John Connolly, left, is shown with Paul Murphy of Athenry, Co. Galway, at Croke Park last summer. Photo courtesy John Connolly
Departing from my home in Milltown, Co. Galway, I travelled to Shannon in March 2001 and made my way to Boston for what I thought would be a short enough adventure for around six months. After a series of extensions, I found myself in Boston City Hall working for Mayor Menino’s Arts, Tourism and Special Events department where I was renamed Johnny Cannoli.
It was John Connolly, however, who got married and had twins and panicked about not making enough of a connection to the homeland for the kids. Covid did not help with all trips put on hold. During lockdown, I found myself getting stuck in a series of sentimentality loops where I’d wait up late watching old Gaelic matches on YouTube...remembering the hot summer of 1995 when Clare hurlers emerged as true giant killers, capturing the imagination of the nation, even finding clips of Gay McManus punching the ball in against Mayo in 1989.
I was behind the goal that day cheering my head off. But now I was stuck at my kitchen counter feeling a sense of panic in my chest about not visiting home more when the skies were clear and the world less complicated. My wife and I booked our tickets and, of course, two for our six-year-old twins. We were even polite enough to come down with Covid two weeks before we went. Galway footballers, too, were polite enough to beat Derry in the All-Ireland semi-final. And best of all, the plane took off when it was supposed to, pointed toward home.
What a difference 22 years make. I was on my own as we had just parted. With a quickening heart and cradling two match programs and two bags of Tayto crisps, I joined the crescendoing electric streams of maroon and white, and green and gold, and began my uncertain ascent of the gray snaking stairs. “You’re ready for a fine feast,” said a Kerry man smiling kindly, and he was right: A quota would have to be met before my return trip back to Boston, the land of tedious Lays. As I reached the end of the steps, I was met with that vibrant sliver of green grass, that first moment where I feel that this is real.
The wide expanse of Croke Park opens before me, in what is almost like a personal parting of the Red Sea moment (minus the chasing Egyptians) To think of the journey this very stadium itself had taken, a cultural cauldron in a time of war, a defiant fort of national identity, a symbol of a modern inclusive Ireland, and now it shone as one of the world’s best sporting arenas, hosting one of the great national gathering occasions.
The last time I took a seat in Croke Park, it was partial building site, and within a year I was gone for what would be a lifetime. Today, holding up my camera phone to this vast hulking experience seemed like such a small, ridiculous, absurd act, like trying to scoop from the fountain of youth with a fork. Seeing a living legend and former great Galway hurler, John Connolly, take his seat in front of me, I deftly filed my phone away to strike a non-tourist pose: here for the game, not for the Instagram moment. I did make a mental note to ask for a selfie after the match - if Galway won.
Even as I got myself physically acclimated, atmosphere poured into me and I trembled through the parade of the players, the waving of the maroon and white flags, the anthem, the roar, and then the game itself. Players seemed to move with greater athletic purpose than what I remembered, and they didn’t hold their positions as they flitted this way and that, making it difficult for me to make out their numbers, like trying to keep track of sugared kindergarteners at an aquarium. I did find the pony-tailed No. 7, Kieran Molloy, and that relaxed me as I found my bearings.
A tight, yet expressive, match swung back and forth deep into the second half just like it did that day in 2000 in the building site bowl, the day my heart sank in defeated despair. But in 2022, as I marveled at the wizardry of both of Shane Walsh’s kicking feet, I simultaneously slipped into a serene detachment from the pursuit of the win and closed my eyes to hear and sponge up the roars, the curving mass of sound rising and falling around me, lifting me. In those poignant moments, it dawned on me that I had shut the door on any possibility of ever being in Croke Park watching Galway footballers in an All-Ireland Final again. I had almost entered a vivid dream-state. I was present but I was not in this world.
Having been away for 22 years and having Galway not getting to a final in 21 years, there was no way, in my mind, that the stars could align to the degree that we would all be in the same place again. And even if they did make a final and I was at home, I’d surely have lost my standing as a ‘real’ fan, the hardy soul who would go to Galway matches in the winter and watch four matches in a given day on the hidden circuit of the village competition. I was that happy soldier, too. Then. But the present version of myself was not even watching Galway matches in Irish pubs in Boston, a really sad loss to the social calendar, thanks to the convenience of streaming and the emergence of smoothie culture.
I was boxed in watching games on my laptop at the kitchen counter stress-eating crackers, rice-cakes, deli turkey, and while delighted for the technology, I lamented the loss of those shared emotional outbursts of joy, excitement, sorrow, and emptiness, all in one sitting. The nerves were still the same, of course, but there was no questioning the overall disconnect. I was so starved for conversation that I would finish watching the game on my laptop and, if Galway were victorious, I would play back the game Galway Bay FM radio, listening to an old school friend haughtily call the shots on commentary. I’d smile as he’d access an elevated breathlessness, a voice on the edge of the abyss being lost at a perceived and biased injustice over a bad refereeing decision, knowing that everything would be all right in the end.
I was more hotwired into the Gaelic football scene than ever before because my brother had been anointed Video Analyst for the football team. What pride! And they couldn’t have chosen a better lad because when it came to commitment, he was always there, and he is definitely The Smart One. My parents and sister would remark that he’d come home from work and crack the laptop open right away and be gone for hours. In some galaxy somewhere, the stars were inching toward an alignment.
I won’t tell a lie and say that the All-Ireland final date wasn’t buried somewhere deep in my mind when I booked the dates to finally go to Ireland after over four years of waiting and wondering. On my laptop, I watched perennial underdogs Galway storm through powerhouses Mayo, Armagh, and Derry and then everything shot to the brink of reality. No matter what, I’d be home in Galway for the All-Ireland Football Final and soak up the pre-match excitement. My brother was part of the backroom team and this meant that I would bypass the highly strung scramble for tickets. Hope was alive! Still, I saw myself as the blow-in who had not put in his time and therefore was undeserving. Sitting in my sister’s kitchen in Ireland, I voiced this to a crowded room and was met with irritated befuddlement, bordering on anger. This was insult territory and I was bluntly informed that I was going and there would be more discussion, so let’s get back to being nervous about the match and let’s have no more of this martyr carry-on.
One of the great joys on match-day was to be folded into the embrace of a pre-match tradition by my childhood friend, where I joined a jovial scrum of multi-generational fans in a small, bright and happy apartment in Glasnevin, hosted by an aunt who was a refugee from the west of Ireland, giving everyone that crucial base in the Big-Smoke, with some sandwiches thrown in. Here there were no light entries into fully formed sentences. We communicated in nervous, half-baked non-sequiturs, all tethered to the nervous anticipation of the match, but we all finished them in each other’s heads, everyone nodding.
Memories from 25 years ago and more were jolted into action and were paraded out where they were greeted as old friends. Fond recollections of sparsely attended Under-16 games and who marked whom took their place alongside memories of larger, more widely reported historic occasions, fluid and running into one another, a stream of community consciousness. It also helped that I not only remembered these days, too, but had a tighter hold of those days from the past.
Despite my deeply personal ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, the game continued, the players were not distracted, and, ultimately, we didn’t make it over the line. My placid coma-state was interrupted briefly, and I did suffer a brief emptiness. It was different, though. I had tears of pride in my eyes, proud to have been present in this moment and for allowing myself to enjoy it.
The mood was a little on the heavy side when I met back up with my friends,
but the Kerry fans helped us out by being gracious and classy winners. Galway had done us proud and, while crestfallen, we felt pride thinking about how one of our own had given an inspired performance for the ages. It was an honor and a privilege to be in the area where greatness unfolded from the two feet of Shane Walsh, the mercurial Galway marksman who came of age on the biggest stage of all. Crowds were gathered outside pubs on that warm July evening, grabbing a pint or two before hitting the road.
‘Hey, John Connolly,’ said a lad holding a pint on the sidewalk as I approached him. He was from Milltown, two years ahead of me in school, and I never had a full conversation with him. Shelving theatrical tones, a warm, genuine handshake was exchanged, and we briefly spoke of the happy journey we had taken together through this team. A few steps later, I hear my name called from stalled traffic and it’s one of the village’s former underage footballers. Truly a great player and a lovely person, in the same class as the other lad. I don’t look left. I don’t look right. I float over and the brief handshake and conversation don’t mention the distance, the years, but just picks up on a strand and it’s where we were and where we are, all in one instance.
This was the scene I never thought I’d be part of. The matches are incredible social occasions, where you see people and effortlessly reconnect in a ‘we never went away’ type of way. The warm handshake is a world away from the box checking friend requests that we experience so frequently. No talk of Boston. No talk of where are you now? Lads from the village exchanging a warm hello and that deeply rooted familiarity where I am truly welcomed back to the Tribe, simultaneously feeling like a ghost but not being treated like one.
Was it a reawakening or an uncorking, I don’t know. A personal cultural revival? I know that the combination of Time and living far away will chip away at the feeling of that day and ultimately sink it somewhere deep, but it won’t ever take it away. As part of a large jigsaw, I found my place again and I belonged. It was a tribal thing and was always in there, but I hadn’t let it come out in a long, long time and I think I did that because I never thought I would have the occasion to. Winning brings all the elation and tears, but there’s a bit of growth and eye-opening that happens in those stunned silences. Home just never leaves you.