I grew to hate All-Ireland Sunday, keeping this torment concealed from my family. The day stiffened my resolve to leave Dublin after wasted college years. I went to flat parties with childhood friends and pale girls who rolled their eyes at my slurred advances. Now winter lingered, inducing darkened days that lead to early gatherings in pubs and late nights on the quays.
A taste of whiskey was lodged in my throat, the fetid sweat off a weekend binge bleeding into the walls. I forgot it was All-Ireland Sunday for a moment, although this business of Dublin versus Kerry soon flooded my consciousness. I reached across the bedside table for my watch, the hands on the dial approaching two p.m. Sundays had become an effort in killing time. Ashen clouds brushed the sky through a slit in the curtains. My mum had come in earlier to say she was going to my aunt’s house for the afternoon.
‘Try and at least drag yourself out of bed for the throw-in!’
We all went when my grandad was still alive out of a sense of duty. He never missed a final, his towering figure clambering into the old, beige Lada and his monstrous hands clasped around the steering wheel.
‘You hold onto the tickets, lad, while I negotiate a parking spot,’ he said, weaving through Marino’s terraced streets. Granny must have already visited the grave after mass with a wreath covered in gold and green coloured ribbons. My dad told me after a school game on a fair March afternoon he had died that morning. I was an unused sub and there was no time to change. We drove across the city for the wake. Croke Park was vacant and towering as we sat in East Wall traffic, my sister’s tears blotching her green skirt. His team photos covered the walls of my granny’s house, his jet-black hair slicked back and arms folded for war.
I played in Fairview the last time my dad was in Dublin for the football final on a tight pitch with gangly boys chasing the ball like it was the prettiest girl in school.
‘Don’t be afraid of him!’ he shouted from the sideline, a cigarette dangling between his lips. The team lost by four points and I was a scoreless half-forward. My dad told me everything that I did wrong on the walk to Croke Park for a replay involving Kerry that carried the championship into October.
‘That right foot of yours is underworked,’ he said. ‘Your man had you figured out after five minutes.’
‘I’m practicing every day.’
The players were almost close enough to touch as they passed behind the Artane Boys Band. Grandad met us outside the Hogan Stand and told me where the Dr. Crokes’ men were playing.
My GAA career ended when I was sixteen in Silver Park after a trouncing by the precocious junior side. A stagnant club career ended with me fighting younger, more talented boys.
‘You’re useless,’ they said, smiling through their bloody mouth guards. They amassed All-Ireland medals and placed them on their front room shelves. Those Sundays reminded me of my failure as a player and a son.
The pubs from O’Connell Street to Jones’ Road had been filling their coffers since midday. Fans lined the streets with empty glasses and cigarette smoke trailing up into the damp air. All those cousins and hometown friends who looked older with each visit arrived in their droves wearing bright cotton jerseys. They piled out of Heuston Station hoping they would mock the Jackeens come Sunday evening.
The kitchen was empty when I came downstairs and caught a glimpse of myself in the window. The garden plants rustled in the breeze, swaying back and forth against the deck. I suffered the day alone, the hangover festering with the soft mumble of television for company. I started clutching the remote, watching sharp-shooting corner forwards and parish heartthrobs glide across the hallowed turf. The players were lining up in front of Hill 16, ready to bellow out the anthem.
I felt the chill of a dismal January afternoon, driving home from a match in Finglas a few years ago. Deano was my man – a bull released from the pen. His back muscles hunched when collecting a pass, taut for the split second before ghosting by me. He clattered my brittle legs every time we went for the same ball.
‘Go home, faggot,’ he whispered in my ear. I was ready to crawl off the sodden grass by the final whistle. The radio filled the lengthy silences as sheets of rain drifted across the fields.
‘You left a lot out there,’ my Dad said.
‘He was just better.’
I was staggering before the throw-in, all for lost causes. I placed my forehead against the misty window and stared at the houses along the motorway. The wipers scratched the glass as I cleaned my nostrils with a damp sleeve. My boyhood fantasies were left to sink beneath the frosted muck.
I turned on the game with five minutes left to see Dublin were trailing by four points. The stocky forward from St. Jude’s scored a goal and the keeper kicked the winning point with a minute remaining. Hill 16 was a cresting tidal wave at the final whistle as fans rushed onto the pitch. I thought of my granddad forced into a wry smile, his team losing to his son’s team.
‘It’s in your blood,’ the old coaches used to say to me. Yet I felt my roots slipping from my grasp watching the players celebrate their absolution. A friend rang enquiring if I was taking my chances that night on country girls.
‘There’s a crowd of us in town, the place is a carnival.’
‘Not tonight, but sure I’ll see you next weekend,’ I said, and the weekend after that when leaves have clustered on the damp roads. We sat in living rooms all winter, waiting for summer and those early dawns. I walked out to the garden and picked up a ball buried in the hedges. I started kicking it against the wall, hammering the leather harder each time from my laces and watched it fly back into my hands recounting all the days I was dragged to Croke Park.
He never made us stay for the victory speech, perhaps someday if Dublin managed to win it again. We ended up in McGrath’s where his friends were waiting to hand me a pint of stout.
‘You’re a stamp of your father,’ one said, telling me how they played together in county finals and put an arm around my shoulder. I stepped outside, forgetting about school the next day and stole glances at a tall blond sitting on a grassy bank across the Grand Canal. I stared at her for what seemed like hours, dreaming of being the boy she was waiting for while I drained the stout. My dad followed soon afterwards, saying how the pints went through him these days.
He told me about his old friends who were slaves to the smokes and whiskey, hiding from their wives for the night. I laughed along, picturing him as a boy walking home from soggy fields with boots tied to a rucksack and cuts on his knees. We drove south. The evening sun caught the rooftops as people walked back to town at a slow pace.
‘Your grandad always had a soft spot for Dublin, even when they were up against Kerry,’ he said. The Custom House lights reflected off the Liffey and the green dome dwindled in the rearview mirror. We separated at the tram’s platform and he headed to an airport hotel.
‘See you in a few weeks, son. Remember that right foot’s not just for standing on,’ he said, smiling and walking around Stephen’s Green arch. The journey flashed by as the tram raced into the suburbs past gardens and laneways, to home.
I pulled the bins out to the road. The Pigeon House towers flickered across the bay. I swam in their shadow on summer evenings, rust breaking through the red and white paint. Fleeing was my only option – to gilded cities where you melded into the crush and the splendour granted a façade of belonging. I left with no medals encased in velvet boxes. Granny replaced the wreath every year and Dublin went on. I woke up on All-Ireland Sundays, smiling as the girls passed me by on sun-drenched lawns. Finals were played, the island engrossed for those few hours and braced for harsh autumn winds. But I was free of it, finally, for better or worse.
Conor O’Sullivan’s short fiction has appeared in the Lakeview Journal, the Bitchin’ Kitsch, Storgy, Dual Coast Magazine, the Opiate and was published as a chapbook by TSS Publishing. He lives in London where he works as a sports journalist.
Follow him on Twitter at @conoros18