As we approach the start of a new season of competitive inter-county action, a new guest contributor star is born. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Dean Kelly who provides some thoughts on exile and the joys of setting out on a new league campaign.
It’s possible that I’m wrong, that like a victim of previous tortures or violations, I wince now just at the clanging of a door or the turning of a rusty key. But I can’t help feeling that there’s a new mania brewing where the green is worn above the red. Faced with a stark choice between the palliative self-protection of ignoring the whole bloody thing or throwing ourselves back into the whirligig with all its sure fire promise of pain and disappointment, we have chosen the latter, dafter and nobler road.
And just as no two snowflakes are alike, neither does one GAA season ever reproduce the one that went before. It’s not open to us to set sail with the relative calm of 2011, or the increasing confidence of the last two years. That this is a boom-or-bust, all-chips-in-at-half-four-in-the-morning kind of year, goes without saying. Social media in this parish is humming and sparking with the promise of death or glory, like copper wires over Dover on D-Day, as the countdown begins to an inevitable and definitive endgame.
I was thinking along these lines on the road back to Dublin from Ballinlough last Sunday. Perhaps it’s the very direct way that an afternoon like that reminds you of what you lose when you pitch your tent in the capital, as so many of us have. Let’s be clear, even in the earliest days of my exile I loved what I have always considered to be my city. I never understood the D4-themed moans and mutterings from travelling companions on Barton’s Bus in the mid-Nineties. I didn’t recognise their descriptions of a town where your bogman accent and desperate need for sedation from May to September, made you outside or other. On the contrary, I felt I’d arrived in a place which, for the all the bells and whistles of a capital city, felt like my own crowd had been there before me and had effected a benign yet thorough colonisation. I loved Dublin city then and love it still.
And yet, and yet, and yet. I never feel a stronger draw to place and to family than driving the wrong way home from a Mayo match, a sense which weighs all the heavier on the quiet but magnificent winter Sundays like the one just gone. You are in some real though ephemeral way not where you should be, apart from your own, and going the wrong way on the N5. On those evenings, Dublin feels lonelier to me on my return than it has in eighteen years.
I thought as well of leaving Croke Park last September and in particular of a number of gentlemen of the city who struck up the timeless song of the Gael as we dragged ourselves away from Golgotha. Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio, one alternating between two-handed waving and a gesture I understood was intended to simulate onanism. I will defer to his knowledge. They were lads just on the right side of middle age, well enough dressed and sitting in the lower tier of the Cusack Stand close enough to season ticket holders of both tribes. And they seemed happy with the result of the match. A friend who was with me addressed one of their young sons and pointing at his father asked the young lad if he was proud of him. The young lad seemed confused, his father shut his mouth.
In that moment, as tears streamed down the faces of harder men than me, I took solace in the fact that I remained an expatriate part of something which that crowd of Sky Super Sunday/Arthur’s Day/Coldplay in Marley/Where’s me leprechaun hat gobshites are strangers to, and always will be. And they’re strangers, not because they’re not welcome into this magnificent cult, but because when it comes right down to it they’ve no interest. Win, lose or draw, the next few weeks will be all the better for their not being there.
An Spailpín Fánach wrote just before the Christmas of these days of magic and wonder in the county Mayo. He said it better than I could and I won’t insult him by paraphrasing. He’s right though. We’ve won so much more than we’ve lost, and in the deepest mid-winter quiet, the joy of being part of this wonderful GAA thing is pure and sharp like the dawn air. Those waving jennets are back where they belong – in shopping centres, golf clubs and multiplex cinemas. Meanwhile the Christmas jumpers are gone out of our favourite pub, and the morning streets are ours to enjoy. For the exiles in Dublin and elsewhere, the drive back might be lonely but the next few weeks sees us plugging back into home as if we’d never left. Most depressing time of the year? Not one bit of it, try bloody September for size.