Nothing, upon losing an All-Ireland final, quite prompts you to bite the lip and the tears to well as arriving back at the hotel and seeing and walking through your people.
As the players and mentors of Ballyea made their way through the lobby of the Johnstown Estate in Enfield last Friday night, there was an air of apology about them.
It wasn’t just they had lost to a magnificent Cuala team; it was they hadn’t performed anything like their true selves. One of them made their way over to me and shook my extended hand.
“Sorry we couldn’t have given you more to shout about,” he said before shuffling off to what you assumed would be one of the longest, toughest nights of his hurling life that awaited him.
That was then. But a little after midnight? If anyone was to have innocently walked into the function room the club had hired out for the night, they could have sworn Ballyea had won.
A funeral had turned into a party. The dancefloor was full as bare-chested men waved their shirts in the air. Kids were dancing up on the DJ’s stage. All that was missing was the cup.
The story of how the mood of the night was transformed rests in how a club and its community has been transformed.
When team manager Robbie Hogan was asked to say a few words to the club’s supporters both in Enfield and again at the homecoming in Ballyea the following night, a keen sense of hurt still radiated from him but also an overriding sense of pride.
He spoke about the roads travelled. How when he began hurling for Ballyea, there wasn’t even a club pitch.
There was The Slob, a damp plot of ground down by the Shannon Estuary. But he and his friends loved The Slob. After they’d finish their jobs at home and the cows were in, they’d get up and cycle on their bikes, then throw them against the hedge.
On the way home they might raid an orchard or two, like John Joe Garvey’s, who from the stage last Saturday a smiling Hogan conveyed his belated apologies to.
A little over 30 years later, the convoy to The Slob had morphed into one heading for Croke Park.
He briefly reminisced about other old friends. In the lead-up to the final The Clare Champion
produced a special supplement which included a feature on Hogan’s six uncles and his own late father who all hurled.
Joe Hogan passed away over 20 years ago but seeing a photograph of him in the local paper last week, it was as if he had been brought back to life, and for that Hogan warmly thanked his players.
Everywhere he could see and feel the love. He pointed to the little black-and-amber cardboard jerseys that were strung all above the bar in that hotel function room. It was the kind of gesture and decoration you could easily have missed but Hogan didn’t.
Those jerseys were made by the kids in the local national school, all with a little note. Hogan had a particular favourite. His right-hand man for the last five years as a team selector had been Raymond ‘Reggie’ O’Connor.
On one of the little cardboard jerseys, little Sophie O’Connor had proudly declared that Raymond O’Connor was her dad.
A few minutes earlier club chairman Pat Moylan had commenced the formalities by being the first to take the microphone and point out that although things hadn’t worked out on the day for the team, they had still had the most remarkable season.
It triggered not so much a heckle as a growl from one of the players’ tables.
Locally, Gearóid ‘Gudgie’ O’Connell with his warrior-like style of play has been as celebrated in song and verse as Tony Kelly and off the field there’s a brilliant bouldness about him too; had he been for the casting of Braveheart, he’d have landed the role of the mad Irishman, Stephen. Trying to sugarcoat a defeat like this didn’t sit with Gudgie.
But he’d come round. At the end of his few words, O’Neill, well drilled from his county board duties to giving ‘Béidh Lá Eile’ speeches, declared that he had no doubt Ballyea would be back.
And so just before Hogan finished his little speech, a grinning Gudgie piped up: “Not to worry, Robbie – sure we’ll win it next year!” The team captain Stan Lineen also spoke briefly yet powerfully on the night.
He and his teammates were heartbroken there wasn’t a third cup to bring home to Ballyea but he’d remind everyone that there’d be tougher battles in our lives than losing a hurling game.
Two nights earlier a car crash in Inagh left a three-year-old dead and a family devastated. As Hogan would put it, any day you can throw your legs out of bed, it’s a good day.
So March 17 was a good day and an even greater night as people started throwing their legs and even shirts out on the dance floor.
When the team brought the Canon Hamilton Cup back to Ballyea for the first time in the club’s history last October, they were accompanied by a piper, but last Friday when it came to something to welcome the team into the function room, it was felt that would be too melancholic.
And so the DJ was asked to play something else. This magical run of Ballyea has prompted a lot of songs and poems but something written decades ago by an Australian rock band remains a favourite anthem among the natives.
Don’t ask when or how it started but anytime they hear the opening chords and chant of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’, they tend to go a bit mad in Ballyea; just Google the name of the place alongside ‘New Year’s Eve’ and see for yourself.
It was too soon after the game for anything exuberant upon the song’s first airing in Enfield, but when it came on again sometime after midnight, there was no such restraint: just like in that YouTube clip, the shirts came off.
Even Pat Hehir, a club stalwart who must be close to 70, was cajoled into it, with one of the players saying to him: “Pat, either take it off or I’ll rip it off!”
And on they went into the night, even after they put back on their shirts. Dancing and singing and chatting and laughing away just like the people of Ballyea had for the past six months.
Maybe this Ballyea team won’t make it back to Croke Park. Maybe they will and return home with the cup. But if they do arrive at that destination, it’s hard to think the journey could be more magical than this one.
As Hogan has put it, it felt like there was no winter in Ballyea. We won the county. Then we won over the county – west Clare, east Clare – nearly the whole country. We went through to Thurles, yeah Thurles, and we had some fun.
Our children sang songs about ordinary local lads doing something extraordinary. We took our children by the hand to Croke Park.
Last Monday night, winter finally arrived in Ballyea. The U21s played a first-round B championship game in a deluge of hailstones and were beaten by O’Callaghan’s Mills.
In the coming weeks, all the ingenious banners and most of the flags and bunting will come down, and as Hogan says, Ballyea will almost look like a different place.
Maybe, but it’ll still feel like the new Ballyea. The place his team put on the map. (‘Let’s call out the name – Ballyea, Ballyea!’) The place his team brought together.
That’s why everyone danced and sang to Thunderstruck and everything else on Friday night. We might have lost an All-Ireland final but we were still together.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved