The championship never fails, regardless of what the noise might persuade you to think. Giving out is part of its fabric. You’re entitled, under rule. The system is a crock, the one-sided games are intolerable, the quality is insufferable, the calendar has been cannibalised. The GAA couldn’t exist without heat. Venting about something, anything, stokes the fire.
In a short time there’s been a lot of change to digest. The post-emergency split-season is only in its second year. The Tailteann Cup is still new. For the first time, a county’s performance in the National Football League had a potential bearing on their status in the championship. The provincial football championships moved a step closer to extinction, like public phone boxes, or pints for a fiver. The National Hurling League died again and has given up on reincarnation.
How was it for you? Any complaints? No?
There cannot be change without consequences, some of them accidental and unpredictable. The All-Ireland finals are not just the most cherished institutions in the GAA, but two of the most important cultural celebrations in the life of this island. They’ve changed, though.
The ecosystem around them has been altered. The build-up is different. Shorter, obviously, but smaller too. Modern weddings go on for about three days, and that used to be the timetable for the All-Ireland final. The weekend was about much more than the match: it was about comings and goings and loose arrangements, and same-place-as-last-year catch-ups. Around town the craic had a discernible trail, long before sat nav.
It is no longer a carnival weekend. Is that because the All-Irelands were shifted to the end of July, or because Dublin is the price-gouging capital of the world, or because of the cost-of-living crisis? Maybe all of that. If you can find a hotel room in Dublin now the going rate for a night is one of your kidneys, plus VAT.
After the hurling final both teams abandoned the traditional post-match banquet in Dublin, largely because of the cost and availability. On All-Ireland final nights the team hotels were always a focal point for supporters who had no mind to go home until they had wrung every last drop from the buzz.
The Kilmacud Sevens on the Saturday was the traditional jumping off point for All-Ireland final weekend, but that has been caught up in the tide of change too. Even people who had no interest in the matches would rock up to the sevens hoping to pick up a ticket, or just to soak up the atmosphere. It was part of the pageant of All-Ireland weekend. Not so much now.
Crowds have been down. Fewer clubs are taking part. The hurling sevens was spilt this year, for a variety of reasons, and the competition involving the elite teams was held earlier in July, removed from the hurling final weekend. Cost must be a factor, but the split-season means that club championships everywhere are starting soon, or have already started. In the imperatives of the new schedule the sevens has been squeezed.
All of that is tangential to the main event, and yet all of it subtracts something.
The day is not the same either. Before the All-Ireland finals the GAA issued a press release with relevant information for supporters travelling to the games. The first line reads: “Come early and enjoy the atmosphere and entertainment.”
The stiles open at 1 o’clock, two and a half hours before throw-in, but what is the incentive to go in early? There is more atmosphere on the streets nearby and in the pubs. The Mary Wallopers played before the hurling final and The Stunning played yesterday, both of them starting their set at 1.45 in front of a near empty stadium.
In other circumstances, both of those bands are adept at whipping up a crowd. The Mary Wallopers were a huge hit on social media during the pandemic, and it was a good piece of casting by Croke Park. But by the time they signed off with a rousing blast of Cod Liver Oil and The Orange Juice, their cult classic, they still weren’t playing to a crowd.
Until 2019, the age-old curtain-raiser was the minor final. The stadium would be quiet when the ball was throw-in at lunchtime and buzzing by the finish. Even if your county wasn’t playing the match would grab your attention and you’d be rooting for somebody. There would be excitement and a post-match celebration and a lap of honour, and it brought everyone’s emotions to a gentle simmer. That has been taken away, for good reasons.
Since the pandemic the minor championships have been decoupled in the calendar from the senior championships, even for provincial finals. The thinking seems to be that, for under-17s, it involves less pressure. More than that, the GAA has been anxious to emphasise the developmental nature of the competition, and dial down its seriousness.
So, customs and practices change. Old traditions die. Think of some of the stuff that used to be integral to All-Ireland final day, but no longer exist. A senior member of the Catholic clergy no longer throws in the ball. The Catholic hymn, Faith of Our Fathers, is no longer sung.
The last post-match pitch invasion was in 2009. A year later a transparent screen was erected in front of Hill 16. Apart from the GAA not having to deal with injury claims from members of the public, the players have some space now to deal with their emotions, winners and losers. The new approach works.
There was a time when crowds queued up outside Croke Park and paid at the gate on All-Ireland final day. In some years that got out of hand. Once upon a time, two adults and a child would be admitted with two stand tickets. I watched my first All-Ireland 40 years ago perched on a hand rest between two seats in the Cusack Stand. It mightn’t have been policy, but it was common practice. That stopped too. Crowd control and comfort became pressing issues. Nobody is nostalgic for the hand rests.
The All-Irelands won’t ever return to September. The All-Ireland final weekends that we used to know are gone forever. In pursuit of a more equitable calendar that was all part of the collateral loss.
But the feeling when The Artane Band fires up Amhrán na bhFiann is still the same: it surges around the stadium like a million volts. That’s the All-Ireland.