IT’S 15 years, or more, since my colleagues in Ballybore GAA Club put Operation Noel’s Funeral into place.
“The way we look at it, Noel,” explained the then chairman, “they will come from all four corners of the earth, if not further, when you shuffle your mortal coil.
“There’s no point trying to make a plan the morning of the wake — particularly as we won’t have you to rely on, as so often before.”
And so they drew up an incredibly intricate schedule, involving road closures and opening of fields for parking, and ran it by me for approval.
I commended them on their good work, then completely gutted it: their estimates of 3,000 people per county were not wide of the mark, but they hadn’t allowed for the numbers who would want to come on all three days.
Fail to prepare, I told them, my voice trailing off.
Each year, we have a mock funeral just to make sure all arrangements are in order.
I get into the casket, primarily because the sight of me prostrate concentrates all minds, though it has led to a number of false alarms.
“Death of Noel leaves a great void” is the headline the papers usually go for, before clarifying the day after.
Why do I bring this up today?
Well, this week, the club and community had to activate Operation Noel’s Funeral for the first time in earnest, if not anger. It started with the usual Sunday evening trickle of a dozen or two, but by midnight Sunday the local radio was urging people to stay indoors unless their business was urgent.
Nancy ran out of sandwiches by 2am. The Ladies Committee, of which she is chairperson, arrived shortly after 2.35am. At 3.05am, I had to tell Denis Walsh: “You better tip on now, Denis, I’ve bigger fish to fry.”
Martin Sludden was sheepish. “Martin, Martin, Martin,” I said, “you made a monumental error. You know it yourself. You should never have gone back in to consult the umpires.”
I warned him about the tash too — and by the way, Tohill, expect a call from Ballybore 214 about your inappropriate use of side-locks — before Nancy spirited him out the front door while a fist-fight broke out over loose reversing in an adjacent field.
I would pick Joe Sheridan’s comfortable gait out of a thousand silhouetted people, just as well because that was exactly how he arrived: shortly before daybreak, joining the shuffle of countless pilgrims to the door.
Nancy suggested we let him jump the queue. I ruled he had done enough jumping for one season.
When he got in, the usual pleasantries, how’s life Noel, how’s the family, who was the finest left half-forward you ever saw, my father said you were the best there was, often saw you win matches on your own…
After 35 minutes, I cut him off.
“Joe,” I said, “you’ve a lot to learn. A man of your alleged style should never accept a goal like that. You should have stood up, rambled out eight or 10 yards, and planted it in the bottom corner.”
I added: “If I were you, I wouldn’t even count that goal in my all-time championship tally — not that you’ll be needing the abacus anytime soon.”
He was chastened and subdued.
Sheridan crowd-surfed out over the throngs in the backyard, and last I saw of him he was making for the culvert with a blanket and a copy of my first book on attacking play: “Whenever, whatever, however: and, most of all, when all is said and done, clever.”
Peter Fitzpatrick was in next, two hands spread wide like a frightened Croke Park steward. I told him he would have to slow down if he expected people to know what he was saying. A quick learner, Peter, he thanked me profusely for the depth of my insight, and made for home again.
And that’s how it went through the night, forlorn faces arriving for guidance.
Brian White — agreed the socks-up are a dreadful mistake and resolved to correct.
Kevin McStay — better to be unloved than pitied, I told him.
Cian Ward — ear-plugs are the only man, I said.
Colin Judge — there are ways to foul, and ways to foul, and you know none of them, I barked.
On and on and on, county board officials and Leinster Council delegates, media men and fiery women, tearful children and sulking grandparents. I gave what time I could.
When, finally, I laid me down to rest, Nancy could sense what I was thinking. “Will I ring the Ladbrokes line, Noel?” she asked.
Do, I nodded. “I have a funny feeling we haven’t seen the last of Louth.
“Ring a hotel in Drogheda, too,” I added, “I have an even funnier feeling Louth haven’t seen the last of me either.”
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