One to impress for Limerick was a young wing-forward, Kevin Ryan, from Na Piarsaigh club in Limerick city. Kevin wasn’t chosen on the original 15, was a late replacement for Mike Fitzgerald, but he notched three fine points from play, worked hard generally, had his effort publicly acknowledged afterwards by manager Richie Bennis.
There was another Kevin Ryan in Ballybricken that festive evening, however. His name didn't appear in lights the next day, nor was it ever likely to, but this Kevin Ryan was a much more central player to events in that little rural Limerick parish than anyone who lined out in either set of colours that evening.
Even though he is the hidden face of the GAA, Kevin Ryan is also its most public face, the GAA’s face most known, most recognised, most acknowledged. That isn’t being discriminatory against women; there are generations of female volunteers of every age who also have dedicated their lives to the GAA, but the face of the GAA is male, without question. And Kevin Ryan is Mr Everyman, he is the one being talked about when mention is made of the guy who lines the local pitch, the one selling lotto tickets, the one who, even during his own playing days, is coaching at underage, is heavily involved on and off the pitch all his days.
And he has to have been a player. Yes, there are those also in the GAA who never picked up a stick or kicked a ball in their lives, never with any kind of serious outcome anyway, yet they have gone on to give decades of devotion to their local club, to the games, to the association. But most of those involved have played at a competitive adult level, and for a good number of years. His club is probably not a big club, probably not hugely successful, probably rural also. Hurling or football in some form will have been played there even before the GAA was formed, but his club will have been one of the first to embrace the new tide of nationalism sweeping the country, one of the first into the GAA fold.
They will have toiled away for decade after decade, fielding teams at almost every level, rarely making the breakthrough. Perhaps once or twice they will have struck gold, they will have had a team of the ages that went on to win county honours at junior level, then soldiered with honour at intermediate before fading back into the shadows. But they will persevere.
He’s a worker, a hard worker, good provider, a solid family man. His kids will probably follow him into the GAA, not because they were forced to do so, rather because they were inspired. They will have noticed the selflessness of their father, the enjoyment and satisfaction he gets from the GAA, and they’ll follow suit. Perhaps not to the same extent, but they will become part of the scene.
He could be a pioneer but he takes a pint. Not a heavy drinker, not an annoying drinker, but he likes his couple of social pints on a weekend evening with the lads, and always at the local, probably in the same corner, and in that space the ball will always be flying, will never touch grass. Kevin Ryan represents Ballybricken-Bohermore, which represents all of the above, and more. As a club, they had their first glory year in 1932, when the East Limerick junior A title was followed up with county honours. Another East junior A followed in ’75, but the ’90s was when they really opened up. Four East A titles (’90, ’91, ’93 and ’94), county junior A in ’94, then East intermediate in ’94, ’96 and latterly, in 2005. Football too has featured, East Limerick junior A titles in 2000, ’06 and ’07, a county league in 2006. As a player, Kevin featured on the adult hurling with Ballybricken-Bohermore from 1982 to 2005, played on all those teams of the 1990s. He hurled until he was in his early 40s, but in the meantime, as he was struggling to make the club first team, he took up marathon running and in the year of his 40th birthday, ran his best time, finished the Chicago run in 3h 3m, a superb achievement. He’s married to Deirdre, has three kids, Niamh, David and Ciara. At 13 Niamh, the eldest, played in the Primary Game last year, a mark already of her prowess, David is with the U11s, with whom Kevin is involved. He was secretary of the club when he was in his 20s, is treasurer now of the new development, a project that began back in 2003, when, in conjunction with PJ O’Riordan, a generous-hearted individual who lives locally, the land was purchased for a very reasonable sum. Since then the club has spent close to €400,000, and with fundraising there will be but a small debt at completion. You don’t know Kevin Ryan, yet you do. He is the face, the true face, the healthy, weathered face, of the GAA.
AT A GUESS, the woman was in her 50s. It was hard to be more exact, not because of the lighting, or a cannily posed scarf, or any plastic surgery, but because her face was obscured by her own hand.
The pose is a familiar one to any Irishman. One of her arms was folded across her stomach and supporting the other arm: the heel of her hand was under her chin with knuckles out, fingertips on the lower lip. Half-hidden as it was, the expression was plainly that of concern writ large.
She was pressed back against dark concrete as young men streamed past in single file, all of them in matching polo shirts, all of them carrying a couple of hurleys each, all of them tilted slightly as they walked, compensating for the large gear bags on each shoulder. Their faces weren’t visible. They didn’t need to be. The woman was picking out each of them as they passed, eyes flickering in recognition as each stepped through into the darkness.
On the other side of the line of players were a couple of grey-haired men in shirt sleeves, one of them putting a hand on the shoulders of the young men as they passed into the gloom beyond.
He didn’t pat them, or slap them heartily, or squeeze their shoulders for encouragement. He just put his hand on each arm in turn as they walked along, shouldering their bags.
It looked like Thurles, the cavern under the stand that leads down past a metal barrier to the great blue doors that mark the entrance to the dressing-rooms.
I can’t be sure, though the presence of hurlers narrows it down somewhat. That’s because the woman, and the players, and the two older gents, appeared on an RTÉ advertisement for its GAA coverage some years ago.
There were other shots in the same ad: a sliotar hopping along grass, players blurring past the camera in that super-rich colour scheme, faces visible in the stylish slow-motion. But the woman’s expression stayed with me, because it sums up something about the GAA. There’s a disconnect between claiming a team as your own and shouting them on, and shouting down those who shout for someone else — and that kind of deference when face to face with the same players.
Teased out, the status of an inter-county player, worshipped and defended, is that of a man whose every step and glance for one brief hour become the stuff of legend. For decades afterwards his mistakes and achievements on a sunny afternoon in Hyde Park, or Clones, or Fitzgerald Stadium or Páirc Uí Chaoimh, are discussed and analysed. Poems and songs are written. Nicknames are awarded. He becomes part of a region’s sense of itself, a retort, a trump in arguments. He enters into the mythology.
And yet how can a mythical figure be close enough to touch? How can a hero be someone you meet on the streets of a little town, or queue behind in a bank? How can your hero be someone who lets you pull out of a garage forecourt ahead of him? Then again, how can your hero be anything else?
Existential stuff. We’ll leave that to the Pernod-and-Gauloises crowd.
In another way, the woman’s demeanour — worried, plainly — also conveys what it means to give yourself over to a GAA team for the summer. It is a commitment which is nerve-jangling and stomach-upsetting. It induces dread and unease, a desperate, gnawing fear when the star forward of the opposing team rounds one of your defenders and bears down with exact, inevitable grace on your side’s goal.
You’re assailed by rumours of discord even before you take your seat, and each little omen — the first score, the first tackle won, the first sideline — presages doom. All the sophistication of the 21st century disappears with the last echo of the anthem. Supporting your team reduces you to prayer when a high ball drops near your goal, and the vast empty steppes around the tussling pair are inviting for ravening attackers. Why is the defender under that dropping ball always smaller than the forward? The woman sums up something about the GAA experience because she defines a truth which few enough are willing to concede: following your county is torture. If you want enjoyment, try apple tart and cream. Her expression has stayed with me because it’s true. If wouldn’t matter if she were in frowzy ’40s tweeds or a ’60s mini-skirt, a suffragette’s bonnet or a replica jersey. That look of awe and respect and concern make her the eternal face of the GAA.