If you didn't know better, you'd have assumed there was nothing happening in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick on Friday night.
The gates and turnstiles that face onto the Ennis Road were padlocked; not a soul was loitering. This is normally where you'll find thousands of people milling around on big match days, with the Centra shop across the road doing a roaring trade.
This wasn't a big match day, it was a small match day, but even a club game brings enough cars and people to be noticed in the vicinity. The gates and turnstiles will be opened, thereby advertising the fact that something is happening inside.
On Friday night you had to go around the back, following the perimeter wall further down the Ennis Road and turning onto a side road until you found the open gate. Even then, there was no sign of an open turnstile or of stewards or supporters. No noise from a crowd either to pull you in their direction. A dozen or so parked cars was the only clue. One fella got out and seemed to know where he was going. And in time-honoured fashion you follow the fella who seems to know where he's going.
Adare supporters Nancy, Seán, and former Limerick hurler Shane Fitzgibbon at last Friday night’s Limerick senior hurling championship clash
Around another corner, tucked away from view, is the entrance gate into the Mackey Stand. At last, some sign of life. This gate is the only point of access and egress. There are hand sanitiser stations beside it. The gate is manned by a maor with a yellow bib, a visor and plastic gloves. His handheld scanning device reads the bar code on your ticket and you're in. There's no one getting in, or indeed out, without a ticket.
Inside, on the field, two teams are going through their pre-match drills. We have a game, Doon and Adare in a round-robin senior hurling championship fixture. It's Doon's first match of the championship, Adare's second. The floodlights are on. When it comes to a seat, you are spoiled for choice. In fact you have about 8,900 to choose from, give or take, what with a capacity of around 9,000 and only 100 or so people allowed in.
In reality your choice is not quite so generous because there are swathes of seats in the Mackey Stand, with its notoriously shallow gradient and desperate sight lines, that you wouldn't choose for love nor money. People only sit in these locations because they're put there by the luck of the draw. It is hard to think of a gloomier, less inviting spectator facility in any major stadium in the country. The GAA historically has built a lot of venues where the customer was the least of their priorities. The Gaelic Grounds is one of them.
And if it's pouring rain, the front 15 or 20 rows in the Mackey are also out of bounds, unless you're forced to sit there. Happily, the rain held off on Friday evening, conditions were pleasant and warm. Everything else was pretty subdued: no tuck shop open for the children, no children milling around at all in fact, no match programmes, no buzz of anticipation, no atmosphere to bask in.
Total attendance at any sporting event remains confined to 200 under current Government restrictions for the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes teams and subs and coaching staff and officials. It will increase to 500 on August 10 if phase four of the Government's strategy is activated. The numbers have been crudely applied, given the obvious disparity in capacity between regional and national venues on the one hand, and local pitches on the other. The GAA among other sports organisations is lobbying for a more customised strategy, to match the crowd numbers with these widely-varying venue capacities. Last week, politicians across the parties were calling for a relaxation of the current stipulations.
Doon fans Anne Fitzgerald, Dan and Sinead Holmes ahead of the game at the Gaelic Grounds
The Taoiseach sounded sympathetic to the argument. "The evidence so far indicates that the (pandemic) situation has been stabilised," said Micheál Martin. "As knowledge evolves, it has become clear that lumping outdoor and indoor events together may not be the optimal approach. The GAA and other sporting bodies have been lobbying effectively and strongly, and we will try to respond in a positive but safe way."
This is the third weekend in a row of club action in Gaelic games since lockdown was partially lifted. Barring sporadic alarms here and there, it has passed off successfully so far. "It is great to see the club championships back up and running," added Martin. "It's fantastic that players are out and training again."
Those sentiments were echoed by a couple of the spectators who made it to the Gaelic Grounds on Friday evening. Shane Fitzgibbon played with Limerick between 1984 and 1993. He was there with his parents Seán and Nancy. They were there to cheer on Adare, and in particular the midfielder John Fitzgibbon, son of Shane. Seán has seen a few summers come and go in his time. Having done the cocooning thing since March, he was happy to be out at a hurling game again. "It's my life," he says. "I was looking forward to it for weeks, I did the best I could to get here, it's great to see them (the players) out there."
Shane was nodding along. "It's fantastic to see it, although I'd imagine from a player's point of view, they'd prefer if there was a bigger crowd, a better atmosphere."
A game like this could pull in up to 2,000 people in normal circumstances. A crowd of 100 was "lost" in the Gaelic Grounds with its capacity of almost 45,000. "If you had a thousand here they'd still be lost but then there are other venues that a thousand people would pack the place so I'd prefer to see them (club championships) in county grounds like this. But I understand why the Government are doing it as well, it's a situation that no one has ever seen before and everyone's only feeling their way so it's a difficult one to call, but I'd love to see more people here, it'd be a better atmosphere."
The game begins and soon enough no one is bothered anymore by the abnormal circumstances. Hurling casts its spell and everyone forgets that this hulking arena is virtually empty. All the problems of the world fall away as the ball flies up and down the field. Individual shouts from the crowd are easier heard in the emptiness. "That's the hurling!" "Ah ref!" "Steps!" "Tommy Fogarty!" "Next ball Joe!" "Steps, steps!" "Good boy Charlie!" "Good man John!" "Comeonlet'sgoboyscomeon!" "Boy, Willie, boy!"
That's Willie Griffin, marksman with Adare, after he lands another free. Willie is landing them from all angles. The match is a cracker. Adare lead by one at half-time. The players can be heard shouting too, although most of their roars dissolve into amorphous blobs of noise from the distance of the stand.
A few county men show flashes of their class, Declan Hannon for Adare, Darragh O'Donovan for Doon. O'Donovan nails a brilliant sideline cut in the second half. But his radar is off for a free from the sideline under the Mackey, in the first half. We know the ball is off target long before it reaches its destination because he lets out an almighty "Feck!" as soon as it leaves his hurley. That'd be feck with a 'u'.
The match ebbs and flows, both sides have spells of dominance, each time being reeled back in by their opponents. There are goalmouth scrambles and skirmishes too. With the pressure cranked up to its max in the dying minutes, Griffin steps up to another free. Beforehand, he has a long exchange with the referee. It goes on a bit too long for the liking of one Doon defender, who roars at Griffin to "shut the f**k up." Willie appears not to be offended. He takes his stance over the ball, twirls the stick a few times and cracks it over the bar.
The sides are level nine times; they are level for the tenth and final time at the long whistle; Adare 1-19 Doon 0-22. A drawn game usually leads to an anti-climactic reaction from the crowd; neither set of supporters can cheer. This time the sound of the whistle leads to an eerie silence. The scattered few spectators head for the gates and all is quiet on the Ennis Road.