Sheds. Building site canteens. Man places, triumphs of substance over style. No, no, not style, style has nothing to do with it. Places where men eat, drink, work and talk. Logical places. Nihilistic bare places. Places where men and boys come together and rough edges are sought out, trampled and then laughed loudly at. Places where men learn to laugh at themselves and at life.
Thomand Park used to be such a place. All concrete, gray and packed. Functional in the extreme. It grumbled and groaned in a satisfying and constant mid-stream of piss and testosterone. A bear pit. It had a six-penny side, Balla and Mayorstone ends and a compromise to smugness, a stand side. The original timber structure was replaced with a huge uncomfortable concrete thing. It was draughty and of no use against the prevailing wind and rain. This was it’s only charm.
Men watched rugby and on big days on the terraces , men and boys huddled close enough to smell each other, and for frank and open exchanges at stupid comments or septic farts. Fellas came from all over, country fells and Cork folk were thrown in together. No-one could speak French but the terrace was close enough, that this language barrier never stopped the hard chaw swapping pleasantries with a visiting winger from Stade or Biarritz. It was a democratic spot where the only bitching done was about the moral bankruptcy of officialdom. They understood the hurt and pain of the game, the brutality, they could see the little triumphs, the ebb and flow of confidence and for the most part, people knew this game.
Pints beforehand but not too many, red scarves and hats but no flags or waddling inflated dummies with minders. Singing occasionally, grudgingly, that god awful Athenry lament but more to keep warm then anything else. But absolutely and definitely no choreographed standing and fighting, nor rousing microphone holding personality on the field beforehand, there was no need. It was a man place. Good play was conceded quietly to the opposition but they were hugely critical of their own, so much better as punters then players. They were fair, knew the rules and how hard on a body this game is. Munster clubs played finals here and the place had two tenant clubs with a vibrant and inclusive membership. Well , one had anyway.
If games are a substitute for warfare, this was the biggest test, the hardest fight. You could win but would walk crooked for a fortnight afterwards. Foul play, for the most part, was despised and seen for it’s cowardice. It was a man place, where respect was earned.
But things changed recently. It’s like someone lopped off Everest’s death zone and made it a hill walk. No more tripping over the bodies of those who nearly made it. Sherpas basking in a sunny clime, getting fat and drinking wine. Tour buses dropping pensioners off for the final push and a tourist shop at the top plateau. Benches to eat your sandwiches and fixed pay binoculars to look out at the other tamed Himalayan peaks. Thomand Park has become warm and comfy.
Menace? Edge ? No, there’s more evil in the surrounding suburban play schools and dinner parties. Two new stands, dark tall caverns from which the occasional well nourished guffaws are heard. Gaggles of smug self satisfied ten year ticket holders gather to frame their weekend with “the match”. North , South, East and West terraces policed by Dubliners who never heard of Balla or Shannabooley road, who never knew of the Mayorstone quarry or where the lowest wall used to be, down by LIT. Ticket master and funny hats, edge gone, no menace, no intimidation.
This happened for a good reason, didn’t it .