In Cathal Noonan’s Inpho photograph, Niall Cahalane’s head is clamped so tightly against his son’s shoulder that the veins on the back of Damien’s hand are standing up and his knuckles are white. Half of Damien’s face is obscured by the embrace and the half that the camera can see is creased with flesh lines and uncensored emotion; not crying, not laughing, but stuck between one and the other. Cork had just beaten Tipperary’s hurlers against the odds, and Damien had disarmed Seamus Callanan, Tipp’s top gun, but there was much more to it than the income and expenditure of a championship match.
For one thing Niall had no business being in Thurles. A few days earlier he was lying in a hospital bed having had stents inserted for his circulation. His specialist told him not to go to the match. In different terms, Damien repeated the injunction: “You’ll go up there, you’ll be like a pig, and if things go wrong, someone will get hurt.” Anyway.
A year earlier, in 2016, Cork had surrendered meekly to Tipp; absolution was scarce and Damien was one of the Cork players who had to do without. Niall, and his wife Ailish, and a car full of their other kids, stewed for the journey home in putrid silence until they reached the Jack Lynch tunnel, 70 miles away. At that point Niall spoke up, only to swear that he was never going to another Cork match. Did it matter that the oath was made in front of witnesses?
This is how they roll, pulled and pushed by outcomes, and the frazzled hours of helpless watching. Ailish and Niall have a reared a family of seven, three boys and four girls: all of them play, each one talented. Take this year, in a tickertape summary: Orlaith won All-Ireland minor medals with Cork in camogie and ladies football; after that she was fast-tracked on to the Cork senior camogie panel, and appeared off the bench in the All-Ireland final. Her sister, Meabh, started that match, and played for Cork’s ladies footballers too.
Damien and Conor played senior hurling for Cork this year; Jack played hurling and football for the Cork U-20s, and then made an appearance for the Cork senior footballers in the qualifiers. Grainne and Kate have been going hammer and tongs with their clubs.
Niall and Ailish played every match.
“Lots of weeks it’s a kind of mad house – within reason,” Niall says. “You’d have to be very careful about what room you went into. There’s all sorts of different emotions going on and you have to be fierce careful. Sport is a bit of a balls of a thing for the terribly committed because there’s a lot of disappointment. I could throw the toys out of the pram and let off a bit of steam inside our own four walls too. Ailish holds the whole thing together. She’s the go-to woman. I don’t know how she does it.”
Over the years Niall has developed coping mechanisms. Depending on the venue, or the importance of the match, he would try to make himself scarce. Ailish would know what she was missing and leave him off. “I’d go on my own, so I can stomp around. I like my own space at games. It’s not that I’m being unsociable, I just like my own space. If I’m going to stomp the ground, or scratch my head, or throw my hat on the ground, and stand on top of it, I can.
“I probably would be the hardest on them. Maybe at times I’d be hard on them and not [pause] being constructive. Maybe at times you analyse them too much. When you have somebody involved are you enjoying it as a spectator? It’s difficult at times. We’d have a lot of emotions going on. I could be in a right pucker and Ailish could tell me that she was never again going to a match with me.”
Though they are following in his footsteps, it is not the same path. There was criticism and pressure in his time too, but there were fewer ways to convey it, and it was easier to deflect. Social media didn’t exist.
A few years ago one of those storms hit landfall in their house. Cork lost to Waterford in the championship, and Damien was the subject of brutal trolling on social media. Conor tweeted about it and brought the issue into the mainstream media. It turned out to be a fake account but the poison was real.
“You often wonder what’s going on in someone’s mind. I’m not on any of these social media platforms, I don’t follow it, but I am on the road [as an auctioneer], and I’m always meeting someone – and someone will say, ‘such a thing was posted up,’ and you’re saying, ‘Oh Jesus.’
“It is kind of mind blowing. It probably plays on my mind more than it would on Ailish’s – she seems to be a little bit tougher than I would be. You go to games and you hear all the abuse – it’s not even my kids, but abuse of other players who are out there. Damien has kept coming back. You’d credit his resilience, or whatever you want to call it – or maybe stubbornness, that I probably have a little bit of myself.”
Niall played for the Cork seniors for 13 seasons until one day he opened the paper and the panel for the opening league game didn’t include his name. In those days there were no tip-offs from managers, or choreographed retirements or statements of gratitude. If you didn’t control the ending it was likely to be sudden. He played centre field in the 1996 Munster final, and didn’t play for Cork again.
“I had this thing in the mid-90s that I probably didn’t want to walk away from Cork. It was time to go but I didn’t want to go.”
On the most successful football team in Cork’s history he had been an outstanding player: terrific on the ball, a leader, aggressive, hard-nosed. Just like all the great defenders, his game was a blend of sweet and sour.
“Playing on the edge, for me . . . In general life I wasn’t a nasty person – I’m not. But when you went out representing your club or representing your county, if that meant playing on the edge, or maybe even going a little bit on the dark side – I’m not saying completely – but that was it. You were representing your club or your county – it was a failure if you didn’t come home with success.”
Every so often, though, his discipline failed him. After the 1997 Cork county final he jostled the referee and was hit with a 48-week ban. He made peace with the referee afterwards, and served his suspension in full, without any spurious, farfetched appeals. But when Castlehaven lost a seven-point lead to Erin’s Isle of Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, Cahalane was sitting in the stand, marooned and tormented.
“The suspension was difficult, there’s no doubt. My whole week revolved around the thing [the GAA]. I was pissed off with myself. I was pissed off with everything. I’d say a lot of fellas said, ‘he’s in his middle 30s, that’s the end of him.’ As you got closer to coming back I think that’s half of what drove me on.
“I genuinely felt I wanted to give something back to the lads because the likelihood is that I cost them the All-Ireland. When you look back on it, had I been playing against Erin’s Isle . . . I felt [by staying involved], even if I could just inspire some of the younger lads to take it up another notch.”
He carried on, regardless. In 2003 he played in his last county final at 40 years of age, occupying centre field like the hub of a wheel; everyone else was spinning. “I reckon I was 40 before I knew it all [laughs]. I played midfield with Dermot Hurley, who was a great fielder of a ball. He would get it to me and I could fire it 50 or 60 yards. I could top a fella’s head off nearly with a foot pass. I had perfected it. So, I looked absolutely great but I was barely moving.”
Even though Ailish and Niall raised their children in the city, a huge part of him never left Castlehaven. When Damien was very young he started making the two-hour round trip to training with his dad, wedged into the back seat with a cargo of Castlehaven players, like a stowaway. Damien was just seven when he played his first game for the Castlehaven U-12s and Conor and Jack followed in turn. If there had been football teams in the club for the girls when they were young they probably would have worn the jersey too.
In the city, though, they played hurling and camogie for their local club St Finbarr’s, and for the boys that sometimes led to complications. Last Sunday, Damien, Conor and Jack played for the Barr’s in the semi-final of the senior hurling championship; tomorrow they will play for Castlehaven against the Barr’s in the semi-final of the football championship. For the third year in a row.
“It’s difficult. Absolutely. Very difficult. Difficult on all of us. But more difficult on them. Whatever happens on Sunday, they will turn around and put on a Barr’s jersey for the following two weeks [before the hurling county final]. No matter who you’re with, you just have to be honest.
“If you asked me, do they resent the fact that they went down [to Castlehaven], and I took them down – no. I know that they’re happy in their own skin, and even though they hurled with the Barr’s, and are from the Barr’s parish, I think they’re as proud to be part of Castlehaven as I am.”
At this time of the year the weekends are relentless. Last Saturday and Sunday Niall and Ailish followed their children to five matches. Today Meabh and Orlaith will play for Eire Og in the ladies football senior county final; tomorrow the boys will be in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. And their dad? He will be wearing a familiar pair of jeans or a T-shirt, from his lucky collection.
Damien said once that his father was so superstitious he would block people from attending Cork matches if he thought they were a hex: family members, close family friends. “But he’d have to go himself, even though he could have been bringing the bad luck all along.”
Has it worked? The data is inconclusive. The testing continues.
Sunday - Cork SFC semi-finals:
Nemo Rangers v Ballincollig, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 2pm;
St Finbarrs v Castlehaven, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 4pm