It can be one of the greatest things about the GAA, playing with your school. It can really dance with the very soul of what the association is supposed to be about. Working together, winning together, losing together, growing together and, as much as anything else, giving young people an outlet for their energies and their skills in a way that might not be available to them in the normal peaks and troughs of life, particularly school life.
Or it can just help to keep them out of trouble, help them to keep to, or find, a path that might help them through those peaks and troughs.
Of course, these things are also part and parcel of playing with your club, but there is something vitally different about playing with your school. The most obvious difference is the fact that, for five or six years, you’re thrown in to play with guys who you wouldn’t necessarily get along with. The lads from down the road, across the town or from the big smoke. The lads who, more than anything else, are different, somehow.
Yes, at inter-county level and at third-level you also play with these ‘others’, the guys from somewhere else, but it is very different when it comes to your school.
Firstly, there’s the institution that you’re uniting behind, uniting for. It is, for all intents and purposes, a temporary arrangement, a rite of passage and a stepping stone to where you want to go. It’s also a place that you might find difficult, a place that you might not especially feel at home in and a place that you will surely resent, at one stage or another, while you are there. However, you can still don the jersey and try and get something different out of it.
Then there’s the lads you play with, and the lads who don’t play at all. You’re not just meeting them for an hour or two, three or four times a week. You’re seeing them for six or seven hours a day, five days a week for the best part of six years. Throughout that time the only people you probably spend more time with are your family. The next set of people that you’ll spend this amount of time with will be your future work colleagues. But we all know that that’s a very, very different dynamic.
Then there’s your youth, the youth you share with the very lads who you initially might have been sceptical of, but who you gradually learned to love, or at very least, respect! Playing with your school exposes all of you to completely different environments. You might have to play against a childhood friend who went to a different school, for instance.
You get to play in the depths of winter in conditions and places where you find out an awful lot about yourselves and your teammates. And you get to play against schools from other counties and savour what will be, for the majority, the only chance you’ll ever have of playing in provincial competitions.
Your county is your county from, generally, the moment you are born. And very few people get a chance to play for their county. For the most part, everybody goes to school.
Of course, schools hurling and football aren’t complete bastions of sporting purity. Like all sports, the elite level is at the mercy of human frailty, greed and ambition. Leaving Certs can be and are repeated, schools can be and are changed, but for the most part, the spirit is kept to, and there’s a level for everyone. It’s like having a second club for one of those defining periods of your life.
Then, when it’s all over, and your tie is long forgotten at the bottom of your old chest of drawers, that connection to your school, that was once so arbitrary, can grow. You’ll meet the lads who you used to play with on different fields, in different places and see how their lives are going.
No matter how they’ve changed physically, or how much they’ve matured mentally, you will still have that connection. There will always be that game, played on a field that only school games seem to be played on, where something major or minor or stupid happened, like a player being literally dragged from the field by an irate teacher, that will always be remembered.
And there’ll still be a little box in your mind where all those players, that you played so briefly with, will forever be what they used to be; young, feckless, reckless and full of potential.
It was with them that you learned some of those great life-lessons that are applicable to all its idiosyncratic facets. That people aren’t that different after all, no matter where they’re from. And that life, in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
This weekend, the students of Ard Scoil Rís and Midleton CBS get one of those rare chances to share in a victory that will be, on the surface, the stand-out moment for them from their careers with their second clubs. But they’ll all know, eventually, that the really good stuff will be just between them.