Dubs are both hosts and participants, building on a proud history
The media hype, Hill 16 mania and all the fanfare that surrounds the Dublin Gaelic football team began in earnest in the 1950s
Dublin players line up in front of their fans on Hill 16 in 2006. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
They reared a family during the 1970s when the population of Dublin increased by 15 per cent. In the midst of this busier Dublin there was something else new during my early childhood: the phenomenon of “Heffo’s Army”, the band of loud and proud Dublin Gaelic football fans who colonised Hill 16 in Croke Park at the heart of their own city.
Kevin Heffernan’s Dublin team contested six successive all-Ireland finals during the 1970s, winning three of them. There was much less to cheer about in the 1980s, with just one all-Ireland victory in 1983 and then a long wait until 1995. After that, there was another hiatus until 2011.
Hype and pride
During the leaner years, Dublin supporters developed a great nostalgia for the 1970s, when Hill 16 was a spectacle to behold and the Heffernan teams hauled the Sam Maguire to schools around the city and suburbs. It had a galvanising effect on those seeking to build and sustain a GAA infrastructure in Dublin; to capture a large, urban youth support, something the GAA had historically struggled with. I grew up in Goatstown, where I still live, and the Kilmacud Crokes club had a strong presence and confidence that continues to this day; my own daughters are now members of the club.
While the club predates the 1970s victories, those triumphs gave it and others a dynamic that endured.
Growing up, we had Munster blood mixed with our Dublin identity, and were reared by parents who believed that hurling was the purer sport. That was another reason why the victories of the 1970s and 1983 meant something special to us.
Dublin Gaelic football, which had floundered in the national league in the 1960s, had become something sensational and generated hype and a pride that for us could match the hurling magic.
The way those 1970s Dublin teams were managed and the game they played marked something new. In their use of speed, the hand pass, the quick transfer of possession and with a new approach to training, Brian Mullins, Jimmy Keaveney, Tony Hanahoe, Paddy Cullen and their fellow stalwarts changed the game and generated a new atmosphere and colour.
Dubs could also be proud that at a time when League of Ireland soccer was struggling and televised English soccer was becoming so pervasive, its team seemed to be the saviour of the GAA.
In his 1984 classic, Over the Bar, Breandán O’hEithir asserted “it can be fairly said that Kerry and Dublin had been the life support machine of Gaelic football for a decade, earning the big money for the GAA and showing what Gaelic football at its best can be, as a game and a spectacle.”
The Dublin team is also important to the supporters because on big match days when its team is involved the Dubs are both hosts and participants, building on a proud history.
Hill 16 mania
In 1955 the Dublin team, dominated by players from the St Vincent’s Club, products of the primary school leagues, played Kerry in the All-Ireland final. Before it, a white horse ridden by a supporter dressed in Dublin colours led a parade of fellow supporters up O’Connell Street. Dublin lost – they had to wait until 1958 to be triumphant – but the media hype, Hill 16 mania and all the fanfare that went with it had begun.
It had an added momentum because Dublin were contenders and hosts in the same city that had witnessed iconic historic events the GAA had been associated with, including the funeral of Parnell in 1891; Gaelic Sunday in 1918 when the GAA defied a British government ban on the playing of Gaelic games; and the massacre in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday in 1920.
The sense of all roads and railway lines leading to Dublin was, and still is, paramount. As a Dub following the fortunes of its football team, it is a journey of pride to walk up O’Connell Street, on to Gardiner Street, past the Hill 16 pub, across Mountjoy Square – where the rival supporters spill out of buses – and down to the throng outside Gill’s pub on the corner of Jones’ Road.
The close-knit inner city communities go to great lengths to ensure that the paths to Croke Park are awash with blue.
Jovial and witty
So much has happened to the city and its complexion since the 1970s, but the sense of solidarity with the team has not only remained but multiplied, given added momentum by the Jason Sherlock mania of the 1990s, the influx of non-nationals, the surge in the popularity of womens’ football, respect for the astonishing levels of fitness on display, and the dignity and mental reserves as represented by Stephen Cluxton, who walked calmly from his goal in 2011 to score the winning point.
As supporters, Dubs are jovial and witty; they also demand much of their team and the banter and exasperated rants are often hilarious. There is something delightful in watching and listening to a nicotine- stained overweight veteran Dub, his belly full of chips and porter, and bursting out of a jersey that like himself has seen better days, berate a sleek, ultra-trained and chiselled young Dublin player for being a “lazy little fu**kin bo**ix”.
Most tirades are wittier than they are nasty, and everyone is encouraged to join in; democracy reigns on Hill 16.
But I have a treacherous confession to make. For all the genuine “Up the Dubs” sentiment, I believe this weekend may be gratifying even if the Dubs lose. If Mayo win, it is likely a striking image of a very old Mayo supporter will appear, with tears of relief and release streaming down his or her face after a 62-year wait. Even the most ardent Dub devastated by defeat will have to have the hardest of hearts not to be moved by that.
For all the fallow periods, Dubs do not know the meaning of the long, long wait in the way that Mayo does.