Thursday 22 March 2018

John Greene: Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time

A cross-section of the great and the good of Ireland was captured by photographer Ray McManus at the Cork v Tipperary match in Thurles last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
A cross-section of the great and the good of Ireland was captured by photographer Ray McManus at the Cork v Tipperary match in Thurles last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
John Greene

John Greene

Two sides of the same face, just a few days apart. Two sides of the same face of the GAA; twin halves of the same sphere. And a reminder of its true strength.

The first comes from Thurles last Sunday. It's a photograph by Ray McManus of a section of the crowd, a seemingly innocuous photo. But McManus is an experienced photographer who has been covering Gaelic games for a long time, and he knew exactly what he was doing.

So, zoom in on the picture and the familiar faces jump out - pulled from all strands of Irish life, brought together by the GAA for a big match on a big day. Now just ordinary men and women on this great occasion.

There's a man who wants to be the next Taoiseach; there are two men who sincerely hope they will be standing on the steps of the Hogan Stand in September; there's the current GAA president; there are two former GAA presidents - one of whom is now an MEP; there are another two men who have given a lifetime of service to the Association, and ran for the office of GAA president but didn't quite make it; there are a host of GAA officials - full-time, but mostly voluntary, who have also worked for many years in the trenches; and there's one of Ireland's richest men.

In so many ways, it's a perfect snapshot of Ireland and the GAA.

Simon Coveney, Brian Cody, Derek McGrath, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, Christy Cooney, Sean Kelly, Seán Fogarty, Robert Frost, Donie Nealon, Jerry O'Sullivan, Simon Moroney, Anthony Walsh, Joan Cooney, JP McManus . . . and many more. All are clustered together, all with one thing in common: all are there to watch a hurling match between two great rivals. And just look at their faces - everyone in the photograph wrapped up in the spectacle unfolding before them.

Some are from Cork, some are from Tipperary, others are neutral - or at least neutral in the sense that they are not from either of the competing counties. Secretly, though, they might favour one over the other. They may do so for no good reason other than it is a part of our nature in a sporting contest to opt for one team over another, even if we have no connection to it. Even if we have no good reason for it. There's a partisan inside all of us, always trying to get out.

You might like to support the underdog; or you may have a preference for who the team you do actually support will play further down the road; or you might have been to one of the counties on holiday as a child and harbour happy memories ever since; or your mother might have been born in one of the counties; or your partner; or you might just like the colour of the jersey . . . there are any number of reasons, superficial or otherwise, that will attract you to one team over another.

I met a man recently who was fortunate enough to get All-Ireland final tickets some years ago for himself and his wife. She had a distant connection to one of the competing counties so he decided to balance things up by cheering the other one on. He thought it would make it a better experience to have some emotional investment in the game. (His team won.)

"What makes sport unique and exciting is its unscripted nature where incidents are likely to occur at any moment, creating tension and extreme emotions from exhilaration to despondency," writes Thomas D'Arcy in The Sport Spectator. He later adds: "In contemporary societies the scope for expressing strong emotional feelings openly is severely restricted; sport provides a counter-balance to this suppressed tension thereby acting as an emotional escape mechanism."

Another great strength of the GAA was evident on a sunny evening in Slane where their under 14 girls lined out against Dunsany
Another great strength of the GAA was evident on a sunny evening in Slane where their under 14 girls lined out against Dunsany

It's all part of the attraction of the GAA. Every occasion is sprinkled with a mix of people so that it is a cross-section of Irish life at any moment in time. Last Sunday's just happened to be in this moment.

The beauty of it is that the size of the occasion doesn't matter. Anywhere, at any time, club or county, that cross-section is there in one form or another.

Fast forward to last Thursday and to a very different picture: Slane's GAA club grounds, close to the Meath border with Louth; with the megalithic tombs of Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth to the south; the River Mattock just metres away, to the north; the town of Drogheda a few miles east, and the village of Slane a few miles west. Toddy Harding Park - as it's known - is teeming with children. It is a beautiful, scorching hot evening and the club's training pitch is full of children. There are under 6s, under 8s and under 10s everywhere. There's a distant sound of music drifting on the evening breeze, all the way from a sound check at Slane Castle ahead of last night's concert.

The under 6s are wearing matching blue t-shirts sponsored by the local crèche. The under 8s are split into groups and are learning the skills of Gaelic football. Most are oblivious to the fact that one of their coaches won an All-Ireland medal with Armagh not so long ago, but still before they were born.

There are parents everywhere, talking in little groups, trying to find the best spot to watch their children and soak up the evening sun.

Between the training pitch and the main pitch is a fenced off area with markings in the ground. This is where the new dressing rooms and meeting room will be located. Work starts this week. There is an air of excitement that the club is moving forward. The club is showing some ambition. The development is badly needed, and a long time coming, as there are only two existing dressing rooms and Slane now has teams at all ages, male and female.

On the main pitch, an under 14 girls' semi-final between Slane and Dunsany is underway, albeit a little late after the referee was delayed. Again, parents stand in clusters and watch the game unfold, talking about the team, the weather, the new clubhouse . . . and how well the pitch looks.

Meanwhile, the club chairman and secretary potter around taking care of a few jobs that need taking care of.

Slane are coached by James Smith and Frank Hickey. Frank and his wife run the aforementioned crèche; James is originally from Dublin but now firmly rooted in Slane. Both were introduced to the club by their daughters, who took up football in the local national school and then joined the club. There were no girls' teams in Slane prior to 2011, now there is one at every age group. Last year they joined up with neighbours Rathkenny to form a ladies' team too.

Neither James nor Frank had ever coached before, but one day a few years ago they approached the club and said they'd like to help out with a team. They went off, did all the relevant courses and have since immersed themselves in club life.

Dunsany's coach is Maggie Dennehy, who is also heavily involved in coaching camogie and who is known as an excellent skills and fitness coach. She was a selector this year with the Meath under 14 girls' team as well. Maggie and a few parents who are helping out patrol one sideline, encouraging the girls with positive messages; James, Frank and Pamela Gibbs do the same on the other sideline for Slane.

Because of the heat, the referee agrees to water breaks and at one stage - with their training over - the under 6s arrive and start cheering from the top of the grass bank, 'Slane Slane Slane' . . .

Dunsany are a younger team than Slane and at this age, that counts for a lot, and the home side emerge victorious. The final is in two weeks' time.

As families head off down the avenue and home there is a warm feeling in the air, a sense of achievement and of purpose. It's a scene you can be sure was repeated all over the country every evening last week. It's a picture of a living community.

Two faces of the GAA; two halves of the same sphere. As Van Morrison sang, 'Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time'.

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