Kilkenny's brave decision bound to be liberating for others
SIDELINE CUT:As a Dublin friend remarked on the phone yesterday, the return of Ciarán Kilkenny wasn’t quite as stunning as the return of David Bowie. But it was in the same ballpark.
You take whatever good news stories you can get in the grim clutches of January and the thoughtfulness and eloquence with which the Dublin teenager announced his intention to quit his apprenticeship with Melbourne Hawthorn and resume his primary passion for Dublin Gaelic games was admirable.
There was, after all, something tantalising about Kilkenny’s starting debut in the sky blue shirt last September. Along with Paul Flynn and MD McAuley, he shone on the schizophrenic afternoon against Mayo when the Dubs gave the impression that they couldn’t be bothered defending their All-Ireland title only to put together a gallant last stand in the closing 20 minutes. It has been half forgotten that the goal chance which fell to Bernard Brogan and which would have probably assured the Dubs one of the great GAA comebacks originated in a fabulously accurate pass (from a free) from distance by Kilkenny. It was his speed of thought which created the chance. The teenager was a late – if well flagged – replacement for Alan Brogan and it wasn’t just his three points from play that stood out.
It was how much at home he looked in the environment of a high-octane All-Ireland senior semi-final. He just looked as if he belonged there.
His decision to accept the offer from Hawthorn marked the closing notes of a deeply disappointing summer for Dublin GAA fans. Everyone wished him well and anyhow, who could blame another young Irish person for seizing a brilliant opportunity and getting out of a country where sport, it often seemed, offered the only reason left to cheer. Many Dubs must have assumed that they had seen the last of the dual prodigy. Like the late, great Jim Stynes, Kilkenny might well have taken to Australian life and culture as he progressed through Australian Rules football. Down Under is crammed with Irish expatriates now: it has never been easier to move there.
In his statement, Kilkenny did allude to the fact that he enjoyed his Australian experience and the way of life there. His basic reason for returning was that being so far away from home crystallised everything he had left behind. It is not hard to imagine how far removed from it he must have felt. The friendships and good times he had enjoyed as a central figure in Dublin’s glittering underage sides were suddenly a distant echo.
Even with the new media technology, GAA gossip wasn’t as easy to come by.
At home, all the talk was of Dublin’s new manager Jim Gavin and how he might reshape the team. Like other exceptional GAA youngsters, Kilkenny’s head was turned by the allure of Australian Rules: the chance to play professional sport in the sunshine. Declining the offer from Hawthorn would have always left him wondering “what if”.
It wasn’t until he moved to Australia that his future with Dublin hurling and/or football teams became the “what if”. Dublin championship summers could well have become the sporting life not lived. And it is easy to say that he could have run with Aussie Rules for three of four years and then come back to Dublin. But there are no guarantees. In four years’ time, he might have missed out on Dublin hurling and football All-Ireland titles. In four years’ time, he might be too engrossed with Australian Rules to turn back.
His decision to come home was brave and it is bound to raise a few questions in the minds of other young Irish people living is Australia. Emigrating brings its pressures. Young people invest money and time and make an emotional leap to leave, particularly to leave for Australia.
Moving Down Under is different to moving to the American east coast or to Canada. You know it as soon as you lift off and spend 23 hours hurtling through the air in that steel tube. You can get to the moon in three days. Australia feels far away. A lot of Irish who move there love the country. But there are bound to be some who feel obliged to kid themselves and others that they do. There have to be some who are staying on because they feel they have to make it work. So the decision of Kilkenny to try out the football life in Australia only to walk away from it must be kind of liberating for others who may feel as if they have to stick it out.
Kilkenny’s statement did not directly say that he missed home. But at the same time, his statement makes it clear that when he compared his new life with the one he had left behind, he realised that the central element – growing up in Dublin and playing Gaelic games – was irreplaceable for him: “However, seeing Australia and a different way of life also served to bring home to me the things that make Ireland so special. Obviously family and friends are important but I also came to really appreciate the things that make Ireland unique such as the people in general, the way of life and of course the GAA.”
Not every young man or woman has Kilkenny’s abundant sporting talents and the options in life that come with that. But many have stood in his shoes, having made the bold decision to leave for an unspecified period of time only to realise that they didn’t want to escape that badly in the first place.
Sometimes you can detect in the viewpoints and comments of Irish living in Oz a certain stridency when they vouch for how much they love the place, as if they are trying to convince themselves. Some unquestionably do. For others, though, it is a battle which they feel compelled to tough out.
Kilkenny’s decision to come home is basically a GAA story but it holds elements of the wider Irish story of emigration and of the doubts and questions and stark decisions that many young people are faced with when they suddenly find themselves thousands of miles away.
Many of those will watch Kilkenny in the sky blue of Dublin at ungodly hours in the pubs of Melbourne and Sydney this summer.