Almost a year ago today my twin daughters and myself went to see Castlehaven playing Carbery Rangers in the Cork senior football championship. It turned out to be one of the best club games I'd ever seen with fantastic scores, dramatic swings of fortune and a nail-biting finish before Rangers prevailed by two points.
f you'd told anyone in O'Donovan Rossa Park, Skibbereen that the next time the teams met there'd be only 50 spectators from each club, they'd have thought there was something wrong with you. But that's what happened, thanks to Covid-19 related crowd restrictions, when the same two teams met in the same competition at Clonakilty this day last week.
It was a stark reminder of just how much everything has changed this year. But there was an even greater one a few days later.
Three years ago, the twins, my mother and myself were at the Galway Races where a wonderful day was made perfect as Balko Des Flos won the Galway Plate with our money riding on him.
There's a sense of hustle and bustle and communal enjoyment on big Ballybrit days which has few equivalents in Irish life. That's why the sight of the empty stands as this year's meeting took place behind closed doors was so disquieting. Those deserted Galway acres seemed to stand for everything that's been lost this year.
It's not just lives which have been lost to Covid-19, but life. I know a man who's followed Castlehaven for decades, making an hour and a half round trip on a boat from an offshore island for every championship match. He didn't ask for a ticket for last Sunday and neither did many other people for whom the club's annual campaign is one of the highlights of their year.
That's because the 200-person limit, which includes players, subs, backroom staff, officials and media, means clubs effectively have around 50 tickets each to distribute. That's not even enough to fully look after players' families and it means that anyone else, no matter how keen a supporter, knows they'll have to be left out in the cold for the moment.
That situation would be eased considerably were the Government to raise the limit to 500. That still wouldn't be enough to cater to everyone who wants to see a senior championship match, but it would mean that quite a few junior championship games could proceed as normal.
The current limit seems both illogical and unfair. Illogical because a blanket limit across all grounds doesn't make any sense. There's a vast difference, in terms of space available, between 500 fans at a small club ground and 500 in a county stadium.
And unfair because every time the sun shines there are far more than 200 people at many of the country's beaches. There's very little social distancing going on there, the space available is often less than that at a GAA ground and people will spend a lot more time at the beach than they would at a match.
Why are sports grounds treated differently, in practice at least? Perhaps because the Government fears social media criticism of the 'Someone died because they met someone who met someone who met someone who went to a match' variety.
The GAA is a particularly tempting target in the current circumstances. Bashing the Association has always been something of a national sport in itself. Its community based co-operative ethos makes it the closest thing you'll get to a left-wing sporting organisation, yet there's still an idea out there that criticising the GAA automatically qualifies as a progressive act.
Should there be a second surge the GAA would make the perfect scapegoat for people who'd be perfectly willing to overlook any role played by parties, beaches, shopping centres, foreign holidays, demonstrations, funerals etc. Micheal Martin's links with the Association would be dragged into it too.
Hence the Government's willingness to let the GAA stew for reasons of political expediency. The same thing happened when racing's return to action was needlessly delayed for a number of weeks.
Still, the GAA must crack on as best it can. And while these strange new club championships may not be ideal, they're far from meaningless. There was something enormously cheering last Sunday afternoon about seeing Castlehaven on TG4, Michael Hurley kicking six points from play, his brother Brian landing a couple of beauties and Damien Cahalane fetching high ball under his own crossbar.
Above all there was the sight of two lads who epitomise the honest clubman, Roland Whelton, levelling men with shoulders and blocking kicks without an ounce of fear, and Chris Hayes, a small man with an enormous heart playing his 17th senior championship season.
Players like that are the unsung backbone of the GAA, their true worth only really appreciated within their own clubs. Yet what club footballers and hurlers have done over the past couple of weeks has been remarkable.
You read about guys paid millions for playing in the US who refuse to play at the moment and you think about the praise showered on equally rich soccer players for returning to action. But what about the club GAA player who gets no money and little glory for persisting in the face of Covid-19? What drives him on?
Love of the game and loyalty to the club of course. But also, a desire to give something back to their communities born out of the knowledge of how much the GAA still means to people who've seen the world turned upside down in the last five months. The resumption of the club championships meant we had something new to talk about last Monday. We owe the players a debt of gratitude for that. Because their willingness to put aside their trepidation and get back on the field constitutes an enormous and noble act of communal altruism.
Great and solid virtues were displayed at Galway too. In the absence of all the usual hoopla, the racing people simply got on with the job as they've always done. Though unfairly singled out by hysterical critics and subjected to an unnecessary lay-off, racing has kept its dignity.
Its contention that it could run its events in an entirely safe manner has been proved correct in Ireland and abroad. This massive achievement has been taken entirely for granted outside the sport.
Racing realised from the start that the 'let's call everything off until a vaccine is found and everything returns to normal' approach was a non-runner. Because there's no guarantee that there will be any great change in the situation over the next 12 months, or, for that matter, the next five years. It's a bummer but that's where we are.
There are unlimited brownie points available to anyone taking the 'if there's a risk to even one person then no GAA match should be played anywhere' line. That's why John Horan received so much praise when he seemed to be going that route a few weeks back.
Some even suggested that Horan's stance showed the GAA cared more about human life than other sporting organisations do. But the reality was that the Association had to offer its members something more than a vague feeling of moral superiority.
People have lost a lot this year. It's easy for social media scolds to ignore this because they have no dog in this fight. They're the kind of people whose idea of a great day out is hunching over your computer attacking people on Twitter.
But not being able to go to matches or to the races is a blow for many of us. Myself and the twins would have been in Clonakilty and we'd also planned another trip to Galway. Outings like this help to make life worthwhile for a large proportion of the Irish population.
This winter will seem all the longer and darker without the ordinary consolations of summer to remember. Most Irish people just want to get on with their lives in the normal way and enjoy the things they've always done. Covid-19 has made that impossible.
We are a resilient bunch, but there's no point denying that this year has taken its toll. So if the Government is adding to the collective misery it should only do so with very good reason.
The continued arbitrary and capricious restriction on crowd numbers at outdoor sporting events doesn't seem to fall into this category. The Government should give people a break. We deserve one.
Almost a year ago today myself and my twin daughters went to see Castlehaven play Carbery Rangers in the Cork senior football championship. I'd give anything for life to be the way it was back then. Wouldn't you?