All to play for

A recent conversation between my Dad and his brother-in-law turned to the GAA, as conversations involving my Dad often do.  

My uncle had come to our house for one or two beers before he headed off to the UK for work. 

And Dad, who has been spending the early part of lockdown mostly in the company of me, Mum, and his cattle, unleashed GAA anecdote after GAA anecdote on his brother in law who, in fairness, seemed interested. 

Dad has such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the GAA that he will tailor his anecdotes depending on where the person he’s talking to is from. Throw any random local club name at him and he’ll talk the hind legs off you about some local lad who used to play for them and then made it to county before doing his hamstring in an All-Ireland semi-final in 1989.  

Not for my Dad the tragedies of Shakespeare; to him, a tragedy is the scenario I just described. A talent wasted. “He almost made it.”  

On the night my uncle, who is from Charlestown in Co. Mayo called over, Dad was on fine form talking about Mayo GAA. Sometimes when he got too bogged down in sundry detail, my Mum would half-heartedly tell him to give us all a break, but he was unstoppable.  

Names of players who hadn’t seen the inside of a club hall in donkey’s years were mentioned. Webb brothers from Charlestown. So-and-so did his cruciate and Dad had advised him not to play county but he did and Dad received a phone call from him the next day to say he would be out for six months due to injury.  

There was more, and a lot more, but I must admit I rarely listen to my Dad when he talks about GAA, or his other love, farming. Some details in the above hastily related anecdotes might be incorrect. So-and-so might have been off for six weeks instead of six months and the Webb brothers might have been from Corofin, or Killererin, or some other GAA stronghold. 

How am I supposed to know; I can’t stand the bloody GAA.  

The reason I endured it at all was that I am old enough to appreciate it when somebody speaks passionately about something that interests them. And my Dad is passionate about GAA. One might even say he’s cracked for it.  

All of my Dad’s teachable moments were communicated to his children via GAA metaphors. This used to make my brother and me roll our eyes and my Mum to say “Ah for god’s sake…” like an editor willing Dad to reconsider his audience.  

But while we rolled our eyes at his mawkish metaphors Dad always got his point across. I might not have liked it but the GAA is quite conducive to teaching teenagers values. (Please, nobody tell him I said that; like all sports fans he has a tendency to gloat).  

The most thing I learned from Dad’s GAA sermons over the years is that you can love and respect somebody even if you don’t have any interests in common with them.  

When I was a teenager, I used to say to Dad, “Why can’t you be a musician or something; if you were any good, we might have money and connections.” 

He only laughed at me and I deserved it. Another thing I learned from my Dad is to be yourself and don’t change for anyone – especially not a snotty teenager.  

In my defence, this outburst was probably a response to him telling me I should be more disciplined in my studies like whatever star mid-fielder he was training at the time.  

I was never going to be disciplined any more than he was going to suddenly join The Rolling Stones. It has taken a few years and a few rows but we have both come around to the idea that neither of us will change.  

He has, of course, missed the GAA terribly this Summer and he is delighted at the news it will resume in July sometime. I’m bracing myself for the Sunday afternoon I’ll walk into the kitchen for my breakfast and a quiet read of the papers only to find Dad stretched out in front of the TV blaring The Sunday Game. He always has it on optimum volume partly because he’s a bit deaf and partly because he loves subjecting everyone else in the house to the not-so-dulcet tones of Joe Brolly.  

I have PTSD-like flashbacks every time I hear the now-retired Kerry man Micheal O Muircheartaigh on the airwaves. (Then again, I’ve never been good with Munster’s more, shall we say, regional accents…)  

Over the years we’ve learned to filter the noise out. We’re happy to see him sitting down for longer than it takes him to eat a few sandwiches; the amount of farming he does – even on the weekends – would make one feel quite slovenly for spending Sunday mostly on the sofa with the papers and coffee. 

A few years ago, after he had his heart attack, or cardiac arrest, as he pompously – okay, accurately – calls it, he got a defibrillator fitted to minimise the effect of any future “arrests” should they happen. Dad put the thing to the test one day at a particularly exciting hurling match in Pearce Stadium. Galway was playing Kilkenny or Tipp or one of those teams and it might have been the Connaught final or something. Dad came home with a big, red head on him and told us his defibrillator was activated at a crucial moment in the game. He felt like he’d been “kicked in the chest by a horse.” We were concerned. Mum said he might have to give the matches a miss for a while. “Ah, but it was an exhibition of hurling,” he said, eyes glowing like two hot coals. 

He isn’t just a spectator; he’s a trainer as well – an All-Ireland winning trainer, as he might like me to point out here. In 2008 he brought his parish’s intermediate team to victory in Croke Park, where they beat Dublin’s Fingal Ravens team. Don’t ask me what the score was; I was 13 and habitually mortified at being from Moycullen. I played on my Nintendo DS for the whole match, although I do remember bursting with pride and love when Dad ran out on to the pitch after the final whistle was blown. He was leaping like a child. Perhaps he was crying tears of joy. (Mario wasn’t jumping on mushrooms anymore.) 

And of course, I didn’t fully comprehend what this victory meant to him then but I think I get it now. He loves the game and he cared about the lads who played the game. They won the final, not him or any of the selectors or the physio. Dad cared about the lads who played for him, even if it didn’t sound like he did when he’d ring them up in the evenings and give out to them. I used to hear him sometimes almost roaring down the phone at lads who let him down on the training pitch. Beer, laziness, and college lifestyles were usually to blame for lads missing training sessions or not being match-fit. Dad’s policy was he wouldn’t play them if they didn’t put the hours in at training, no matter how good they were. He’d do anything for the “good lads” – the sound lads who worked hard, had a bit of respect and were honest both on the field and off it. He is a fair man. 

He doesn’t train teams anymore because it’s too time-consuming to do on top of the farming he does. There are no more hour-long gossip sessions with his selectors or notebooks with formation diagrams scribbled inside them lying around the house. But the Sunday Game is still a ritual and all the many, many friends he has made over the years through football still remember him. I used to hate going into the village with him when he was training the parish team because he’d be forever getting stopped by people talking football at him. “That was so and so’s mother”, he might say when she eventually left him alone after talking about her sons for twenty minutes in the middle of SuperValu. He knows everyone and everyone knows him.  

He still measures time in the most abstract way. Every major event in his life is recalled alongside a parallel universe where only GAA exists. His wedding, the births of his children, the time he had the flu in 2014 – all can be traced back to whatever was going on in the GAA at the time. You’d wonder if he would forget everything that ever happened to him without it. It’s pathetic but somehow remarkable. He is indeed blessed and obsessed to paraphrase the title of an autobiography one Christmas. He doesn’t read fiction but he did read Mick O’Dwyer’s autobiography. 

To an outsider, the GAA is a brotherhood of bad shorts, a sisterhood of bruised shins. It is its own unique kind of theatre, featuring the kinds of “characters” Spike Milligan himself couldn’t dream up. It has its own decades of iconography; the flask of tea and the sandwiches eaten in the stand, the bottle of Lucozade sport, the proud matriarch screaming dog’s abuse at an oblivious referee. All these things we associate with the GAA.  

It’s a part of our country and a part of our country’s people just as Ulysses and Guinness and rain are. You can’t call yourself an Irish nerd until you’ve been whacked in the skull with one of those distinctive white footballs. I’ll never forget the first time I was hit in the face with a ball by Dad when he’d taken my brother and me out to the garden for a kickabout. I don’t think he meant the ball to hit my face; he was never a very skilful player. Once, I asked him if he was disappointed that I gave up training when I was eleven. “Ah, no,” he said without looking up from the sports section of the paper, “Sure, you were shite anyway.” 

Ah, ref. 

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