Tadhg Coakley's Páirc Uí Chaoimh pilgrimage: I sit by the Atlantic Pond, my back to the gale. Hurling is back

Tadhg Coakley's Páirc Uí Chaoimh pilgrimage: I sit by the Atlantic Pond, my back to the gale. Hurling is back

The final scoreboard at an empty Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

I’m not sure why I went down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday and listened to the Cork-Waterford Allianz Hurling League match on a radio outside the stadium instead of watching it at home or looking for a press pass to see it in the flesh.

I wanted to celebrate the return of hurling but behind a sense of juxtaposition. The one Martin Scorsese created when he overlaid the sublime music of the ‘Intermezzo’ from Cavalleria Rusticana on Jake LaMotta’s brutality and violence in Raging Bull. Or if you ever played sport in snow, where both the game and the snow are amplified and made more vivid because of each other.

I wanted to experience that liminal space between inside and outside the ground — being almost but not quite there — as we walk away from these grim days and approach a better time to come.

But I also wanted to retain some of the ritual we experience at games, however shallow or hollow it may feel compared to the real thing.

So I dug out the red Jimi Hendrix hurling T-Shirt I wear at matches (the one my niece Caoimhe bought me for my 50th) and my baseball cap and my waterproof jacket (the forecast was middling) and I headed out good and early as I normally would.

Quiet on the Boreenmanna Road, no Waterford registrations or white-and-blue flags sticking out of cars. No men in hi-vis jackets minding crowd-control fences at the entrance to Glencoo Park or Crab Lane. No gardaí turning traffic away at the entrance to Churchyard Lane. 

No crowds buzzing as they head down the hill, no sense of purpose; no anticipation heavy in the air, like pheromones. No packed pub, meeting friends and acquaintances, no craic with the Déise gang, no colour, no noise. Just out for a Sunday stroll.

Or was I?

We cling to our sporting rituals — before, during, and after the game. You have yours and I have mine. We need them, they are the echoes of the past, echoes we want to hear again as often as we can. It’s only when we lose some part of those rituals that we understand their heft and hold on us and how empty we are without them.

Our rituals also bring us back to our first match and every match since and they carry us forward to all the games to come. Repeating them each time gives us comfort; underpinning and enhancing the experience, like the chorus of a song. Sociologists call this ‘self-reinforcement feedback’ and ‘emotional entrainment’ and you can see why.

It works.

The 2021 season began with no spectators at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
The 2021 season began with no spectators at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The first sight of the stadium at the top of Maryville is a moment, even on the empty street, even without a ticket in my back pocket. There it is: Bright, high, and hopeful, outlined sharply against the blustery grey afternoon sky. But its locked gates and empty seats are a fitting symbol of all that has been taken from us, all we will hopefully soon regain.

Objects are a major component of rituals — as symbols — and I’ve mentioned several already. Rituals are pointless without symbolism and the main object/symbol in the ritual of sport is the place, the venue, wherein it all unfolds.

Humans have been building great edifices to commemorate great deeds since the time of Newgrange and the pyramids and the Acropolis. Our sportsgrounds may not have the stained glass marvels of Chartres Cathedral, but they do engender a sense of wonder and veneration.

And miracles do happen there, year in, year out.

(Speaking of miracles and symbols: as I pass the vaccination centre, I’m reminded of the little plaster high on my right arm, testifying to the first jab I’d gotten just a couple of hours earlier in MTU — the little plaster signifying new hope for us all.)

Nobody outside Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Hard to believe there’s a match on except for some cars in the car park. Three flags are flying high at the Blackrock End. ‘Riptide’ is blaring from speakers inside the ground.

I sit by the Atlantic Pond, my back to the gale.

Walkers pass by on their Sunday Marina stroll. Children are scooting on their scooters. A queue forms at the coffee station by the rowing club. Grey heron chicks cry out their prehistoric cries. A little girl is feeding swans. Black-headed gulls are squawking, grabbing bits of bread on the water. There’s a shower coming in from the south-west.

The national anthem finishes and the commentator announces that the ball is throw in.

And so, hurling is back. And the vaccine is here. The country is reopening and we’ll soon be planning our pilgrim paths again.

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