PM O'SULLIVAN: Heroes and heartbreak haunt Septembers with Galway

If hurling is your thing, All-Irelands measure life.

Here comes another one, as Brian Cody stands on stage at Kilkenny’s corporate fundraiser. He gets quizzed on injuries. He is questioned about life as a retired teacher. There are jokes, quips, the afternoon television side of humorous.

By way of conclusion, he is asked for an overview of this All-Ireland final.

Brian Cody pauses. There is a crease in attention. Then Brian Cody wonders, calm and cogent, whether locals are sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of defeat to Galway, sufficiently alarmed by comparison with what obtains when Kilkenny face Tipperary.

Thus one participant sprigged the buttonhole of a hurling match. Finals pair not just two teams but two traditions. Past experience shapes present atmosphere, which can impact, as Cody recognises, on outcome.

The Galway-Kilkenny tradition is singular. There is oddly little acrimony, excepting 1987’s tense encounter. Although credible accounts hold this opposition reaches parts of Brian Cody other counties do not irk, the wider reaches of interaction are emollient and level, a settled evening glitter. The absence of a border, save for the Galway Races, must be a factor.

Everyone has tradition in capsule form. Galway was my first All-Ireland, back in 1979. Not a lot survives of the day’s play, head wise. Never does, you going 12.

Most vivid: Joe Hennessy tapping his wrist at the sideline. He explodes backwards onto the field, hearing final whistle.

The afternoon was a clutch for Kilkenny supporters until the last 10 minutes, when the Galway push collapsed in bizarre extent. I remember the father’s tenseness sliding into ease.

We stayed in Dun Laoghaire with a granduncle and older cousins. While I spun for mackerel, one cousin hauled a conger eel from under the pier. His friend is getting slagged for being so done up, heading off to meet “his mot”, rasping with aftershave.

That Saturday, the imminent end of the world was announced around Dun Laoghaire’s streets, which felt a fright. Monday, the bantam chicks seemed so much bigger than three days before.

If hurling is your thing, All-Irelands measure life. 1987 was likewise Galway, a drowning wet occasion. I was never as disconsolate afterwards, not even in 2010. There and then, the truth of Kilkenny’s failure to take a single title between 1984 and 1987 dropped: wasteful out.

Another unavoidable recognition: that 1982-83’s fine team had run its race and shot its bolt. Liam Fennelly was prescient in stating that Kilkenny would not win another senior All-Ireland until one or two minor titles were landed.

That morning, I went to Barrys Hotel to meet Larry, who had emigrated to London. I was living in Ranelagh, with another Ballyhale friend. Pat fussed not about hurling but got found a ticket.

We ordered porter and the day started. Pat wanted to ask Larry about London. Dublin held nothing. Pat emigrated late that year and is there still, a successful businessman, married with two children, settled near Stansted.

This girl in Galway colours across the bar… This girl and myself kept glancing, as the lads chatted prospects. She was gorgeous and dark-haired and freckled. Beauty is never a cliché, simply because it is beauty, whatever Mundy’s earworm, 21 years later.

I was (and remained) useless in such spots. Eventually someone arrived over: “Would you ever go and at least find out her name, yah big Kilkenny eejit…?” Áine - what else — was from Mullagh, every bit as lovely as she looked. They were staying with friends in Rathmines. Paper was located, number written down.

Win, lose or draw, I was to ring between eight and half eight. They would probably be in Slattery’s, later on. Then again, if Galway won, they might go to the team hotel.

Ring, she said.

We trooped from Croke Park in fusillades of rain, beaten by six points that felt like 16. The Shamrocks crew, Seán Fennelly aside, had not gone well.

Having walked as far as Trinity, we decided on a bus to Ranelagh. Fumbling for the fare, I saw the piece of paper had disintegrated into fluff.

I sat down on the ground, right down, and gave up all ghosts. Pat looked over, with sodden disgust: “Ah, for feck’s sake… It’s only a game of hurling.” We went to Slattery’s, stayed all night, but Áine never appeared. Where were mobile phones when truly needed?

Another measure of life was 2007’s encounter, when an All-Ireland quarter-final etched. Tragedy had visited several families, including a hurler’s family.

That win might have been Kilkenny’s finest performance during the 2000s. The standard of play from both teams was incredible, with hardly an unforced error. Even in that heightened context, the occasion astonished. Galway, every bit good enough, ended up caught by Eddie Brennan’s cat burglar way with goals.

The good ship sailed on, out of tragedy. Sometimes you have to mutiny against life.

The yardsticks find us. I met Larry, by chance, at last September’s drawn All-Ireland final. He lives now in Grays, out in Essex, settled too, the same jovial out-and-out gentleman.

Back in the day, we clicked over the brilliance of Motörhead, arriving from different sides of the equation. I remember us digging worms in Derrynahinch to go fishing, Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse Songs and Stories (1987) put blaring out the window.

“At least it’s dry,” Larry said last year. “Not like ‘87!” Courage is the only sure source of momentum. By and by, all along this barely celebrated summer, Galway acquired both qualities in spades and hearts and diamonds and clubs. They will have cards to play on Sunday. Would anyone be seriously surprised, given this season’s curve, if Galway had trumps?

If they do, I hope that beautiful girl from Mullagh, pitched into middle age like myself, enjoys it just as much as 1987, when we were young and all but met.

Tomorrow, PM O’Sullivan assesses where the final might be won. Or lost.

Heroes and heartbreak haunt Septembers with Galway

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