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Dermot Bolger: The football was forgettable... but the atmosphere was unique

WHEN you read this, three portly middle-aged Dublin men will be nursing hangovers. But, as I wrote it, soon after Dublin's semi-final victory over Donegal, they were singing Take Her Up To Monto outside my house in Drumcondra, while practising a homo-erotic dance routine that may perhaps be an obscure variation of the New Zealand Haka rarely seen outside Cabra.

The Donegal family getting into their car across the street were smiling at them, but if you had seen your county beaten by two points in a decidedly dour and ill-spirited physical encounter, and faced a five-hour drive home, you would have needed something to smile about also.



Logic

John Keats wrote "A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness". By this logic, the on-pitch action during yesterday's defensive non-spectacle of a semi-final will have already passed into nothing.

But if the football was forgettable, what remains unique and unforgettable is the atmosphere around Croke Park on match days like yesterday. An even headier atmosphere will exist on September 18 , when Dublin renew rivalries with Kerry.

For anyone who has witnessed the policing and segregation arrangements that need to be implemented at certain sporting events abroad, there remains something wondrous in that notion that Dublin and Donegal fans yesterday could mingle freely on the streets around one of Europe's great stadiums and the worst-case scenario likely to arise from it might be an alarming increase in the matrimony rate.

Sundays in Drumcondra are generally quiet. Yesterday, even the birds had taken a Trappist vow of silence when I pulled back my curtains at 9am to find myself, semi-naked, staring out at 3,000 Donegal fans who had materialised from nowhere and were sitting at the open boots of cars eating ham sandwiches and staring back at me, trying to remember back to exactly when my style of underwear went out of fashion.

All sports have superstitions and rituals. The ritual for travelling GAA fans is to eat ham sandwiches on Drumcondra's footpaths at dawn. It is what their fathers and grandfathers did and they won't change tradition now. The great Donegal and Kerry teams of the past did not win anything by eating grilled ciabattas with prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and organic sun-dried tomatoes.

These early parkers were, of course, only the advance troops. Over the course of yesterday morning, the main Donegal invasion force arrived. Before now these visiting fans are more preoccupied with genealogy than sport. People invariable discover that the person on the wall opposite Fagan's pub is their third cousin twice removed. Whole families, and occasionally entire villages, find themselves united by chance outside the Cat and Cage.

In keeping with these straitened economic times, large numbers of Donegal teenage girls wore county jerseys two sizes too small for them -- a gesture of social solidarity with the dispossessed only outdone by the Dublin girls who converged after noon in jerseys three sizes too small.

An outbreak of crime involving GAA matches did occur some years ago, but this involved elderly Leitrim bachelors leaving the minor match early and attempting to resell their invalid tickets. A large body of police were present yesterday, but these mainly consisted of unmarried gardai too mean to travel to Lisdonvarna to find a spouse.

What was witnessed yesterday was the miracle of 80,000 people peaceably mingling as they set off to watch 15 contests of unarmed off-the-ball man-to-man combat on the pitch. Even these duels were kept within respectable limits -- though a red card was harshly branded for a punch that wouldn't have registered as a point at the European Boxing Youth Championships taking place in City West.



Mingling

When it was over, 80,000 people poured peacefully back out onto the streets of Drumcondra: Donegal and Dublin jerseys mingling.

Rival supporters returned to their cars side by side. The victors and vanquished drank together in pubs off Dorset Street. The hot dog stand vendors had acquired the price of a holiday home in Spain --although, such will be the demand for All Ireland final tickets that you might need to swap a holiday home for one of those.

All that left by this morning -- apart from empty pint glasses on window sills -- were flags and bunting in Dublin colours that will grow -- along with numerous Kerry flags - in the next three weeks as an intense rivalry recommences. It will be as fierce on the pitch on September 18 as it will be friendly on the streets of Drumcondra: an everyday miracle so unique that we take it for granted.

Dermot Bolger is a novelist, playwright and poet


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