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Dave Hannigan: For the long-term emigrant, a visit home can turn you into a tourist in your own past

Watching Ireland’s under-21s in Turner’s Cross got me thinking about the old days, and wondering about the person I could have been

At one point during the Ireland v Italy Under-21 qualifier at Turner’s Cross, wisps of smoke wafted across the night sky from the blazing hearths of nearby Ballyphehane. Coal fires burning, the smell of winter evenings in my childhood. Instead of watching Sinclair Armstrong lead the line for Jim Crawford’s team, I closed my eyes and inhaled like a reformed smoker happening upon a stray plume of nicotine, savouring the thrill of an illicit drag. I was soon snapped back to reality by a puzzled 13-year-old, whose accent only ever sounds American to me when we are in Cork, leaning over and asking, “Where’s the electronic scoreboard?”

There is none, I explained, that is part of the charm of the venue we knew lovingly, growing up, as The Box. Even saying that name out loud should have come with a trigger warning. Nostalgia is the opium of the middle-aged male, fond memory the curse of every returned emigrant. I brought two of my sons to watch a soccer match and spent half the time drifting off on flights of fancy, trying to remember days and games of old. They were tracking Wilfried Gnonto trying to get in behind the Irish defence, I was conducting an archaeological dig, sifting through the detritus of my own ancient history in this place.

The highlight reel gets grainier, the footage jerky and sometimes blurred. But, as we took our seats in the St Anne’s Stand, I perfectly pictured this end as an unruly grassy bank the first time I walked wide-eyed through these gates. A bleak Sunday afternoon around 1980, dragged along by my Uncle Tommy to see Cork United shortly before they sputtered out of existence. Couldn’t tell you who the opposition were. Can’t recall the result. I just remember him reminding me more than once that his father, my grandfather, Tommy Morrissey, played for a previous iteration of Cork United in the League of Ireland in the 1940s. The great family boast.

I left Cork at 21 and will surely never live there again now. Which is why, more than three decades later, the simple act of attending a game down The Box dredges up all sorts of conflicting emotions. Having watched Killian Phillips celebrate Ireland’s opener right in front of us, I got bizarrely annoyed with myself because I couldn’t recall granular details from an under-16 cup final with Casement Celtic at this very ground in 1987.


I was a willing domestique alongside the gifted Colin Corkery in midfield that May evening. We were managed by a butcher named Johnny Bowen, and defeated Everton 2-0. There followed a lusty rendition of We are the Champions in the showers and a giddy trip to the Horseshoe Inn to quaff rock shandy from the trophy. I could see all that clear as day. But no matter how deep the excavation, the archive wouldn’t give up anything about the nature of the goals or identity of the scorers.

Ageing memory is the most treacherous mistress and, for the permanent exile, every homecoming these days comes tinged with a certain melancholy, an air of inevitable wistfulness. Too much time has passed. Distance does its damage. The geography of the city changes, the dramatis personae of your personal narrative shrinks. Buildings rise and fall, cherished landmarks disappear, loved ones die. The family homestead is raising somebody else’s kids now. Connective tissue stretches ever thinner and sometimes sunders altogether. A sense of dislocation grows.

In the seats in front of us, diligent mentors wrangled a group of youngsters from Ballinhassig AFC, precocious lads whose ability to snack relentlessly for 90 minutes greatly impressed my American children. The scene brought to mind a Tuesday afternoon in November 1990. Another under-21 international. Ireland v England. A gaggle of degenerate undergraduates blew off lectures and ambled across from UCC to watch a couple of tyros called Roy Keane and Alan Shearer do battle. The cheekiest of our number offered Bobby Gould a silvermint that day and asked him for a trial. He took the sweet and smiled his rebuff. We laughed our way back to campus.

There were plenty of other personal cameos within these walls. A Saturday night in high summer working on an Intertoto Cup tie for the Sunday Tribune (both now defunct) as a mullet-headed Toni Polster, the star attraction with FC Köln, shipped savage grief from The Shed. An amusing weekday afternoon walking the pitch while being interviewed by genial John Creedon for a television documentary on the sporting wonders of Cork. The dying embers of a FAI Youth Cup semi-final when, chasing an equaliser, I went out to take an inswinging corner from the right and failed to raise the ball six inches off the grass. What might have been. The story of every life.

For the long-term emigrant, merely loitering on any street corner in your hometown is to risk being transported back in time by random sights and sounds and smells, ghosts often appear and turn you into a tourist in your own past. Revisiting the field of your childish dreams then inevitably prompts even deeper introspection, more emotional reminiscences, and confronts you, as always, with your decision to make your stand somewhere else. I took a day trip to the life I might have led and wondered about the person I could have been. While my kids sat alongside oblivious, just trying to enjoy the football.