DURING a decade in journalism I have amassed quite a stack of angry letters. If nothing else, I bring out the green ink in people.
In the absence of awards, recognition, even a grudging acknowledgement of an ability to hang around, my greatest prize is the hand-written letter.
To think that someone had rifled through their desk for paper, penned a few soul-felt insults, stamped and addressed the envelope and made their way to the most local post-box is, in a way, touching. Sometimes the words inside are even kind. That really is touching.
My favourite correspondence, though, was not sent in benevolence. It was the more base emotion: rage. After opining that Dublin were somewhat fortunate to win the All-Ireland final of 2011, a Dublin man told me I knew nothing about football and had “half a Kerry brain”.
Half a Kerry brain: you overestimate me.
My great-grandmother, a Fitzgerald, left Annascaul well over a hundred years ago. Being a native Irish speaker helped her to find work as a primary teacher in a small village on the Tyrone-Derry border. She married the school’s only other teacher, a local man, and there endeth the pure Kingdom blood.
I have one eighth of a Kerry brain. Any modest capacity for mental dexterity is thanks to that one eighth. Essentially, I am smart enough to know that if I am ever pitted against a Kerryman, he is smarter than me. That’s put me slightly ahead of my average fellow Corkonian who, season after season, thinks himself more advanced than what’s over the mountains across the border. Only Kerry invariably leave Dublin in September with Sam Maguire front and centre on their team bus, and we don’t.
That’s why I am not for one moment buying this idea of Kerry as a sunset force. All the evidence points to them being an empire in decline, but far too much harsh experience informs the view that they are prone to swift regeneration and renewal.
Kerry football goes deeper than whatever 15 men are filling the green and gold cloth. To me, it is rooted in and reflects the beauty and savage power of the Kerry land, sky and ocean.
We Irish people love Gaelic football but if we’re honest we’ll admit that often it lacks the Godly grace of hurling, the fluidity of soccer, the crunch of rugby.
Other counties produce great players, great teams, but to my eyes the only men that consistently lift this sport from the plane of prose to poetry is Kerry.
The line between sport and art is hazy like the summer sun over the Dingle Bay when Kerry are in full flight. Great artists make what they do seem absurdly simple. Only when the mortals try it themselves do they appreciate the depth of talent of Colm Cooper, Declan O’Sullivan, Darragh Ó Sé, Mike Frank Russell, Jack O’Shea. These are craftsmen, conjurers, virtuosos.
My favourite player is Darragh Ó Sé. He has just the right ratio of God to Devil; understated skill, intelligence, leadership, strength, ruthlessness, sly digs into Nicholas Murphy’s back (all of Cork wished Murphy to turn around and plant him one. Hell, even if it meant getting sent off and losing the game… but Murphy is too sporting which means that, in sport, you won’t win so much).
I could not understand why more was not made of Ó Sé as a player — though I suppose anybody who shares a stage with Cooper is used to grafting in the shadows. Not that he sought that spotlight, Ó Sé’s was a career marked by genuine humility; an awareness that he was part of a unit and a tradition far greater than he or any one man.
Kerry have not won the Sam Maguire since he retired in 2009, which is far from a coincidence.
At this point you’d usually say that men of his kind don’t make themselves known in every generation. Where Ó Sé comes from, though, they usually do.
He comes from a place where the air is sweet and sour and the mist-swilled mountains swoop to a ferocious, merciless sea. In the few flat yards between these elemental forces, in the swish and tumble of gulf-stream drizzle, there isn’t much to do but play ball.
Maybe they’ve got broadband there now and satellite TV and fruit-flavoured bottles of purple beer. That will entice some, but more again will answer the primal call of their sward of Earth, the last piece of solid ground before land stops and foam and saltwater churns until Newfoundland.
I guarantee that on the Dingle peninsula, or in South Kerry, there is a 15-year-old known to approximately none of us now who will electrify Croke Park later this decade.
Made taller and bolder by tradition, conditioned by this environment that can be Heaven one hour and rage like the hounds of Hell the next, he will fear exactly nobody. And he will have at least half-a-dozen teammates of a similar nature to spine a team that wins — a team from the Kingdom.