A whole different ball-game

An Irishman’s Diary about watching GAA abroad

“Even so, I thought naively, this was an Irish bar. It might not have the status of an embassy, exactly. But surely in an Irish bar, an All-Ireland quarter final must always trump a meaningless English rugby friendly?” Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Even so, I thought naively, this was an Irish bar. It might not have the status of an embassy, exactly. But surely in an Irish bar, an All-Ireland quarter final must always trump a meaningless English rugby friendly?” Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 01:00

The first time I tried watching a GAA match in an Irish pub in Paris, it developed into a tense situation. The month was August, and the All-Ireland Football Quarter Finals were on. But it was also a Rugby World Cup year. And, as soon became apparent, the action from Croke Park clashed with a warm-up friendly in Cardiff between Wales and England.

At first this seemed an irrelevant detail to the half dozen GAA supporters watching the Gaelic in Corcoran’s, near Boulevard St Germain. Then rugby fans, mostly English and wearing their country’s shirts, began to gather in the pub. Soon there were more of them than of us.

Even so, I thought naively, this was an Irish bar. It might not have the status of an embassy, exactly. But surely in an Irish bar, an All-Ireland quarter final must always trump a meaningless English rugby friendly?

No, it turned out. When the Saxon invaders had swelled to about 15, the barman broke it gently to the now-minority clientele that he would have to switch the main screens over to their game. We could continue watching the GAA, he added, but it would have to be in the basement.

For a moment, this turn of events threatened to unleash my inner Gaelic fundamentalist. I even considered the possibility of leading a holy war (Ji-ay-ay-had, as we call it) against the infidels.

Then I took my pint and went downstairs, quietly, with the others. It was only economics, I knew, but it felt like the 800 years of oppression in microcosm. As we resumed watching the football in the windowless basement, we might as well have been attending Mass in a cave.

Last weekend in Paris presented a different challenge. In fact, despite the World Cup, there were no obvious clashes with the GAA match I was hoping to see, the Ulster Football semi-final between Monaghan and Armagh. On the contrary, at 8pm French time, it was perfectly situated in a window between the Brazil-Chile and Colombia-Uruguay games, as if vindicating Sky TV’s decision to broadcast GAA to the Irish diaspora.

Then, of course, Brazil-Chile went to extra time, slamming one shutter on the window. So as all of Paris crowded around television sets in cafes and bars to watch the denouement from Belo Horizonte (literally “Beautiful Horizon“), the first half from Clones (literally “Horizon blocked on all sides by Drumlins”) was eclipsed.

Not even my old friend, the basement in Corcoran’s, could spare one its two screens for Sky, although a sympathetic barman assured me that, as soon as the soccer ended, I could have both.

To tell the truth – and God forgive me – I slightly dreaded the switchover. My fear was that, as witnessed by a pubful of Parisians, the contrast between the suntanned glamour and excitement of Brazil and events in Clones might be harsh.

Even those of us schooled in the savage beauty of Ulster football know that a too-sudden switch from the rhythms of the Samba to those of the Enniskillen Pipe Band could cause internal injury. You need to do special exercises to prepare yourself.

But in the event, the transition was painless. It helped that the current Brazilian team is the worst in living memory and that their main striker Fred must have won his No 9 shirt in a raffle. The mutual incompetence of the penalty shoot-out was no harm either.

In any case, Clones held up quite well to the glare of international attention. There was some surprised laughter, initially, from the French viewers around me. But I think that was mainly caused by the spectacle of grown men committing assault on each other at every opportunity and not rolling around afterwards in even pretended pain.

Indeed, as Monaghan-Armagh emulated Brazil-Chile by finishing in a tense draw, admiring Parisians clustered around screens all over Boulevard St Germain in anticipation of another thrilling penalty shoot-out.

All right, that last bit didn’t happen. Actually, most of Corcoran’s locals missed about the last 25 minutes from Clones, having drifted away as soon as their beers were finished.

Among the handful of customers left in the downstairs bar at 9.30pm, I was the only one watching the GAA. I really did feel like a fundamentalist then. And I would have felt like a complete oddball too, if it hadn’t been for the words of another one-time Parisian exile that came reassuringly to my mind (paraphrased). We are all the basement, but some of us are looking at the Sky.

@frankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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