On my first visit to Croke Park, I spent 70 minutes staring at the back of a stranger's head. It was 1986. I was 12. Cork were playing Galway in the All-Ireland hurling final and my father and uncle had magicked up four tickets – two for the terrace on Hill 16, two for the old, creaking Hogan Stand.
The plan had been for my younger brother and I to sit in the stand unaccompanied – hey, it was the 1980s – while my father and uncle braved the Hill. But at the last moment my father had a change of heart. With 63,000 strangers milling about, it dawned on him that waving goodbye to a nine-year-old and 12-year-old at Gill’s Corner on North Circular Road probably wasn’t the sensible option.
Whenever Cork reached the All-Ireland my father would flatter, pester and generally harass his network of drinking buddies and fellow card sharks into coughing up a sheave of those golden pieces of paper
My brother went with my uncle. And I piled into the terrace with my father. Pressed in all around were people taller than I. They smelled of beer, sweat and dread – would Cork leave Croke Park defeated yet again?
All I can remember is what I didn’t see. The roar accompanying Kevin Hennessy’s early goal. The out-of-body paroxysms that rippled through the middle-aged men around me as Jimmy Barry-Murphy notched up his last ever point for Cork. Staring at the sky, I glimpsed the sliotar framed by the sun as Barry-Murphy pinged it over. It was my only sighting of the ball all day.
My father died last September. On Sunday, less than a year later, Cork will play Limerick in the All-Ireland final. It will be the first time Cork have competed in a senior hurling final without his presence in the world since the last of the four-in-a-row wins in 1944. It will also be the first All-Ireland final to feature Cork that I have not attended since 1984. If the Galway game of 35 years ago was the beginning of something, now here I am, at the end.
Obviously I’ve been thinking a lot about my father this week. These are for reasons both practical and emotional. At a very straightforward level, my father was the family’s ticket whisperer. Whenever Cork reached the All-Ireland he would flatter, pester and generally harass his network of drinking buddies and fellow card sharks into coughing up a sheave of those golden pieces of paper.
He always came through. Often later than felt good for your nerves – but as we were literally begging for tickets, who were we to complain? The good news would typically arrive the Wednesday or Thursday of All-Ireland week, just as you had started to give up hope. But come through he would. But now he’s gone and there will be no tickets, and All-Ireland week is going to be different.
I was carried aloft by the tide of people, my feet no longer touching the ground. 'Watch the young fella, watch the young fella,' people said as they jostled past
Going to matches with my father was how I got to know him. And also to understand something of the world. The experience of watching the Cork footballers ritualistically crushed by Kerry through the late 1970s and 1980s taught me early in life that dreams don’t always come true. Having the hope pummelled out of you at that age is something that lingers.
Following Cork through those decades wasn't enjoyable as such. The best way of describing it is a combination of the Nick Hornby novel Fever Pitch and the 12 Stations of the Cross. Sometimes it was frightening. In 1986, supporters would still occasionally force open the Croke Park gates. That happened as we made our way to the Hill. The crowd surged; I was carried aloft by the tide of people, my feet no longer touching the ground. "Watch the young fella, watch the young fella," people said as they jostled past.
Going to games with my father had a surreal side, too. In 1986, after the Munster hurling final in Killarney, another family member was knocked down by a car. The driver leaped out of the car and jumped a fence. My father gave chase and tackled him. And then in 1987, walking up Parnell Street East to Croke Park for the football final against Meath, that same relative was hit again – this time by a passing van driven by a dead ringer for Colm Meaney in The Snapper. There was a rip along his jacket and blood. It was nasty but his streak of bad luck also became a running joke. What would happen to him next?
We soon had our answer. A year later in Limerick for the sold-out Munster hurling final, my father and I saw a car drive up behind our two-time hit-and-run victim. I joked that it looked like the car was going to smack into him. It did. He hit the ground. As a crowd gathered around, an old friend pressed through to ask the prone figure if he had a spare ticket.
In those pre-Hillsborough days, there were often hairy moments. The crush outside Hill 16 was no one-off. On the slopes at Limerick in 1988, there had been a heave forward and back and, again, my feet were not touching the ground and I was falling forward. There was a repeat, at the drawn 1988 football final, in the Canal End tunnel leading out of Croke Park. Everyone lurched back and forth in the dark. This is it, I thought, I’m going under.
Upon reaching daylight on the other side, my father struck upon a plan to beat the crowd. At this remove the details are vague – my brother only half remembers them too – but, for whatever reason, we ended up shuffling across the outside of some sort of railway bridge over the canal, gripping the iron-work tightly. Any older and wiser and I would have been terrified.
Losing, I can deal with. It has been a familiar feeling this past decade. But victory is going to be more complicated
These memories are precious to me. But they are in no way unique. They will, I suspect, resonate with anyone who was brought up going to matches with a father and mother, sibling or grandparent.
And when that person is no longer around, the dynamic is different. When I think of Cork winning I remember my father lit up with joy. And I’m still not sure how I’m going to react should Cork claim the All-Ireland on Sunday.
Losing, I can deal with. It has been a familiar feeling this past decade. But victory is going to be more complicated. I’ll wish I was in Dublin, on the Hill or in one of the stands (not the Cusack – we always come unstuck when I’m there).
Inevitably, I’ll yell at the television. I’ll probably cry. I’ll think of my father. And I’ll wonder whether I’ve finished processing his absence. Or if I’m still merely in the foothills of grief, staring up at the sky just like I did at that All-Ireland 35 years ago, half-blinded to what’s really going on.