Tuesday 20 March 2018

Did yiz hear the one about football in Kilkenny?

FANS: Dublin supporters in Kilkenny ahead of the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship quarter-final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
FANS: Dublin supporters in Kilkenny ahead of the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship quarter-final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Gemma Fullam

Every year, at summer's genesis, the pilgrims come to Kilkenny. Their God, the Joker; their religion, laughter; their penitential meal, a pint and chips; their penance, a dud gig and three almighty hangovers. The sun almost always shines, and the Marble City's medieval streets ring with giggles, guffaws and general glee.

This weekend, a new tribe mingled with the mirth-seekers. The Jackeens, clad in blue and white, left behind Croker's hallowed turf for another holy ground, far beyond the Pale: Nowlan Park. The sacred sward of the peerless Kilkenny hurlers has been trod by worshippers of all creeds and none; caman commanders from Ollie to DJ to King Henry, legends in their lifetime and beyond; to rock royalty from Bocelli and Bruce to Dolly, Dylan and their disciples. This is turf with soul. The hungry heartland of hurling.

But the Dubs didn't come to Noreside for a clash of the ash. They brought their own ball, and it wasn't a sliotar. It was a football. The Metropolitans motored down the M9 thinking their leather sphere was some class of exotic invader; an alien curiosity never before seen in these black-and-amber parts. But as they settled their backsides in packed pubs from Cleere's to Langton's, and broke bread in restaurants and chippers from Rinuccinis to Joe's, they were educated.

As the balmy June evening turned to night, while pints were supped, and curries and carbonaras were consumed, the Cats shared stories with the Liffeysiders. Football stories. Kilkenny football stories. Stories of the legendary Railyard team of the 50s and their two five-in-a rows, back to back; of the mighty men of Muckalee; of street leagues with striplings in miners' boots, using rocks for goals; they spoke the names of the heroes who thrilled their parish many a fine Sunday - the Meallys of Moneenroe; the Murphys of Tullogher, the Fitzgeralds of Glenmore, and Timmy Wilson, the Pele of North Kilkenny. The festival comedians told of the footballing fun they've had on the Fair Green every year, since 1995. Ireland versus The Rest of The World. Come watch us, the stand-ups said. It's no joke.

It was a kind of communion.

And on Saturday morning the sun shone, and ice cream dripped onto the blue jerseys. From John Street to Irishtown, "Up the Dubs" was heard; the clarion call of Cat Laughs 2016. Any Cat who heard it echoing on the soft summer air smiled and was glad. Because there's hurling and there's football, but only one religion: sport.

Last evening, the Dubs streamed into Nowlan Park, and as they sat, the dappled sunshine on their shoulders, waiting for their blue-and-white warriors to face down the O'Moore County men, they sensed the ghosts of those fine Kilkenny footballers, now brothers in arms. Up the Dubs. And on the seventh day they rested, looked at what they had done and saw that it was good.

Sunday Independent

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