Yesterday was a special day in the long list of special days that sport has given us. Yesterday brought us together in so many ways.
It didn’t matter what county or club you were from; it didn’t matter what soccer team you followed; it didn’t matter what sport you favoured, your accent, or which jersey you wore. Yesterday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh we were all the same, we were one in the certainty that what binds us is so much greater than what separates us.
Sport is often compared to religion. And you can see why. The pilgrimage to Croke Park or Semple Stadium, the rituals before going to the big game in Oriel Park or Turners Cross, the worship of Glasgow Celtic or Manchester United players, the rapture when the Kerry or Dublin football team takes the field, the veneration of the Munster or Ireland rugby jerseys – the list goes on.
But one of the key elements of religion is communion — from the Latin communio (a sharing in common). It’s used in several ways in religion, there are many types, and this is true for sport too.
When I think about sport and what it means to me, what it does for me, perhaps this is what I get most. I get to share in common with others — with my own.
Which means I don’t feel alone. And I don’t like to feel alone – I’m a pack animal, we all are. We want to belong. There’s a safety in it, a comfort.
We all want to feel part of something bigger, too, something that will last after we’re gone. It’s why we have religion and it’s why, in many ways, we also have sport. To feel part of something grand, something eternal.
Yesterday, in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, we felt deep inside a sense of belonging – one that we prize, and that our foremothers and forefathers prized. We felt it in the certainty that it will also be cherished by our children and by theirs, long after we’re gone.
I have never felt this level of communion so completely at a sporting event before. Of community. It was joyful.
Normally, for matches, it is our tribe against ‘the other’. It’s us or them. That frisson in our gut when we’re about to go into the fight, all that is at stake, the win we so desperately need.
We didn’t have that yesterday. In many ways, the game and the result, the teams, the players and the standard of play were immaterial. There was no ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – in fact, there was no ‘them’ at all. And that felt good. Our presence there defined us.
Before the game, as I walked down Churchyard Lane toward the ground with my friend after our obligatory pre-match pint (I did mention rituals, didn’t I?) the atmosphere of lightness was infectious. Children skipping, instinctively joyful at not being at school on a Tuesday, going to an event with family and friends, famous men on the pitch, the sense of thrilling purpose. Accents from all over the country, the green of Ireland and City and Celtic, the red of United and Cork.
Yesterday was a celebration, rather than a contest. A thanksgiving. We paid tribute and gave thanks for our hero, Liam Miller – but in doing so, we were also giving thanks for much more.
A sobering moment before the game, when it was announced that the mascots were Liam’s children and nephews. The reality of the occasion seeped into us. Followed by the solemnity of the minute’s silence when our heroes lined up around the centre circle and bowed their heads low. We stood there, in the quiet, in our tens of thousands, and held back tears. Well, we tried. Even sport and heroism cannot protect us from some things.
Yes, we remembered and honoured Liam Miller yesterday. We did it among our own. It was a sharing in common, the best of communions.
We gave thanks not just for Liam Miller, but for all the Liam Millers – the sporting young to whom we owe so much, who have inspired and thrilled us and whom we have lost too soon. All those sportswomen and men who have enriched our lives in ways we can barely comprehend or articulate, but know instinctively.
It was a day of recollection and respect. Of who we are and where we’re from and what we have.
While the Miller family, Marymount Hospice and others benefited financially and in so many ways yesterday, the real winners were the 42,878 people present – to have shared in that moment.
It’s us who were enriched and renewed from the experience. In the knowledge and the comfort that we did well by one of our fallen. We did right.
We spoke as one yesterday. We said: ‘Liam, boy, you owe us nothing. It’s we who owe you.’ And we repaid some of that debt.
The game was … well the game was the game. There were goals. Roy came on and we cheered. It was great fun, as sport can be. After the final penalty was scored, Liam’s picture was put up on the big screen in the Blackrock End. There he was, suffused in light, shining in his City jersey. And we were washed in emotion again.
Walking out of the Páirc, as You’ll Never Walk Alone echoed out around the stadium, I couldn’t help feeling that we were better people than when we entered it. A little bit prouder of who we are and that we’ve given succour to a family in their time of need and done right by one of our own.
You’ll Never Walk Alone blasts out in Pairc uí Chaoimh in honour of Liam’s time at Celtic pic.twitter.com/TJbky8W15c— Cork's RedFM Sport (@BigRedBench) September 25, 2018
But, at the same time, we feel a little bit humbler, in the knowledge of what we, too, could so easily lose. A little bit more grateful for what we have and sadder for what we have lost. With a greater resolve to be the kind of people we aspire to be. Walking a little bit taller, perhaps, out through the gates and down the Marina, by the river, under the trees, their leaves colouring to amber in the Autumn chill. Holding our children’s hands a little bit tighter, in the crowd, as we head for home.
Yes, we’re better, alright.
For this and for everything else, thank you, Liam.