Blood and belonging

St Patrick’s Day – it’s a bit rubbish, innit? With that de rigeur sneer out of the way, we can dispense with the stuff about rivers of green vomit and admit that sometimes, like with any holiday, St Patrick’s Day can be great. The massacre of De La Salle in Croke Park notwithstanding, last Tuesday was one such great day. The parade in Tramore was a cheerful affair, surprising in a town without much in the way of community spirit and a country mired in the depths of an economic crisis that we thought would never hit us again. It was probably more the sunshine than anything else, but it was nice to see so many smiling faces.

The biggest grin of the day was from my four month old nephew, if you discount the fact that you can hardly grin if you haven’t got any teeth. A few days after the game an image winged its way into my inbox of him catching some rays and generally enjoying the festivities in Port Laoise. Most notable from the perspective of those in chez deiseach was his head gear – a Liverpool woolly hat. Plenty to smile about in the aftermath of last weekend, eh?

After a few flippant thoughts about the life of torment that is ahead of him following the Reds, it struck me that this was nothing compared to the horrors that are likely to be visited upon him if he were to take up the banner of Laois hurling. A life of torture and misfortune if ever there was one, and one that surely could be best avoided by nailing his colours to the mast of Waterford.

Now, a lot can change in two decades. By the time he reaches his majority the roles could be reversed. Anyone born in 1960 would have considered it a no-brainer if they had been given a choice between following Waterford or Offaly. Still, while the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong that’s the way to bet, and the odds are that Waterford will be competitive for a while yet while Laois people will not be piling in with the bookies for their championship prospects.

There may have been a time when everyone supported the county of their birth, but geographical mobility has meant that those times are long gone, if they ever existed in the first place. Growing up in the dormitory town of Tramore where blow-ins were everywhere, it was perfectly normal for your peers to support the county of their forefathers. Indeed I was a Cork supporter of sorts back in the 1980’s, effortlessly switching my interest to the county of my forefathers once Waterford’s participation in the Championship had been terminated. It’s difficult to criticise those who chose to invest full-time in other more successful counties, like the friend who, having been told in 1986 that he could ‘go next year’, admitted to crying on the Croke Park pitch when he finally (ahem) got to share a Sam Maguire success with his fanatical Kerry father in 1997.

It doesn’t stop me though. There’s an overwhelming temptation to scoff at those who don’t match up to a perceived standard of fandom. Supporting Waterford is not easy but you can genuinely draw comfort from that difficulty by congratulating yourself on sticking with it through think and thin – never forget that these days, whatever happens in All-Ireland finals, are firmly on the thick side. On the other side of the coin, reading the recent comment from the proprietor of FootballPress frowning at my concern over the fate of English club Liverpool while not even acknowledging the existence of the team ten kilometres down the road, my gut response was one of immediate defensiveness, a plaintive plea that I can’t invest time in every team in the locality.

The problem for any localism zealot is that any person who supports a team from outside their hinterland can coolly rationalise their choice. Anyone who gives me gyp about following Liverpool will be slapped with the fact that I wouldn’t have met Mrs d were it not for following the Reds. It’s an ex post facto rationalisation – lots of Latin and italics today! – but seeing as it’s only the most important thing in my life, it’s one that does not brook argument. Other people always seem to have a relative or a significant event in their life that makes following an English team not only important but essential.

Then there’s the question of how far localism can go. Surely the primary claim on my soccer affections should be Tramore AFC or Tramore Rangers. Then there’s people in Kilkenny who supported the Blues ahead of the late and unlamented Kilkenny City. Should they be switching their allegiances to their local team when they had the opportunity? Trying to construct a coherent narrative out of team loyalties is an exercise in futility.

So where does all this self-serving rhetoric leave the nephew? It would seem self-evident that he will follow whatever path his father sets out for him, and with my brother being a man of strong passions this should be the case. But there is the caveat of our father’s experiences. A man of a much cooler temperament, he has always eschewed knee-jerk tribalism, regularly haranguing us for our collective lack of sportsmanship. This always moves us to respond that we want our team to win first last and always, and sportsmanship can go to hell – if winning is not important, why keep score? The perverse outcome of these attitudes is that our father now supports Waterford ahead of Cork because he wants to see us happy and sane. I can even see this in my own life. Previously I would have revelled in each and every defeat inflicted on England in all sports. I reject out of hand the idea that this reflects some kind of anti-English bloodlust. It is natural in sport to want to see Goliath brought down, and England are the Goliath in this part of the world. These days though, the memory of Mrs d racing from the room in floods of tears after yet another penalty shoot-out defeat is too much to bear. Sporting loyalties can be transmitted up and across generations as well as down, and it’s not inconceivable that in years to come father will be cheering for Laois against Waterford.

And it would feel perfectly normal.