GAA: 2013 a year never to be forgotten
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things brought GAA to new heights in 2013
In a Sydney church close to Bondi beach this week, the congregation glowed with all the colours of a Monopoly board as displaced Irish sons and daughters wore their county jerseys to Christmas Mass.
That scene in the parish of St Patrick's represented some kind of communal love letter to home for those whose lives have been put through the wash, rinse and tumble-dry of emigration. You can't really look at the photographs without sensing heartache behind the smiles.
But GAA jerseys are seen all over the world now, worn as quiet statements of identity. They articulate sense of place in a uniquely local way, probably unfathomable to most other nationalities. The GAA gets many things wrong but, without it, what would an Irish life be?
By some distance, the greatest sporting spectacle this column witnessed in 2013 was the replayed All-Ireland hurling final. Next best? A toss-up between the drawn final, the All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Kerry and that remarkable November rugby international between Ireland and New Zealand.
Sure, you can pick individual nuggets, from Rob Heffernan's gold medal win to AP McCoy's 4,000th winner, to small multiples of boxing, racing, cycling, golfing and rugby glories, but the GAA habitually pours more colour into an Irish calendar year than most other sports combined.
Even before the ball was thrown in for that Clare-Cork replay on September 28, you couldn't escape the sense of privilege palpable in an already floodlit stadium under that perfect azure sky, contemplating a game that could not possibly disappoint.
The setting was world class, the spectacle soon to unfold nothing less than epochal.
Think of the things we bore witness to that day. A 19-year-old genetics student from Ennis writing his name across the sky. A county that had won just three All-Irelands holding its nerve against the extraordinary onslaught of one with 30. Great goals flying past like sparks from a smithy. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Hurling men simply being the best that they could be.
This column has often recited a quote given to us some years back by the normally reticent Declan Kidney, in which he observed that, if Irish rugby had hold of the GAA's talent pool, "the All Blacks wouldn't keep the ball kicked out to us!"
We still romanticise the great Dublin-Kerry battles of the '70s and early '80s, yet this year's championship game between the counties flew to an even higher orbit.
For, if the legend of the '77 semi-final was forged on 20 minutes of wild escapism, the 2013 game flapped with that same, unreadable intensity for a full 70.
Think of Dublin's hurlers winning their first Leinster in more than half a century with a game plan prioritising accuracy over emotion. Think of Limerick winning a first Munster since '96 and an old-style pitch invasion of the Gaelic Grounds by people for whom the achievement represented some kind of freedom.
Think of the raw, uncomplicated bond between Kilkenny hurlers and their people that first Saturday in July when Tipperary were evicted from the championship in, hard to believe, a Phase 2 qualifier. Think of the firework show that was the Cork-Dublin semi-final or any number of other hurling epics -- Kilkenny v Waterford; Dublin v Kilkenny by two.
Think of the other great football games: Meath pushing Dublin to find the best of themselves in Leinster; Monaghan breaking the supposedly unbreakable Donegal to win a first Ulster since 1988; think of London -- who in 30 years of trying had only won a single game in the province -- making it all the way to Connacht final day.
Live in a GAA world and it becomes easier to watch Lance Armstrong do his snake-oil salesman bit with Oprah Winfrey or observe Sergio Garcia choose his manners from the cave without being consumed by dismay for what sport can do to the human condition.
In a Sydney church this week, I suspect that was part of what people were articulating through the wearing of colours that would make Liberace blush. They were acknowledging that there is still a part of being Irish that makes them proud, one transcending all the spoof and crookery that has forced many of them from home.
And they miss it.