When all beside a vigil keep . . .
An Irishman’s Diary about GAA fans and flashbacks
At Croke Park on Sunday, I found myself sitting behind four burly Mayo men who, in contrast with the fundamentalist zeal now afflicting so many GAA followers from that county, were among the most faint-hearted supporters I’ve ever seen.
For one thing, they didn’t have a scrap of green and red among them: not even a wristband. But that was a minor failing. Their biggest crime against fandom was to miss at least 20 minutes of the match, in favour of an extended trip to the bar.
First they trooped out a full five minutes before half-time, when the action was at its most gripping. Gripping, mind you, in a way that must have panicked even ultra-confident Mayo supporters. Their team was 7-3 down at the time and you could smell the fear.
In fact, I was at first inclined to give the departing quartet a pass. They were of an age, I knew, to have seen many Mayo bandwagons crash horribly. No doubt they suffer flashbacks that, at times of renewed stress, require emergency medication.
Still, during the half-time pints for which they didn’t have to queue, they would surely have heard about the late rush of scores that reduced Tyrone’s interval lead to 7-6. And yet their seats were still empty when the game resumed. Worse, they remained empty for another 15 minutes, at which point our heroes finally re-emerged.
I use the word “heroes” deliberately, because, having forced their neighbours to stand up, again, the four returned to see from the scoreboard that, “bejayzus!”, the Connacht champions were now five points up and cruising. Whereupon one of the quartet slapped the back of a green shirt nearby and declared: “You can’t beat the men of the wesht!”
The brass neck of this was breathtaking. Between gasps, however, I was very nearly moved me to sarcasm. If I hadn’t bitten my lip, hard, I would have blurted out something like: “You can’t beat them in the half-time rush to the bar, that’s for sure”.
Then they and others would have looked around, at me and my Monaghan jersey, and decided it was sour grapes over what they’d done to us in the minor match; and/or that I was I just another bitter northerner, threatened by Mayo’s rise.
Whereas in fact, like most people now, I would be delighted to see them win an All-Ireland. Only a sadist would think they haven’t suffered enough already. So I said nothing. But I was nonetheless astounded at the alacrity with which they were able to flout the serious-GAA-supporter-code-of-conduct, while retaining their self-estimation.
Mention of “Men of the West” reminded me of Sean Keating’s famous revolution-era painting of that name, with its grim-faced, rifle-carrying volunteers, keeping vigil under their flag somewhere, perhaps while planning an ambush. In their own eyes, clearly, the lads in front of me were just as heroic; although, to me, it looked like they’d missed the war and were now trying to claim a pension.
It was only after Sunday’s game that, speaking of self-image, I learned about Eircom’s “fan-pic”. This is one of those 360-degree stadium panoramas: a glory of the digital age, that allows you zoom into the crowd at any point and find a close-up of yourself. It’s already been done in the Aviva. This was the first time in Croke Park.
So when the finished picture was posted on Monday, I zoomed in with trepidation. You can be cruelly exposed by unsuspected stadium pictures: like that Irish fan in Poznan last year who was caught in amorous pose with a Croatian bosom.
That sort of thing still doesn’t happen in Croke Park much, it’s true. Yet there’s plenty of other potential for embarrassment. At the very least you could be caught mid-yawn, or picking your nose, or adjusting the male body parts that get numb when you’re sitting on a hard seat for two hours.
Happily, I was spared such humiliations. The fan pic was taken mid-way through the first half when, in common with most people, I was rapt by the events unfolding. Consequently, my pose was about as dignified as I can manage these days.
But of course the potential for photographic miscarriages of justice works both ways. And proving that the camera does lie, sometimes, there in the fan-pic in front of me are the “men of the wesht”: present, seated, and fully absorbed, their lack of team colours serving somehow only to accentuate their image as serious students of the game.