“Soldiers are we/whose lives are pledged to Ireland;/Some have come from a land beyond the wave./Sworn to be free.”
A Soldier’s Song is not something you hear every day at a polo match in Newport, Rhode Island, sung and slurred and slushed, out of tune and at the top of their lungs by a bleacher-full of happy, sunburned drunks, almost all Irish J1ers, but then again I never thought I’d see a Gaelic football match deep in the Bronx, New York either.
But that had happened to me the week before, at an immaculate grass stadium on the corner of Broadway and 140th Street, as the Ell screeched by in noisy kinks like a hinged metal snake as I watched beefy blonde lads gallop terribly against each other’s bodies. I guess the cautionary tale in this case is to be careful who you open the door to and let into your house. I’m kidding of course, but I wanted to point out a dramatic lesson learned by my buddy Luke, Irish as the day is long, and whatever that lesson is–it may be different for all of you than it was for me or him, but there’s something I’d also like you to keep in mind, always, and that’s to be wary of casual contempt.
It was a hot Sunday, and as we were leaving our shared rental in Newport for the three hour drive to New York City Luke looked at me covered from head to toe in black, including a t-shirt toboggan and leather gloves. He seemed incredulous and asked me if I wasn’t going to be boiling hot dressed like that. I said no, I used to live in Egypt and the Arabs wear full woolen galabayas, even in the hottest part of the year which is essentially December to November, and always have a cloth turban wound around their heads keep the sun off. He said it seemed like I’d roast myself to death, and I said you’ll see.
He slathered himself in suntan lotion (SPF 50) and we set off. The sun was a marvelously unforgiving torturer, for sure, but with the top down in the Jeep, and no doors, the breeze was like facing a Ghibli, and more than welcome without the usual maelstrom of stinging, blinding sand. Luke slathered himself several times during the journey, and drank gallons of water. All I’ll say is he didn’t get sunstroke until about Darien, Connecticut, but was too proud to ask me to stop the Jeep and put the top up. He arrived at the match looking like Hellboy.
The ticket booth was an Irish lady in a lawn chair on the sidewalk, and she didn’t take credit cards. I asked a guy walking down the street if there was an ATM around and he said there was a CVS right around the corner. I went right around the corner and there wasn’t a CVS in sight. But there was a RiteAid right in front of me. Not sure if Mr. Jimmy was being funny–New Yorkers sometimes have a pretty dry sense of humor–and like pulling a tourist’s leg or two. But I don’t think he was kidding–that’s where he got his prescription filled, and you got a problem with that? Maybe he was illiterate. Or maybe the billions and billions of dollars spent every year on advertising is just humbled pie in the sky.
Gaelic football is three-quarters rugby and one-quarter soccer. The crowd is one hundred percent mick hooligans. Except for me–I’m a wop hooligan. Seriously, points are scored by either kicking or handing the ball over a crossbarof an upright goal (1 point), or kicking it into the net under the crossbar (3 points). Players advance up the field with a combination of carrying, bouncing, kicking, passing and soloing (kicking the ball to yourself). There are fifteen players to a side: a goalkeeper; six backs; two midfielders; and six forwards, with various substitutes coming in and out of the game.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) controls Gaelic football, one of the few remaining strictly amateur sports in the world, along with hurling and camogie (hurling for women). Hurling, according to writer David Knight, is an “Irish sport which appears to be a hybrid of field hockey, soccer, football and unremitting, pants-wetting terror.” There was a hurling match just finishing up as we got to the stadium, and I watched a few minutes of another game I had never heard of. It’s played with a Hurley, which is an ash wood paddle, 24-36” long, that looks like a field hockey stick smushed by a steam roller.
The object of the game is to put the ball over the opponent’s crossbar, or under it into the net, much like in Gaelic football. The sliotar (ball) is made of hard rubber, and is bashed from player to player as they move downfield toward the goal. The pitch, similar in size to Gaelic football, is approximately 150 yards long and 85 yards wide. There is no protective gear except for a lacrosse-like helmet, so hurling is considered to have “a notable proportion of blunt scrotal trauma.”
But back to Glen Farm and the horsey set. The captain of the Irish team flew in to the match at the last dramatic minute in a cherry red helicopter and landed right in the middle of the field. It was the grandest entrance I’ve ever seen, right up there with Gianni Agnelli flying into Cap D’Antibes in his own private helicopter, jumping into the water naked and then swimming to shore. The announcer said something about him having to fly in to avoid the “traffic.”
When everyone stood and they played the Irish National Anthem let me tell you there was a lot of hair standing on end while the gingers filled the stadium with their off-key, loud and proud enthusiasm. I’ll quote Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn in The Quiet Man when he sees John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s broken marriage bed the morning after their nuptials: “Impetuous. Homeric.” The polo swells didn’t know what to make of the rosy-cheeked goon squad chanting their emphatic hearts out.
Ireland won, at the last minute, and the place once again erupted. Luke and I walked to the Jeep and sitting on the hood had a long conversation in the slanting sunlight about his uncle’s farm, and the fond memories he had of milking cows as a kid. I tried to take a mental snapshot of the world beyond my head to try and slow up the blissful crawl of the fading hour, dear god, beautiful enough to break your heart.
We hopped in the Jeep and started heading out, when a trio of lads at the exit gate asked if we were going to Newport. We said yes, and they clamored aboard. Top down, doors off, windshield folded down–a brief, unexpected bonanza of chatty, patriotic apes exposed to the free play of open air made the trip into town feel like surfing a brogue wave all the way into a distant shore, somehow familiar, a parallax, new, view. And funny fun fun.
At the stop sign on Spring Street at McCallister, another Jeep full of Irish football yobs gave us a whoop-de-do, the driver wearing the unmistakable red and green jersey of Maigh Eo. Luke yelled out “Up Mayo!” and they all started singing The Green Above The Red as they roared off, hurrying yeah the up. As our men jumped out on Thames Street and bolted straight for Speck’s, “The Protective Club” ready to eat the night alive Emerson came to mind: the only sin is limitation.