Brian O’Connor’s Tipping Point: Clash of identities comes into play in All-Ireland decider

There must not be any other 32,000sq mile patch of ground on the planet so minutely divided by stereotypes intrinsically bound to sporting fortunes

 Donegal’s Eamonn McGee, Neil Gallagher and Paddy McGrath tackle Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Donegal’s Eamonn McGee, Neil Gallagher and Paddy McGrath tackle Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It is All-Ireland football final week so cue much colon-scouring examination about what being from Ireland, and specifically, Donegal and Kerry, supposedly means. That such identity schlock is done straight is hardly a singularly GAA deal, but there is singularity in the overwhelming relevance it can be credited with in relation to sport here.

There must not be any other 32,000sq mile patch of ground on the planet so minutely divided by stereotypes that are intrinsically bound to sporting fortunes, specifically county GAA teams; cartoons so broadly brushed they might be laughable were it not for the grip they continue to exert on the popular consciousness.

It’s actually an interesting chicken- and-egg deal: is Cork cocky because of some bacterial hubris in Lee water, or because its hurling teams have successfully played with a certain swagger down the decades? Is that whole “Mayo-God-Help- Us” vibe the result of a county seemingly cowed by decades of failure to win the football, or the reason for that failure in the first place?

It would be trivial stuff were it not for the obvious impact on so many people’s idea of themselves. There’s hardly a cute Kerryman not proud of his corkscrew tongue and its capacity to get on the right side of a ref, just as rare is the Tipperary fan that feels abashed about tongue-lashing a ref with anatomical exactitude.

They tend to underplay more in Kilkenny, but even the most casual Cat is aware that hurling is what their place is synonymous with. It gets a lot more in-your-face chippy north of the Border, but no matter where, there is an unavoidable correlation between the GAA and how the citizens of a particular county see themselves, their team a pump for inflating or deflating chests.

Lyrical fantasies

And then there’s the soft “och-aye” accent, which can inspire lyrical fantasies among American tourists while provoking suspicion closer to home that behind the butter-wouldn’t-melt, “Wee Daniel” lilt lurks a weird, gimpy underbelly, full of nipple-clamps and rubber.

In football terms though, Donegal teams always happily conformed to their laid-back, banjo-flailing, drinking-after-hours reputation; light-hearted, skilful and suspected of not really liking it up ’em. A first All-Ireland in 1992 was achieved with a casual elan that even then contrasted with the grim doggedness that is supposedly the breakfast of champions.

It was hard not to warm to the football backwater featured in the hoary old yarn about the legendary Kerry captain, Paddy “Bawn” Brosnan, instructing an awe-struck Donegal player on how to lift Sam Maguire.

“You lift it with one hand, because you have to keep the other hand free to shake hands with the Queen.”

“What are you talking about Paddy, we don’t have a Queen.”

“By Jesus we will by the time ye ever win an All-Ireland!”

But now Donegal get to play the Kingdom in the final, a pairing almost as far apart in football pedigree as it is geographically. And the remarkable thing is that many neutrals will probably wind up shouting for royalty. Because never before can a team have managed to turn itself so diametrically away from its own stereotype as Jim McGuinness’s Donegal has.

Far from any likeable “take-her-handy” casualness, Donegal are now proper bad asses, doing what it takes, f***ing the begrudgers with soft lilting lets-be-havin’-you spit and grit, driving Pat Spillane into indignant paroxysms, provoking nostalgia for puke football: Donegal has morphed into the GAA’s own “Dirty Leeds” in their uncompromising pursuit of success.

Close to psychobabble

The lesson for every other county, labouring under the weight of supposed tradition and inheritance, is obvious. Donegal footballers were always regarded as a soft touch. Now they’re Gaelic football’s dog-men; capable of winning with style or attrition, but devoted to winning: a nightmare but necessary test that Dublin, the team supposedly of all the talents, couldn’t pass.

What Dublin found out is that the genuinely great don’t need excuses made for them. Donegal did football a service last month in revealing the soft centre of a prematurely acclaimed team. If they can now overcome the game’s greatest myth-makers, they will have sealed their own myth within the game.

For McGuinness & Co, such an end will justify the means that contribute towards perhaps the most interesting curio about this final, which is how can Kerry be in contention for the neutral vote? This is the county with reserves of belief that make Venezuela’s oil look scarce. That “Kerryness” may be intangible but it takes a very logical mind indeed to argue it won’t be a factor on Sunday. And they’ll be underdogs, often a deadly combination.

It’s fascinating how different “Donegalness” is now from what it was, and how those hardy northwestern chests must be notably busty at the moment. But if the whole place has morphed into its team, maybe it’s safer to stay away for a while!

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