Thursday 24 May 2018

Comment: If the cup was Galway's, the privilege was all ours

Galway captain David Burke lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup after the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Galway and Waterford at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Galway captain David Burke lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup after the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Galway and Waterford at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Jackie Tyrrell. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

It was a grand old day for the grand old game. About it hung an air of innocence and experience, sadness and joy, a range of intertwining emotions that made for an occasion both uplifting and poignant.

All-Ireland finals are generally black and white in nature: winners and losers, ecstasy and despair, with nothing in between.

For most of the last 15 years All-Ireland hurling finals in particular were usually writ large in black and amber. As Jackie Tyrrell reiterated without compromise in his riveting interview with Seán O'Rourke on RTE radio on Friday morning, Kilkenny and Cody brought the matter of winning to a fanatical plane. For the hundreds of thousands of neutrals watching at home, it frequently led to a one-dimensional experience. You could admire wholeheartedly this team of champions, a machine of unprecedented greatness in the history of the sport, but somehow it was hard to take much pleasure in it. There was something grim and remorseless about it all.

Last Sunday's final was a much more holistic affair. There was something in it for everyone. The novel pairing of Galway and Waterford meant that a sense of innocence was restored to the occasion. The atmosphere was drenched in a sort of childlike excitement, a kind of giddy naivety. It had a fiesta feel, a wholesome sense of parents and children gathering for a day out at the carnival.

And this was before a ball was pucked. The game itself once again demonstrated hurling's miraculous ability to serve up so many wonders of skill and courage. The miracle is the consistency with which the sport delivers these pleasures: not that it has the potential to produce this astonishing array of gifts, but that it fulfils this potential so often. All the flicks and tricks with ball and stick, the shimmies and swivels and balletic pivots, the ferocious body shots and selfless acts of physical courage: they are so common as to be routine, done in an instant and instantly forgotten because it is expected of them - and because there's another one about to happen anyway.

This is a table from which the diner rarely leaves without feeling happily replenished. Every game is seemingly a banquet.

Sunday's edition was no different. And at the end of it all, Galway prevailed. Here was a classic case of experience trumping innocence. They had paid their dues; they had learned their lessons; quite simply they were ready to win. Waterford to their immense credit hung tough. They hung in hard all the while that the tide was going against them. They went deep into themselves and took it down the home straight, into the final five minutes.

But the satisfactions of the day didn't end at the final whistle. There was more to come. Among them was the pleasure of witnessing an artist and gentleman finally reap his reward. People like to see justice being done. The agony of sport is its chilling aloofness to pleas of mercy or prayers of hope. You get what you take from it, not what it gives you. Joe Canning's deliverance, therefore, was a blessed case of justice being done at last.

Better still, the teenage prodigy of 10 years ago has evolved into a statesman of the game. His level-headed post-match interviews revealed a mature, thoughtful and articulate human being, in parallel with his still amazing talent on the field of play.

Derek McGrath's tears, the heartstopping photograph of his head on the shoulder of Dan Shanahan, added another layer of depth to the post-match ambience. The Waterford manager, for all his obsessions with hurling, for all the demands of building a championship team, has never allowed it to get in the way of his humanity.

If it was unusual to see a man shed tears in this quintessentially male environment, the raw devastation among Waterford's ranks was to be expected.

Equally we have become accustomed to demonstrations of pure euphoria from the winners on All-Ireland final day. But this occasion again had many more shades of grey than the usual binary poles of ecstasy and emptiness. Galway's euphoria was tinged with melancholia. Instead of pure unadulterated joy, there was emotional complexity that needed careful navigating.

And how sensitively they navigated it. Tony Keady was not forgotten. His wife and children were wrapped in warm embraces, taken into the heart of the happiness, their terrible loss recognised, their grieving presence integrated into the ceremony of triumph.

This wasn't merely an expression of hurling's family solidarity, nor even of the wider GAA's capacity for help and healing in times of personal tragedy; it was a demonstration of Irishness and how kindly we deal with bereavement in the community.

In his captain's address, David Burke remembered another fallen comrade, his former team-mate Niall Donohue who died by suicide almost four years ago. He referenced the Pieta House organisation and its important work for people suffering from depression. It was a small but ground-breaking moment in a ritual that has become iconic over the decades: the captain's speech from the Hogan Stand. It is a hallowed tradition and Burke, in his brief time in the spotlight, used the platform exceedingly well. In this moment of invincible victory, our eternal vulnerability was acknowledged too.

Sporting days as fulfilling as this are rare; they remind us of our goodness; they inspire optimism for the next generation. If the cup was Galway's, the privilege was all ours.

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