By Seamus McAleenan
LAST year 25,000 attended the All-Ireland camogie finals in Croke Park on a sunny September Sunday.
The triple-header started with the Junior final at 12pm, players doing the warm up with only their club-mates and friends watching from the stands, able to recognise individual voices from time to time.
The Intermediate final followed at 2pm and the decibel level had risen, the crowd all involved in a thriller with Westmeath coming from behind to snatch a first ever title.
Then the senior decider, the show piece final, everyone now vocal and on their feet to applaud scores, saves, last ditch blocks, bravery and skill – and Galway win for just the third time in history.
Today (SATURDAY) all that crowd involvement will be absent in Kingspan Breffni. Last year there wasn’t an Ulster team in Croke Park. Today we are guaranteed not one, but two Ulster winners. There would surely have been more than 25,000 attending had 2020 been a normal year.
But 2020 isn’t a normal year. The past seven weeks of inter-county action have given us all a flavour of the importance of the GAA and camogie to our communities; many of us have gone on a weekend binge of match streams relayed by websites, facebook or through our TV channels.
But as we now zone in on finals, we get a hint of what the players are missing – despite the fact that they appreciate the chance to play at this level late in the year.
Each of the four players I interviewed this week mentioned people close to them who would be missing from the stands in Breffni.
Orlagh Murray spoke about her father Mickey attending every game as his five daughters progressed to play for Armagh. If Armagh finally win an All-Ireland, Mickey won’t be there to see his youngest daughter lift the cup as captain.
Karen McMullan talked about those people who never miss a club or county game and mentioned Rosaleen McCartan and my mother Mary McAleenan, both in their 80s and regulars at games at all levels.
Caitrin Dobbin has finally got an opportunity to play for Antrim and neither her proud family nor friends can come to watch.
And Erinn Galligan talked about Cavan rising like a Phoenix from the ashes this year and the club people who made the county team happen cannot be present in their own county town to see the dream come to fruition.
A few parents will be in attendance, but only because they have been “lucky” in their own “investment” in camogie.
Down County Board officer Teresa Carr will be there for Fionnuala and Sara Louise, but their father Ross, himself an All-Ireland winner and a very emotional member of the management team when Clonduff won last year’s All-Ireland club title, will have to watch from home.
Niamh Mallon’s father Marty is part of the Down management, but mum Mary Jo can’t be there.
Karen McCormick is Ulster’s delegate to Ardchomhairle and gets the green card to watch Róisín. But father Carl’s card is red, even though he has been manager of a number of teams at club and county level including the 2018 All-Ireland winning Antrim minor team that has half a dozen players on the senior team.
And Rachel Merry can look around and see her father John (photographer) and mother Rosemary (Ulster secretary) not far from the action.
An All-Ireland camogie final doesn’t come around very often for the four counties in Breffni today. Down won their only Intermediate title in 1998. Antrim have just two titles, the last in 2003. Armagh won their only Junior title in 1993 and Cavan have only once appeared in a final – 40 years ago.
At best it is a generational event.
So spare a thought for Margaret Rose and Seamus “Crow” McNaughton who have a daughter Lucia today in a camogie final and then son James in the Joe McDonagh final next weekend.
It is the same for Dunloy’s Robert and Elaine O’Neill whose daughter Nicole is the Antrim free-taker and son Eoin has been regularly sprung from the bench this autumn to help the hurlers.
Being permitted to attend games this autumn as a reporter has put me in a more privileged position than these and the other parents, siblings, relations, friends and club colleagues of the players who will represent their counties today.
I certainly appreciate that privilege as I have also appreciated watching the games streamed this autumn in the other three Gaelic codes to break our Saturdays and Sundays.
Streaming has introduced us to new commentators who have helped us so much to be part of the occasion we would happily have paid at the turnstiles to witness.
It has also put women’s sport on a new level and the viewing figures indicate that it deserves a lot more mainstream coverage than it has got up until COVID-19 forced change as it has done in so many walks of life in 2020.
Those “amateur” commentators give way today to the “professionals” of RTÉ and BBC who will both stream the finals from Breffni to a wider audience than ever before.
They are filling a gap in our sporting lives and hopefully on line viewing of live camogie and ladies’ sport in general will continue and increase in the future.
Nothing beats being there however and the absence of loved ones will be most closely felt as both cups are raised above heads this afternoon