Saturday 21 April 2018

Paul Kimmage: Detour from cycling's woes at Killarney was a welcome break

Watching Kerry and Cork reminded Paul Kimmage of all that is good in Irish sport

Kerry captain Kieran Donaghy and team-mates celebrate with supporters and the cup after winning the Munster title last week
Kerry captain Kieran Donaghy and team-mates celebrate with supporters and the cup after winning the Munster title last week
I don’t speak Gaelic football and spend the day marvelling at their passion

We abandon the car on the outskirts of Killarney at the Ballydowney roundabout; I'm on the phone arguing with a lawyer about a piece I've just written on the Tour de France. A siren is wailing.

"Sorry, I can't hear you."

A police outrider is clearing a path through the mayhem for one of the teams.

"Give me that again."

My brother, Chris, has stopped walking and is waving at the coach.


The lawyer has cut the final paragraph.

"You're joking, Ciaran!"

He's not.

"The reference to the cartoon will have to go," he insists.

"It's humorous!" I argue.

"It's defamatory," he says.

"Ah, for f**ks sake!"

I react like I've been shot.

Chris watches and shakes his head. He's been advising me for years to forget about the Tour and to write about other things, and I've been assuring him for years I will, but July always comes and it always sucks me in and, for a month, the race consumes me.

"You okay?" he asks.

"Yeah, just the usual crap," I reply. "Was that the Kerry team?"

"It was."

"You doffed your cap!"

"I did."

"Jeez! What have they done to you down here?"

We cross the roundabout to St Margaret's Road and he stops twice to chat to friends as we follow the hordes into town and a place where he takes pints. There's standing room only, so we take our drinks outside, laughing at the pre-match banter between the fans.





What does it all mean? This is the beating heart of Irish sport, but it feels completely alien to me.

Maybe it's my parents' fault? Mum and Dad were Dublin born and raised and had few culchie relatives, or connections with Gaelic games. We played soccer first as kids and then raced bikes, which did not sit well with the Christian Brothers in Artane - where football and hurling reigned.

"Kimmage! Where's your gear? Why aren't you playing football?"

"I've a race this weekend, sir."

"A race! What sort of race?"

"A bike race. I'm a cyclist, sir."

"A cyclist!"

"Yes sir. And my Da says I can't burn the candle at both ends."

But, incredibly, they indulged me.

Pat O'Grady was a friend and classmate at the time and announced that there was money to be made selling programmes in Croke Park. Selling didn't appeal to me, but I'd never been to Croke Park and agreed to tag along. The date was September 2, 1973: Kilkenny were playing Limerick in the All-Ireland hurling final, but the thing I remember most is the rain and how miserable I felt.

I stood with a mountain of programmes underneath the Hogan Stand and might have sold two. Then I went upstairs with O'Grady to watch the game. Pat's father was from Limerick and they hadn't won an All-Ireland since 1940, so it seemed polite to root for them. But I was cold and wet and found it hard to engage.

"You've no idea how it feels to be a Limerickman right now," he gushed, as Eamonn Grimes raised the cup. He was right. I couldn't wait to go home.

A year later I was 12, when Dublin won the football. It was a big deal in Coolock; Alan Larkin, one of Heffo's Heroes, lived on our road and there was great excitement in St David's when two of the players arrived with 'Sam' and we were rewarded with a half-day.

Gaelic games were suddenly interesting. 'Up the Dubs' was the chant and there was a massive buzz a year later in the build-up to the final with Kerry.

"Dublin for the Sam Maguire, Kerry for your holidays - whaaa!"

We would send those rednecks packing and show them who was boss! The defeat was crushing - but not as bad as '78, and the utter humiliation of Mikey Sheehy's free.

That was it for me. A year later, I did my leaving cert (two honours, since you've asked) and from then on it was cycling.

Rain is falling as we walk to the ground. Chris pulls on a coat and joins the faithful heading for a soaking on the terraces; I reach for a pass and head for a comfortable seat in the stands. I find a door that looks like an entrance. "Is this the press box?" I ask. I can read the steward's mind as he examines my pass... 'This is Kerry playing Cork in the Munster football final! Anyone who asks that question, clearly shouldn't be here!'

"Sorry," I blush. "It's my first time."

He pulls back the door and waves me through. I've been allotted a seat in the front row beside some big hitters: Michael Foley (The Sunday Times), Shane McGrath (Irish Mail on Sunday) and Colm Keys (Irish Independent). I've met Michael and Shane at rugby internationals, golf tournaments and soccer games and conversed with them freely on the winning and losing.

But this is different: I don't speak Gaelic football and spend the rest of the evening marvelling at their passion for the game - no angry calls to lawyers; no shadows from doping or drugs; the joy on Kieran Donaghy's face as he races down the tunnel towards the dressing room; the pain on Brian Cuthbert's as he sits in the interview room and contemplates defeat.

This is sport as it was meant to be.

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