Sporting Cathedrals: Semple Stadium, the very centre of the hurling universe
Hurlers know that if you can’t hurl in Thurles, you won’t hurl anywhere
The teams parade at Semple Stadium ahead of the 2018 All-Ireland hurling semi-final replay between Clare and Galway. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Semple. Of course, Semple. Among the great cathedrals of sport, it’s nearly too obvious. It’s right there in front of you, sewn into the fabric of things. A big hurling day is like pulling a bathplug from the middle of the pitch – the whole of the sport is sucked towards it without having any great choice in the matter. It is there so you are there.
The late, great AA Gill used the preface to one of his travel collections to rail against taking the big things for granted. “In India, I wrote a long bit about the Taj Mahal. Too many travellers and old India hands say ignore the Taj in favour of some more obscure site because it is the alpha tourist attraction, so accessible and familiar it must be culturally, semiotically worthless; virtual kitsch. But the truth is the Taj is fucking stupendous. It is popular because it is supremely magnificent.”
So it goes with Semple Stadium. The old Thurles Sportsfield comes infused with so much history and cliché and all that whispery-echo stuff that it can tend to obscure the genius of the venue itself. But there’s no need to be coy about it – Thurles is the best place to go to see a hurling match. Tipperary is surrounded by hurling counties and all of them, even on their most generous days, reserve their God-given right to hate Tipp. But they all love going to Semple.
It starts with the walk. A good GAA ground needs a walk. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, 10 to 15 minutes is about right. Actually, make that more like seven to 12 minutes. That’s a match-goer’s calculation. When you’re down in the town and you’re wondering have you time for one more before heading up, the situation calls for concrete numbers. Throw out 10 to 15 and nobody will take you seriously. Hit them with seven to 12 and you’re basically in charge of the group now.
Spin around the country and think of the best places to go to a game and without fail, the walk will be a part of it. Clones, Killarney, Tullamore, Navan. Breffni Park in Cavan, Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. You go to games in these places in stages. Into town an hour or two beforehand. Soak it up. Get fed, maybe. Watered, sure. Away to the game. Back down for the afters.
You take these places for granted, right up until you go to a ground where the walk isn’t a part it. Healy Park in Omagh isn’t really in Omagh, for instance. You can go from the town centre to the ground on foot if you like but it’s more a hike than a walk. Pearse Stadium in Salthill is a chore on so many levels, the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick always feels detached from the city.
But then there’s Thurles. Google Maps says it’s a 16-minute walk from Hayes’s Hotel to Semple Stadium. Now, far be it from a simple GAA writer to take on the might of The Big G’s algorithm but they clearly didn’t measure this on the day of a big hurling match. If you’re sitting in Liberty Square under a June sun and time is getting tight, you know you can brostaighí yourselves up to the gate in half that time. A third of it if you really have to.
Any good day in Semple – or any bad one, for that matter – starts down in the square. The eating houses around the place have changed a bit over the years but the vibe is eternal. To be there on the day of a game is to be where something matters, even while the chat and shitetalk and all the rest of it rattles along as if nothing does.
Matchday transforms a place like that. When the Dublin football team came down for a look-see ahead of their All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry in 2001, the very idea of Thurles had them buzzing. Tradition, Munster hurling finals, all that caper. The thoughts of playing there felt novel and fresh, yet somehow old-fashioned and classical too. They’d be taking their place at a corner of the GAA table they had never been let near before and they were jazzed to the max about it.
At least they were until the bus turned the corner into Liberty Square and they looked out on a dead midweek night in an Irish country town. “Jaysus, it’s a bit of a shithole, isn’t it?” said one of the Dubs, his balloon burst at the sight.
“This was the thing,” Declan Darcy said years later. “We had heard all this stuff all our lives about Munster finals in Thurles and all that and then we came up through the square and there was nothing to see. We were going, ‘Is this it? What’s the big deal?
“But then, on the day of the match, we came through it again. And we were just stunned by it. There were thousands of people in the square and it just looked like the best festival you could ever be at. It was unbelievable. And you could feel that atmosphere, a really genuine electricity all the way from the square right up until we sat in the dressingroom. That was the experience. You could feel the people in the stands above you and it was something that had been a constant from the moment we turned into the square. Just electric.”
After the walk, there’s the stadium itself. Two stands, two terraces, plenty of hinterland. You wouldn’t say it’s overly modern but it’s fine for what it is. Like any major venue, plans are afoot to spruce it up – or they were just before the pandemic hit. It will take a bit longer now presumably but over the coming years, the Kinane Stand will be rebuilt to include a gym and a centre of excellence.
And that will all be fine and good and truly the hearts of hurling people everywhere will sing for the future generations of Tipp hurlers who will be forged within it. But it won’t fundamentally change what Semple Stadium means to the outside world. Build all the stands ye like, lads. The pitch will still be the thing.
A few years back, the GAA instituted the national pitch awards, given annually to the best surfaces around the association. When Semple Stadium was announced as the inaugural winner in 2017, precisely nobody was surprised. When Nowlan Park won it in 2018, people wore it, assuming the GAA wanted to spread the thing around. When the Kilkenny venue made it two-in-a-row last year – and Semple didn’t even appear on the shortlist – it felt like trolling.
Everybody knows that Semple Stadium has the best pitch. They know it in their bones. It sometimes gets likened to a bowling green or a snooker table but while they’ll take the compliment in the spirit it’s meant, that’s not what they’re going for. Hurlers don’t need the pitch to be smooth, they need it to be like the first cut of rough on a good golf course. They know they’ll get that in Thurles.
They know it in the way Ronan Maher or Joe Canning will point a sideline ball from 70 yards. They know it in the fact that there’s never a false bounce or a surprising ricochet to a ball hopping your way. They know most of all that if you can’t hurl in Thurles, you won’t hurl anywhere.
The great lost summer of 2020 is all but over now. The All-Ireland hurling final would have been next weekend. For any of us lucky enough to get to follow the championship around in normal times, there have been weekends this summer where you’d genuinely feel the absence. We’d have been down for Tipp v Clare or Tipp v Cork or the Munster final. The hurling quarter-finals might have been there. There was a real possibility of a meeting between Dublin and Kerry in the football Super-8s.
Winter will come and maybe we’ll still have some games. And if we do, we’ll have Semple At Night, which admittedly has its own charms. If you were there for the deathless endgame in the Kilkenny v Waterford All-Ireland semi-final replay four years ago, you’ll know. Pauric Mahony’s long, long free falling through the Thurles night, Eoin Murphy pulling it down from above the crossbar, Richie Hogan finishing matters with a point from midfield, standing stock-still with his fist in the air long before the ball split the posts.
There’s every possibility we’ll have something like that again this winter, even if it’s only for the sake of putting on some matches for the common good. But even this far out, we know it won’t be the same. It will be half a loaf and we’ll be ravenous for it but it won’t be the same.
No, the one sure sign that nature has healed and we’re out the other side of all this will be a summer Sunday full of sunscreen and short sleeves, with cutting-it-fine merchants scuttling up from the square and everyone glorying in the state of the pitch. Give us that and we’ll know it’s over.
Supremely magnificent won’t be the half of it.