Wednesday 19 September 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Joy of Skibbereen celebrations and enduring genius of Gooch help row our troubles away

Champion rower Mark O’Donovan. Photo: Sportsfile
Champion rower Mark O’Donovan. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

On a Sunday I'm usually either at a match or trying to keep tabs on half a dozen sporting events at the same time.

But yesterday afternoon I found myself standing on North Street in Skibbereen watching a silver band advancing towards me. Because in that band, on cornet, was one of my daughters.

And behind the band was a bus containing world rowing gold medallists Paul O'Donovan, Shane O'Driscoll and Mark O'Donovan and world finalist Denise Walsh.

They'd flown in from Florida that morning, landing in Dublin at 10.0. Now they were home to receive the acclaim of their own people.

I wanted to be at this event. But I also needed to be at it. I needed to be reminded about not just sport at its best but people at their best.

I've seldom felt as lousy about my line of work as I have over the last week. The details of how Tom Humphries methodically groomed and then sexually abused an underage girl were distressing enough to read about.

Then came the news of how David Walsh had written a character reference for Humphries. So had another leading figure in Irish sport.

That fine journalist Ewan MacKenna observed that most of his colleagues were keeping silent about these things. He was right, though there were exceptions, MacKenna himself and people like Paul Howard and Ciarán Lennon didn't back away.

But too many journalists who are normally very quick with the moral outrage ignored the elephant in our own room and the suffering caused to the victim in the case.

There followed the Colm Cooper/Joe Brolly/Late Late Show imbroglio, a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing, replete with accusations of lying and bad faith.

It's entirely possible that Cooper believed Brolly was apologising to him and that Brolly believed he wasn't. Both men could be in the right. Yet all the bluster and the insistence that great principles were at stake made a shabby week seem even shabbier.

Skibbereen was a balm to the soul. The mood was of celebration and neighbourliness.

I could have a chat about sport with Denise Walsh's dad Tony, our 768th if I calculate correctly; I could be introduced to Mark O'Donovan's father Christy by a famous coursing man to whom I'd been introduced by a man whose son had played senior football for Cork for many years.

Someone else told me the story of the West Cork Lottery winner who gave interviews to media outlets national and international but refused to speak to The Sun because she's a lifelong Liverpool fan.

Mark O'Donovan (left), who'll give his namesake Gary a run for his money when he makes the chat shows, quipped that if he'd known the crowd would be this big he'd have worn better clothes.

And the biggest cheer of all was reserved for the rower who hadn't won a world medal.

One reason for Skibbereen's success is that they're the only club in Ireland to run a National Schools rowing programme. Denise Walsh has coached a lot of our kids and we're grateful.

Connoisseurs of rural life would have relished Paul O'Donovan's reminder that while everyone goes on about Skibbereen, he's actually from Lisheen (a whopping three miles away) and going back there would be his real homecoming.

In all its good humoured intimacy, the occasion was a wonderful illustration of the link between sport and community. It was a celebration of the local.

So was the game Colm Cooper played for Dr Crokes as they won their Kerry semi-final against West Kerry on Saturday night.

The Kerry champions are the most beautiful club football team I have ever seen. On Saturday they were in full flow, the angles of running subtle, the passing inventive, the finishing emphatic.

The game was on TV but would have attracted only a small fraction of the Late Late audience. It's a pity. Cooper was at the heart of everything and produced one particularly sublime moment.

When Crokes were awarded a close-in free, the West Kerry defenders backed away and waited for him to tap it over the bar. Instead Cooper, with his uncanny nose for opportunity, side footed the ball into the top corner.

That moment, the effrontery of its conception matched by the precision of the execution, told you more about who Colm Cooper is than any interview or book about him. This was the Gooch worth making a fuss about.

Describing the goal to someone as we waited for the cavalcade I felt a sense of gratitude shoot through me. How lucky I'd been to see it. It did my heart good.

And so, in Skibb, did the sight of Dominic Casey, that most self-effacing of great coaches, being coaxed on stage to share the moment of glory with his charges. He even, rarest of moments, spoke a few words.

He wanted to tell any parents whose kids were interested in rowing to send them along to the club on a Sunday morning and 'they'll be looked after.'

Paul O'Donovan echoed those same sentiments, telling the kids that if they worked hard and enjoyed themselves great things could happen.

The faith is handed on. The community abides. Some of us are in the boat, some of us are playing in the band and some of us are watching the parade pass by.

People keep pulling together and most of the time there is more good out there than bad.

Thank you Skibbereen. Thank you Gooch. You're what it's all about.

Irish Independent

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