The Dundalk eleven


Poet and author Conor O'Callaghan recalls the lengths he once went to for a game of cricket

This June, on the road home from Dublin, I had a notion. It was one of those seemingly endless Irish midsummer evenings. The exit for my old cricket club was coming up. So I rose off the motorway and veered left into the steep uphill road that narrowed through cow parsley and elderflower and the gables of derelict bungalows: a landscape straight out of Thomas Hardy, about 10 miles due north of Grafton Street.

Summer and cricket were synonyms all through my 20s. A few of us in Dundalk had tried to form our own club in the late 1980s. But we seldom mustered 11. Whenever we did, we lost. The godfathers of the local republican movement circulated a leaflet around the less salubrious housing estates, warning residents that cricket's black magic was being practised in their midst. A home from home became an inevitability.

The ground is at the very top of that flat plateau just above the Naul. On a good day you could see both the Sugarloaf and the Mournes from the wicket. The tearoom had two long tables and a jungle of ivy had long colonised the ceiling. On the door of the shed that housed the lawnmower someone had painted the word "Shed". We joined in 1990 as the club's second XI. In time, a few of our younger members graduated to the firsts. There was a period when everyone forgot which of us lived within strolling distance of the ground and which of us drove 40 miles to play home fixtures.

We were, we convinced ourselves, outsiders picking the pockets of south Dublin's elite. Mostly, opponents were regular Micks like ourselves. But just when that myth seemed about to come unstuck, convertibles and 4x4s trickled through our gate and their occupants sniffed our outfield with the imperious contempt of aristocracy in exile. The captain of the fourth XI of one Sandymount club even referred to us as "Ballygobackwards".

Our wicketkeeper togged out in a white Aran jumper. He was a long-haired biker who lived in a mobile home beside the ground and smoked between balls bowled. Another played in a green bobble-hat. During rained-out games, when we sat in the dressing room and cloudbursts clattered the galvanised roof, he regaled us with yarns of his cricketing heroics. Each began: "We were in trouble when I came in."

Food was a bigger issue than wins and losses. Traditionally, our tea was an individual salad for each player. One off-season, a splinter group proposed a motion whereby we would serve a plate of mixed sandwiches like all the other clubs. There was heated debate. Some of us felt that our tea had become an institution. There was even a show of hands. You take a hard look at your life when you find yourself, on a dirty winter night, arm aloft in favour of a plate of salad.

After the last match of each season, the old boys made a great show of hanging up their spikes. Yet there they all were in whites the following April. At every AGM our secretary resigned in a blaze of expletives. And yet there he always was, a year later, calling us to order. One lad was given a gold-plated watch because he was emigrating to Australia. It took a couple of months for team-mates to stop asking him when he was leaving.

I did a radio documentary on the club with Dick Warner and RTÉ. By way of thanks, the club procured an engraved duck (easily the least auspicious animal in cricket's iconography). A surprise presentation was planned for the annual dinner-dance. My brother Neil tipped me off and called at the 11th hour to make our joint excuse. I forgot to ask him what the excuse was. First match next season, both sides stood in a ring around the wicket, observed a minute's silence and shook my hand.

All good things. There swelled a nostalgia for the locals-only golden age that existed before what became known, without a flicker of irony, as "the merger". Dropped players drifted away. I clung on longest. But the pressure of at least one day of every weekend away from my young family became too great.

Four years ago we went to Brittany for a whole month. I couldn't find the fixture list when we got back, and nobody called. To this day, a GM bat reproaches me from the far reaches of our utility room, and my wife marvels at how conversant I am with the leafy cul de sacs of Dublin 4.

This June, the ground was overgrown. I vaguely remembered Neil saying something about dwindling numbers, something about developers. The ceiling of the tearoom was caving in. I climbed the gate, waded out to where the square once was and stood in silence. The M1 hummed minutely beneath. The lights of the city were beginning to blossom in the distance.

"This club", I heard myself saying aloud, "was founded in 1888." I became determined to make calls, rally the old troops. But it was too late to ring anyone when I got home. I forgot the next day, the next week. Then the season reached its summit, began the long descent, and July arrived with an entourage of second thoughts. Still haven't. u

Conor O'Callaghan's Red Mist: Roy Keane and the Irish World Cup Blues will be published in paperback next month