Banner folk basking in the glow of unexpected glory
All-Ireland triumphs are a rare event in Clare and the mood in the county has been transformed by a famous victory
Clare supporters mob Shane O’Donnell after the GOAL challenge game at Sixmilebridge. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald with the Liam MacCarthy cup at his home town of Sixmilebridge. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
In Sixmilebridge, there is a row of houses so close to the GAA pitch people can keep one eye on the television and another on the match outside their living-room window. So on Wednesday night, a handful of people could watch the new All-Ireland champions from their arm chairs if they so wished. The Clare team were playing on their doorstep.
The GOAL challenge is a ritual that has somehow survived the bedlam which grips all counties in the days after an All-Ireland win. “Ecstatic,” said Pat Donnellan, the Clare captain when asked how he felt before the challenge game. “ Never seen the lads looking so fresh.” The rain held off and the place was teeming with youngsters lost in the new thrill of it all. But Clare people who recall the period in the 1990s, when their team was the best and easily the most compelling team in Ireland, must have been stunned by the suddenness with which this feeling – of magic somehow captured – has come back to them.
For too many years, there was a sense Clare hurling had had its moment. Someone put up a You Tube post six years ago entitled Clare hurling 1995-1999 set to A Beautiful Affair by Stockton’s Wing, as if the possibilities for the Banner game were trapped within that period. Even Davy Fitzgerald, in a remarkable interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ this week, admitted the scenes transported him back to 1995 and ’97, when he was a skinny bundle of nervous energy and defiance keeping goal for a great team.
But Saturday last felt brand new. It was the most bewitching conclusion to any All-Ireland championship, hurling or football. The wisdom of holding the game on a Saturday evening was forgotten as the evening, more by accident than design, became perfect. “That is just sinking in over the last day or two,” admitted Louis Mulqueen on Wednesday night. The selector was wearing Conor McGrath’s number 15 jersey having lined out in the GOAL match. He leaned against a van near the dressingrooms and noted that he hasn’t had a chance to watch the match yet.
“I’m looking forward to putting it on and sitting back and enjoying it. Because only when Darach (Honan) got the goal was the game put to bed. It has been a great year’s hurling and to win a very good game with excellent hurling which youngsters will want to emulate – the speed of movement and eight goals in a final – to come out on top of that was terrific.”
Mulqueen seems to have been around the Clare hurling scene forever. He was a selector with the All-Ireland minor winning side of 1997. The new All-Ireland champions are surrounded by hundreds of youngsters, signing autographs and shirts and hurls. It is 9pm and as Pat Donnellan assured people beforehand, nobody was in any rush away. Near the dressingrooms, people were lining up to get their picture taken with the MacCarthy Cup. There was no preciousness or any big deal.
When the Guardian newspaper ran its editorial in praise of the spirit and amateurism of the GAA and the All-Ireland hurling final as the best of sport, its readers could have had little clue as to what happens when then contest is won. It is one thing to see the Clare captain hold the cup aloft in a magnificent stadium with bunting falling, a scene redolent of any of the great world sporting events. But it is another to see the same cup being passed between two five-year-old children just four nights later.
Just like that, being All-Ireland champions becomes an intensely local thing. These scenes are familiar to Clare hurling lifers like Mulqueen who recall the happiness of their last All-Ireland. The big question is: what now? “Look, it has been brilliant to see it building slowly and then exploding once we got to the quarter-final. Just to see the bunting and young kids responding, it has been electric. I have been teaching the past few days and the buzz it has given people is incredible. And that is one of the things Davy and ourselves sat down and wanted to bring to Clare hurling.