Party animal Sam gets VIP treatment wherever he goes
Weddings, birthdays, funerals. Sam Maguire, the GAA's cup that cheers, clocks up the miles in a busy schedule, as Dermot Crowe discovers
A WEEK from now, barring a draw or some unforeseen circumstance, the appreciative hands of a Down or Cork man will grasp the most coveted prize in Irish sport, the Sam Maguire.
There will follow an emotional journey home and possibly a symbolic border crossing where the new champions may walk the great silver vessel across the final frontier -- as if declaring that it is now theirs and the rest of you won't be seeing it for a while.
It will be theirs, however, only so long as they can defend it. And while the captain will have the honour of accepting it on behalf of his county, he may see little enough of Sam Maguire over the months that follow. Even in Kerry, where the cup has been resident more often than anywhere else, the novelty doesn't wear nor the clamour to see it diminish. It is, after all, the Holy Grail.
After Kerry had lost to Down in this year's championship, there were people who believed that Sam Maguire was to be found in Glenbeigh, at Kerry captain Darran O'Sullivan's original home.
"My mother said someone was down from Leitrim and knocked on the door and wanted to see the cup," O'Sullivan recalls. "They presumed I still had it. There were three callers I think in the two weeks after we were beaten by Down, between my parents' and the grandparents' home. I wasn't feeling great at the time and thought it was someone taking the piss out of me."
In reality, Sam Maguire is returned to Dublin as early as six weeks before the next All-Ireland football final, to enable any necessary repairs to be carried out. Thankfully, this is rare. There was an unseemly and faintly sacrilegious vandalising of the cup several years ago which earned the host county a rap on the knuckles. But generally it is watched over obsessively and with tremendous reverence and care.
Over the next few days it will be taken to a jewellers' and polished so that it looks its immaculate best when the final comes around. Its last public duty will be to head over to RTE for Up for the Match but by now almost all of its public duties are complete. In Tyrone, the former county chairman Cuthbert Donnelly went every step of the way with the Sam Maguire when it toured the county. He ensured it never left his sight. When the cup went abroad he even had a special case constructed to protect it from possible damage during the journey.
Not every county has the luxury of a devoted minder like Donnelly, but they nonetheless regard duty of care as paramount. In Kerry, the county secretary Peter Twiss says that once they win an All-Ireland a diary is opened in the board office and 'Sam' inscribed on the cover. Immediately, they start taking bookings. For the first few months schools take priority until every one in the county has been visited.
"The captain of the team has first call, so if he wants the cup he gets it, but we always make sure the schools are covered as quickly as possible," says Twiss. "We were amazed last year with the demand for the cup -- it could be booked three months in advance. We do our best to try to accommodate everyone, even up to August we had requests in our diary. You would think now (in light of Kerry's success) it would be lying in the corner and nobody would want to know about it. That is definitely not the case; it has grown bigger over the years, the demand."
Twiss recalls a request from Monaghan for Sam Maguire's presence on a Saturday night. "It was quite amazing. A guy drove down here on a Saturday morning, took up the Sam Maguire to Monaghan and was back in Killorglin at 10 on the Sunday morning because we needed it back that soon. I thought it was phenomenal. Just shows you the lengths people will go to get it. I think it was for a charity event."
The night Kerry won last year's All-Ireland, Twiss received two separate text messages from Kerry players Marc ó Sé and Seán O'Sullivan requesting the Sam Maguire for their wedding dates. He says people are conscious of not exceeding the allocated time. "It's amazing: people are brilliant, they are very honour-bound. They know the next person is waiting. The person who is getting it, it's their responsibility to collect it wherever it's coming from.
"I suppose it is the most famous trophy in Irish sport. Maybe we don't utilise it as much as we should. The novelty doesn't wear off. The kids will all come in with their Kerry jerseys when it visits the schools and there is a Kerry player there and it's massive; it has never waned at all."
Some weeks ago, the former Kerry secretary Eamon O'Sullivan took Sam Maguire back to Croke Park, on his way to a Management Committee meeting. "I suppose you are always worried in that you might never again see it," says Twiss, sounding not too worried at all. "Whoever wins it next they will have a fantastic year and sure that's what it is all about."
There was no ceremony involved in the handover. "The main rule," says Eamon O'Sullivan, "is that it comes back in the same condition it went out in."
O'Sullivan saw first hand the magnetic appeal of Sam Maguire when Kerry were reigning champions in 2007 and he was secretary. When Eamonn Coleman died, the then Derry manager Paddy Crozier asked if they could have the cup at the funeral. Kerry happily obliged and it took pride of place at the funeral of a legendary man who had done a great amount to bring the cup to Derry for the first time 14 years before.
Most of Darran O'Sullivan's dates with Sam Maguire were in a working and promotional capacity. He attended various events for his employer Ulster Bank along with the former All-Ireland winning hurling captain Michael Fennelly. Only twice did he work his captain's influence to book Sam in a private capacity -- once for a cousin's wedding, the second time his grandmother's birthday.
"The few nights I did have it I was half nervous having it in the house. I was half worried where I would hide it, you know, in case the place was burgled.
"People would come into the bank and expect the cup was at my home place and you would have a lot of calls asking to see it. The hardest part was keeping it safe going through an airport. Michael Fennelly could slip the Liam McCarthy under his jacket but it's hard to do that with Sam, so you got people coming over, even tourists, asking what it was and wanting to take photographs."
In the next few days the names of all the Kerry players who played in last year's final will be engraved on a plate on the base. But Sam's plans after Sunday remain unclear. Does he fancy west Cork, or maybe some hiking in the Mournes? Wherever he goes, though, he'll be welcomed joyously like a long lost son.