BMJ 06 October 2009 Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4072
 Each September, at Croke Park, when the ball is thrown in at the All-Ireland Gaelic football final, every true Irishman’s heart beats a little faster. Gaelic football is our national game, followed fanatically in every parish in the land, and exiles from all across the world tune in to feel the pulse of the heartland. The true home of Irishdom on earth, for many years it had been a bitter vale of tears for County Armagh.

Until 2002. That year our team had a vigour, a sense of purpose—maybe this year would be different, maybe this year we would take the Sam Maguire Cup home for the very first time.

Orange and white flags and bunting festooned every house and lamp post; orange and white sheep grazed every field and meadow; a plaster orange and white cow patrolled the boreens. The frenzy grew as the big game grew near, and the ferocity of the scramble for tickets allowed no moral compass.

“I’m worried about Joe, he doesn’t look well,” said Joe’s brother.

“Indeed,” I said, sympathetic yet wary.

“It’s terrible, terrible,” he said, shaking his head sadly, the very picture of fraternal concern; and then, suddenly shifty, “He won’t be fit to make the final then. He’ll hardly need his ticket, will he?”

Like buzzards on a gut wagon, any sign of frailty was seized on, and even distant relatives became very attentive. Every time I visited Joe I’d see people surreptitiously opening drawers and checking behind the photos of the Pope and JFK on the mantelpiece.

And all the machinations were made glorious summer by that sun-bursting moment when Kieran McGeeney raised the Sam Maguire  high in the air. Cut him out in little stars, we cried, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world shall fall in love with night; let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlours.

The glow lasted all through a golden autumn and a long and lustrous winter. Children born that year had naturally curly hair and a sunny disposition and were immune to papillomavirus infections.

Even death was no barrier to the glow, which provided consolation at those times of deepest sorrow.

A few weeks after the match, at Joe’s wake, I gathered the family together.

“Wasn’t he lucky: he lived long enough to see Armagh win the title,” I told them.

“Yeah, he was a great football man,” someone chipped in.

“Never missed a match,” we agreed, and sorrow and loss ebbed gently away as we sat all night happily talking about football, while the embers faded and the moon waned in the sky, the hour when death is like a light and blood is like a rose.

Thanks for the ticket, Joe, I thought.

Footnote; I had to use some artistic licence in this column. It would have been too complicated to explain to the BMJ readers, but I’m from Down, and we hate Armagh. And the pic is of my daughter Katie, who played for Down when they won the All-Ireland Intermediate Ladies Football final in 2013

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