Rain clotted view. It is March. Like opposing outposts of an old war, he and his corner-back lean one against the other. He pitied him, equally as frightened and nervous as himself, having learned from some mean-spirited trainer, perhaps from his father, that the corner-back must keep his hurley against the man’s back: He felt the constant nudging, the length of the stick against his shoulder-blades, or the butt occasionally into the middle of his back. This was done more for the form than out of any real conviction, and was just to be borne: he could move away all he wanted; his corner-back would always follow. He knew the type: pallid, blustering, afraid of everything, who suffered terribly during every game, having no desire to ever touch the ball, but enough sense of others’ expectation to feel bound to make a show of trying to win it, and enough skill, whether innate or won through hours of lonesome slogging against the grey side-wall of the house, to occasionally get hold of it. He was shivering in the cold, holding by the one rule he remembered.
Was there still a war? A ball had been thrown into the mud some sixty yards away and had stayed there. The pelting rain kept from seeing any distance, and not one of the six full-backs and full-forwards in either team had come close to gaining possession. The going was too heavy for anything resembling hurling: solid rain. It is a trial match between under-14 selections from South Limerick and West Limerick, a trial for an eventual county Limerick team which will play in a weekend-long tournament at the beginning of the summer. Both he and his corner-back have lost interest and hope as half-time approaches, but neither speaks a word to the other, not even a word of complaint; it is too late now, and in any case both are too cold to speak.
His father drove him to the game and is now sitting in the car at the village end, the far end of the pitch. There is no way that his father can see him, and yet he is ashamed. His father has brought a friend along. Who is this friend? A light, grey man, with a flabby, heavily lined face, whom he has never seen before, and would never see again. At half-time, having never had a chance to even run for the ball, he is substituted. It is not surprising, as at least another ten hopefuls have waited on the sidelines in the rain, all through the first half. He makes his way to the car, without bitterness, wondering only whether his corner-back had also been substituted. He is from a very small club, and knows no-one else on the South Limerick selection. He changes in the car – he must have togged off there too – and the three sit looking out, other fogged-up cars around them, other fathers most likely, also pinned in by the weather. He sees that the car-park is separated from the field by a low mound, so that his father and his friend could not have seen the game from the car regardless of the weather. In good weather they would, he supposes, have stood out to watch. At club games his father always shouts loud encouragement and lambastment. He doubts whether he would have done so in the new and strange company. At this game no-one had shouted. There were no spectators, and the players were too nervous and cold to shout. It had been ghostly, and this lack of sound added to the isolation caused by the obscuring rain, and to the numbness caused by the cold, to furnish finally a sense of being alone in the world with his corner-back. Of course, at this moment they were in a cloud, hurling in a drifting cloud, but nobody sees and lives it that way. It is for them a sky as low as the grave, only worse because of hopes that it might lift.
His father does not really ask about the match; the friend murmurs sympathetically. In answer, he complains about his corner-back and corner-backs’ tactics. Why does he do him that injustice? He had suffered alongside him, with him, and also because of him, but now that he had vanished, though perhaps still there in the rain, he could curse him. This was affirmation. They drove home, he silent, the two men silent for the most part.
Hurling is a game almost without structure. Each man (“or woman” is to be understood throughout) must simply beat his man as a part of a series of three or four such contests, and the final man have the wherewithal to do this and to put the ball between the posts. You can sometimes help the man next in this series by making a pass, but this is relatively rare. Almost every ball in hurling is a fifty-fifty ball, one man against his “marker”; this a telling enough word. Each man is expected to win such contests. You are also expected to win forty-sixty balls. You win the ball, and then unless you are going for a score or making a pass, you play it as far as possible toward your opponents’ goal. The succeeding contest in the series then takes place. Because of the thoughtlessness of such a process, hurling is a game of instinct and attitude, and, in the end, a game of desire. You are a link in a relatively homogenous chain of desire, your only struggle being with the desire of your marker. It is hard to be desirous in the cold and the mud, in any field of activity, and hard also when you become aware of your corner-back’s personhood. Few things are worse in fact than marking a hurler only frightened into selfhood, whose sense of self does not encompass you and is reduced to his own expectation, oversensitive feelers searching for and touching the expectations of others, but ready to be pulled back at every moment. These are the hurlers who find no joy in anything, even in their own minor or major successes. These are the hurlers that injure you.
He was not called to further trials for the Limerick under-14 team, and in fact they had left well before the end of the game, when any arrangements as regards such trials might be announced. His father had said, peremptorily enough, “Let’s go”, soon after he finished changing; the friend had raised no objection, and he was too disheartened to suggest waiting. He had wanted to. Is this how it must be: resignation? Vicious hope having to be suffocated?
At home the fire was lit; commiserations were proffered embarrassedly. He complained, rightly enough, of the impossibility of the conditions, and was supported in this by his father. This event, its loneliness, the deep green of the firs behind the goals washed to grey by the rain, the cement bench of the waiting substitutes, they a vague threat, unseen but felt, looking out from behind the sheets of rain, the unhappiness of his corner-back in his awareness of his self, all this soon faded and was subsumed by other successes and failures.
The rain had turned to a mist that hid the mountain as he went out in the early evening. He looked at it though he couldn’t see it. He looked at the featureless grey and imagined that there were no mountain, but fields running to an infinite horizon, or a losing of lines of sight in ditches and trees. It was his job to clean out the cubicle house, a job he enjoyed, the methodicalness of the thing: animals out, stalls brushed down, centre aisle scrubbed out, lime sprinkled on the stalls, animals filtering back in tentatively, some, more canny that others, or simply more afraid of a cold day, pushing quietly in before he had finished. He was glad of them. Their smell was the calm, sweet smell of comfort, of refuge, the house warm with the body-heat of beasts at ease. In this house he had seen and assisted at many’s a birth, a starry winter sky peering in through the tractor-high doorway. Were Joseph and Mary to seek shelter these days, it is here they would find it. As he sprinkled the stalls he eyed the dead crow hanging by its feet in the doorway.
Football is a different ballgame. Yes, fifty-fifty balls are an element, but much less so; it is about the team, about passing. The ball, quite simply, does not go as far, so your job in releasing it is to find a team-mate. Kicking as far as possible, though defended as a strategy by some die-hards, is only a last resort. Your are thus forced to feel yourself part of a structured unit, to have a sense of your own responsibility as regards the outcome of the next one or two in the series of struggles for possession. Indeed, football is less a series of struggles than is hurling, and more a series of probabilities, almost inevitabilities, where only error will halt the successful progression of the series.
But he was corner-back. Corner-back in football is a purely negative force. He does not allow a corner forward to define himself, for a corner forward in football is not alone with his corner back as in hurling. The corner-forward in football is both utterly dependant on the one or two links before him in the series and creates these links, shapes and forms them, and even forges the link between them, by his own movement.
The corner-back in football is the loneliest player. He is absolute negativity: he is negative, but he is nobody’s and nothing’s negative. His identity is stopping a corner-forward, or at least it is if the corner-forward is good, but the corner-forward does not concern himself with the corner-back. Only a very bad corner forward will define himself by his relationship with his corner-back rather than by that with his team, but a good corner-back will know himself by his relationship with his good corner-forward, for whom he barely exists, and certainly doesn’t matter. It is a hard position to play.
In football he was corner-back, and enjoyed it. Players in front of him depended on him for their sense of freedom; he knew they did, but he could not allow himself to take this into account, as this worth was born solely of the purity of his concern with his corner-forward. His absolute negativity, a negativity enclosed within itself, allowed his team-mates their freedom, team-mates and freedoms to which he must always be external.
In his first year on the senior team they played a grudge match against a well-touted side. The game of the previous year, from which the resentment had arisen, he had watched from the stands, a county final, in the Gaelic Grounds, watching in the first half, shouting in the third quarter and in the final quarter lamenting his half-parish’s decline into unnecessary and self-defeating physicality. They had lost stupidly, and today was about proving their abilities, and yet more, about proving, and thus winning, self-possession.
They won, but there were no celebrations. In proving their worth, they – he felt included in this – had also demonstrated their culpability in the dissolution of the previous year. This day’s curing of resentment, dipping and dropping of the sword of vengeance, need never have been necessary; they had shown that they could now only blame themselves. “There is no fate”, they said; “there is agency, yours and others’ or at worst there is lack of agency.”
They won that game but still lost, it being the last game in the opening, league-based, section of the county championship, and they already out of the running for qualification. They knew that the game had meaning only for their opponents, or at least only for their opponents meaning beyond itself as regards sport. For them it was not quite autotelic, but nearly, and they knew it. This winning and losing, or winning even though you have already lost, going out to win, honestly and sincerely desiring victory even though nothing is won -and when in fact innocence is lost, freedom from guilt, - is not uplifting, or cause for celebration for either player or spectator. If anything, the opposite: it is humbling to see a place and know it yours, not by fate, but by an act of your own. The talk later is of separate incidents, always a source of pleasure, but there is no future. There is only next year, and next year is not an easy thing in a small club with internal rivalries and reasons.
His father had been at that game, and had shouted with the rest, but unlike most he railled and congratulated in equal measure, regardless of affiliation. Watching Limerick play was the same. He tried to be chauvinist, tried to cheer only his own side, but he could not but acknowledge good play, participate in the joys of others as much as in Limerick’s. Ground traced on a map and separated by a line – whether marking a river that only made for quarrels, or an arbitrary thing – it matters, he would be told, but a beautiful catch and clearance could override it.
In football you have time to consider all this, or at least at corner-back, if your corner-forward is the static type, you sometimes catch yourself thinking about things. You shouldn’t do; it ruins your game, and must be eliminated once spotted, but it does happen. To be a poet in a bunker is one thing, but if you think like a poet once out and about in battle, you had better hope that God loves poets, and history has not shown this to be the case.
That a friend of yours is from the parish you’re playing, that the man being taken off injured has forty cows to milk, that to kill the thing you love is the worst of torments; any one of these thoughts can put you off your game. Thought is a tragedy: it is a flaw that both raises and destroys. A thinking footballer is no King Lear, but he rises by his vision, and then is laid low by it. A corner-back does not choose his corner-forward, but he must. He is the stoic who wants what happens. At the beginning of the game, he looks at his corner-forward and chooses him. The corner-forward has other concerns – such is his role, which he must also choose; his corner-back he does not need to choose. In hurling you do not need to make this choice: it is thrust upon you.
Playing into a setting sun, trains rolling by to the western end of the pitch, in a game that nobody anywhere, nobody, remembers, a ball skidded across the square. Instead of pulling on it, someone went to lift it. That game is gone from memory; the bobbling ball is all that remains. And yet perhaps three hundred people saw that game. Where did it go? The result is in the sports pages of an archived newspaper somewhere. But of the game, all that is left is one moment. Why choose this moment? It was not necessarily decisive; that skittish ball perhaps made no difference. Something has to remain, of everything: a shard. It signifies nothing, as the thing, the game, is forgotten and means nothing. A signifier can only lead to another signifier. So if a thing is lost, it cannot be signified. What is this skidding ball, so? It is a shard, but a shard of what? The game is lost, forgotten; can it be a shard of that? No. It is a metonymy of error in general, of the chance of success, of the idea of the possibility of a wrong choice, of a right one.
A story told in some History of Hurling somewhere, or perhaps in the programme of an inter-county game, tells of an American seeing hurlers doubling on the ball above their heads, and declaring it to be the game of the gods. It is rather the very game of men, passing, fickle, delightful, heaping surprise on disappointment, awareness of oneself in others on solipsism, surprise at oneself on surprise at oneself. This is the skidding ball, an onrushing consecutiveness of moments, perhaps decisive, perhaps not, of possibility, of possibility lost, a hurtling thing which can come and go, and where we both decide what we are and only struggle to know that which we are made to be.