Lyon, Paris, Roscoff, Brussels, Geneva — the departure points for the faithful returning from their footballing pilgrimage are as varied as their destinations.
Dublin, Cork, Galway, London, Melbourne, Toronto. If football is a religion then the Irish came from all over to witness miracles in France, and left with the tiny scrap of evidence needed to prolong the faith and enable the obsession further.
Robbie Brady’s header in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy sweatbox in Lille will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to be there for it, and will propel fans into the campaign for Russia 2018 with a sense of optimism.
The Euros were a real Gathering of our Diaspora, not a contrived PR stunt designed to milk tourism dollars from descendants, but a real occasion for Irish — both from Ireland and of Ireland — to congregate and celebrate our identity.
Away from the social media videos of attention-grabbing hijinks were tens of thousands who mingled, sang and exchanged stories in between roaring themselves hoarse in stadiums in Paris, Bordeaux, and Lille.
Pub conversations among new acquaintances would inevitably lead to identifying the degrees that separate one another, to “place” our new companion within our personal networks that at once seem both so widespread in a global sense, yet so immediate in another as we realise just how connected we all are.
It is that very immediacy among strangers that has charmed fellow fans from abroad — the innate understanding among Irish people that it’s a small world, and sure if I don’t know you, I probably know someone who does, so do you want a pint? That small network also explains why the behaviour of Irish fans dances on the line of what is acceptable without ever crossing it. No one wants to be the one to tarnish our reputation, because you’d be identified fairly quickly if it were to happen.
Some of the best stories I was told over the past fortnight were also the ones I was told were completely off the record. Nothing salacious, illegal or immoral, just the kind of amusing yarns that end well, but have the kind of exposition fellas would rather their mammies wouldn’t read about back home lest they worry.
While there was socialising and camaraderie abound with fans of all nationalities over the past fortnight, the instant friendliness we brought with us was particularly well received by our hosts, and was the perfect antidote to the fear that has paralysed France since November.
Hindsight obviously affords such benefits, but after the past two-and-a-half weeks it now feels like a lifetime ago that we left home under the cloud of terrorism threats and scaremongering headlines that had those left behind clutching their departing loved ones that little bit tighter as they said goodbye.
However, now for us the party is over, and those tired bodies board planes and ferries back to reality. The Euros will go on without us, but will be worse off for our absence. And we’ll always have Lille.