Tadgh Coakley: Days like tomorrow are the soul and centre of our lives

I've yet to meet a person who doesn't remember their first All-Ireland final. I certainly do. 
Tadgh Coakley: Days like tomorrow are the soul and centre of our lives

Passion project: A Limerick fan kisses the Liam McCarthy Cup through the perspex on Hill 16. "Days like Sunday grant us those emotions and they are the soul and centre of our lives. The soul and centre." INPHO/James Crombie

Do you remember your first All-Ireland final? I think you do. I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t.

I certainly do: it was in 1976 and I was 15. My father got me a ticket in the old Nally Stand and I took the train to Dublin on my own – my first time ever doing so. 

Then walking to O’Connell St (I wasn’t brave enough to get a bus from Heuston Station) and following the crowd from there to Croke Park. Entering the famous old ground on the Jones Road and walking up the steps to see the pitch for the first time. The great sea of colour on the Hill and around the stadium, the red and white, the purple and gold.

Tomorrow, young Kilkenny and Limerick fans will be experiencing Croke Park and an All-Ireland final for the first time in their lives. And they will have that moment forever, the gift of a lifetime. There with their mother or father; there in body, mind and spirit.

And the sound, the sound when the teams parade past them before the match. That sound.

In his book with Fredrik Ekelund, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the emotion he heard in a Norwegian football crowd in Oslo, shortly after a lone gunman massacred 69 young people on Utøya Island in 2011; and the collective grief of a whole people in that sound, in its intensity.

But, he says, ‘The feelings football arouse are an imitation, that is the feelings are genuine enough, but they are not binding, they are not tied to any reality but one which is artificially constructed for us, twice forty-five minutes.’ 

The poet Patrick Kavanagh had a similar view. His essay ‘Gut Your Man’ acknowledges the identity and community inherent in a GAA life and he did live that life for a time. He was also very invested in the local, as his poetry affirms. 

But he was not convinced that sporting emotions could have the solidity necessary to be a foundation for great literature. The emotion in sport, he said, was ‘a momentary puff of gas, not an experience’.

I think that Knausgaard and Kavanagh are wrong and I’ll prove it the stories of three people in the Lower Hogan Stand tomorrow.

Zoe is eight and she’s a passionate hurling fan from Patrickswell. She told her friend Saoirse in school last November that she’s going to marry Cian Lynch when she grows up. It’s been an emotional week for Zoe. First her Mam said there mightn’t be a ticket for her, they’re very scarce. She cried. Then her Mam came home Thursday and said there was a ticket for her after all, the club got twenty extra. She cried. Then she found out that Cian Lynch was injured and might miss the match. She cried.

Fast forward to tomorrow, Zoe’s first time in Croke Park. The day is a blur of excitement. Her Mam and Dad send her back to bed at 6 a.m. Her little brother Daniel is so annoying, he’s going to their cousins for the day and Dad is late bringing him over there. Eventually they get going. Then Mam wants to stop for coffee at some plaza. Then there’s a crash ahead of them on the motorway. There’s loads of cars with green and white flags. Not so many with black and amber. But everything falls away – everything – at that moment when she and her Mam walk up the steps and she sees the pitch for the first time. She hears herself make a sound.

‘Are you okay, love?’ her Mam says.

She is. A smiley elderly man from Waterford with a shake in his head sits beside her. He says he’s going to cheer for Limerick, too. His name is Michael.

During the parade the noise gets too loud and the shouting around her is too much. Michael is crying. Zoe holds her Mam’s hand.

Fast forward thirty years (it’ll go too quickly, Zoe, but you don’t know that yet). Limerick versus Clare, a grudge final. Zoe is only ten rows back from where she was in 2022. She can pick out the exact seats, there’s a family there, bedecked in saffron and blue. Zoe lost her Mam to cancer the previous April after a tough battle. Her little boy, Adam, is beside her. He’s wound up. As the teams parade before them, Zoe reaches out to hold his hand.

Seán is 49. He’s a TV producer in RTÉ. Lives in Dublin but he’s from Waterford City. A proud De La Salle man like his father, Michael, before him. Michael has Parkinson’s. It’s not advanced but the change is noticeable and Seán was surprised when Michael rang him during the week to know could he get tickets for the final on Sunday.

‘Good tickets now,’ Michael says. ‘Not too high up, maybe the Lower Hogan.’ Seán calls in a favour to somebody in Croke Park.

On the steps down to their seats, Michael falters and Seán holds his hand. When was the last time he held his father’s hand? He can’t remember.

As the teams pass them in the parade, Seán notices his father is crying. Seán cries too.

Breda is 43, a primary school teacher. Shamrocks to the core, on the Knocktopher side. She went to primary school with Henry Shefflin. Her mother says they’re related to the Aylwards. Breda lost her father to Covid last year. But at least she was able to visit him in the hospital and she held his hand as he took his last breath, telling him how much he was loved and how much she always felt loved by him. At least he didn’t die alone.

He used to bring her to all the matches. Her first was in ’87 when Galway beat them. She cried all the way to Drumcondra where her father bought her an ice cream. Then she cried all over the cone.

‘We’ll have plenty more,’ her father said when they got home. And they did. Their last one was in 2015. On that glorious day as the teams paraded past, led by Ballyhale’s own Joseph Holden, her Dad turned to her said: ‘This is what it’s all about, Bridie girl.’ He used to call her Bridie after his own mother.

Now she’s sitting in the Lower Hogan, beside a nice mother and daughter from Limerick. The girl, Zoe is a dote, she’s wicked excited and why not? The seat on Breda’s other side is empty, and she wishes it wasn’t. Who has a ticket for an All-Ireland and doesn’t go?

As the parade passes before her the din is tremendous. How she has missed this. She puts her hand on the back of the seat beside her and roars ‘Hon Kilkenny!’ Tell me the feelings of those three people are an imitation, artificial, or not tied to any reality. Tell me their emotions are a momentary puff of gas, not an experience, not worthy of great literature.

Days like tomorrow grant us those emotions and they are the soul and centre of our lives. The soul and centre.

The Game: A Journey into the Heart of Sport by Tadhg Coakley is available in bookshops now.

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