Where we sported and played

THE MARDYKE still exists.

It wasn’t pancaked and paved to put up apartments, or a shopping centre. Even though there’s been a lot of development there, Joni Mitchell would approve: they put up a parking lot, but they wrapped a state-of-the-art leisure centre around it.

The modern running track gets plenty of use by UCC students and members of that leisure centre, as do the adjoining GAA and rugby pitches. All things considered, it’s a fine facility.

I was five or six when I visited the Mardyke for the first time. My father brought me to the Cork City Sports, and though he was a fan of just about every sport, a customs officer on the Western Road might have heard “Giving his mother some peace and quiet” if he had asked for the purposes of our visit.

That’s a long time ago, but some images of that visit have never really left me. That amount of grass in the middle of the city was a huge surprise, for instance.

So was the sheer amount of business going on: an athletics meeting generates a lot of small thickets of officials and coaches, congregating at random points, not to mention athletes warming up.

The brightest memory, though, is of the runners in one of the races: I have a clear impression of my surprise when they thundered past on the grass, the sheer rumble of their feet on the ground, their physical presence.

I was too small even to have the Olympics as a comparison, but that impressed itself upon me — that the athletes were flesh and blood, men who were breathing erratically, who had sweat gleaming on their shoulders. The brightness of the colours of their vests remained vivid even as they hurtled away.

The City Sports weren’t policed as strictly as the Beijing Games, say, and a small boy had no problem getting to stand at the bend for home of the running track, alongside the cord hanging on slim timber stakes which marked the outer boundary of the running area.

When the runners went past, I trotted back to my father, who would have been lying on the ground, half-raised on an elbow, ready to field a battery of questions from me.

I know for definite that I stood at that final bend, and that I retreated when the runners passed for one simple reason: there were television cameras covering the meeting and when RTÉ’s weekly sports programme broadcast highlights, there I was: standing at the outside curve, watching the runners go by, then turning away at the top of the shot as the camera followed the runners home.

I can’t be sure but I like to think that the clip was shown on Sports Stadium on a Saturday afternoon, maybe with Brendan O’Reilly hosting, resplendent in his early-70s glory: hang-glider collar, dense, invasive sideburns and tie with a knot like a pineapple.

I could hardly talk. I had a navy-blue polo shirt with a white collar, the kind that Brooklyn hipsters probably pay a hundred dollars for nowadays to preserve their coolness, though they’d probably pass on my hairstyle, a helmet of blue-black density that would have warmed a German at Stalingrad.

It was not a fashionable decade.

I hadn’t really thought about that day for a long time, even though we returned to the Mardyke on the evening in 1984, for instance, when Russian hammer-thrower Yuri Sedykh broke the world record, and I played some soccer on the all-weather pitch as a student.

But a couple of months ago I was in Dublin and got a taxi to Heuston Station, and the driver got talking about Cork. (For which much thanks: on the same trip the driver who took me from Heuston Station into the city spoke about the psychiatrist RD Laing from Collins Barracks to the Merrion Road).

The latter driver was recalling the friends he’d made in Cork, and the athletics meetings he’d participated in — at Ballincollig barracks, Fermoy, the Mardyke.

“The Mardyke was different then, though,” he said. “Grass track.”

Well, Proust had his madeleines; I had a taxi driver. I won’t say the memories came flooding back — who would care to associate the word ‘flood’ and the Mardyke again? – but it reminded me of a great day out.

Sports Stadium is no longer with us, and neither is Brendan O’Reilly. The taxi driver’s grass track is nowhere to be seen and my father is gone, too.

But the Mardyke is still there. You can still walk up the Western Road and cut down past the Cricket Club, and in the corner gate of the ‘Dyke if it’s open.

There you can see the grass of the GAA field, and if you’re minded to do so you can let your imagination out for a trot.

You can remember how it felt to sit on the ground on a warm summer’s evening, in your blue polo shirt, looking along your dad’s long arm as he pointed across the field to the winner of the big race, far, far away.

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