Face of the GAA piece

May 28, 2008

AT A GUESS, the woman was in her 50s. It was hard to be more exact, not because of the lighting, or a cannily posed scarf, or any plastic surgery, but because her face was obscured by her own hand.

The pose is a familiar one to any Irishman. One of her arms was folded across her stomach and supporting the other arm: the heel of her hand was under her chin with knuckles out, fingertips on the lower lip. Half-hidden as it was, the expression was plainly that of concern writ large.

She was pressed back against dark concrete as young men streamed past in single file, all of them in matching polo shirts, all of them carrying a couple of hurleys each, all of them tilted slightly as they walked, compensating for the large gear bags on each shoulder. Their faces weren’t visible. They didn’t need to be. The woman was picking out each of them as they passed, eyes flickering in recognition as each stepped through into the darkness.

On the other side of the line of players were a couple of grey-haired men in shirt sleeves, one of them putting a hand on the shoulders of the young men as they passed into the gloom beyond.

He didn’t pat them, or slap them heartily, or squeeze their shoulders for encouragement. He just put his hand on each arm in turn as they walked along, shouldering their bags.

It looked like Thurles, the cavern under the stand that leads down past a metal barrier to the great blue doors that mark the entrance to the dressing-rooms.

I can’t be sure, though the presence of hurlers narrows it down somewhat. That’s because the woman, and the players, and the two older gents, appeared on an RTÉ advertisement for its GAA coverage some years ago.

There were other shots in the same ad: a sliotar hopping along grass, players blurring past the camera in that super-rich colour scheme, faces visible in the stylish slow-motion. But the woman’s expression stayed with me, because it sums up something about the GAA. There’s a disconnect between claiming a team as your own and shouting them on, and shouting down those who shout for someone else — and that kind of deference when face to face with the same players.

Teased out, the status of an inter-county player, worshipped and defended, is that of a man whose every step and glance for one brief hour become the stuff of legend. For decades afterwards his mistakes and achievements on a sunny afternoon in Hyde Park, or Clones, or Fitzgerald Stadium or Páirc Uí Chaoimh, are discussed and analysed. Poems and songs are written. Nicknames are awarded. He becomes part of a region’s sense of itself, a retort, a trump in arguments. He enters into the mythology.

And yet how can a mythical figure be close enough to touch? How can a hero be someone you meet on the streets of a little town, or queue behind in a bank? How can your hero be someone who lets you pull out of a garage forecourt ahead of him? Then again, how can your hero be anything else?

Existential stuff. We’ll leave that to the Pernod-and-Gauloises crowd.

In another way, the woman’s demeanour — worried, plainly — also conveys what it means to give yourself over to a GAA team for the summer. It is a commitment which is nerve-jangling and stomach-upsetting. It induces dread and unease, a desperate, gnawing fear when the star forward of the opposing team rounds one of your defenders and bears down with exact, inevitable grace on your side’s goal.

You’re assailed by rumours of discord even before you take your seat, and each little omen — the first score, the first tackle won, the first sideline — presages doom. All the sophistication of the 21st century disappears with the last echo of the anthem. Supporting your team reduces you to prayer when a high ball drops near your goal, and the vast empty steppes around the tussling pair are inviting for ravening attackers. Why is the defender under that dropping ball always smaller than the forward? The woman sums up something about the GAA experience because she defines a truth which few enough are willing to concede: following your county is torture. If you want enjoyment, try apple tart and cream. Her expression has stayed with me because it’s true. If wouldn’t matter if she were in frowzy ’40s tweeds or a ’60s mini-skirt, a suffragette’s bonnet or a replica jersey. That look of awe and respect and concern make her the eternal face of the GAA.

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