Sunday 21 January 2018

I'm your fan, by Joan Burton, Dublin

'The Taoiseach has a green and red tie if Mayo win. I don't think he'll need it'

Dublin GAA fan Joan Burton at last year's All-Ireland semi-final clash with Mayo
Dublin GAA fan Joan Burton at last year's All-Ireland semi-final clash with Mayo

IT'S my little-known claim to GAA fame that I once walked the hallowed turf of Croke Park. It was back in 1966, when I was in secondary school, and a spectacular pageant featuring schoolchildren was held in the stadium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Until then, Croke Park was a mystical place to my friends and me. I have vivid memories of how the streets where we grew up would fall silent during big games, as people crowded around radios to listen to the wonderful commentary of Micheal O'Hehir.

The place that the GAA has in the hearts of people was again driven home to me in the 1980s, when I lived for several years in Tanzania.

Travelling long, dusty roads through the countryside, we'd come across Irish missionaries in some of the remotest spots imaginable, and one of the first things they'd want to know is if we'd heard any of the GAA results from home. There was no internet then.

I've loved going to Croke Park ever since my 'debut' on the pitch – and nothing beats being there when the Dubs are winning and the Hill is in full voice.

The semi-final earlier this month was one such occasion – mind you, it was nerve-wracking for most of it. There can be some hair-raising moments in politics, but for sheer drama and breathless excitement, the semi-final took some beating.

It was a stunning spectacle that showcased the game and the GAA at its very best.

I thought Billy Keane put it best writing in this paper after the semi-final. "Dublin were magnificent. Kerry were magnificent. Epics need two teams, but only one can win."

At the end of the first half, with three goals plundered, it looked like that would be Kerry.

But Dublin readjusted and, believing resolutely in their own abilities, stormed to a truly fantastic win.

The semi-final was a day I'll cherish for more reasons than one.

I went to the match with a dear friend of mine, Tom Crean from Cabra, who had been seriously ill for some time but who was determined not to miss it.

An ardent GAA fan all his life, Tom would sadly die just a few days later, but not before seeing his beloved Dubs win over their old rivals.

He savoured what proved his final game and I will savour the memory of attending with him.

Tom believed this would be Dublin's year, and I firmly believe it too.

But the team has another tough mountain to climb on Sunday in the shape of Mayo.

Having lost last year's final, they'll be gunning to make amends, but Dublin have risen to every challenge this year, and I'm confident they'll do likewise on Sunday.

It would be terrific for all fans, but for children in particular.

It's one of the many brilliant features of the GAA that players are so rooted in their local clubs and local communities, and children get to see their heroes up close.

I remember the buzz that the 2011 and 1995 wins brought to schools when the Dublin heroes came visiting with the Sam Maguire.

It would be fantastic to see a repeat of that in the weeks ahead.

Mind you, if Dublin weren't in the final, I'd probably be shouting for Mayo. I usually go to Cong in Co Mayo each year for holidays. I have lots of friends there, and I know what an All-Ireland would mean to the county.

But my heart will be firmly with Dublin. And I think the omens are good – although I know a certain person in Government Buildings who would disagree with me.

There's no question but that the Taoiseach thinks this will be Mayo's year.

The late, great Con Houlihan once told of how, during the height of the Dublin-Kerry rivalry in the 1970s, his colleagues in the office left notes for him everywhere predicting how much the Dubs would win by.

Con's response was to buy a bottle of Crème de Menthe and a bottle of yellow Chartreuse, as they resembled the Kerry colours, and leave them on display in work for all to see.

I remembered that story last weekend when I met the Taoiseach at the Rehab People of the Year Awards. It was a fantastic event, honouring a range of inspiring people – from those who have borne tragic ordeals with incredible bravery to those who have achieved amazing feats in different areas of life.

It was a black-tie event, but the Taoiseach came armed with a spare dickie-bow in the green and red of Mayo. I think he's hoping he'll have occasion to wear it if his native county win on Sunday.

I hate to disappoint the Taoiseach, but I don't think he's going to need it.

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