Blood on the line: true confessions of the Kerry-Dublin football fan
For those with strong connections to both counties, Sunday is a particularly unique day
Brian Fenton: “And my dad, being a Kerry man, keeps reminding me of the heartbreak of 1982, and the Offaly last minute goal.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
I ran into the younger brother in town this week and asked him who he was up for this time, Kerry or Dublin?
There has never been an easy answer to that question in our house. Not when our father was born in Kerry and our mother was born in Dublin, and in the strictly emotional sense we were all raised somewhere in between. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, that has never changed.
My earliest memory of being in Croke Park is checking to see how many Jelly Tots I had left when suddenly everyone around me leapt from their seats and started shouting unholy words. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I cried, and for reasons that still don’t make complete sense.
It was September 1982, I was nine years old, and Seamus Darby had just scored the late match-winning goal for Offaly to deny Kerry the five-in-a-row. Too young to understand exactly what that meant, the memory is no less vivid by its age. That our father was also reporting on that game is superfluous to the lasting impression of child-like disappointment.
There is a myth that to be a real Dub – or from Dubbelin – you have to be born in the Rotunda Hospital, or else be native to the territory between the Royal and the Grand Canal. There aren’t many current Dublin footballers who would qualify on that front and as children neither would we. Nor indeed would our mother. Our Dublin was suburban and safe and happy and will always be home.
Our Kerry wasn’t Killarney or Dingle or MacGillycuddy’s Reeks but Tralee and Ardfert and Slieve Mish, possibly the least dramatic mountain in the Kingdom, which rises so imperceptibly that no one is certain where it even begins. And of course Banna Strand, typically our first port of call in summer and winter and better still when all the relations were in tow.
Another part of that Dublin-Kerry connection was the connect itself, the journey through Naas, Portlaoise, Roscrea, Toomevara, Nenagh, Limerick, Listowel, which always felt like a sort of homecoming, whether we were coming or going.
Tralee is also the spiritual home of the Kerry football jersey; not many people know that, but when John Mitchels won the county championship in 1903, they were short of cash for the All-Ireland final so borrowed the jerseys from the local rugby club, which happened to be green and gold.
There were other connections over the years. Our father befriended plenty of Kerry footballers, which made for some great adventures, like when Páidí Ó Sé ran Kruger’s pub in Dunquin. Or when Jack O’Shea worked as a plumber in Dublin and called into our house, jumping clean straight into the attic without a ladder which completely amazed us all.
Dublin winning the 1983 All-Ireland turned emotions around again, if only to offer our mother some respite. Truth is when it comes to Gaelic football, there are many idiosyncrasies that come with having strong Kerry and Dublin connections, and no one understood them better than Con Houlihan. He considered himself akin to those who emigrated from Kerry to settle in places like New York, London or even Dublin for that matter, and always recognised the importance of staying loyal to both sides of whatever the divide was.
Nowhere was that better expressed than after 1978 All-Ireland football final, when his ‘friend girl’ Harriet Duffin, who certainly considered herself a true Dub, was in Croke Park to see a young Kerry team take Dublin apart, just three years after Kevin Heffernan had orchestrated the great city break-out. When asked how she was coping with such a defeat, Con’s simple response is now folklore: “House private. No flowers”.
This calm respect, whether in victory or defeat, runs in the blood of most Kerry-Dublin football fans, probably made easier over the years since given the old rivalry was largely suspended, Kerry’s last five All-Irelands since 2000 coming at a time when Dublin, for whatever reason, weren’t quite good enough to get a look in.
Until it turned again, Dublin’s win over Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final, ending a 16-year wait, as emotionally stirring as anything generated in all the years before, if only in allowing for the use of some great Dylan one-liners. ‘Lord knows they’ve paid some dues getting through...’
Now, after what Dublin did to Kerry in the 2015 final, plus the 2013 and 2016 semi-finals, the emotional involvement between the two counties may be at its deepest. Notwithstanding the fact Dublin are on the brink of winning the one great football record that Kerry twice fell short of, this also remains one of the most deeply entrenched rivalries in Irish sport, Kerry 37 titles to Dublin’s 28, every other county still in single digits.
Which is why it’s also entirely plausible to be a fan of both Kerry and Dublin football right now; Kerry for their youth and sheer audaciousness in the likes of David Clifford, and Dublin for their class and sheer athleticism in the likes of Brian Fenton.
Fenton I know won a lot of fans from the first time he spoke to us, the day after winning his first All-Ireland, in 2015, delivering a man-of-the-match performance at midfield. He was 22-years-old, working his way up through the ranks without any great fuss or fanfare, actually focusing on swimming in his early teenage years, his late mother Marian, who died in 2013, always believing sport was there to be enjoyed first.
“She remains quite the motivation for me,” Fenton told us, adding that his uncle David Cummins swam for Ireland, at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and Fenton might well have pursued that sport.
Only for the fact his father, also Brian, was born in Kerry, his football roots with the Spa club outside of Killarney, and that connection was eventually too strong to ignore.
“And my dad being a Kerry man, keeps reminding me of the heartbreak of 1982, and the Offaly last minute goal,” Fenton told us after last year’s final win over Tyrone, as the five-in-a-row beckoned. Such are the blood lines of being the Kerry-Dublin football fan.