All Ireland final: A lifetime of passion for hurling shared by close rivals
If you happen to hail from the hurling heartlands of Tipperary or Kilkenny, then chances are you class the sport itself as one of the loves of your life. But as the excitement reaches a crescendo ahead of the hurling final tomorrow, one man will be spending his 53rd wedding anniversary in Croke Park.
Michael Byrne (87), from Callan, Co Kilkenny, and his wife Maura - originally from Galway - will be shouting on the Cats together, as Michael has consistently done since he started going to the All-Ireland finals in 1945.
The couple raised their family in Drogheda, Co Louth, but kept their home county loyalties.
"We were all privileged as children to get carried over the turnstile at Croke Park with our paper hats and sandwiches and often fretted when Kilkenny came up against Galway because we didn't want to upset either parent," laughs the couple's daughter Siobhán.
Michael did his best to drive hurling in Louth and he coached for many years in a local national school at under-age level. He was an active member of Coiste Iomana and the Louth County board - and his eyes will be amongst the sharpest watching the progress of the sliothar tomorrow.
His lifelong passions are but a vignette of the pure love of hurling that is shared by the fierce rivals from Tipp and Kilkenny.
Slap bang on the border, JJ Kavanagh Coaches in Urlingford is working full speed ahead for a busy weekend.
"The Electric Picnic is kind of getting in the way," admitted managing director Paul Kavanagh with a rueful laugh.
The company is carrying the Kilkenny team to Croke Park - a great privilege, declared Paul.
There'll be one bus for the players and one for the wives and partners and, together with the fans, Kavanagh's will be bringing about 1,000 people to Croker.
"Some people think that it's Tipp's turn to win," Paul said thoughtfully.
It was 'Black and amber day' at De La Salle national school in Kilkenny yesterday and nobody batted an eyelid when Brian Cody himself quietly dropped in the previous day.
The former principal of the school still trains the hurling team three or four times a year, says deputy principal Noel Power.
This is believed to be the only school in Ireland that can boast three All-Ireland-winning captains and standards are high, said Noel, as he watched twins Cody and Callum Owens (5), from junior infants, practise their puck-out skills amid great concentration.
"You can see the skill even at this stage," he claimed.
A lot of the pupils have connections. Allen Larkin (9) is the brother of player Eoin, while John Drennan (10) is a cousin of left wing-forward TJ Reid.
Both boys are hoping to get to the match and are confident the Cats will win.
Meanwhile, the Tipp supporters are brimming with confidence that they can put a halt to Kilkenny's three-in-a-row gallop.
"4:15 to 2:12 - that's my prediction. Tipp to win," said Michael Costello, who was certain of victory.
In the middle of the town, Bernie Donnelly was putting the finishing touches to her window display - a bold statement of blue and gold done in pretty summer dresses.
"We do it all the time," Bernie said.
People stop off and take pictures. And it's a great way of selling dresses.
"It always sells the stock," she said - adding that she recently had a wedding couple come in and take photographs for their album in the window.
"It was an idea the bride wanted," she said.
Up the road, in an elegant room under renovation in Hayes Hotel, is where it all began.
The birthplace of the GAA is the old billiards room at the front of Hayes Hotel. It has now been clad in timber panelling painted a striking shade of blue by new owner Jack Halley, who bought the hotel after it went into receivership.
Receptionist Danielle McClearn pointed out the original plaster cornice work and the windows.
"There's a lot of discussion about which room the meeting was held in, but we know for certain that it was this one. It was the billiards room at the time," she said.
The new owner plans to make it into a meeting room, Danielle said, adding that the GAA connection was a very special touch.
An Englishwoman, Danielle is looking forward to watching her very first hurling final and is fast learning about the passion for the game in the county.
"I'm looking forward to experiencing it," she said.