Iwas three years old the first time my father brought me to Croke Park. I can remember, as vividly as the last happy day I was there, walking up the steps at the back of the Hogan Stand and being lifted almost off my feet by the noise and the sheer excitement of the scene that greeted me. Beyond that, I don’t recall too much about the game. I know Cork were playing — or we wouldn’t have been there — but of the action itself, I remember nothing.
My dad, though, took away something totally different about that day. The Brother, a year older, was also making his Croke Park debut, and Dad had filled his pockets with sweets and supplies to get his two middle children through the 70 minutes ahead. And maybe because it was still the 1960s, my dad presumed that it would be me, younger and female, who would be the bigger drain on those pockets. But while The Brother embarked on a sugar odyssey for Ireland, all the time looking everywhere apart from the pitch, I never took my eyes off the game and my ration of sweets remained intact. At the end of the game, Dad looked at the two of us and to his certain surprise, said to himself, ‘That one, not that one.’
He only told me that story in the year before he died. I don’t know why he saved it up for so long; maybe, as an Irishman of his age and time, he never quite abandoned the hope that his verdict on that first outing to Croke Park might be reversed. When The Brother wasn’t much older, Dad put his name down for the local GAA club, but when they called with details of training, The Brother happily declined. I was never asked. Meanwhile, though, however uncertainly it might have started, my dad and I embarked on a journey together that would last until he died.
I look back now on that treasure trove of happy memories and a million stories of audacious points and unlikely goals, of fouls and frees, of my own clumsy analysis and his never- ending patience. My older sister was frequently a fellow traveller; and almost five years after he died, Dad’s accidental legacy to us is stronger than ever. These days, we win
In Croke Park, back in the 1960s, together my dad and I embarked on a GAA journey that would last until he died
All Irelands and he is the first person we think of, and he wasn’t even from Dublin.
I’m not sure if that’s why I first brought my two older children to Croke Park when they were even younger than I had been on that fateful day. I can recall, from the distance of some years, that there was no Damascene conversion with them; they were, I suspect, too young and too cold to shiver with anything other than borderline hypothermia. But both of them, and in time their younger sister, became frequent visitors to Croke Park, even if I was never entirely convinced they weren’t there under at least a light layer of duress.
And maybe because it is the 21st century and I am an Irish woman of my age and time, I kind of hoped that of all of them, it would be my girls who would stay with me on the road to Jones Road. But while they have both given up playing, The Boy has persevered, adding hurling to his early football career and, this year, adding school team duties in both games to his club commitments.
Meanwhile, his love for the Dubs has become every bit as irrational and unconditional as my own. On the day before the final, he was laid low with a horrible tummy bug and I speculated that he might not be able to go to the game. ‘Even if I lose all my limbs, I’m going,’ he said, with a few sweary words thrown in for added emphasis.
On the way to Croker, he gave me a detailed explanation of how he thought we might contain Aidan O’Shea and when we won, even as I was thinking of my dad, he grabbed me in the sort of embrace he doesn’t dispense too often these days and we both roared. Roared.
That was a month ago and while we still walk on a slight cushion of air, life and GAA matters have returned to normal. Last Sunday morning, at the absurd hour of 9am, he put his head around the kitchen door and told me he was off to O’Toole Park to watch the club’s senior hurlers in a Dublin championship game. He left me behind, alone, and I thought of my dad and my son. And it made me cry. That one.