Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Up Offaly by Brendan Loonam

Classifying a story that is situated in a small town in Ireland as urban legend may sound like it is overstating the case, but after all, it does fall into that category, so I will play it as it lays. When I asked my brother Peter, a few weeks ago, how Offaly was doing in Sports, that is to say, how are they doing in hurling and football; for Americans, that’s Gaelic football, which is like a form of soccer, though most non-Irish soccer enthusiasts would be loath to admit that connection, seeing it as a total bastardization and corruption of soccer. Hurling, which I think it is one of the most exciting games out there, even surpassing ice hockey, is another story entirely, and will have to be dealt with separately.
Anyway, Peter told me that we were “out of it on both counts for the season,” meaning that our county, i.e. Offaly, hurling and football teams, had been eliminated from National contention for the season. The county teams are basically all-star teams, being made up from the best town and parish team players, so he was happy that he would be able to go see some good local games, with all of the best players playing with their own teams. I asked if he wasn’t disappointed that Offaly wouldn’t be playing for the All-Ireland titles, and he answered, “No; the local games are much more enjoyable.” But it wasn’t always thus
September has always brought exciting times for fans of Gaelic Football, particularly at the end of the month, when the two best county teams battle it out for the title of All-Ireland Football Champions. There are those in the sporting world who consider the G. A. A title to be more pure than that of the English Premiership Soccer League for example, or even the NFL and the NHL, for the most distinctive characteristic of the Gaelic Athletic Association players is that they play strictly for the love of the game and the pride of their team and hence, their county. No GAA player receives any money for participating in their sport.
At the time that the story referred to took place, in 1961, there was incredibly high unemployment in Ireland, so the more ‘wily,’ shall we say, among the townsfolk were usually on the lookout for ways to, in some small manner, increase their disposable income. The possibilities for doing so were extremely limited, of course, but that just called for the players to be more assiduous in the application of their skills. For example at the same time that the football championship rivalry was heating up between Offaly and County Down, situations of previously established political and sociological density were being re-stirred in Kenya and also in Kuwait and they were all being given full rein in the British tabloids; nevertheless, pundits such as Boss Daly, in Banagher, were slogging their way through the informative and politically dense News pages and were staying meticulously abreast of the activities of both the Offaly and Down teams that were being reported in the Sports pages, so that an intelligent and therefore profitable wager could be placed on the day of the big game.
That Big Game, the 1961 All Ireland Football Championship, between County Offaly and County Down, played at Croke Park in Dublin, at 90,564, had the largest Attendance for a game at the Dublin venue before or since. But, in a big, big world, the events of amateur athletic associations amount to but little. President Kassem of Iraq claimed that Kuwait was part of his country, and announced that he was going to annex it. On the 27th of June, 1961 the Amir of Kuwait appealed to both Britain and Saudi Arabia for help. Reports indicated that Kassem was assembling an armored brigade for a swift dash to Kuwait, but they continued their battles throughout August and into September; coincidentally, on the Friday before the game, Kassem was doing a lot of “saber rattling,” trying to further intimidate the Kuwaitis, who were waiting for promised British Commando aid, that had been stymied by Turkey’s refusal to grant them access to their Air Space. On Saturday, September 20th, a breakthrough was negotiated and the Commandos were able to arrive “in the nick of time,” to stave off the invasion. Britain was very proud, and justifiably so, of their Commandos.
Sunday morning, the 9:00 A.M. bells of St. Rynagh’s Church roused the Boss from his sleep and his carefully constructed dreams involving the stunning upset of the Favored County Down Football Team by the upstart County Offaly footballers. Secondarily in the dream-queue hall-of-fame, jumping up-and-down for attention was the brilliantly conceived and placed dream-wager which brought the happily sleeping Boss untold wealth and unimaginable satisfaction.
The Boss did not even bother with a cup of tea, but simply got himself up and dressed and slipped out the front door. He headed for Bourque’s Sweet Shop, where he could check the morning line on the Football Match and also pick up another pack of fags; he kept telling himself that he would quit; the shaggers had him burned, but he would have to wait on that. On the way down the hill, carloads of Offaly fans, bound for Dublin passed him by. When he saw the team colors flying from the car antennas, he would shout and wave to them, eliciting a torrent of horn blowing and shouting from the sport fans. This would urge any other travelers, auto or pedestrian, within earshot, to join in the din. He hurried past the church before anyone could think him in any way responsible for the madness going on outside mass.
Reaching the front of Bourque’s, the Boss was happy, first of all, to feel confident enough to light his last cigarette; he would never do that without a replacement at hand, and second, to see many of his fellow bettors with the papers opened. The Boss first lit his cigarette, then carried a copy of The Irish Independent to the counter, calling out, “A pack of Woodbine’s, please, Mrs.” holding up the paper as he did so.
Holding up the paper was for the benefit of Mrs. Bourque, so that she could add that in with his pack of Woodbines; however, as he held it up, he saw a headline which profoundly affected his feelings about the Big Match. As soon as the Boss got the paper, he had intended to turn immediately to the Sports Pages, but before he could even open it, he was struck by the Front Page Headline and what it had emblazoned in extra-large print: IRAQ BACKS DOWN Seizing his paper, the Boss headed immediately for his fellow bettors, grumbling loudly,
“What in the ---- do they know about football?”

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