So, why has there been such an outpouring of generosity and kindness towards Kieran O’Connor and his family over the past few weeks?
And why did the faithful make their way down to Páirc Uí Rinn last night, at short notice, to watch a challenge match on a freezing cold Wednesday in March? I think the reason is love.
We don’t like to talk about love in relation to sport. We (men, especially) don’t like to talk about it at all. And, particularly in sport, we prefer warlike imagery: It will be a battle, He’s some warrior, ’Twas do or die.
In his sports book String Theory, the great American writer, David Foster Wallace, bemoans this fact. That men talk about their ‘love’ of sport but using the symbolism of war and that “war’s codes are safer for us than love’s”. I think the reason we use warlike symbolism is because there is a ‘them versus us’ element in sport and the ultimate ‘them versus us’ is war – so it heightens and clarifies the contest to its purest/strongest form.
But last night was different. Because there was no real ‘them’ last night – I hope Kilkenny won’t mind me saying that, they behaved more like brothers than rivals by coming down – there is no need for warlike symbolism. In fact there was only us there, all of us (whatever colour jersey, whatever accent, whatever gender or age), active together in a single cause.
The whole event – one of the many events being organised by the Friends of Kieran – was beautiful, and that’s another word we’re not comfortable using in relation to sport.
But that’s what it was, and (again this is from Wallace) the power and appeal of human beauty is universal.
We saw the beauty of Kieran as the footballer and now we see the beauty of Kieran as the man – and because he is one of us, our empathy is transformed into love.
Being part of a collective is one of the main comforts of sport. The playwright and Gaelic footballer from Cavan, Tom McIntyre, called sport a “taking refuge in the collective”. And we need this safety in numbers most of all when we’re in trouble.
Wonderful to have the opportunity tonight to show our support for Kieran O'Connor and his family. Thanks to the @OfficialCorkGAA & @KilkennyCLG hurling teams and management, all involved in the running of the event and all who attended! #friendsofkieran @friendsofkieran pic.twitter.com/etcEoRT6dF— Cork GAA Chairperson (@CorkGAAChair) March 27, 2019
Like starlings in a murmuration when a predator is nearby, we don’t want to be on our own. For starlings, the predator might be a falcon, but for us, too often, it might be cancer.
We know we are privileged to live where we do, in circumstances where we can enjoy hurling on a spring evening in safety and the consolation of our own people around us. We only have to look at the world, or even closer by: to the sick alone in hospitals and hospices, to the homeless alone and bereft on our streets. But we know too, how vulnerable, how fragile our safety is – everything can be taken from us in a blink: by a worrying lump, the results of a scan, a tiny mistake on the road, depression.
The truth is that we love Kieran O’Connor, and all the Kieran O’Connors – not in a schmaltzy sporty way, but in a literal way. When we watch them as players, it’s an idealised kind of love. It’s a love of self, first and foremost. As children we see ourselves in our sporting heroes and we dream of being like them, when we grow up. As adults we see ourselves as we could have been, a better version of us, in a different life. But it’s also a love of our identity, of who we are and where we come from. Sports people embody that identity, somehow. And so, we love them.
The word family has been used a lot recently in the events around the fundraising for Kieran. And what sets family apart from others? It’s love, pure and simple. We see ourselves in our parents and siblings and children and so we love them – and we know they love us back and would do anything for us. How else, apart from love, can we possibly explain the incredible outpouring of goodwill and support and funding we have witnessed since Graham Canty’s piercing article in this newspaper on March 8 last?
There’s so much wrong about sport — we see it almost daily. But there’s so much that’s wonderful, too, if it’s done in the right way and for the right reasons. It can make us soar, lifting us free from the limitations of our lives, if we allow it.
And we allowed it to lift us last night and in all that so many are doing and giving for Kieran.
Hopefully last night will have given a lift to the O’Connor family too – in the knowledge that everything being given, is being given with love.