What’s the point of September without the All-Ireland finals?

If Motion 5 goes through Congress, should we not just do away with the month altogether?

The scale and feel and pageantry of All-Ireland finals   are unique and don’t think for a moment that the light of September does not contribute to that. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

The scale and feel and pageantry of All-Ireland finals are unique and don’t think for a moment that the light of September does not contribute to that. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

On the face of it, it is difficult to imagine an Irish September without the All-Ireland hurling and football finals. You have to ask, in fact, if there is any real point to the month without them. For what is September if not the month when rugged sons of Kerry or gnarly corner-backs from Kilkenny’s lowveld raise big silver cups towards autumn super-moons while the rest of the country looks on in envy?

September has, through hosting the All-Irelands for over a century, earned itself a firm and elevated place in the Irish calendar year, which is, as we all know, a state of mind more so than a measurement of days and months. September is a tricky kind of month; summer yet not fully gone but the schools back in session and the budget looming and the evenings getting shorter by the minute.

The All-Ireland finals have served many a generation as beacons into the winter proper. The First Sunday in September. The Third Sunday in September. In the GAA’s ever-expanding catechism of cliché, these two phrases are always delivered with a reverential bow of the head.

All of that may change this weekend.

If enough delegates raise their hands at the appointed hour – there will forever be a touch of Michael McLaverty’s classroom about annual Congress – then just like that the All-Irelands will be evicted from September. Even more controversially, they will relocate to Sundays belonging to the dog days of August, when the entire nation is dealing with both third-degree sunburn and second-degree flooding, usually on the same afternoon.

If Motion 5 goes through Congress, you have to ask: should we not just do away with September altogether? Would Ireland Inc – as our political colossi like to refer to the country– not be better off simply getting the back-to-school business out of the way in late August and then tearing straight into the October business of taxing ass?

True, in most countries, simply erasing a month from the Roman calendar year would raise a few eyebrows. But in Ireland, a 26-county Republic in a 32-county island, it would just be another quirk.

A friend tells a story that deliciously sums up how Ireland works. He was catching a State-service bus from deepest Leinster to deepest Galway and his route required a changeover in Athlone. The official timetable was clear: the first bus would arrive at Athlone at 2.58 and his connecting bus would depart at 3.09.

The friend is no stickler for time but became anxious as he saw that the driver was in no particular hurry as he made his way through the Great Plains, engaging in plenty of chat at each stop, pausing for a fag break here and a mug of steam there and generally moseying through the day as if he was point man on a pleasure trip.

Like anchors

By 2.45, the situation had reached crisis point and my friend made his way up to the cockpit to make the redoubtable wheelsman aware of his dilemma, explaining that he needed to be on another bus by ten past the hour. The driver took one look at the official timetable and gave a sardonic grunt.

“Sit back there and don’t mind that auld thing,” he said soothingly. “Yer man won’t leave ’til I arrive.”

My friend was born and raised in Ireland: he knows its ways. But imagine how trippy that must be for American or German tourists whose sanity depends on the functionality and reliability of timetables.

That’s why the All-Irelands in September have always been so important. In a country where the rug is always being pulled from under our feet and when everything is shifting and unreliable and nobody is ever accountable for anything, those days are like anchors that prevent the entire island from drifting into outright chaos.

For decades, they served as the only goddamn decent pieces of furniture in the house.

Princess Grace, for instance visited Ireland in 1963, when she was the last word in universal glamour and sophistication, and inevitably attended that year’s hurling final with her husband, Prince Rainier, as a guest of Seán Lemass. The scale and feel and pageantry of All-Ireland finals never change and they always impress. They were and are unique and don’t think for a moment that the light of September does not contribute to that.

So the pros and the cons of moving the All-Ireland finals have been earnestly debated all week. The consequences are manifold: the plight of the club players; accusations of greasing the till; moving with the times; etc etc. Some feel that the very “soul” of the association is on the line.

But then, the soul of the GAA is the most fought-after soul since William Friedkin filmed the Exorcist.

And in a way, this issue has got nothing to do with the GAA or the teams. It’s the rest of us that will be in trouble.

Mental leap

At the very least, it requires a huge mental leap to imagine the All-Irelands in August. An Irish August has always had grandiose notions about itself to begin with, presenting itself as a sexy, continental kind of four-week bacchanal.

July has invariably been a wash-out: a monsoon. August is like the Last Chance. If the thermostat even touches 16 degrees, the barbecues are out and all roads to all beaches are clogged; you can’t swing a cat without hitting some class of music festival and it’s the one month of the year in which people who are not Bono can drive a cabriolet and nobody bats an eyelid.

On August weekends, Dublin city often has a ghostly feel. The Dáil is in recess so the country always feels more secure and as if it is actually working. Then, every so often some weird weather pattern transforms Ireland into a kind of rambunctious Riviera with hastily-applied-for bar extensions, at which point everyone abandons all pretence of work and congratulates their neighbour on having the wisdom not have booked the Costa for this particular spell: if it was like this all the time sure you’d never leave.

But the truth is that everyone seems to be on the move in August. People are either heading on holidays or coming back. The grass needs cutting every other day. The queue for a half-decent 99 is nothing short of hellish. So it’s an odd, messy sort of month, August; at once hectic and lazy, reeking of booze and a decadent urge to squeeze some bit of joy out of the summer before it disappears altogether.

To try and suddenly shoehorn the All-Irelands into the rhythms of that month seems risky if not provocative. And for All-Ireland habitués like Kerry, it will cause havoc. August, for Kerry people, means busloads of Americans and the Rose of Tralee. Collectively, they only get fully serious about football in the second week of September. Isn’t there a chance that they just won’t be able to cope with this switch; that their system will short-circuit and they won’t be seen as a football force for 30 years?

Fat chance. No, the All-Ireland football championship will still be pretty much the same beast regardless of what happens this weekend. What moving from September to August will change is the ceremony of the day.

The All-Ireland football final, on the third Sunday of September, marks a definite crossing point. You can feel it. Any man or woman who has walked towards the city centre from Croke Park at around eight or nine o’clock on an All-Ireland evening knows it. The curtains have fallen and the leaves are everywhere and all of a sudden, winter is in. Some county is celebrating like mad and 31 others are hunkering down, realising that it is high time to light the fire.

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