Home Alone enveloped by Sound of Silence

The attendance at the game that never was, Observer Editor Jimmy Rhatigan. Pic by Donal Foley

By Jimmy Rhatigan

IT JUST didn’t feel right.

Yet there was something special about sitting on one’s tod in UPMC Nowlan Park, a state of the art stadium with a capacity of 26,000.

It was a delight to admire the picture postcard county ground, its billiard table-like green surface, the meticulously clean surrounding stands and ancillary facilities.

Being the odd man out was a privilege, dreaming the impossible dream, contemplating on what might have been on a weekend when a tribal battle of neighbours Kilkenny and Waterford was scuppered by a marauding ‘flu.

To be home alone, thanks to the courtesy of Kilkenny County Board was a real eye opener, but without the clash of the ash and the fervour that make the game of hurling so appreciated.
Missing too was the roar of the crowd the quality that makes a hurling arena so magnetic.

UPMC Nowlan Park, surreal but beautiful. Pic by Donal Foley

Opium of people

The swashbuckling skills and passion that at this time of year make hurling the opium of our people a daily diet of mud, sweat and cheers that is part of what we are.

The forecast was that the National League Sunday Showdown between the Cats and the Blaas would have lured some 10,000 through the turnstiles.

But it wasn’t to be.

The cruel hand of fate intervened and the GAA responded positively.

The lives of our people were top of any agenda as the GAA in tandem with fellow sports put the health of a nation before any financial rewards.

If we didn’t know better we would have wondered where the other 9,999 men, women and children were spending their Sunday afternoon.

The ambience was scarily surreal at the empty venue as we hummed the lyrics of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

The GAA ground car park, deserted. Pic by Donal Foley

Melt a snowman

The Gerry Marsden number You’ll Never Walk Alone when sung with gusto by thousands of fans would sweep one into a blood-curdling frenzy that would melt the heart of a snowman.

The ‘Park as it is fondly called locally, was no such place as Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence or The Tremeloes Silence is Golden would have been more apt .

There was an eerie sound of silence in a stadium that so often rocks to cheering, chanting and cajoling as two stars collide.

Sitting in Ardán Breathnach, dedicated to Ollie Walsh, one of the greats of the beautiful game, a Fatima Place neighbour, one experienced a weird sensation so different to the clash of the ash, the trickery, sleight of body and wrist subtleness of skilful men with hurleys.

One felt abandoned, alienated but not necessarily lonely, yet home alone on a day when the prime seats would have backsides on them if you dared to arrive close to the first feadóg of a hurling ding dong.

Growling neighbours

We were sitting pretty, a description that may flatter us in a ground that was deserted on an afternoon that was scheduled to host a South East head-to-head between growling neighbours.

Coronavirus restrictions had meant that a GAA Funday became a Sober Sunday.

Glancing behind, rather gingerly, one felt that there just might be another stray nomadic warrior lurking.

A kindred spirit perhaps who, to borrow an appropriate word that sits pretty with our friend the door, may have spotted that a gate was ajar and edged in for a peek.

No such luck.

All we needed to complement an occasion of ambiguity and uncertainty was Finbar Furey’s Lonesome Boatman on tannoy.

In a crazy way it was a privilege to be alone, to mull on what might have been and what may be, hopefully sooner rather than later.

So strange: No bums on seats. Pic by Donal Foley

Create and exaggerate

A bizarre atmosphere played tricks as TJ Reid flashed past two defenders and crashed to the net at the city end of the ground.

One’s imagination began to ramble, create and exaggerate.

You craved a roar of approval but there was not even a whimper from any corner of the ground as the local mouse, a lodger in cat land perhaps, didn’t even bother his backside to break wind.
Talking about wind, foul or otherwise, there was barely a breeze whispering down the pitch on a date that would have been ideal for hurling.

We imagined ace ground staff John Coogan and Kevin McGarry manicuring the green sward with the precision, concentration and passion of a surgeon plucking out an ingrown hair.

Closing one’s eyes and opening one’s ears sent the message that any local choir of bird warblers was on an afternoon off.

It was then back to the real world with peepers wide open.

There was the realisation that John and Kevin were not actually wielding their wands of horticultural magic.

The Nowlan Park pitch: Voted Best in Ireland. Pic by Donal Foley

Sea of tranquility

But there was evidence that they had been caressing their prize-winning pitch at another time.

Soon, too soon, reality spluttered back in a sea of tranquillity of sorts that landed photographer Donal Foley and I back in the real world.

We were over the moon as we had been seeing or at least visualising hurling artisans.

It was back to terra firma as we pondered on where our friends in hurling may have ambled to as our theatre of hurling was in lockdown.

No doubt many may have meandered, lost souls, going everywhere but getting nowhere.

At least we had a mind boggling experience that hopefully will not become a habit.

It was fair play to the GAA for playing its part in protecting our people by postponing its entire hurling programme.

Thanks to the association too for giving us the wherewithal to attend an imaginary occasion that rumbled from You’ll Never Walk Alone to the Sound of Silence.

Crossing a bridge

  • We remembered that Simon & Garfunkel had also done justice to a sensational number called Bridge Over Troubled Waters.
  • Millions of our people are now crossing that bridge hoping to get safely to the other side as Coronavirus lurks.
  • A bonus of our Sunday visit was a welcome from four wonderfully warm GAA family members who were busy on the great indoor stage that is behind the closed curtain.
  • County Board treasurer Barry Hickey, secretary Conor Denieffe, caretaker and assistant groundsman Kevin McGarry and his five year old son Finn Óg with, surprise, surprise, a trusty hurley.
  • We enjoyed a brilliant tour of spacious dressing rooms, meeting rooms and an amazing gymnasium that is emblazoned in black and amber thanks to the choreography of team trainer Mickey Comerford.
  • It was an amazing experience, almost as good as the pitch action that thumps the hearts of hundreds of thousands of aficionados.
  • With the word almost being italicised.
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