By P=l + Conghaile
BALLINASLOE, Co. Galway — The garbage men had been and gone. At the Saturday morning market they lined up drill bits and vegetables under the hum of a generator. The radios were set to broadcast medium wave. The day jobs had to go on, sure, but people could work around that. At 7:30 a.m. in the town square of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, Ireland’s World Cup plans were finally coming together.
“There’s a slim difference between doing well and doing middling-well,” said Jim. Like many in An T_in, a pub deriving its name from another classic Irish battle, he hadn’t seen the point of going to bed the previous night. Propping up the bar beneath a vibrant display of bunting, he smilingly slurred the many cultural links Ballinasloe shared with Japan.
Many people here drive Toyota, Jim pointed out. When they listen to their favorite pop music they invariably do so on Sony stereo systems. And what about the historic Ballinasloe Horse Fair, held here every October? Surely somebody, somewhere in Japan enjoys horses?
The whistle blew. After the Roy Keane debacle, after the Jason McAteer injury scare, after David Beckham’s metatarsal broke the nation’s heart and decided to heal on time, granting England a fighting chance in Group F, Ireland were playing Cameroon. Finally, we had taken our place in the sun.
Let’s get those pints in, to celebrate. Who cares what the hour?
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Like their publican colleagues around the country, the proprietors of An T_in have a lot resting on this campaign. It has been hard work getting the gardaf to turn a blind eye to pint-guzzling at sunrise, not to mention the forensically fine line many had succeeded in drawing between the night before and the morning after. It is in their interest that Ireland progress to the final and beyond.
Risk must pay off in terms of custom, and An T_in was making every effort to pull in the punters. Homer Simpson was painted on the window, in green underpants, raising a pint of Guinness to success. There were no fewer than three TVs on the go, strategically placed about the pub to cover every angle of view. Even if you turned your head to take a break from the pressure, you could continue watching on another screen. The bar was bedecked in bunting, flags, green, white and orange teddy bears.
The clientele appreciated it, and replied in kind. When Tony went to the cigarette machine, he went there proudly, tricolor wrapped around his shoulders like a shawl. When Shay Given made a fine first-half save, Jim started the singing. “We beat you Holland, we did!”
Trouble was, his melody on this historical morning had little effect. For all we could do at this end, Cameroon were looking good. A little too good. Africa had already drawn first blood in this tournament, with Senegal claiming the mighty scalp of France the previous afternoon. Were they about to do the same here?
Nails were feverishly bitten. The more nervous among us retired to dispense analysis in the toilets. Steve Staunton looked every one of his 96 caps. Cameroon were craftily deploying the back heel, the Achilles tendon of the Irish defense. They were playing pretty soccer, darn it. Was it too late to fly Roy Keane back for the second half?
Let’s get more pints in, to soothe the nerves. Who cares what the hour?
Cameroon scored, damn it. They ran to the corner flag and started into those celebrations you just knew would feature in all the television highlights. The smoking started in earnest. There could be no other choice. Before this people seemed conscious of the ungodly hour, tired about the eyes. Now they were cursing like sailors. To hell with the rest of the day. The boys in green needed us. “OlF,” we sang. “OlF, olF, olF.”
I ordered a coffee. Aisling, the bartender, gave me a queer look. The pints were really flowing now and they had toasted sandwiches wrapped in tin foil for the day that was in it. Ask not what your country can do for you, her eyes said. Sheepishly, I obliged. Things were far too edgy now. No two ways about it, Cameroon were seeing far too much of the ball.
Halftime came accompanied by a general sigh of relief. A small crowd spilled onto the street, pupils constricting tightly in the morning sun. Last night’s garbage ambled in the gutter. It was 8:30 a.m.; the Dublin bus jaunted down Main Street with two souls on board, oblivious to the plight of the nation’s first 11. Jim was disgusted. “You’ll never beat the Irish,” he murmured, patriotically.
The Usual, the only other pub in Ballinasloe showing the match that morning, was a time capsule sent from Friday night. Seeking a change of scenery for the second half, I stepped from the fresh air into a fetid stink of commitment, determination and sweat. Buckets of sweat.
Few of The Usual’s clients, it transpired, had been so weak-willed as to turn up after a night’s sleep. Instead, they had drunk their way through the night, slyly closing the door between the hours of 1 and 7. There was similar investment on behalf of the owners. Inflatable hammers taped to the walls, balloons, official jerseys and triangular pedants. Eamonn, the barman, had clearly done his bit for Ireland. The captain of a ghost ship, he beat the counter solidly, blowing a foghorn into a sleepy client’s ear.
There was a glimmer of hope, though, in this aura of seeping resignation. Every time Damien Duff got the ball, there was a magical sense that anything could happen. And suddenly, when Matt Holland took a pass outside the box, it did. He shot. He scored.
Ballinasloe exploded. We’re level! Painted faces electrified with shouts and smiles, Viking hats were tossed into the air, a blur of Celtic jerseys, green white and orange obscured the TV screens. The dead arose. The famine was forgotten. Air began to circulate. For a moment, I even felt the makings of a breeze.
“Roy Keane is a w*#*er!”
“Eamonn Dunphy, eat your arse!”
The joy was unbridled. For a fleeting, beautiful moment it said: “We can do this. We can beat these guys. We can go on to win our group, we can come home on the top of a double-decker bus with the World Cup in our hands. We are jubilant, we are singing. Put the planet on the penalty spot and see where we’ll stick it.”
“There’s only one team finishing strongly,” George Hamilton cried, sacrificing any pretense of objectivity. “And it ain’t Cameroon!”
Sky News had a man on the ground in Dublin. “It’s as if Ireland has won,” he said ecstatically, broadcasting from the bowels of an unnamed superpub. “It’s as though . . . ” The cameras returned to studio, unable to complete his link because of the flag thrown onto the anchor’s head.
The remaining moments were a blur. We went forward, we were confident. Full time came with a primal cheer, the bellicose outpouring of 12 beer-soaked hours. Cars honked their horns. In a small housing estate on the Roscommon side of town, three children already had the flags out, standing on a wall and waving them at the passing traffic. In the Special Care Baby Unit of the local hospital, the nurses had green, white and orange on the incubators.
Let’s get those pints in, for reasons of relief and joy and because I couldn’t go to bed now even if I wanted to. Who cares what the hour?
One-all is a result we would gladly have taken before the game. Steve Staunton is Roberto Carlos; Mark Kinsella is Zidane. Heroically the players report to the cameras that they are disappointed with a draw. We love them even more.
Eamonn Dunphy warned us not to get carried away. (We have two more games of this and by the looks of the bar staff it’s going to take years off them.) Be wary of dancing in the streets, he said, because this is only beginning. Not many people heard him. They were too busy dancing in the streets.