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comment A contest that defied the laws of nature – 30 years since Dublin v Meath saga that changed GAA forever


Meath forward Bernard Flynn shakes hands with Dublin goalkeeper John O'Leary after Game 1 of the Leinster SFC 1st round which took place 30 years ago today in Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Meath forward Bernard Flynn shakes hands with Dublin goalkeeper John O'Leary after Game 1 of the Leinster SFC 1st round which took place 30 years ago today in Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Meath forward Bernard Flynn shakes hands with Dublin goalkeeper John O'Leary after Game 1 of the Leinster SFC 1st round which took place 30 years ago today in Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Some 30 years have passed, a great river of time, a bottomless ocean of days; a wider span of history than Alex Ferguson endured at Manchester United, almost as deep as the entire expanse of hours gifted to Micheal Collins.

And yet, for those of us who knew its full pulverising force, the aftershocks of its wild detonation endures, tickling the senses still.

Meath v Dublin, 1991. A warm breath of memory.

A contest that defied the laws of nature; a landmark turn in the road of GAA life; all-consuming, epic, endless; for five summer weeks, the story at the centre of every room.

Four fevered contests (the first of which, unimaginably, took place 30 years ago today on June 2nd, 1991), two of which went to extra time, the better part of six hours of football, 11 goals, 95 points, 236,383 paying spectators, and at the end of it all, a point – a microscopic hairline - between the teams.

Meath 6-44 (62) Dublin 3-51 (61).

The equivalent of a single pixel in a photo-finish after a month long race that circumnavigated the globe.

Ernest Walton, the Irish Nobel Laureate who first split the atom, might have found even his genius for physics insufficient to separate these duelling boys of summer.

Some historical context is required.

Less than a year had passed since Italia ’90 erupted like a great sporting Vesuvius, spitting out a fountain of euphoric green magma which engulfed the nation.

Overnight, the landscape of Irish cultural life radically altered. Even hurling and Gaelic football heartlands were enlisting in Jackie’s army. The GAA was on the backfoot. Some within Croke Park imagined it as an existential threat. They required an attention-grabbing counter-thrust, a return to Broadway.

And like a gift from the gods, Dublin and Meath arrived to fill the void: A homegrown World Cup, a Mardi Gras as hypnotic and hysterical and immortal as the imperishable Latin theatre of the previous summer.

A swashbuckling saga co-directed by Seán Boylan and Paddy Cullen, which, long before its impossibly nerve-jangling final episode, had seized the title deeds to the national conversation, shipwrecked its vast audience on a reef of hysteria, and delivered an electrifying jolt to Gaelic games.

For fully 35 days, the dimensions of the universe were reduced to an antique, creaking, inner-city coliseum: Croke Park was La Scala, the Sydney Opera House, London’s West End, every storied New York playhouse rolled into one illuminated and palpitating Celtic hippodrome.

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Here was a Leinster preliminary round that sprouted and flowered and grew like a rain forest, soared higher and higher in the public consciousness until it seemed to dwarf even the most skyscraping All-Ireland finals.

It was the front page headline, it led news bulletins; it was an inferno consuming every molecule of available oxygen.

The games themselves are a kind of green and blue blur, a kaleidoscope of colour and emotion, remembered not through the detail but as an overwhelming sensory experience.

Highs and lows; peaks and troughs; a thrilling joyride down the autobahn of life.

Here was a Game of Thrones - an epic, pitiless, riveting fantasy drama, a compelling box office sensation - long before the world was introduced to Westeros or Essos.

It was a visceral box-set, which in its dizzying, brilliantly scripted, interweaving storylines, felt like a precursor to The Sopranos or The Wire or, perhaps most aptly, given the rivalry and extreme emotion, Love/Hate.

Four fevered, roller-coaster contests unspooling over three stop-all-the-clocks Sundays, before a final sun-kissed, scorching, climactic Saturday, were required to separate Anna Livia from Tara.

As with all superior drama, the final twist was the most convulsing.

Dublin had raided the vaults and were approaching the getaway car with the booty, a triumphant smile creasing their features with seconds to go in Game Four, when, like Val Kilmer stepping onto the bank forecourt in Heat, they realise the cops are waiting and their world collapses.

Kevin Foley was a footballer who had spent most of his sporting life at the edge of the photograph.

A defender who rarely crossed the half-way line, here he was finishing a length of the pitch Royal flourish to score a storied equalising goal. On the grainy footage, an audible gasp of astonishment can be heard from Hill 16.

It got worse, so much worse for Dublin even as Meath sailed toward delirium.

Meath seize John O’Leary’s kick-out. The ball is worked to David Beggy and “Jinksy” the guitar-playing Navan forward with the whippet physique and torque, sinks the final dagger-thrust into the capital city’s ribcage.

Jack Sheedy hooks a late Dublin free from a distant time zone wide. Eternity’s final full stop has been written. And so it ends.

A kind of stunned exhausted wind blows across the old arena.

The conjoined twins had been separated at last. Only the extra freckle dappled by Beggy onto Meath’s face distinguishing one from the other.

Some Meath players raised their arms to the heavens; others hugged; many appeared too emotionally shattered – or maybe it was an instinctive respect for the fallen blue warriors with whom they had shared a battlefield – to lend their rapture any physical expression.

Inevitably, the more profound emotions were on show in the losing dressing room.

Even now, across all the decades, the images remain vivid. People have described it as funereal, but that is inaccurate: At funerals people sympathise and share stories and hold each other.

No, this was a postcard from wherever broken men gather: There was not a sound, not even a whisper; there was no movement; all that existed was young man after young man, seated in silence, ashen, entombed in grief.

Unable to compute their paradise lost.

There are stories of combatants in war, years after the guns fall silent, seeking each other out. Because only these old soldiers who have lived the moment truly comprehend the life-changing enormity of what it was they endured.

I have friends on both teams. I have listened to them relive what it was to reside beneath the ack-ack guns and heavy artillery that flared over that long, unforgettable month back in another time.

When they were soldiers and young.

And when the shots they fired were so mesmerising and elemental as to seem like the only sounds on this Earth of any consequence.

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