Sunday Best: Dublin Vs. Mayo

What it's like to watch Gaelic Football's equivalent of the Super Bowl at an Irish pub – at 7 a.m.

(Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

Mayo are the Chicago Cubs of Gaelic football.

Denied a championship since 1951 in spite of 11 appearances in the All-Ireland final, they went up against Dublin on Sunday only to reprise last year’s loss, in both instances by a single point. To use a more closely related sport, maybe that makes Mayo — as in County Mayo — the sport’s Buffalo Bills, who famously lost four Super Bowls in a row in the early 1990s.

Either way, if you know virtually nothing about Gaelic football, also known as Peil Ghaelach — and I didn’t — it’s quite a different sport from American football. For one thing, it’s all-amateur. For another, it’s played in two 35-minute halves that proceed without breaks — meaning no commercials — with a few minutes tacked onto the end to account for any accumulation of wasted seconds. Also, the pitch is huge. It’s not as standardized as a 100-yard-by-53-and-a-third-yard U.S. football field, either. It can vary. At its biggest, it can be 145 meters in length and 90 meters across, which means it’s just shy of three times a football field’s total area. So the lads are fit, as opposed to hulking monsters.

Still, the game is hockey-like in its violence. While the first half proceeded smoothly enough, testosterone is a hell of a drug, and the end of the game broke down into fights, the occasional slide tackle, and multiple penalties. It’s a little ugly to watch, and very anticlimactic, especially as Dublin ran down the clock so promiscuously as to be almost unsportsmanlike. Together, hyper-aggression and idling aren’t especially telegenic.

You can’t drink in the stands at Croke Park, the third-biggest stadium in Europe, but here in San Francisco, the Kezar Pub in the Upper Haight was rowdy at 7 a.m. — an hour after it opens every Saturday and Sunday and eight hours behind the Emerald Isle. After pedaling through the Panhandle on a quiet Sunday, I walked in at the invitation of an Irish bartender friend to find the joint packed with people in team colors, mostly Mayo’s red and green over Dubin’s sky-blue. Everybody loves an underdog, and Dublin are considered the New York Yankees of the sport in the sense that even if your team isn’t represented in a given match, you’re going to root against Dublin by default. The Irish presence in San Francisco is bigger than you think.

Anyone-but-Dublin was the consensus at the table into which I shoehorned myself. Straddling a bench so I could face the screen, I ordered coffee, a Guinness, and a full Irish breakfast whose sausages and bacon I drowned in hot sauce. Although there weren’t any beans, the black and white puddings had a satisfying texture and the hash browns were exactly as oily as I like them. But as the first half wound down, my beer had yet to arrive (likely owing to the capacity crowd).

Considering the importance of the match, halftime was relatively quiet. There’s no Lady Gaga, or Diana Ross taking off in a helicopter. There wasn’t even Flogging Molly, The Cranberries, or My Bloody Valentine. I did spot a Palestinian flag waving in the stands, as many Irish are sympathetic to that cause, seeing parallels in their own fight for independence from Britain.

Immediately after Mayo scored its one goal, the bar erupted. Thirty seconds later, a guy burst out of the men’s room with a horrified look on his face, cognizant that he’d missed something major, but joined in the cheering as soon as he sorted things out.

Dublin would eventually win in what the table determined to be a low-scoring match: 1-17 to 1-16. A note on those hyphenated point values: The ones denote goals, which players score by kicking the ball past the goalie into the net. (They’re worth three points overall.) The second half of the score refers to ordinary points, for when players kick the ball over the bar between the goalposts, like a field goal in U.S. football.

Eventually, my beer came. It had been a while since I last ordered a Guinness, and at that sleepy hour, my instinct was to cheer everybody within clinking distance.

“Let that sit a minute,” one tablemate said. He was absolutely right, of course; the head had yet to form. Still, it’s funny to be drinking hours before it’s usually deemed acceptable and still be admonished for a faux pas.

The quality of the satellite feed became poorer as soon as the game ended and the post-game commentary picked up, and when U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” came on, the entire table groaned in unison, sharing stories of the time they ran into Bono and pretended not to recognize him simply to avoid giving him the satisfaction of feeling globally famous. Better luck next year, Mayo.

Kezar Pub, 770 Stanyan St., 415-386-9292 or thekezarpub.com

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