Parochial pride fuelling the passion

I HAVE it from a reliable source that the poor Pope in the Vatican was in very bad humour yesterday morning.

A wise aide gently queried: “Is there more bad news from Ireland?”.

The Pope grunted over his egg: “The worst yet. We lost the county final to Doonbeg!”

It was not widely known in Vatican circles until yesterday that Liscannor, soundly beaten by Doonbeg in the Clare decider, is officially the Pope’s parish. He is the PP of Liscannor and clearly cares. The fallout from these October Sundays when the clubs sort out their titles across the lands is felt locally, nationally and even internationally. These are the Sundays when the GAA’s foundation units rock and roll.

It is at this time of year that the elite stars and indeed All Stars of the counties come back home to serve and honour their beloved home clubs. The pitches are wet and heavy, there is no Artane Boys’ Band, there is often only one or two smallish stands. Only parish pride is at stake. But they are playing the game with their friends and neighbours, colleagues on the U14 teams of their growth, often against determined parish neighbours who share a long and bitterly contested tradition and this is all so different to Croke Park. Yet, to a man, the county stars will always say that their clubs matter more to them than their counties when the chips are down.

And the stars usually pay heavily for their commitment to club. Opponents try harder to take them down a peg or two. They will be double-marked at least, hit hard, fouled when it is deemed necessary by men who played minor club football or hurling against them, know their weaknesses, and believe that they would have filled the county jersey just as competently as the stars do.

Yet the stars make a huge impact on their county finals. That is inevitable given the fact they are now virtually semi-professional given their county training regimes. To take only two examples from the encounters last Sunday: there would be no replay of the Monaghan final at Clontibret were it not for the flashing feet of county star Tommy Freeman when he scored a vital goal for his Magheracloone club. The final nails in the Glen Rovers coffin were hammered home by the giant Michael Cussen of Sarsfields. Many of the upcoming county finals will also be decided by the exploits of, in all fairness the semi-professionals from the higher levels of the games.

Is that just one wonders? It is a complex issue. Can the stars be prohibited from deciders at club level? I don’t know the answer. There are often imbalances when small clubs without a single county star aboard battle through tough campaigns to a county final and are faced by opponents with two or three stars in their ranks. It happens and will probably happen again before this year ends. Would it be fair to the stars to be limited in any way in helping out their home clubs? Probably not. And any exercise in limiting their influence would require legislation as complex as any likely to be encountered in the Supreme Court. We will live with the situation as it stands for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, down where it matters most, the football and hurling finals excite and stimulate both the players and the grassroots supporters. It mattered as much on Sunday to the people in Ballyhaunis that they defeated Tooreen in the hurling final as it did to the stalwarts of the St Mullins club in Carlow that they had a goal to spare over Mount Leinster in their hurling final. The plainsmen of Four Roads in Roscommon will celebrate their clear victory over Pearses as wholeheartedly as the perennial Oulart the Ballagh clubmen will relish defeating Saint Martins in the Wexford decider. Final results in the big hurling counties attract more headlines than, say, in Sligo, (champions Coolera-Strandhill), or London, (Kilburn Gaels), or Kerry, where Ballyduff prevailed, but all of them breathe life and vigour into the clubs which continue to touch the hearts of their communities and , in so doing, continue to breed the stars and the All Stars whose exploits thrill us all.

The deciders are not as elemental nowadays as they used to be.In my own county there was a final being played in the Forties in a pitch beside a river.

It was between neighbouring parishes. At a crucial stage the ball was kicked into the river and was slow in coming back. A spectator roared: “Never mind the bloody ball-go on with the match!”.

We hope for more of the same excitement on Sunday right across the island.

By which time hopefully the Pope will be in better humour!

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