The final curtain – Ray Burke on a momentous All-Ireland change

An Irishman’s Diary

'Yerra, t'will shorten the winter for us" – the traditional humble-brag of Kerry football supporters after the county has won an All-Ireland final, will be deprived of much of its power to amuse or annoy this year, even if the Kerrymen live up to their ante-post favourites tag and bring the Sam Maguire Cup back to the Kingdom for a record 38th time.

The GAA's decision to shorten the inter-county hurling and football championship seasons means that the finals of both competitions will be contested this year before the second-last Sunday in July, about two months before their traditional dates of the first and third Sundays in September, despite the association's official history stating on its website that the championships culminate "with the showcase All-Ireland finals in Croke Park during September".

The upheaval, introduced to end the disruption of club competitions within counties caused by the absence of players called up for county panels, ends a tradition dating back almost a century.

“Croke Park is still the only place on earth I want to be on the first Sunday in September,” wrote the columnist Breandán Ó hEithir in this newspaper on the eve of the 1977 final.

Fixing the dates “helped to create one of the great traditions of hurling”, he added in his seminal 1984 book of GAA annals and anecdotes, Over the Bar.

"All-Ireland final day is the greatest day of the year. It is the be-all and end-all", said the country's most successful inter-county manager, Brian Cody of Kilkenny in 2008, after his county had qualified to meet Waterford in the 121st final, scheduled for September 7th that year.

The hurling decider was played on the first Sunday of September almost every year between 1930 and 2018. The precedent set by the 1930 final allowed future taoiseach and president Eamon de Valera to schedule the launch of his new daily newspaper, the Irish Press, deliberately for the eve of the 1931 final to maximise sales.

He later also fixed the launch of its sister papers, the Sunday Press, in 1949, and the Evening Press, in 1954, to coincide with the hurling final.

The 1931 final, between Cork and Kilkenny, was “probably the most significant in the history of the GAA”, Breandán Ó hEithir wrote in Over the Bar. The two factors that combined to make it so important were, he said, “two great teams playing classical hurling and, and the advent of a new daily paper, the Irish Press”. He and other GAA historians agreed that the prominent coverage of hurling and football in the Irish Press forced the other national newspapers to increase their previously scant reporting of Gaelic games.

With rare exceptions, such as the Covid-19 disruption of the 2020 championships, the football final has generally been played on the third Sunday of September, enabling Kerry people, winners more often than those from any other county, to prolong their celebrations throughout the week of the Listowel Races, the late-September steeplechase and harvest festival that dates back to 1858, over a quarter of a century before the GAA was founded.

And a question often overheard from the lips of pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick on the traditional Reek Sunday, the last Sunday of July, – "D'ya think will Galway bate Mayo?" – will also be redundant this year after the neighbouring western counties faced each other in the Connacht championship in Castlebar in April, one week after Easter Sunday.

The designation of the first and third Sundays of September as immovable feasts on the calendars of the 34 counties affiliated to the GAA (London and New York having been added relatively recently) is memorably illustrated in a story told by Ó hEithir in Over the Bar. He recalled how Brendan Behan was out walking with fellow writer Samuel Beckett in Paris one day when they were recognised by three young Irish priests, who were returning home after their ordination in Rome.

The boulevard wasn’t wide enough for all five to walk abreast, so two of the priests flanked Behan in the vanguard while the third walked behind them with Beckett, a taciturn south county Dublin Protestant whose first love was cricket, not hurling or Gaelic football. The young priest broke the awkward silence by asking Beckett if he had any plans to return to Ireland. Beckett said that he might travel to Ireland in the middle of September. “Yerra what harm”, said the young priest, “you’ll miss the hurling, but you’ll be there for the football.”