One night last week, I tried to figure out how many matches my mother saw me play as a child. I know it was less than ten. It may even have been fewer than five. There were a couple of street league finals I forced her to turn up to. There was definitely a county juvenile hurling final with St. Finbarr’s where I was, rather embarrassingly, called ashore 20 minutes into the first half (“It just wasn’t your day, love”). There was also an FAI Youths Cup semi-final defeat with Casement Celtic at a drenched Turners Cross (“How did they expect ye to play in that?”)
Beyond those, I struggled to recall any other appearances by her on the sidelines. As might anybody of mine or older generations. Those were different times in the Cork where I grew up. A lot of parents didn’t attend the games their kids played. Most who did were fathers. That was the way of it. Nobody thought it odd. Nobody complained. It only seems strange now that we live in a more involved era, where moms and dads seem to be present for every training session and scrimmage.
Of course, that’s not to say the mothers we had were not supportive of our putative careers. Oh they were.
I don’t think I ever once opened a gear bag in a dressing-room, be it hurling, Gaelic football or soccer, that didn’t have everything I needed perfectly packed inside. I don’t mean that the required socks and shorts and shirt were tucked in there. I mean every item of clothing had not only been washed but ironed and folded and made ready with great care. Not by me. For me. By my mother.
Team-mates might unfurl jerseys that reeked of battle and unleashed sweat clouds of toxic ammonia. My mam’s devotion ensured I never took the field appearing anything less than pristine and smelling fresh. Indeed, if looking the part had been any measure of true athletic ability, I would have hurled for Cork and played soccer for Ireland. The problem was I could never play as well as I togged out.
In Heathrow Airport last month, I ate porridge for the first time in decades. The texture, the taste, the burning on my tongue, it transported me back to my childhood, to my mother shoveling steaming bowls of Flahavan’s Progress Oatlets into me on weekend mornings before sending me out the gate with a gear bag in my hand, and sporting dreams in my head. A smile on her face as she waved me off, a smile and a comforting word if we lost when I came back.
Everybody tells you that you only appreciate your parents, the work they did, the sacrifices they made, when you become a parent yourself. So, so true. We buried my mother in Cork last week and on the soul-destroying plane journeys over and back (a trip you make in a kind of slow-motion that truly is the emigrant’s curse), there was a lot of time to recall all she did for me. Again and again, it hit home how much of her work was unseen and often, to my shame, under-appreciated.
See, my father brought me to nearly every game I ever played. My mother was scarcely present in those fields at all. Yet, when I look back I see now she contributed just as much. If not more. She emptied every gear bag the moment it came in the door (Yes I was as spoiled as the youngest child always is!), placing the mucky boots on the back step – those were a bridge too far even for her.
In the admittedly unreliable highlight reel of my memory, we seemed to be constantly playing matches in driving rain. Each one of those savage Saturday mornings culminated in me returning to a toasty kitchen where scalding oxtail soup and ramparts of buttered Cuthbert’s bread were waiting to, as she described it, “get a bit of heat back into you”.
If the timing of a game meant I missed Sunday dinner with the family, an overburdened plate was heated up and handed to me, to be eaten on my lap. In front of the telly. In front of a coal fire blazing. A flagrant relaxation of the dining rules. A special treat. It says much about the quality of my athletic exploits that some of my fondest memories revolve around watching matches on the television while belatedly wolfing down a roast and wondering whether mam had kept some of the trifle for me too. She did. Of course she did.
My mother was part of a resourceful generation of working-class women who grew up with so little that they were magnificent at making something out of nothing. The older I get, the older my kids get, the more I marvel at how she kept the show on the road. Despite rearing four children on a bank porter’s wage, she always found money for new soccer boots when they were needed. Not just any boots either but the ones you wanted. Hansi Muller’s. Beckenbauer’s. Littbarski’s. Even once, a Patrick pair endorsed by Kevin Keegan during his sojourn at Southampton.
My mother was not unique. She was, like tens of thousands of other remarkable Irish mothers of that time, simply doing what she perceived to be her job. And she was magnificent at it. Raising kids. Fostering their dreams. Filling their bellies. Our fathers may have basked in whatever slivers of reflected glory were available on the sidelines when things went well. It was our unsung mothers who underpinned the whole operation by keeping the home fires burning regardless of the results.
For my mam, there was no sulking in defeat and, even more adamantly, no boasting in victory. Always, there was a simple post-match interrogation to remind you of what sport was supposed to be about.
“Did you try your best and did you enjoy it?” she asked every time.
“I did,” I replied.
“And that’s all that matters really.”
If I close my eyes, I can see her standing in the hallway of a house in Togher saying those words.