Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The gathering of the Tribe

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When I took voluntary redundancy from my local newspaper almost a year ago, my head was full of plans to cut loose again and travel the world.

Having enjoyed the best year of my life far from the “safe harbour” in 2010, when I took a 12 month career break, my mind was buzzing with potential projects in far-off, sunnier climes. Another winter in Galway was definitely not part of my plans.

But sometimes fate works in mysterious ways and health complications – I picked up the MRSA bug in my local public hospital – put paid to my dreams of a radical change. 
The Galway players line up at Croke Park

Instead of volunteering in Nicaragua, guiding scuba divers in Thailand, or teaching English in Spain, I was confined to the safe harbour for seven months as a team of wonderful public health nurses set about healing my wound.

I had too much time to think, but I also began to appreciate the gentle beauty which us natives can often take for granted in the West of Ireland.

Not for nothing was my home town voted the “friendliest city on earth” just last week. But I must confess that, for much of my life, I was too busy or too preoccupied by perceived problems or injustices to revel in the delights of the people around me.

A scuba diving instructor in Egypt once told me that the best thing about Ireland was the people, when I complained about returning home to another wet and windy winter in the City of the Tribes. Sabry had never been to my country, but he had met enough Irish people through his job to appreciate the friendliness, easy-going nature, and hospitality of the people.

My long illness brought on some unwanted anxiety and uncertainty, but it also helped me to appreciate the simple things. Like the people in the clinic’s waiting room, who would share tales about their lives. Many of them had returned home after years spent working in England. Or the nurses, who went out of their way to accommodate me with early appointments when I had to reschedule during a digital marketing course.

Sometimes it feels as though there is a deep sadness in the West of Ireland, brought about by melancholic weather and the generations of people who have been forced to move overseas in search of better lives.

But the sense of community, the sense of place, is something to be revelled in; the way people will pause for a chat on the street or spend hours interacting with strangers in pubs is something we should never take for granted, because you don’t find that in many parts of the world.

On an emotional weekend in Dublin, I got to really appreciate my tribe. Galway, the Tribesmen, had reached the All-Ireland hurling final and I had friends and family home from the UK, Spain, New York, and even Australia.

We dared not dream of winning a first All-Ireland title in 27 years against the raging hot favourites, but we didn't want to miss the event just in case ... When we saw how muted the Kilkenny celebrations were, it was painful to imagine how wonderful the party would have been had the underdogs defied the odds.

There is nothing like an All-Ireland weekend to heighten the emotions, as we recalled past battles, defeats and victories, and the sheer heartbreak of following a team who have come close so often only to fall at the final hurdle.

The Galway hurlers break our hearts, but let nobody say that Galway people are not passionate about the game.

In the capital's pubs before and after the game, we swapped tales about games we had witnessed (or where we’d watched them) down through the years.

I was a young student squatting in London in 1988, the last time Galway won the All-Ireland. I was having too much fun to come home for the final and never thought I’d wait at least 27 years to see them win again. I have been to all six finals they’ve lost since then.

In 1989, I was on the Hill with my younger brother for the semi-final clash with Tipperary when there was a poisonous atmosphere in the air after the ‘Tony Keady Affair’. A year later, he watched the final in the Bronx, on the day Joe Cooney produced a master class but still ended up on the losing side against the Rebels.

In 1993, after we'd lost to Kilkenny, an old man on the train home said he’d never see Galway win another All-Ireland. It’s the kind of fatalism we share with Mayo football fans and I knew exactly what he meant. Defeatism and negativity can be traits of those of us who grew up among the stones, the drizzle, and windswept fields of Connacht.

It took us eight years to get back to Croke Park in September and Tipperary ruined our plans in 2001. Four years later it was Cork’s turn and Kilkenny, the game’s dominant modern force, blew our dreams to smithereens in 2012 and again this year.

Celebrating the semi-final win over Tipperary
To add to the torture, our team even managed a draw against the best team in history three years ago. We could have, and should have, beaten them to end the famine that afternoon.

When the hurlers beat Tipperary in last month’s semi-final, I suddenly felt pangs of regret that I was no longer involved in writing about them for the newspaper. There’s a giddy excitement about the build-up to an All-Ireland final – unless you’re from Kilkenny, where it’s probably just another annual event like Christmas or St Patrick’s Day.

On Saturday, my sister took the ferry home from London. She refused to miss the final. It cost her a fortune she could hardly afford, but as she headed back on Monday morning she said it was all so worthwhile.
From the singing in the pubs, to the chats with fans of all ages who had made the trip to Croke Park, there is something truly special about the All-Ireland weekend.

The way the supporters of the opposing teams mix and share their passion for the game is unmatched in any sport. There were over 82,000 people in Croke Park with no need for the kind of segregation I’ve seen following Liverpool to Champions League, UEFA, and FA Cup finals.

My cousin flew in from London, too, to see his team get beaten yet again. He doesn’t even remember his team winning an All-Ireland, but he had to be there, as did the old musician friend home from the Canary Islands.

We lost, but we celebrated all that is good about being Irish – and the West of Ireland in particular – in the crowded bars along Dorset Street on Sunday night.

These are the things that dreams are made of, even if our dreams were shattered yet again last weekend.

Galway people love their hurling and we should remember that there are passionate fans in places like Laois and Carlow who would love to see their team take part in just one All-Ireland final at a captivated Croke Park.

I’m so glad that the team got a rousing reception when they returned home. 

They reminded this cynic about so many of the good things associated with life in the West of Ireland, whether it's pucking a ball against a gable wall or spending hours talking about the game we love.

I could have been lying in the Nicaraguan or Spanish sunshine on Sunday, starting a new life, but it just felt right to be in the middle of my crazy, passionate, wounded Tribe, as we learned to cope with the pain of defeat once again. Sure, that's life!

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