I saw two photos on Sunday, on the magnificent, blissful day that Limerick attained Nirvana and won the All-Ireland Championship for the first time in 45 years.
The two photos summed up hurling for me.
Sport, really, but hurling particularly.
The first was posted on Twitter by a Limerick man. It is of a cross on his father’s grave. His father only died last February so there isn’t a headstone yet, just one of those temporary wooden crosses we have to put up with for a year or so.
Around the top section of the cross, somebody had tied a green and white headband. And the man had posted the photo on Twitter to thank whoever put it there.
I suspect he had gone to the grave on Saturday evening or Sunday morning before he travelled to Dublin to the game. Now why do you think he did that in the first place? On that specific day? There’s a lot on, a lot to do. Why go to the grave on that day?
Why do you think? You know why. I don’t have to tell you.
And he saw the headband there. Wrapped lovingly there, by somebody — he didn’t know whom.
Now, what did that mean to him? Can you imagine that moment, when he passed the other graves, along a familiar path? Said a quiet hello, maybe, to somebody leaving the graveyard?
Then he saw the little splash of green and white on the brown wooden cross. Perhaps he was with his daughter or his son, or his wife. Can you imagine how he felt at that moment? Did he put his hand to his mouth? Were his eyes dry? Did he say something?
That’s hurling. That single moment. Right there, distilled all the way down to the emotion when you see some unexpected green and white on a cross.
Family is everything, Michéal Donoghue said, tearfully, last year after he put the cup into his father Miko’s hands in Ballinasloe the day after the final. That was the picture that summed up hurling for me in 2017, and the one of Joe Canning with his mother Josephine after the semi-final against Tipperary — this year it’s two new photos.
Family is everything. And hurling is family. So, what does that make hurling?
The second photo was posted on Twitter too by a writer I know from Kilkenny, on the day that was in it. The photo was of her father at a match. A close shot from the side, he’s reading the programme I think, and he has a black and amber headband around his head.
She must have lost her father recently, too, because she posted of how she was thinking of him yesterday, of how often they’d gone to finals together to cheer on their beloved Kilkenny.
Of course, she was. Of course, she did.
And do you think that many graveyards were visited on Sunday evening and Monday morning in Co Limerick?
I think they were.
Can you picture those scenes and what the people standing by the graves were thinking, remembering, saying? In the quiet of the graveyard?
How deep does hurling go?
How deep do you think it goes?
It’s not in the shouting at final whistles that we see the real meaning of hurling, of sport. Not even in the headline shot on the front of sports sections of newspapers.
It’s not in the screaming that deafened the gods, on Sunday in Croke Park. Or last night when that team entered that stadium on the Ennis Road. Yes, it’s there too, don’t get be wrong, when we see young men in ecstasy hug each other and old men and women weep amid the din.
This is the externalisation of sport, the flow out from within. And it’s lovely, don’t get me wrong. And we need it and love it.
But the place that hurling really dwells is deep within. Buried there, for a long time. In the quiet. In the quiet of a photo above the television set that you went to and touched when the final whistle blew on Sunday. The hat still hanging in the utility room because you can’t bring yourself to move it, but glance at every day. The grave you promise yourself you’ll look after better, now that there’s a bit of rain and growth again.
Or when you suddenly see your late mother in your young son’s eyes. And how your mam loved to go to matches, how it made her feel so alive, so herself.
And your son suddenly says, are you OK, Mam? And you smile at him and give him a hug and do not speak, but remain quiet.
Right there. In the quiet.
The author’s debut novel, The First Sunday in September, is published by Mercier Press and tells the story of a fictional All-Ireland final Sunday.