A long time ago, as we settled in for the annual torture of January training, our fitness trainer, Martin McCarthy, took to putting meaningful quotes up around the dressing room. The one that always resonated the most with me was the classic: “sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination,” writes John Coleman.
Honestly, there wasn’t much solace to be found in those words as you found yourself hunched down in the darkness, searching desperately for your breath, trying to keep your dinner down while questioning the sanity of what you were being put through.
However, a bit of perspective helps the words ring true and as with all great quotes, it has limitless context. It’s particularly apt for one of the great GAA experiences, travelling to matches.
Being a fan is a great way to get to know your country, particularly in the qualifier era. It brings you to places that you’d rarely have any other reason to go to. Let me put it this way, if Thurles wasn’t the hurling equivalent of Mecca, how often would you go there?
Of course large numbers of people wanting to reach the same destination inevitably brings its own traffic problems. You can’t simply jump in your car, drive on an empty road and park straight outside the stadium. I don’t think you can anyway, although there may be a few who expect it to be this easy.
As whispers of discontent over travelling to Cork (imagine!) emerged from the counties involved in the weekend’s hurling festivities down the Páirc, I was brought back to the carnage of travelling to Thurles in the days before the M8 and Google Maps. And it was carnage. Every place you drove through was a potential black spot.
There was the age-old problem of bridging the Blackwater in Fermoy, followed by further bottlenecks in Mitchelstown, Cahir and Cashel.
On really bad days (which were actually really good days because Cork were doing well) you might even hit a tailback in Watergrasshill.
My father isn’t one to just sit in traffic and let it take its course. There was and is always a need for affirmative action. Because of this, trips often became adventures.
“What way are ye travelling?” was as important in the pre-match chat as the problem of finding a Tim Crowley-like centre-forward. Rumours of magical traffic free routes through Galbally and Tipperary Town were pounced on and followed. But they weren’t much good if you were playing Limerick.
The best fun was always when we just followed our noses. Take a turn off the road and it must bring you somewhere. The advent of the mobile phone helped these adventures too. Traffic updates flooded back the road and cars turned off here, there and everywhere.
Knowing that Fermoy wasn’t going to be conquered by simply going around by St Colman’s meant you had to take a chance and headed for Ballyhooly. We got familiar with places like Rosegreen and Knocklofty and I was often a ball of sweat in the passenger seat, hoping the choice of roads would match what was on the map in front of me.
The greatest Odyssey of all, however, was to Killarney for Cork and Tipp in 2004.
The GAA, scandalously, does not think of the personal lives of every supporter in the country, and we had to travel to the busiest tourist town in the country on a Saturday. And Tipp wanted to re-create the story of 1987.
Cork mustered in the way that Cork can and the snarls started well outside Lissarda. We were in trouble. Then, a car turned left, and we followed. We took a chance. When we figured out where the car was going it was too late to turn back and we despairingly followed the road to Glengarriff and Kenmare. One of the most scenic drives in the country and all we could look at was our watches in silence.
But we made it. Plenty more didn’t. And I’ll never forget that journey.
The much-improved road network has changed the nature of travelling to matches forever. The journeys aren’t what the used to be and the motorways are soulless and sterile, yet strangely magnificent. But you are only a fender-bender away from real trouble, like the day of the All-Ireland replay in 2013.
Technology has made things different too. Just type Páirc Uí Chaoimh into Google Maps and away you go, everyone on the same road going to the same place. Like the time the Dubs went to Thurles to play Kerry in 2001. What could go wrong?
The matches are obviously important too. They’re the epitome of the Irish summer, one of the few things that haven’t been lost to the relentless charge of modernity, sweepers aside. In the world of ‘Everything Now’, however, maybe the journey is more important than it ever was. If we’d just give ourselves a chance to enjoy it.
Bonus PaperTalk: Peter McNamara talks to Cork U21 hurling coach John Meyler ahead of Wednesday's Munster final with Limerick.
John discusses his emotional reaction to semi-final victory over Waterford, Cork hurling's renaissance, his love of coaching, sweeper systems and tactics and much more.
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