MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Páirc Uí Chaoimh's Field of Dreams lets the side down

My hopes and dreams were wrapped up in the prospect of bringing my son to the big game in the bright, new shining Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The County Board put paid to that, writes Michael Clifford.

AT THE height of the alleged summer let’s escape from grim current affairs and turn to the business of annual rituals, to be performed when the hay is saved and somebody or other is bate.

Tomorrow tribes will descend on the town of Thurles, transforming it from a sleepy Midlands settlement into a pulsing mass of humanity.

There is no atmosphere like that which permeates a provincial town ahead of an annual clash for superiority. 

There will be the sound of laughter and the smell of fried onions and porter. There will be heads bent in conspiratorial analysis of what is about to unfold. There will be stress and tension and in the end there will be joy and despondency. 

The town will heave with expectation ahead of the game, and sag in the litter-strewn anti-climax when the crowds drift home. Job done for the year, another page written up for history.

So it goes with the small ball. If, like me, you first grope through the fog of early childhood in south Kerry, it is the Munster football final and Cork which gives the summer its rhythm. And this year’s occasion was to arrive with a ritual of some import.

I was to perform with my younger son a rite of passage that echoes down through a generation. Then the young fella, in cahoots with the Cork County Board, threw it all out the window.

My hopes and dreams were wrapped up in the prospect of bringing my son to the big game in the bright, new shining Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Forty one years ago, on the first opening of the Páirc, I was there with my father. We had driven up with another family from Cahirciveen, up through Killarney, across the county bounds and on into the foreboding metropolis of Cork.

It was my first time in the city. The people looked strange, and when they opened their mouths they spoke as if they were running up and down the city’s hills. Nobody had a normal accent like us.

A couple of things stood out from that match. At one point, during the game, crowds poured through the tunnels and out into the sideline, congregating behind the goal at the city end. A gate had been opened to relieve pressure on the ticketless masses. It was as if half of Munster was bursting to get in and witness an apparition.

And they did see one of sorts. Mikey Sheehy, the surest shot in the game, missed a 14-yard free that day. It was as if Jesus turned up for his loaves and fishes gig without a crust to his name.

Now the wheel of life has turned. My father passed away last year, on a humid July afternoon. And the newspapers were saying that the Páirc would be re-opened for the football final this year.

The ritual was all laid out before me. The younger son has a passing interest in his father’s county, although the suspicion is that it is merely a fashion statement. 

He enjoys being a little different, striding through his friends decked out in their Dubs colours, all green and gold, as if he’s trying to locate his inner Paul Galvin.

I resolved that we would go down together, stand shoulder to shoulder, the man who was the boy and the boy who would be the man. So when I put the proposition to him, he said he’d think about it.

He came back to inquire whether the deal would include some bonus treats. There I was, shepherding a ritual for our family and he’s asking how many bags of Haribo is was worth to him. I asked him whether we should give Kieran Mulvey a bell to see if he could broker an agreement. “Sure,” he said. “Whatever”.

Despite the lukewarm opening to negotiations, I saw the day unfold before us. We would take our seats in the stadium. If luck was on our side they might even be close to where I sat with my father on the occasion of the first opening. We would drink in the atmosphere, me filling him in on the history, he stuffing his face.

As the last notes of Amhrán na bhFiann would ring out, and the crowd let rip for battle, I would turn to him and say, “son, you’ve no idea what this means to me”. And he would look up at me, emotion welling in his eyes, his treats spent, and reply: “Dad, can we go home now?” 

Anyway, the dream died when the Cork County Board announced the stadium would not now be ready for the match. As per usual with the board, there was a problem. 

The game would now be switched to Killarney, a far more attractive venue for sure, but the changed venue now rendered my higher calling redundant. 

In any event, negotiations with the Haribo monster had broken down. So, I cut my losses, sneaked out of the house before dawn, and pointed the car towards Killarney, joined for the day by a friend who knows his Munster finals.

THE contest in Fitzgerald Stadium, as it turned out, wasn’t up to much. In quiet moments, my eyes strayed to the parts of the ground where I had attended with the old man.

We were behind the goal at the scoreboard end in 1974 when Mick O’Connell came on as a sub, the greatest of them all gracing the game for the last time. O’Connell was a local man, from Valentia, and through my eight-year-old eyes, superhuman. So when he was unable to change the game in Kerry’s favour in the dying moments, confusion set in. How could Kerry lose with Mick O’Connell on the pitch? This represented global upheaval.

We were on the terrace together in 1987, not 20 yards from where I stood last Sunday, on the far side of childhood. By then the family had long been exiled in the foreboding metropolis and my own accent was scampering up and down those hills. The greatest Kerry team of all was on the slide, but we had survived the turbulent teenage years.

The wheel keeps on turning. Some things get passed down, others discarded. Some hold their value, others depreciate with the years. Kerry and Cork are no longer guaranteed to meet at the main event, as was the case in my youth. 

Once upon a time the Munster final was do or die, but in the modern era it’s more about bragging rights than eliminating the foe till next year. Still, those are mere details. The occasion is what matters, as with all provincial finals.

Tomorrow, Thurles and a free pass to somebody else’s ritual beckons. Let’s hope it’s a good day for saving hay.


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