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All we’re left with is jarring silence

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Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 2019. Photo: Sportsfile

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 2019. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 2019. Photo: Sportsfile

EXACTLY a year ago, in a time before Covid, a more agreeable class of virus was infecting the nation. 

A week out from an Old Firm All-Ireland final, one that pitted a fearless, coltish Kerry against Dublin trailblazers pursuing uncharted territory, five-in-a-row fever gripped the land.

RTÉ’s combined audience for the drawn match and subsequent replay would touch two million, the lure of a timeless rivalry and the historic carrot dangling in front of Jim Gavin’s team an irresistible combination.

Snapshots from those happier times endure. Jack McCaffrey, high on the juice of life, giggling with delirious wonder in the pre-match parade before a contest he would electrify with his tracer- fire velocity.

The visceral discharge of hope erupting from the Kingdom clans when Killian Spillane scored a goal that felt, for a while, like a knife being lowered into Dublin’s ribcage.

Gavin, embracing his octogenarian father Jimmy as Croke Park emptied — love, gratitude and the bond of shared blood bursting from every pixel of a beautiful, life-affirming image.

Teeming

And, in a world yet to submit to social distancing, the turn onto a teeming Marlborough Street, to find Briody’s and its sister watering hole, Pipers’ Corner, a sea of happy humanity.

The story of an All-Ireland weekend is among the country’s sacred scriptures. Days of mischief and giddiness and porter.

A celebration of tradition and identity. A uniquely Celtic Mardi Gras. Micheál O’Muircheartaigh once proposed that All-Ireland hurling Monday be designated a bank holiday.

A splendid idea that many of us immediately embraced. Like the day after a wedding, that next morning and afternoon can be more memorable again than the weekend’s Brian Cody or Joe Canning or Liam Griffin themed centrepiece.

Today, in what should have been the Sunday between the two biggest afternoons in Irish sport, the deafening silence, the emptiness, is a reminder of all that has been stolen.

And a jolting alert to how urgently a wounded nation requires the balm promised by an abbreviated winter hurling and football championship, if it goes ahead.

Nobody knows if the planned October to December blitz can outrun Covid-19’s stealthy and insistent progress.

Even if the games take place, the absence of crowds, the inability to gather, will strip the days of so much of the communal joy that is the championship’s timeless treasure.

Gift

And yet, if the theatre must unspool without an audience, if the costs are prohibitive, the logistics a nightmare, still any All-Ireland race will feel like an overdue gift from the gods.

A triumph of the human spirit, a vaccine against all that bleakness and despair that has drilled into the marrow. That season of Sundays is so much more than sport.

It is soap opera, national conversation, tribal poetry. Of course, it won’t be the same without the roar from Hill 16 or the packed streets of Clones or the square in Thurles on Ulster and Munster final day.

And with clueless political “leaders” thrashing about ever more incoherently, not until the first ball is thrown in can there be any certainty the games will take place.

But, as the huge numbers tuning in to watch club games illustrate, the appetite for any good news story, any distraction is huge.

What a tonic it would be to see Davy Fitz, semi-deranged, patrolling the sideline, jerking and twitching as if under attack from a swarm of hornets only he can detect.

A hurling addict lost in the moment. Or to have a ringside seat as David Clifford unveils another masterpiece of guile and imagination.

Just one magical flourish from Seamie Callanan, Patrick Horgan or TJ Reid would feel like a rebellion against hopelessness, a light in the darkness.

Surge

Will Dublin recalibrate under Dessie Farrell, can Mayo summon one more surge for the stars, might Galway or Donegal or Cork announce themselves as legitimate contenders?

For those suffocating in rural Ireland, confronted by shuttered pubs, denied even the parole of attending a club match at their local field, the games and the debate they generate would be a desperately required draught of oxygen.

An escape from tedium and loneliness and anguish. Something to shorten a winter set to test us as not even the most forlorn of its predecessors have.

Government funding, a meticulous masterplan and a favourable gust of luck will be required if it is to happen.

Unlike Premier League footballers, amateur sportsmen can not be placed in a sterile bubble for weeks on end. A few wintry sniffles could undo everything.

And yet we cling to the dream.

A carnival of games climaxing with two All-Ireland finals in the days before Christmas.

The Sunday Game theme tune joining Bing Crosby and Shane MacGowan as the soundtrack of the festive season.

A wounded nation gathered around the TV, locating a nugget of hope at the end of the grimmest year.

Defiantly announcing to the terrible and devastating pathogen that, to paraphrase a verse Luke Kelly so memorably boomed, if our spirits are bruised, they are never broken.