Paddy Reilly and Billy James Duff

On Sunday last, four counties ascended upon Croke Park to contest the Division 1 and 2 league finals. Thirty six and a half thousand in attendance at the games were made April Fools of by the cold conditions, but come hell or high water, shivering and numb, the fans were intent on catching two exciting games of football. And that they got.

I sat in the Cusack Stand with three children I’d brought up from Cavan for the day, who by mid-way in the Dublin game, had chilled to a peculiar shade of blue. Thankfully, my pleas of “let’s just stay a little bit longer, ok?” worked, and eventually they seemed to thaw. Naturally, I wanted to make sure they were ok and safe and well – but I wanted to see Dublin beat Galway too. I guess the Dub in me won out.

Cavan turned out a great support. There were articulated vowels all over the place as collective cries rang out. From Kingscourt to Killygarry, Baileboro to Belturbet they had turned up in fine form, with high hopes of Cavan rising to the occasion on an Easter Sunday in GAA HQ.

“Come on Ceeeaaaaaaavaaan”, they cheered, “go on Maaaaaaaakeey”, “that’s it Maaaaaaaaartin”, the chorus that lilted throughout the game. The only boy who never rose more than a clap from the Brefini boys, was Séanie Johnston, when he finally made his appearance. Kildare transfer emblazoned in the psyche or perhaps just the general on-field greed of the chap, but for whatever reason, he won’t be winning Cavan person of the year, if the response of the fans is anything to go by. In spite of “yon boy Jonston” though, the Cavan crowd were more animated than I’d seen a Cavan following in years. I recall being in Brefini Park at a Cavan Monaghan game in or around ’91 and I was stunned to find that not one voice cheered on the home side for the whole game. Not a fecking one. I’ve been at livelier wakes.

But on Sunday nobody was holding back, not least Paddy and Billy who sat behind me. Both are Kileshandra natives, although Billy’s people came from Blacklion many moons ago. He explained the lineage to Paddy who’d probably heard it a hundred or more times before, but he listened as though it were news to his ears. There’s a chance that both gents remember the last time Cavan lifted Sam, and the time before it too, and probably even the year before also, ‘beyond in the Polo Grounds’. But sure who’s counting?

Paddy, the taller of the two, had a forehead furrowed with wrinkles and great big lumps of hands that I’m in no doubt, had worked the slanted fields of Killeshandra forever and a day. Billy had a well worn face too but his hands were smaller, and possibly softer – though I can’t vouch for their touch. He hadn’t been exposed to working the drumlin lands and instead had earned his crust pulling pints in his bar. His rosy cheeks and beetroot nose, showed that he still has a grá for the sup. Old habits die hard, as they say. But sure wasn’t it Easter Sunday and so didn’t everyone have good reason for a few jars?

They’d got the lift up off a gásan from the club, who was meeting them over at The Big Tree after the game. One of the McCabes they said. Drives too fast they said, might be the last match we ever get to see, they joked, though weighing up their vintage, I’d say the probability of that was high.

“Never heard of a Suuuuubaroooo Impreza before hi, must be one of them Japanese imports so it must” Paddy mused.

“Aye, terrible funny name for a car, Suuuuuubaroooo, sure it sounds like Irish so it does, súgradh” said Billy.

“Aye, súgradh,  that’s Irish so it is hi. Sugar is it?”

“No, be God and it’s not” sounding strangely like my first year Irish teacher.

“Is that not what they say on a bag of sugar?” Paddy was fiddling for a piece of clove rock from a faded bag that may also have seen the 1952 Cavan game.

“It’s not anyway so it’s not” again, shades of Mr. MacCarthaigh rang through, sending a shiver up my spine. I was afraid he was going to start lashing out the Módh Cionniollach.

“Well what is it then?” Paddy sucked hard on his heritage clove drop.

“Siúcra.”

“Aye, that’s it. It’s on the bag of sugar so it is.”

“I know it is, but it’s sùgradh I’m on about hi.”

“And what’s that when it’s at home?”

“The Irish for play so it is.”

“Is it anyhow? That’s a terror.”

“It is aye.”

“Jaysus that’s no bad one. Sue Garoo. It’s like Kangaroo isn’t it?”

“I suppose it is aye.”

“We’re travelling in style today hi Paddy, a Kangaroo Impreza.”

“We are to be sure hi!”

And their banter continued, through the game. Everyone cheering for Cavan or the Rossies. The Dubs who’d come in early for the game, took the side of the Ulstermen, but in spite of the extra support, Cavan fell short on a scoreline of 4-12 to 4-16.  Though with a game stuffed with eight goals and a clatter of points, you can’t be too disappointed. (Unless you are one of three quasi-frozen children who know that they are here for another full game and not even a combined outburst of Ophelia and Emma would change their fortune.) It was a lively game, and Cavan looked good in parts. They missed opportunities in the first half  that could have made the difference, but Roscommon had the edge and kept composed to see themselves home safe.

Paddy and Billy decided that the first game had been such a thriller that they’d stay on to catch the second one. Sure why not, hi? Yon boy won’t be a The Big Tree till after it anyhow, we may as well stay here sure. Aye, no bother. They back’d and forth’d about the Dubs, analysing everything from the vanished Connolly to the literary great that is Philly McMahon.

“That chap wrote a book hi,” Paddy scoffed another clove drop and nodded towards the Ballymun Kickhams back as he made a run up the park.

“Did he anyhow? That’s a terror.”

“Aye, one of the Carolans has it. He said it’s a good book so he did.”

“Go way. Is is anyhow? I must get my hands on it. I like an aul read in the evenings.”

“Is that so?”

“Oh be God and it is. Didn’t I read yon boy Cooper’s book before Christmas so I did – your man The Gooch.”

“Was it any good?” Paddy mumbled, clearly not too interested, his eyes were glued on a scuffle up at the Hill 16 goal.

“No word of a lie Paddy – a load of shite so it was.”

“Here, take one of them sweets Billy,” Paddy shoved the canvas satchel on Billy’s lap, liberating a piece of hay from within. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a few chicks hatch out of it before the final whistle.

“Where’d you get them from?” Billy asked, concentrating on separating two sweets that had fused together.

“America.”

“Be God and you weren’t in America.”

“No, I wasn’t. Pat Reilly from out the Hill and Hollows was, and he brought them back for me. Brought a load of them. I keep them for when Cavan are playing in finals.”

“A ritual like?” asked Billy.

“Aye. Not that it brings us any luck.”

“Pat Reilly’s dead a long time now – when was he in America?”

“Ah he went for the match,” Paddy’s eyes remained in the direction of Ciarán Kilkenny who was tearing towards goal at lightening pace.

“What match was that hi?” I could detect genuine confusion in Billy’s voice.

“Cavan and Kerry,” replied Paddy, cool as you like.

A choking sound came from behind and I turned around in time to see Billy spit his sweet along with his false teeth, into the palm of his hand.

“Ya bollocks ya Paddy, that game was in 1940-fucking-7!”

“They’ll do you no harm,” he continued surveying the pitch.

Billy kept quiet for the rest of the game.

Unfortunately, the Tribesmen around us had not lost their tongues. The ref had a mare, to put it mildly, and was making a few odd decisions against both sides, with Dublin largely coming out shortchanged by his judgements in the first half and Galway in the second. Of course though, whenever Dublin are involved, it’s ALL DUBLIN’S FAULT. Dublin pay the ref. Dublin are typically filthy. Dublin are scumbags. Dublin are a shower of pricks. And on and on and on. I’ve nothing against Galway personally, and it’s not that they are unique in this regard. There are thirty one counties who don’t have sweet dreams about Dublin football every night. But on Sunday, it was the turn of the men from the West, and my word did they make their bitter comments heard.

It’s been a long time since I heard a crowd of supporters sound quite so absolutely hormonal. A serious case of PMS was doing the rounds during that second half on Sunday and made me just the little bit prouder of the Dubs for hustling, for digging deep, for their power and their strength and their relentlessness. It made me relish even more, the fact that they are, undoubtedly, the best team in the country. Galway gave them a run for their money in Salthill a few weeks back and again on Sunday, but class is permanent and Dublin are a class outfit. And what better way to shut the begrudgers than to win the fifth league title in six years.

Baile Átha Cliath abú.

Dublin for Sam, Cavan for Ulster.

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