Clare restore balance to hurling’s main stage in classical style

Saturday’s All-Ireland replay was a reminderthat sport provides serious drama as well as exhilarating spectacle

Clare’s Conor McGrath celebrates scoring his sides fourth goal against Cork. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Clare’s Conor McGrath celebrates scoring his sides fourth goal against Cork. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Just as it is a condition of Gaelic games that every exciting match will be scrutinised, tagged and filed as ‘the greatest ever’ or ‘the best since . . .’ so also are the inevitable responses that ‘the defending was poor’ or ‘I don’t get the fuss about this’ or ‘the nineteen hundred and splash semi-final was far better’.

Who really cares? When matches like the Dublin-Kerry football semi-final or the two-day epic of the hurling final occur, you enjoy them in the moment because that’s when they take place. Everything else – conversational review, rationalisation, categorising and comparisons – is strictly historical post hoc.

Aristotle’s principles of tragedy maintain that it should purge the emotions through pity and terror in order to re-balance what he regarded these most extreme feelings.

Whatever about pity, any supporter in any sport knows the impact of terror in a big match – the feeling that your team is going to lose or the desire for the match to speed up when that team is doing well: let it be over and let us be ahead.

About to win
Pity can be evident but more in the crestfallen sense of self pity. I remember when the 1990s All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Galway was nearly over and Cork about to win, an old man from Galway stood up, took his cap from his pocket, addressed the jubilant opposing supporters just behind him – “we’ll never beat ye in a final” – and shuffled away.

Similarly, former Northern Ireland deputy first minister Séamus Mallon recalled his father taking him to see their county Armagh take on Kerry in the 1953 All-Ireland final. It was a match Armagh lost but would have come closer to winning had they not missed a penalty. Mallon spoke about the scene in Eamonn Rafferty’s Talking Gaelic.

Undemonstrative man
“I could take you to the exact spot where I sat, on the old sideline seats in Croke Park. I remember my father at the final whistle. He was a quiet, undemonstrative man and he always wore a hat. He took it off, stamped on it and stood there crying. It was the first time I ever saw him cry. I will never forget it.”

It’s doubtful if a Kerry man present on the same afternoon would have been so stricken in his reaction had Armagh won. That’s practice. Kerry have won more finals than any other county but also have lost more.

When the week before last the final whistle sounded at the football final, Mayo supporters could be seen breaking down in tears, as their seventh final since last winning the Sam Maguire went the same forlorn way as the other six.

Yet in the weeks between the hurling final draw and replay, a friend from Cork said dismissively of his county’s close brush with All-Ireland success for a few seconds at the end of the first match that people in Cork wouldn’t have accepted that as an All-Ireland even if they had won.

There and in Clare’s rapture last weekend it was easy to see which county had up until then won three All-Irelands and which had accumulated 30.

A year ago a friend in Kilkenny agonised in discomfort over the county’s first All-Ireland won through the qualifiers, like a bankrupt tycoon with a St Vincent de Paul food parcel.

Important sporting events can be compared to classical tragedies – not so much in the modern context of something awful and heart-wrenching but in the sense of profound and serious drama in which morality and the flaws of great men and women can determine the outcome.

For the Corks, Kilkennys and Kerrys of the world their consistent exposure to these events has, as suggested by Aristotle, balanced their emotions to the point where they can better bear reverses of fortune. Cork followers on Saturday for instance demonstrated great equanimity having lost a final over two matches and by consensus accepted that the better team had won.

It would have been desperate for Clare not to have come out on top because of the nature of the two matches played. The county’s delight in capturing the Liam MacCarthy for the first time in 16 years was echoed around the country.

One of the reasons was that the victory opened up hurling after the longest restrictive practice in history – the 15 years since anyone outside of the game’s Big Three, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary had won the title. Secondly Clare’s emergence demonstrated that good development systems and patience can yield results.

Accumulating silverware
Those results could be seen in the accumulating silverware at under-age level, culminating just a couple of weeks ago in a third under-21 All-Ireland in four years. All three of those teams fed into Saturday’s winning side, which showcased thrilling, young talent with the maturity to negotiate effectively two senior All-Ireland finals and trail their opponents for less than two minutes.

Encouragingly for the future, despite their youth the Clare players appear very level-headed, a quality they’ll need as other counties line them up in their sights in the year to come, which symbolically takes shape tomorrow with the championship draws for 2014.

Even the moment of destiny for Clare when Conor McGrath flicked the ball up from a thicket of players, sliced through the Cork defence and belted in the fourth goal was being kept in perspective back home.

His father was congratulated by one of the county’s 1990s icons, full back Brian Lohan. Mindful of the easy point on offer and the presence of three-goal Shane O’Donnell in space to the left, Joe McGrath responded: “What if he’d missed?”

He paused, relented and added: “The pick-up was good, though.”
Hubris won’t be a problem in Cratloe.

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