No joke for Down but laughter the best medicine

DOWN’S All-Ireland final banquet in the City West Hotel had the potential to be the toughest gig of Paddy Kielty’s lucrative career.

On Sunday night, he stood on a stage staring at 1600 guests. And they stared back at him, each person nursing a gnawing emptiness in the cradle of their stomach that neither beef nor salmon could nourish.

The guest of honour, a gentleman by the name of Sam, had failed to arrive. It was like a papal visitwithout the Pope.

Take away the red and black balloons and the atmosphere at times was more like a funeral dinner.

And if the only people truly happy at funerals are the cheque-collecting undertakers, then the management of the City West would also have been truly delighted about hosting this event.

The gargantuan hotel is currently in receivership, but all of its 774 rooms were booked out, and if they host a few more gigs like Sunday night, they should be able to steer their way beyond NAMA’s claws.

Feargal McCormack, the chairman of Down’s finance committee, and Sean Óg McAteer, the county secretary, both provided high praise for the professionalism of the hotel’s staff.

Such niceties were not on Kielty’s menu. He started off with a cut at the hotel’s location and a moan about his “€60” taxi fare from Croke Park. “This isn’t City West,” he screamed. “It’s Mullingar.”

Kielty then moved his attention to the waitresses, most of whom seemed to hail from eastern Europe.

“If you want to show your appreciation, give them a tip. Or alternatively, marry them and make them legal residents in this country. Cead Míle Falski,” bellowed the former sub goalkeeper on the Down minor team that won the All-Ireland in 1987.

The crowd responded immediately. Peels of laughter were heard for the first time since dinner was served.

The All-Ireland banquets for losing teams aren’t exactly euphoric occasions. But they aren’t exactly wakes either.

Before Kielty had lifted the microphone, the Down faithful raised their voices in voluble support when Kevin McKernan, Danny Hughes and Marty Clarke were announced on The Sunday Game’s Team of the Year.

There were also boos at the big screens when it emerged that Benny Coulter hadn’t made the select 15.

Kielty could have played it safe by targeting all his jokes at people and places beyond Down’s county boundary. But comedians are rarely wired that way.

“I would like to pay tribute to the players at the top of the room,” he said. “I’d also like to thank the people in the middle of the room who have all paid for their tickets. Then of course, there are the people at the back from Kilcoo who have sneaked in.”

There were chuckles. There were also groans, as some feared the local lad may have forgotten just how sensitive local sensibilities can be.

Revealing the parochial pride of a typical GAA man, Kielty noted how the village of Dundrum had been proudly represented by Paul McComiskey, who scored three points before being taken off.

This information provided the ingredients for yet another joke. As he welcomed Seamus Walsh, the Down chairman and a fellow native of Dundrum onto the stage, Kielty remarked: “Don’t worry, Seamus. ‘Wee’ James will not drag you off halfway through your speech.”

Walsh, clearly familiar with Kielty’s patter, took it all in good heart. The Down chairman adopted a positive outlook. He said the banquet was a celebration of a great year.

He was followed later by Seán Óg McAteer who spoke of his optimism that the county office would be distributing tickets for games in Croke Park next August.

If there is a ‘ Down Way’ of playing football. There seems to be a ‘Down Way’ of making speeches. Both Walsh and McAteer managed to avoid the usual clichés while keeping their addresses short and succinct.

Maintaining the positive theme, Kielty managed to draw humour from the fact that Down had lost their perfect record in All-Ireland finals.

“Think of it this way,” he said. “We’ve now lost as many All-Ireland finals as Armagh have won.”

This jibe at the neighbours proved to be a universal crowd pleaser. Returning to the subject of the Down players, Kielty thanked them for providing him with his most entertaining summer since the year he had “a run at Kelly Brooke”.

The women cast looks of disapproval while the men just looked jealous. Danny Hughes and Brendan McVeigh both received robust applause when they came onto the stage to be interviewed. McVeigh promised the supporters that the team would not be “one-hit wonders”.

Team manager James McCartan also agreed to answer a few questions. In a serious and heartfelt response, ‘wee’ James outlined his personal disappointment. He had wanted to honour the achievement of the trailblazing team of 1960 by winning the All-Ireland title for a sixth time. His father James and uncle Dan had both played in that famous side and he noted how Down’s jersey included the inscription of 1960 in Roman numerals.

Quick to recognise the depth of McCartan’s emotion, there was total silence from the huge crowd.

McCartan went on to salute the work done by Pete McGrath with the U21 teams that won successive Ulster titles, and Down’s previous managers, Paddy O’Rourke and Ross Carr.

O’Rourke was among the guests. McCartan, meanwhile, revealed that his former team-mate Ross Carr had called to his home on Saturday night.

“There were tears in my eyes when he left,” said McCartan.

“Why?” quizzed Kielty with a feigned frown. “Did he try to sell you a house?”

And we laughed, and we laughed.

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