Thursday 22 March 2018

Listen out for hurling minstrel with ambidextrous spirit

All-Ireland final day is heaven for one man who lives on oranges and ballad songs, writes Leo Cullen

Leo Cullen

You take them for granted, the characters of All-Ireland Day: the small man with the big banner, John 3:7, who sits behind the goal; the balladeers on the canal with banjo, guitar, cigarettes and Rocky Road to Dublin; the women selling apples, oranges, pears, ripe bananas and the last Mars bars; the fellow peddling senior and minor colours, flags wrapped around his neck and arms like the vision of Medjugorje.

The man I talk about is none of these: a man with rolled-up raincoat and newspaper who hangs around outside pubs, except not for match tickets but match songs.

He's the man you won't know, who travels up every year for one purpose – to find a pub, two pubs – in which he can sing the songs of the competing teams. After that he has done his bit, he has given his all for both sides. Drinker of three pints, singer of two songs, he doesn't go to the game; he's already waiting at the station by the time the final whistle blows.

A lean man with a long nose, a back-of-the-church man, he lives on oranges and ballad songs. Oranges because at club matches back home he loved to watch the players suck orange peel during half-time; ballad songs because his father sang them before him. He lives in a county that is generally neutral, not having contested a hurling All-Ireland since 1949. If you ask where he comes from he'll give you a clue: 'Which is the only county in Ireland that doesn't touch a county that touches the sea?' Hurry up with your answer. It's County Laois.

His house is within sight of Ballybrophy; railway junction of furze bushes and small cattle from where once he got the train to Dublin; now he gets it at Port Laoise or, as he calls it, because his father before him called it, Maryborough. Yes, he's old-fashioned; old names of towns, old songs, old fleadh cheoils are his Hymn and Holiness and Hosanna.

He travels with his two songs. He alights at Heuston Station among the hordes of jersey-wearing followers; this year the black and amber, the blue and gold. He holds on to his white neutrality. He heads for the first pub; makes certain it's packed exclusively with the followers of one county. He awaits his moment, a lull in the storm of talk and pints and dazed children. Then he launches into song, the song of the county; he pounces like a hurler pounces on a loose ball. And when he's got attention and the followers join him, when he's lifted their hearts to endeavour, when they are transported, so is he.

And then quietly he leaves, on to the other pub – and assessing no bodies are there from the first crowd, he sings the song of the second crowd. Again he shows fervour – fanaticism – that's important: loyalty, or as he says himself, 'loyality'. For both teams, he is the first sub.

Last year, for Kilkenny, instead of The Rose of Mooncoin he'd sung so many times before, he sang the Louse House of Kilkenny; and nearly brought the house down, such was the laughter. Another year, for the men of Tipp, instead of 'Alone all alone by the wave-washed shore,' he sang 'She lived beside the Anner at the foot of Slievenamon'. And how oft in his thoughts has he sung The Banks for the followers by the Lee? He loves it when a new county makes an appearance – a first coltish breakthrough, or the re-emergence of an old giant: Offaly: The Offaly Rover, Limerick: 'You're A Lady,' Wexford: 'At Boolavogue as the sun was setting,' Waterford: Dungarvan My Home Town Galway: 'and see the sun go down on Galway Bay' and My Lovely Rose of Clare. He has high hopes one day soon of singing Molly Malone for the Metropolitans.

And how he gloried in the timbre of his own voice the September Sunday of 1989 when Antrim appeared, the saffron men. And awaiting his moment among a crowd of men whose accents were strange to him, he got up and hushed the sea of faces with: 'Far across yonder blue lies a true fairy land'. For at that moment he knew he was in those Green Glens, and the Antrim men knew they were in an All-Ireland.

One thing he'd love is for his own county to get there. Laois, that doesn't touch a county that touches the sea, the blue and white. 'Lovely, lovely Laois,' he'd sing. But it's the song that is the saga, not the contestants, not the winning or losing . . .

This year he'll crack out something new for the Marble men in a pub near the station, then he'll crack out his hard-boiled egg and sandwich and then he'll dart up to Barry's Hotel where he'll crack out something old for a phalanx of Tipperary stone-throwers. He'll give that extra bounce to the day like a banjo gives to a session. Watch out for him, but if you catch him in one pub singing one song, and then in the other, singing the other, say nothing, just join in, just clap to his ambidextrous spirit.

Let him go with the remains of his day, and while the sliotar flashes like lightning around Croke Park, let him savour his slow walk back up the quiet quays; let him read the names of the pubs, the old Dublin drinking-houses, let him visit, one, two, three. His vocal chords at rest. Job done. Session over.

The First Sub, by writer Leo Cullen, was first broadcast on RTÉ Radio in 2011. It also features in the new book, September Sundays, which contains 100 pieces from RTE's iconic radio series, Sunday Miscellany. September Sundays is available now in all good bookshops.

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