FIONA LOONEY

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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.

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