56,000 pay silent tribute as Croke Park mourns Con's absence after 60 years
THE battle cry thundered, from the Hills of Donegal to the Mountains of Kerry, it echoed across the open plains of the Curragh and it swept up the Lee.
In their droves the supporters marched in a tribal gathering that spanned the generations.
But missing from that old familiar seat on the Canal End, half way up on the Cusack Stand was one whose absence was palpable.
The big, shy man whose gently mesmeric way with words had made sense of it all for so many people and who had helped bring the game of football alive was not present at a big game for perhaps the first time in over 60 years.
A minute's silence was followed by applause that reverberated throughout Croke Park yesterday in memory of the late great sporting journalist, Con Houlihan, who died over the weekend at the age of 86.
As a photograph remained on screen of the giant of a man who had managed to combine literature, history and every conceivable facet of Irish community life with such success in his writing on sport, a tribute by GAA president Liam O'Neill was read. Con had been revered by young and old and the Irish sporting landscape will be "a lesser place for his absence". Maybe it was kinder that the proud Kerryman did not have to witness such an agonising defeat. But one thing is for certain -- Con would have greatly enjoyed what turned out to be not one, but two, epic games of football.
With a double billing of quarter finals on the cards, yesterday had been dubbed "Super Sunday" by a media keen on slangy, catchy titles. But it turned out to be a title that fitted. There was scarcely time to draw breath after the excitement of Kildare v Cork before it was time to fasten the seatbelts again for the bumpy ride that was Kerry v Donegal.
The GAA was celebrating, with ticket sales of precisely 56,191 -- more than even the Dublin game the previous evening.
In the grey of the day, the bright colours of the fans mingled and merged. Kerry fans seemed thinnest on the ground and were notable for striding, no need of directions, towards the relevant stand. Kildare fans, having the least distance to travel, seemed to arrive the latest, while the Cork fans were quietly confident the sacrifice of going to Dublin was going to be all worthwhile in the end.
Karen Cassidy from Waterfall, Co Cork, who was there with friend Aoife O'Sullivan from Rathmore, Co Kerry, was adamant Cork had victory in sight. All along the route taken by the warrior fans, Dublin flags defiantly fluttered, as a reminder that Croke Park was the neutral United Nations built on enemy territory.
Battle wounds too were flaunted. Caoimhe Walsh (12) from Mountcharles, Co Donegal had broken her elbow falling off a wall a few weeks previous but not even her unwieldy cast could stop her from making the trip.
Donegal not only seemed to have attracted the most fans yesterday but they were also the loudest, the most cheerful and the most colourful.
On Jones' Road, James the face painter was nimbly dabbing the cheeks of anyone who was up for it, for the modest charge of €2. "I've done quite a few and it's nearly all Donegal so far," he said, his green and gold pots accordingly diminished.
Outside the Croke Park Hotel, piper Christy Murray from Raphoe, Co Donegal, was blasting out a few bars of the Hills of Donegal.
"I haven't missed a game in 20 years," he declared. There had been many disappointments along the way -- but now they were facing Kerry, "the masters". This was the biggest test of all, he said.
But first it was up to the Cork men, as they nimbly saw off the Lilywhites, charging into their sixth All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final in seven years.
A small breather, with music by Rula Bula and then the atmosphere changed for the next battle.
At the start it seemed Kerry were just playing with Donegal in what was incredibly their first championship meeting ever.
But slowly, Donegal chipped away at the Kerrymen, point by point until it became undeniable -- Kerry were losing the game.
Until Kieran Donaghy clawed their way back with a goal.
"I thought it was all over," gasped a Kerry fan in relief. There was just one point between them. Anything was possible. Until Donegal scored another -- and the final whistle sounded.
"They're an old team now -- they're finished," said the same Kerry fan, almost in tears. "It's the end of an era."