This time of year, when the summer is fast drawing to a close and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) finals are fast approaching, always transports me back to the Galway I landed into in early September of 2001. The city and county were in the throes of euphoria, excitement and, putting it honestly, pandemonium.
The two county teams in the premier sports of the GAA, football and hurling, had both advanced to the All-Ireland Final. Reaching the final is the “holy grail” for all counties at the start of every year’s championship.
I was somewhat bewildered at the incredible buzz generated by two games I had seen and knew vaguely growing up in Irish Boston, but soon threw myself into the spirit of things. The Galway hurlers, who had been hot favourites, were defeated in the final, while the Galway footballers, who many anticipated would lose, took their second championship in three years.
It wasn’t until some months later, however, that I can say I really discovered the GAA. And I haven’t looked back since. On a weekend visit to my cousins who still live on the site of my ancestral home in north Co. Galway – about halfway between the towns of Tuam and Dunmore for those who know the territory – my cousin Paddy Murphy announced that I was going with him to see the local GAA club, Cortoon Shamrocks, take on a rival Co. Galway club in a senior football match.
Paddy was then involved in management with Cortoon and thought it was high time to “make a west of Ireland man out of me.”
On a typical rainy and windy night in the west, we made our way through what Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors famously dubbed “the twisting, turning, winding roads of Galway and Mayo” to an isolated football pitch.
We were early; it was raining; it was the middle of nowhere; no one was there; and I wondered almost out loud to myself: “What the hell am I doing here?” Yet one car pulled up, and then another and soon the narrow country road became all but impassable with parked cars.
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The two teams started to warm up and soon the match began. Unsurprisingly for the night that was in it, the game was at times slow and tedious, but there were flashes of brilliance as well. Points were kicked through the wind and rain and “over the bar” by forwards from distances and at angles I didn’t think possible. There was great defending by the backs and a number of goal attempts were thwarted by extremely athletic keepers.
I can’t actually remember who won the match that evening, but I’ll always remember the passion, commitment and sporting camaraderie of the players and onlookers. I also remember the non-stop talk about football in the pub after the match, with mini-explosions of temper and howls of laughter featuring in almost equal, sustained volume.
What later struck me was that this club football match in the rural west of Ireland had reignited a sense in me of what sport is, or at least should be, about. At the match, and at every one I’ve been to since, the love of the game, the loyalty to one’s home and a shared spirit of community were manifest.
Somewhere along the way, I had lost this sense. As a childhood sports fanatic, my moods were typically linked directly to the fortunes of the Boston professional sports teams and the Boston College football and basketball teams.
Over the years, maybe owing to so much heartache and precious little success, my fanaticism subsided. There was more to my growing detachment, however, than the torture inflicted on my soul by the Boston Red Sox (prior to 2004 that is!).
Sport is meant to be fun. Sport is meant to be a game, not a business. It’s meant to be a positive influence on the lives of young people. But after years of reading of multi-million dollar contracts being awarded to grown men who could play boys’ games and whose off-field antics often revealed them to be little more than overgrown boys, I gradually morphed into a casual fan.
Why get excited about a new free agent a team has just signed when he is just as likely to move on as soon as he gets the chance to make more money? Why be so loyal to a team when the only thing that links most of its players to a city is the jersey they happen to be wearing?