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Malachy Clerkin: Don’t mind Newstalk’s Ciara Kelly

We got so close. Soooo close. We got to two days out from Leinster playing in Croke Park and the build-up had remained all very nice and pleasant and free of any of the usual sad old tedium. It looked for all the world like we were going to be able to just enjoy having a big sports fixture at a big sports stadium and let that be that. Imagine.

No major hoo-ha. Not big whoop. Just a grand day out where we would welcome our friends from across the water as they made the journey to the unfamiliar surrounds of Dublin 3. And Northampton too, of course. We would welcome them as well.

Eat one, eat all. No bad cess, no ill feeling. For the second time this year, one of our flagship GAA stadiums has been sold out to the rafters for a rugby match. Couldn’t come at a better time either – sandwiched between Leinster football’s two “biggest” weekends, in front of attendances that wouldn’t pack out a parish hall. Rugger at Croker, filling a hole the GAA has dug for itself. And we think to ourselves, what a wonderful world.

But then the nice lady on Newstalk gets all revved up and next thing you know, something wicked this way comes. War! Stramash! Rí-rá agus ruaille buaille! Fire up the dudgeon-heightener there, Bridie – it’s time for another quick-fire round of Your Sport’s Bad, No Yours Is The Sport Which Is Bad.

And over what? Over pints. The one damn thing that should be uniting us all. The Irish sports fan comes in all shapes and sizes but none that are incompatible with the most sacred ritual of games and pints and shitetalk. Soccer, rugby, gah, billiards – all irrelevant. A grá for pints trumps every last bit of pettifoggery around who likes what and why. Or it ought to, anyway.

But no, 48 hours out from one of the greatest days of pints Dublin city will see this side of Christmas, the rugby fan’s access to pints in Croke Park somehow became a thing. Or more accurately, the rugby fan’s access to pints in the rugby fan’s seat in Croke Park became a thing. Take it away, Ms Ciara Kelly.

“(The GAA) don’t care what other things do, but rugby is still the foreign Sassenach sport and we’re not going to let them drink if we can’t drink,” she opined. “I think it’s a chip (on the shoulder), I really think it is. What does the GAA care what rugby fans do when they hire out Croke Park? They let other people drink there. “I think it’s the foreign game, I think that’s what this is.”

Now look. As someone who has frequently made a prize bollocks of himself on live radio and podcasts over the years, this column is inclined to extend a certain sympathy here. A radio microphone is a menace. Sometimes, you start talking and you find yourself halfway through a sentence and the only thing you’re thinking is, “I genuinely have no idea what the words that will finish this thought will turn out to be.”

So you won’t find any condemnation of Ciara Kelly in this corner. If anything, it felt as if she was hung out to dry a little too gleefully by the station itself. They seemed to see all the sweet, sweet engagement on their X account – getting on for a million views on one post since Thursday! – and promptly went in again on their lunchtime news show. The tweet got the dreaded ‘Readers Added Context’ message underneath, which is Xspeak for, “You done messed up here, BooBoo.” And still they didn’t take it down.

The funny thing about it was that it all felt so completely outdated. As if we’d gone to sleep and woke up in 2001. Sports don’t really get pitted against sports any more. By and large, we’re about as ecumenical as you can get. There will be plenty of crossover between the 82,000-odd who fill Croke Park today and those who will fill it in July for the All-Ireland finals. People like sport, people like a day out. It’s really not a lot more complicated than that.

Some of the chat around Croke Park this week felt a little forced, if we’re all being honest. All the talk of teaching the Saints the history of the venue seemed a bit po-faced, a bit 2007. And as for poor Tommy Freeman whose interview with Lawrence Dallaglio went viral for saying they’d be “going full guns blazing” – we can surely all give him a pass, can’t we?

Bad enough he has to try to live up to the exploits of the current Tommy Freeman, an ornament to Croke Park whenever he played there for Monaghan. But now actual Lawrence Dallaglio is actually having to delete an actual interview with him for fear that Irish people won’t have the cop on to see it for the harmless sporting cliche that it was. That seems a bit extreme, right?

We passed Go on this stuff a long time ago, surely. For all that the GAA is a kind of miracle of Irish life, we could all do with being far less po-faced and precious about it. The rugby folk shouldn’t need to feel like they need to mind their manners when they take over the hall for the day. And if a radio DJ wants to be sanctimonious and belligerent and wrong, sure what about it? Be mist. Steam. Couldn’t possibly matter less.

Enjoy the day, Leinster rugby. The pints will go down just fine.