On Sunday, on the day of the official opening of the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh — on the day when the Cork senior hurling and football county finals were decided — there were many emotions for those present.
My first time going to the new Páirc was last July when Waterford and Wexford played in the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final and on that day, when I turned the corner of Maryville to walk down that familiar hill to the ground, I felt pride.
It was a kind of Cork pride too, since I was among Wexicans and Waterfordians. This is ours, it’s special, and here you are visiting — enjoy.
On Sunday, the pride was there again, when ministers and dignitaries came to ‘open’ the ground, and when I was among my own in our new stadium, at the familiar drama played out every year — the ‘little All-Ireland’ as we humble Corkonians like to call it.
Partly we call it that in irony and partly… well, partly because when we’re among our own, especially at a hurling event, we do feel that little bit special and chosen.
And there was that sense of belonging, even as neutrals, that this final is part of us, the last great ritual of the Cork GAA year — a good year for hurling in the county, not so memorable for football. A sense of being part of a family, with shared memories — good and bad — and shared hopes and dreams for the year coming.
On the day that was in it, there was another sensation. We were at a point where the past, present, and future were intersecting. Remembrances of past games in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, great and meaningful, glorious, and agonising were running around our heads.
That sense of hurling and football reaching out at us from our childhood, when we shared precious moments with those who’ve gone from us forever.
I was at the match with a woman who last attended the ground in 1983 with her father, a couple of years before he died, and she was thinking of him on Sunday. Sport does that.
That sense too at the opening of an impressive and forward-thinking monument to Cork hurling and football — that affirmation of the future and that our games have a future, that their future is secured. That something very important to us is safeguarded — this feeling makes us relax and breathe more easily. We like that emotion.
And for me, it was another kind of confirmation on Sunday, a personal one — that hurling is immortal, that it was always somewhere within our psyches and our souls and that it always will be. I see it as an eternal sliotar falling from out of a sky into a raised hand. Falling eternally towards a reaching, ready hand. Falling in the past, falling in the present and falling forever in a future where girls and boys will want to reach their hands up and grasp it, and pull it down to them.
There was another emotion too: The usual one before matches — that frisson of anticipation, that quickening of the heartbeat before the fray. Even as a neutral there is that feeling, though of course it’s greatly heightened on days when my own club or county are involved.
And finals are especially exciting — it’s the ultimate agony or glory. There’s nothing in between, there’s no ‘next time’.
It’s all on the line and the whole summer’s toil and dedication and hope and all the trials and tribulations to get to the final will mean everything or nothing at the end. It’s do or die and there’s nothing in between.
Hence the excitement: The empathy with the inconsolable goalkeeper who made a mistake at the end, a feeling that any ex-player will especially feel because we all know it could have been us. The vicarious feeling of joy with the winners, jumping up and down with their cup among their friends and neighbours and families. Even as neutrals we feel these emotions and they are real.
They are why we leave our firesides and TVs in the deepening of autumn to experience the year’s last great dramas of Cork hurling and football play themselves out to the end.
On Sunday, it was Imokilly and Nemo Rangers who were reaching up, arms aloft after the game, jumping up and down, mouths open in grins, eyes smiling in joy and in relief — wanting to linger, to milk the preciousness of the moment of all its power and potency.
The men of Blackrock and St Finbarr’s were on the ground, heads down, bodies hunkered down, faces downcast, wanting not to be seen, to be somewhere away from watching eyes, somewhere they could just suffer in peace.
Even as neutrals we share in these highs and lows. It’s why we watch sport and read about it and are so invested in it. And if you doubt that sport is about emotion, think about why there is music at our games. What can stir emotions like the sound of a marching pipe and drum? What can stir us to a sense of communion with those beside us like sharing a rousing rendition of our national anthem? This isn’t nothing, this isn’t trivial. We feel too much for it to be a kind of intellectual or academic exercise of detached observation.
This is participation. We are involved. It matters.
Yes, even as neutrals we attend matches and another emotion we like to feel at those games is admiration. We are amazed by the great physical presence of Paul Kerrigan forcefully soloing the ball out of danger with the game in the melting pot and his team on the rack.
We are amazed by the stunning rebound finish of Seamus Harnedy having had almost no impact on the game at all in the first half.
Even if we are not personally invested in either team, we can still wonder at the power and grace of young men under pressure.
As to the hurling match on Sunday, it was passionate — passion being the deepest of sporting emotions.
For a time in the first half, it seemed as if the great skill and hurling nous and speed of mind and hand of the Imokilly forwards would overwhelm the apparently more ponderous Blackrock team.
But the Rockies showed their pride and desire and ball-willing abilities and aerial power and they clawed their way to a climactic finish. In the end they were cruelly undone by an inability to finish in front of goal, whereas Imokilly’s three goals were clung with precision.
Very often that’s the difference between teams and for that alone Imokilly deserved their win. Blackrock didn’t deserve to lose, but somebody must and often it’s the team who can’t finish in front of goal.
No shame there, but pain, yes. Agony yes and there can be no glory without the real lurking presence of that agony in the corners of our consciousness.
Early morning sensations this coming winter for those young men when, half-awake in the dark, they will feel something isn’t quite right in their world, and then they’ll remember that dreary autumn Sunday when the match was lost and they’ll shake the feeling off as best they can and get on with their day.
That’s what all sportspeople long to avoid, but what most cannot.
And that’s why, come next spring, most of them will rise that bit more brightly when another chance to ensure a different result will come their way.
And when they awaken to the hope that this year, their captain, surrounded by his comrades, will skip up those steps and take the cup and raise it high to the new roofs over Páirc Uí Chaoimh stands, to the dull October cloudy skies, to the amber leaves on Montenotte hill, to the cheers of their families and friends surrounding them.
Because there is always another year if we let it be so. That’s the best thing about finals, win lose or draw. And that’s the greatest sporting emotion of all: Hope.