Seán Moran: Wexford’s Covid club championships strike the perfect note

A congregation was sorely missed but the county made the most of a tough situation

Tip O’Neill’s aphorism that all politics is local is widely quoted but you can’t always separate the local from its wider context.

Next weekend these strange and alienating times play out in our household. The youngest and her Cuala team-mates are hoping that it will be third time lucky after two successive intermediate final defeats in the Dublin women’s football championship.

There's been talk of a Facebook live stream but that's as close as we'll get to Fingallians' ground out by the airport. It's one of many such stories from around a country trying to do normal things in abnormal times.

Last Sunday, Brian Malone of Shelmaliers spoke after his club's dynamic display in winning the Wexford hurling title. He was in the lucky position of having previously won one as well as a football title and so could compare the experiences.

“I know from my sake, my parents would love to be here. I’ve a wife and two kids and they go to all the games. I’ve two little boys and they would be in to me after the game. It’s a whole family thing. They love it.

“I know the whole club, everyone’s parents and the wider community, they love going to the games. The fact that we got to a county final and they couldn’t come? It is tough. But it is made easier by the fact that we won. We can go and see them now. But yeah, it was very strange playing a county final with no support or no crowd.”

The GAA has worked extraordinarily hard to devise and implement protocols, which enable the mobilisation of a huge national schedule of fixtures. It’s been a spirited attempt to improvise a front, designed to bring if not normality, then familiarity back into people’s lives.

It can be sad but uplifting, poignant but exuberant because among the greatest privations suffered by the world in 2020 has been the clamping down on one of the things that most made life tolerable, socialising with friends and family.

Restrictions on attendance are restrictions on the community and that is unfortunately the price everyone pays

The GAA’s activities - and whereas it’s not the only sports organisation doing its best to persevere, it is the one with the widest community range - are a complete expression of that socialising: friends and family coming together locally to celebrate their identity and the achievements of those involved from the young people on the field to the older ones, who have helped to make it happen.

The health authorities’ concerns about sports events used the word ‘congregate’ to describe the gathering of people around sports events. Congregation with its connotations of formal spirituality and celebration is apt vocabulary for the mood amongst supporters and neighbours when the local club gets to a county final.

Restrictions on attendance are restrictions on the community and that is unfortunately the price everyone pays.

Wexford has led the way for the GAA in all of this - not just because it was the first, nor that its fixtures have been better organised than everyone else’s or of higher quality, but because the improvised manner in which they have tackled the challenges has been a perfect synthesis of all that the Gaelic games community has in common and those individual traits that make every county different.

Sunday was the first county final of the Covid season. It came just days after the intensified restrictions. From a practical perspective it doesn’t make a huge difference. The limit of 200 was inclusive of player and officials and meant that spectators had access to only half that number of places.

If anything, ‘behind closed doors’ is administratively cleaner with no fuss over who gets the tickets but at least some family and supporters would have been there to share the occasion - and not just for the winners but also for the consolation extended to the runners-up.

Sunday lunchtime on the road from Castlebridge and over Wexford Bridge crowds and families wearing Shelmaliers colours - the puissant black-and-amber combination of Kilkenny and Crossmaglen - and waving flags lined the route to cheer the team as it passed on the way to match they couldn't attend.

It was a reflection of the world that people have now to inhabit.

Wexford got a fair amount of flak for organising a rapid-fire hurling championship, to be followed by a similar exercise in football. Those of us who were sceptical about it were also wrong. As a concept it caught local imagination rather than causing resentment because it was perceived as an indulgence for county hurling manager, David Fitzgerald.

Wexford's big achievement was in concluding a successful county championship in the most testing of conditions

From the time it started on July 17th, the championship was clearly popular with players. In what’s probably the most intensely dual county of all - in terms of players who both hurl and kick football at senior level - the format was manna from heaven: iron-clad fixture schedules, no disruption from county and the steady rhythm of weekly matches.

Players could concentrate on hurling for one block and the big ball afterwards. It was especially welcome for a club like Shelmaliers with 13 of last Sunday’s team playing both hurling and football - which starts in a few days for the club.

Moreover, the conspicuous success of the season divided between the two games also cast positive light on the idea of the split season, separating club and county schedules - which recently has become at national level the definition of an idea whose time has come.

Ultimately though, Wexford’s big achievement was in concluding a successful county championship in the most testing of conditions and showing again the infinite resourcefulness and adaptability of the GAA community in times of crisis.

A county title inscribed ‘2020’ will strike strange echoes in the future but happy memories, even if incomplete, will always be happy.