comment From the wilderness of Level 5 lockdown, looms eight weeks of happy make-believe...The Championship
SPORT, at its most profound and vital, rises up to announce itself as so much more than a diversion.
It becomes the very game of life.
Katie Taylor’s entire universe distilled down to a rectangle of Olympic canvass in London’s East End; Packie Bonner, airborne in Genoa, defying gravity and Romania; Paul O’Connell soaring to the heavens on an historic Croke Park night, the giant scoreboard in the background blazing its neon victory cry; Padraig Harrington, eyes glazed and faraway, seizing a life-changing Carnoustie Sunday.
Together, Ireland drank in these glories and for a perfect moment the aspect of the world was magnificently altered.
Sport gifts us a communal experience unique and precious in our busy, fragmented and, lately, grievously dislocated lives.
It is why Paul McGrath and Sonia O’Sullivan, Henry Shefflin and Colm Cooper are beloved.
Their deeds made our days richer. They lifted us from slumps and slouches.
In our imaginings, Stuttgart is not so much a city in Germany’s southwest as the canvass on which Ray Houghton composed his masterpiece.
Seamus Darby is a two-word novel, Michael Carruth, an imperishable 28-year-old postcard from Barcelona.
In the winter of a brutal, bleak year, the hurling and football championships have never seemed at once as trivial, yet so utterly essential. Spiritual lifeblood. A beacon in Stygian darkness. The defiant cry of a nation declining to bow.
Covid has washed the colour out of our world: It has stolen lives and livelihoods. It is the enemy of hope.
Uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness abound. The everyday is wrinkled and distorted.
Yet, from the wilderness of Level 5 lockdown, looms eight weeks of happy make-believe.
Games and controversies and a national conversation, an eviction order for despair.
This weekend, Clare and Limerick arrive in Thurles, The Sunday Game theme tune will puncture the silence and, for a while at least, it will feel like the world is spinning again on something like its old, familiar axis.
Semple Stadium will be ghostly, yes, and there will be no teeming, mid-summer Liberty Square Mardi Gras.
But the games, for now at least, will go ahead. And that alone feels like a victory, a temporary wriggling free from the oppressive Covid straitjacket. One fundamental aspect of our lives this insatiable damn pathogen has not yet thieved.
Westmeath’s masterful forward John Heslin ventilated his discomfort at the depiction of a GAA championship as an essential antidote to the suffocating gloom.
“At what stage,” he tweeted, “does the ‘Inter-county return badly needed in these grim days’ commentary end? I am concerned from a health and welfare perspective, both individually and collectively for those contributing to the inter-county season.”
It is an entirely coherent and legitimate viewpoint.
Amateur athletes cannot be cocooned in the same airtight bubble as their professional brothers; they live and work or study in the community, they interact with the vulnerable.
No matter how careful the precautions, there are dangers of infection. There is zero guarantee that we will make it all the way to the All-Ireland finals scheduled for unfamiliar mid-December.
It will jar with some that convoys of sportsmen are criss-crossing the nation at a time when house visits to friends and relatives are denied to the rest of us.
And still, the prospect of a blitzkrieg of games feels hugely enriching.
Tomas O’Se, a titan of the first family of Kerry football, got to the very essence of it all in his Irish Independent column.
“I don’t care what anybody says, the GAA is the beating heart of this country. Without it over the coming months, I have little doubt a great many people will be more susceptible to depression.
“Now maybe the possibility of Dublin making it six-in-a-row wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but I’d take it today ahead of an empty three months in front of us.”
There are any number of potentially evocative storylines.
How far can Davy Fitzgerald’s manic energy and tactical smarts carry Wexford? Might Mayo, written off until last weekend’s stunning re-awakening in Tuam, again position them at the centre of the sporting universe? Thirty years on from their All-Ireland double, fully 16 years since they last struck hurling gold, what can Cork bring to the table? Could David Clifford take down Dublin’s mighty empire? Can Tipp go back to back?
With winter gripping the land, daylight fading, Covid rampant and the pubs shuttered, it can feel as if we are living in a world without sunlight.
But this weekend, the hurlers of Dublin and Laois, Clare and Limerick will charge onto our TV screens.
And, for a blessed hour or two, the horizon won’t seem quite as slate black or cheerless.