The sand martins have returned to Woodstown Strand, dreamy with memory and promise – back from Africa bringing our summer with them. Myself and herself (a local) have an early walk on the beach before I head for Thurles and it’s lovely to see a few pairs swirling around the high sandy cliffs near the Carraig.
Not leaving from home seems strange, without the usual rituals of a championship breakfast, newspaper, clothes, tickets, money, dithering, pickup points and times, diesel, fellow-travellers and discussions.
But the white and blue is flying high in Déiseland and it’s great to see.
My first Wexford strawberry stalls of summer on the Dunmore Road. I drive down the Waterford quays and over the Suir into Kilkenny, a county famous for its marble. I head north along the motorway. An unfamiliar pilgrim path, but all roads lead to Thurles when the Munster Hurling Championship rolls back into our sightlines. And it’s Mayday; Bealtaine of old; the first day of summer; my father’s favourite month; the month of light and warmth and hope.
Gorse and whitethorn are speckling the fields of south Leinster. The horse chestnut is in full flower.
Outside Freshford I see something strange: a buzzard hovering like a kestrel, its huge wings fanning. Full of menace like Limerick forwards ready to pounce on a loose short puck out.
Obviously I can’t tell you our normal surreptitious route and entry point into Thurles, which cuts miles from the walk to the stadium and hours from the car journey. Everybody has their own ‘secret’ way, forged in the fires of bitter experience – read The Lord of the Rings about Frodo and Samwise’s unwise navigational choices trying to get to an Under 21 semi-final in Mordor Park and you’ll get the idea.
Today the road takes me through Urlingford (site of many a Josephine’s fry in those distant pre-M8 days) and Twomileborris. I face my car for home and park.
My comrades are in ensconced in Hickey’s, which is very quiet. We have a pint and a catch up and discuss the changes in the team.
Ah, Thurles. Is Thurles beautiful? Interesting? Noteworthy? Objectively, the Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland would argue no, not mentioning the town once in its 700 pages and over 200,000 words. But today, objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. To me Thurles is beautiful, interesting and noteworthy; redolent with history – personal history, cultural history, living history, future history, not the Rock of Cashel type. And the crowd in Thurles is beautiful, too. A crowd I’ve missed. My crowd, my tribe.
Liberty Square is quiet for a championship day. It looks like rain. One of the sellers of colours – his face full of forbearance – has added ponchos to his fare of hats, flags and headbands. His heart isn’t in it, I can tell, whatever ails him.
My favourite part of Thurles days is the anticipatory walk up Parnell Road to the stadium. This is also my favourite part of the town. It doesn’t have the Dublin inner city vibe of Jones Road. It doesn’t have the quotidian familiarity of Blackrock Road in Cork. It doesn’t have the Shannon River or the Ennis Road’s leafy shade. It definitely doesn’t have the upper class D4 wealth and confidence of Landsdowne Road. It’s a normal street with normal houses in a normal Irish town. The kind of street I grew up in. The kind of street in which I live now.
And when I’m walking up that road (and thankfully it’s a good length) I’m tick full of hope and memory with a sense of belonging and licence I feel almost nowhere else. Having entered the seventh decade of walking up that plain beautiful road, I feel close again to the boy of eight who first skipped along it in the 1960s beside his father. My days of skipping are over but in moments like these I think I could.
People are taking selfies with four guards on horses by the primary school. I see a family in the crowd. A young girl (let’s call her Aoife), maybe six or seven, is hand and hand with her mother. Her sister, Sadhbh, a few years older, is walking beside their father. Aoife has a red and white headband around her forehead, Sadhbh’s is tied around her ponytail.
In the Old Stand I see Aoife and her family take their places a few rows down. Sadhbh is animated, but Aoife is more subdued, her eyes big with wonder. She forgets to wave her flag until she sees Sadhbh doing so.
In the 28th minute, with the score at 15-4, I see Aoife (without her headband) being led away by her mother. They return at half-time.
When Alan Connolly scores his wonderful goal near the end, we all stand and cheer and I look for Aoife but I can’t see her.
At the full time whistle the people before me drift away and there she is. Her mother and her are sitting, their heads close. Her mother’s arm is around her.
I walk down the steps in the crowd. As I pass, I see Aoife stand up and wave her flag as the players leave the field. She waves it high and watches it flutter.
The walk away from the stadium is different from the walk towards it. The tension before the game and the drama during it have spent themselves. Some young men from Clare before us are ebullient and rightly so. All through the game their team was as powerful, precise and beautiful as a Claire Keegan sentence.
In Hickey’s we purge some more of our disappointments and watch Derry’s masterclass against Tyrone. The lads are going for food in Cahir but I decide to head straight home. The celebrations of Sinead’s birthday with my wonderful in-laws the night before are catching up with me.
The clouds darken and the rain pelts down when I reach the motorway, in a neat pathetic fallacy.
I stop in a service area outside Cashel for coffee. Then signs for Cahir and Mitchelstown, Kilworth, Fermoy and Mallow.
I cross the Blackwater and woody old Corrin Hill appears mysterious in the mist, its cross hidden. I used to run up that hill when I was in secondary school, when sporting roots took hold in me; their tendrils still pulling me to games almost half a century later. When William Faulkner wrote about us labouring in old webs of heredity and environment, desire and consequence, history and eternity he probably wasn’t thinking about recurring days of wonder in the home of hurling – but he was, too.
So Aoife flies the flag in Semple Stadium.
And the sand martins have returned to Woodstown Strand.