative teenage years in Tipp, my father is a Tipp man, and it is where my parents still live (i.e. it’s home home). So of course I’m a Tipp woman! (Incidentally, so is my sister even though she has never actually lived there full time…!) There was some consternation when I announced I wanted to marry a man from Clare but those cross-border troubles have since been smoothed over.
So what happens when two rival counties meet in the most anticipated match of the GAA season? Yesterday, 27th September 2014, I was one of the 81,753 people lucky enough to have a ticket to the All-Ireland hurling final replay between long-standing adversaries Tipperary and Kilkenny.
I think every Irish person understands that going to an All-Ireland is not just about the seventy minutes of match play. It’s the discussion beforehand about what time to leave home that morning to avoid all the traffic. It’s the hours of gridlock on the motorway because everyone else decided to leave early too. It’s the squashy Luas ride where you wish you hadn’t worn quite so many layers of clothing and emerge at the Connolly tram stop in a sweaty mess. It’s that moment of “We’re not quite sure which street to take but let’s follow all the GAA jerseys walking in the same direction, they’ve probably got it right.” It’s having a friend who decided last-minute to come scrambling around desperately looking for someone selling tickets. It’s the queue in the shop for sausage rolls and wedges. It’s the coordination of trying to meet up with others: “We’ll meet you at the big blue balloon. My battery’s dying. Can you hear me? The BIG BLUE BALLOON!”
Then comes the moment when you walk through the turnstile and up the steps. Croke Park is the third largest stadium in Europe and it has an atmosphere to match its capacity. It is such a rousing feeling to be surrounded by fellow county supporters, cheering on your county team. And, yesterday, this was the point when something inside me changed. Whereas before the match started I was just nervously excited, once the ball was live I mutated into a creature unrecognisable from my usual, mild-mannered self. I screamed and hollered as well as anyone, roaring at the Tipp players to “Catch the ball!”, “Clear the ball!” and “Go for the point!” and encouraging Kilkenny to play their worst with yells of “Miss it!”, “It’s going wide!” and “Come on, that’s a Tipp ball!” Sure, the craic was only mighty.
Sadly, and despite leading at the end of the first half, it was not to be Tipperary’s day. Hats off to the Kilkenny team because they showed once again why they are ‘the team to beat’ in hurling. It was a momentous day for GAA as well with Henry Shefflin winning his tenth All-Ireland medal, a feat probably never to be repeated, but that was poor consolation for Tipp fans. Nevertheless, we held our heads high as we left Croker. We know, with unwavering certainty, that we will be back again.
After all, we’re Irish but, by God, we’re from Tipperary too.