Listen. That’s the rustle of leaves falling across the Kingdom as if to make it clear that autumn and winter are coming early to the cradle of Gaelic football civilisation. It is a quiet county just now, you say.
It is eerie, no doubt.
Something doesn’t feel right.
There is a pattern to this time of year in Kerry, see. In ordinary times, this week would be for decorating the county in earnest; for rummaging through the attic to find the box between the Halloween and Christmas boxes – the box markered “All-Ireland”, with its selection of Kerry flags from all eras; the papier-mache figure of the Bomber, snug of jersey and sporting a full-on beard, a Ballybunion hipster presaging the Brooklynites by a good 25 years, a figure that you crafted with your then six-year-old and that has somehow survived since ’82; the ’79-era jersey signed by all the Spillanes; the framed poster of O’Dwyer and the green and gold-tinted votive candle that always goes in the front window; and the rosette your brother wore in ’86 a week before he headed for Chicago.
This is the week for oiling the engine of the vintage Ford Capri painstakingly fashioned in the colours of the Kingdom, a novelty vehicle that has made more appearances on the RTÉ news than Charles J Haughey himself; the week when the publicans cannily pencil in extra kegs for the late-September order and when you can sense, from Waterville up to Tarbert, a general quickening of the pulse and conversation, now that the football season has reached its only real point: winning the bloody Sam Maguire.
This is the week for watching the hurling final to make sure the pitch is in good order. And next week would be – in normal time, in peace time – probably the most delicious week of all in which to be a Kerry man or Kerry woman or Kerry kid: that mezzanine week when Weeshie is rhapsodising with the ’70s gods in studio about All-Irelands past and the intricacies of the one about to be played.
It’s about those rumours of what exactly Fitzmaurice and company are concocting “inside” in Fitzgerald stadium. It’s about the last light of the summer draining out of the evening and the air freshening, and wheeling and dealing for tickets, and being scandalised by the price of hotel rooms up above in Dublin, and wouldn’t you get a full weekend in Benners for the same with a three-course thrown in, but what can you do? . . Sure you have to be up on the Friday night or it’s not the same.
Next week – in the usual Kerry Septembers – should be about grimacing and shaking your head when you are told that your team is going to win. No Kerry man will ever grimace with the same combination of magnificent pessimism and superstition as was summoned by the late, lamented Páidí Ó Sé. But that will not stop the rest from trying.
It’s about warding off bad omens and ill-luck with yarns and roguery, and it’s about the irrepressible flow, aided by porter, of the extraordinary All-Ireland Esperanto into which all Kerry folk ascend during the giddy 24 hours when they have arrived in the capital, colonised the usual haunts and everything is in place.
Who could forget the rare public appearance by one Maurice Fitzgerald in The Irish Times video (which can be seen at the top of the article) of last September (before the apocalypse)? He sat beside Mick O'Dwyer and Darragh Ó Sé. The short film captured the younger men's mutual amusement at and reverence for O'Dwyer and their delight in happily and lightly destroying one another at every possible turn.
"Whenever two men say hello to each other on the street, one of them loses," warned Normal Mailer. And he was right, of course, in the global sense, but he never experienced two Kerry men – and former team-mates at that – passing time. It's way more nuanced and dangerous. "You'd never do now, in that game Darragh, if the ball wasn't coming screaming out of the sky like you'd be looking for seagulls," suggested Maurice Fitz, and that was the start of it: pistols at . . . lunchtime, over a cup of tea.
As for the game? The Sunday? The All-Ireland final itself? That weekend, for Kerry people, is about inheritance and ritual and a solemn kind of ecstasy. It’s about remembering the first time your father brought you. And more often than not, about the team winning. Then comes the week or two of celebrations and speechifying and the grading of the win: was it a great All-Ireland, a handy one, a hard-earned one, an All-Ireland on the bounce? They all count. They all stack up.
Suddenly, then, it’s late October and with another one secured, Kerry football is under the hard skies of the local championship and the gods of September are whaling into each other in parish colours. Before they know it, Christmas has arrived and after that, the conversation is turning to the new season and fresh intrigues: would Mahony stay, Star is looking trim, how is Gooch’s knee, and that’s another fine crop of minors coming through. The All-Ireland final, in short, has been Kerry’s bright and easy passage through the winter.
Last Sunday, that way of life was threatened. Yes, Kerry had participated in a brilliant, non-stop, unreadable championship match; 70 minutes that maybe overshadow anything in the fabled, boxy video cassettes of the Golden Years. They had stood up. They could have won. No question. And there was some relief, in Kerry minds, going back down the road on Sunday evening. But that will pass.
It’s not the Kerry way to accept semi-final defeat, however honourable, with a sense of relief. It’s not the Kerry way to feel glad they did not witness their team, in the immortal phrase of P Ó Se, “f***ed out over the sideline like a loaf of bread”.
It’s not their way to be tossed aside like a sliced pan, nor, indeed, like any other type of freshly baked produce.
There should be no doubt that the form line of Kerry 2013-2016 is testimony to the shrewd and calm stewardship of Eamonn Fitzmaurice and the county will be blessed if he decides to stay on.
And in a way, mustn’t he stay on? Mark it, Kerry will not take this lying down. This will be a winter of heavy talk and long fires and deliberating and hunkering down under mutinous, frightening skies of every shade of silver, and long walks across the deafening Atlantic coastline, and leaving alms and wishes at the foot of the Brandon and clearing their minds.
Normal life will go on and they will run the movie festival in Dingle and the storytelling in Sneem and the Wren Boys will appear and so on. But at the heart of it all, this winter will be informed by the collective realisation that this is, in fact, an Emergency; that Kerry are living through the Dublin golden years as they’ve never had to before. Tyrone, in their upstartish way, constituted a minor crisis. But Dublin? This is once-in-a-generation stuff.
And what could be more energising? What could make them feel more alive? Has there ever been a greater challenge or threat to everything that Kerry holds dear about itself as a county? On some empty road, the spirit of P Ó Sé is up on the toes, trotting lightly in Adidas and putting in a full 10 miles before dark. Watch them rise as one against this one. For it’s not just the Kerry future that’s at stake here.
It’s the past.