This week’s word covers Irish sport and geography (provinces and counties), from the starting point of Leinster. If you live in Ireland, or have spent enough time there, or follow the Irish sporting calendar, there might not be much new information here for you, but that still leaves at least 7 billion people who might learn something in the thousand words that follow regarding my parents’ homeland.
Leinster is one of the four provinces of Ireland. It covers most of the eastern side of the island. The other provinces are Ulster (north), Connacht (west) and Munster (south and west). The island of Ireland consists of 32 counties, spread across these four provinces. Six of the nine Ulster counties form part of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. I have never visited any of them. The remaining 26 counties constitute The Republic of Ireland. I have set foot in 23 of them, and have spent at least one night in nine of them. I have yet to visit Donegal (Ulster), Sligo and Leitrim (both in Connacht).
My immediate family all come from Leinster, from the counties of Kilkenny (on my father’s side) and Dublin (on my mother’s side). My mother’s father came from the smaller county of Longford (also in Leinster) and her mother came from Cavan, which is one of three Ulster counties in the Republic. (The others are Donegal and Monaghan.)
In May and June the two Gaelic sports that attract the biggest crowds (Hurling and Gaelic Football) are mostly played at the provincial level. Teams from Ulster play each other, teams from Munster play each other, and so on. Later in the summer teams from different provinces compete against each other, building up to the All-Ireland Finals in both sports in September. (From now onwards, any mention of Football refers to the Gaelic form of the game and references to the World Cup relate to Soccer, as our American friends call it.)
Kilkenny have dominated Leinster Hurling since long before I was born, and Dublin are the pre-eminent county in Leinster Football. I follow the former game more keenly than the latter but generally keep an eye on both codes. Last weekend, unplanned, I caught most of the Leinster Football Final (Dublin victorious, again) and the Ulster equivalent (Donegal hammered Fermanagh).
On Saturday I was chatting to some Galway and Mayo people who were looking forward to the evening’s Football qualifying game between Kildare (Leinster) and Mayo (Connacht). Much of the talk was about the venue: Kildare had insisted on playing it at their home ground rather than at Croke Park, the magnificent 80,000-seat stadium in Dublin that is home to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the governing body for Irish games. That evening, while Portugal were losing to Uruguay in the World Cup (Soccer) I was repeatedly checking for updates from Kildare, preceding each look at the score with the words “Let’s see what’s happening in the BIG game”. Kildare won, which was a shock. Mayo were the beaten finalists in last year’s competition (Dublin won, again) and over the last 15 years they have been close a few times to ending their long-standing so-called curse. The story goes that the last Mayo team to win the All-Ireland failed to observe due respect as they passed a funeral procession in some remote village, while making their way back west from Dublin. A priest supposedly placed a curse on the team, declaring that Mayo would never win another All-Ireland while any of their medal-winning players was still alive. There doesn’t seem to be much basis for this story, but Mayo have not won the title since 1951.
I watched Dublin winning the Leinster Football last weekend without planning to, but yesterday I planned my afternoon around the Leinster Hurling Final between Kilkenny and Galway. The 4pm start coincided with the second half of Spain v Russia in the World Cup (Soccer, again). My son and I kept an eye on both games at the local Parish Centre, the first time I have ever seen a Hurling game there. As I noted in this piece from 2016, over the last 20 years my search for pubs showing the matches has taken me to places all over West London, including at least five that have closed in that time. Things seem to have stabilized in the last five years. Two local Irish bars have been showing the games since at least 2013, without a break, and the Parish Centre has a long history of screening them too. The last time I took a forlorn trip to a pub that used to show the matches, but no longer does, was in the spring of 2012.
People who know their Irish geography, but do not keep up with Irish sport, might wonder why Kilkenny were playing Galway in the Leinster Final. Galway is in Connacht, a completely different province. Here’s why. Many years ago Galway were permitted to enter the Leinster tournament so that they would face tougher opposition. There are only five counties in Connacht. Mayo and Galway are by far the biggest of them, and are the only ones that regularly compete in the later stages of the Gaelic sports season. Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo make up the other counties in the province. Galway and Mayo compete in the Football. The former beat the latter in the Connacht Final this year, which is why Mayo were playing Kildare in a qualifying game on Saturday evening. When it comes to Hurling, none of the other Connacht counties can give Galway much of a game.
Last year Galway won the Leinster Hurling Final and went on to win the All-Ireland title, for the first time in 29 years. They beat Waterford (a Munster county), who themselves had not won the title for 58 years. I watched the game with Galway people and might have said, more than once, “Well it’s nice that a Leinster team won the All-Ireland again.”
Yesterday, just before Russia knocked Spain out of the World Cup on penalties, the Leinster Final ended in a draw. There was no extra time, just the regular 70 minutes (35 minutes in each half). Kilkenny and Galway were playing at Croke Park and will play each other again next Sunday. But they won’t be able to play at GAA headquarters. There’s a Michael Bublé concert at Croke Park next weekend, so the Leinster Replay will take place elsewhere, at Semple Stadium, in Thurles, which is in Tipperary, in the county of Munster. This will be the first time since the 1960s that a Leinster Final has not been played in the province.
So, to conclude, and just to clarify, the Leinster Final Replay will feature a team from Leinster and a team from Connacht, and it will take place in Munster. And, somewhere in West London, I hope to be watching, probably at the Parish Centre again.