When I think back to the first lockdown in early March, I remember the crushing, never-ending boredom. Similar to now, bars, shops and cinemas were closed, but a key difference this time around is the continuation of the GAA behind closed doors. Unlike the previous experience of level 5, professional, elite and senior/inter-county sports have been allowed to carry on and for sports fans it has made an immense difference in coping with the limits of lockdown. And here is why.
Last weekend, the 21st-22nd of November, was irrefutably the best weekend of sports coverage this entire year and will be a talking point amongst broadcasters for months if not years to come. For a number of reasons. It saw Tipperary dispose of Cork in the Munster Senior Football Championship and Cavan dominate their Northern rival Donegal, in a match that no one could have predicted. Galway narrowly survived their battle with Tipperary in the Hurling Quarter-final and Waterford too, eked out a narrow victory against Clare. Each match was fought ferociously, with heart and determination, the only dull game being Dublin versus Meath, which Dublin won by 21 points. As a die-hard Mayo supporter my pulse had only just returned to normal following our hard-earned win over Galway the previous week and I’m not sure I was prepared for the excitement brought about by a literally historic weekend of GAA. For it was the centenary anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a tragic day that saw the Black and Tans murder 14 innocent people in Croke Park.
Tipperary, in solidarity with the victims of the 1920 massacre, wore a symbolic jersey similar to the one worn 100 years ago, when Dublin played Tipperary on November 21st. Tipperary have not held the Munster title since 1935, so their victory and deeply moving reactions felt like serendipity at its finest and in a remarkable turn of events the teams that have progressed to the semi-final stage, Mayo, Dublin, Tipperary and Cavan, are the exact teams that played the semi-finals 100 years ago. This nostalgic, almost surreal walk down memory lane reaches people and peaks their interest, even if you aren’t a major fan of football. I would be shocked if many were not impressed or excited by the patriotic, albeit strange manner in which it all played out. And that is the power of the GAA. It takes history and infuses it into the modern game, invigorating it and keeping us all on the edge of our seats. Even when those seats are our couches instead of in our stadiums.
In the same way that nostalgia has a special place in our hearts, we also love to be surprised. The exciting, fun kind of surprise, not the global pandemic kind. One of the more intriguing aspects of a winter All-Ireland is no one really knows what to expect. An All-Ireland has never been played so late in the year and players will have a new set of obstacles to contend with. Namely the weather. Now I don’t expect to see Aiden O’ Shea trying to concuss Brian Fenton with rocks hidden in a snowball, but it will be wet, cold and a new playing field in every sense of the word. In September 1939 Cork and Kilkenny fought for the top spot in the hurling final. The day was plagued by bad weather and so violent was the ensuing storm that the game became known as the thunder and lightning final. Imagine being the winner of such a game. As anyone from Ireland knows the weather is entirely unpredictable, We get low winter suns and freezing days, or wind and rain that falls from the heavens and shows no signs of drying up. And as we go deeper into Winter and the weather worsens we will have our 2020 All-Ireland finals, yet for the first time in decades we won’t entirely know how it will all pan out. The uncertainty surrounding a national institution has brought suspense to events that are over 100 years old and has left fans more excited than ever, for what this season will hold. The duality of our national sporting events, in that they are decades old yet, new and different in this era of Covid-19, have given those of us at home something other than the virus, to think, talk and write about.
I think what it all boils down too is that Gaelic sports offer a semblance of normality. Irish society was and is shaped greatly by the GAA and in many regards it is at the centre of our communities. Small children look at the Cora Stauntons, Joe Cannings and Stephen Cluxtons of this world and decide that they will be in that position one day too. It gives people a sense of purpose and drive and those of us who don’t play cheer from the sidelines and our weekends revolve around a league or championship.
And in this peculiar year, where everything we took for granted was slowly stripped away, to have the comforting presence of the GAA once more, has been a Godsend. Aside from its entertainment factor it has brought three weeks of excitement, three weeks of a distraction and three weeks closer to a vaccine that will give us our lives back. It truly has made a difficult, isolating and boring period that much more bearable.