Diary

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It takes a lot to get me excited about a sporting event (especially if it's not cricket) but the All Ireland Hurling Championship achieved this during the past fortnight. This began when, driving through County Clare, I saw that every second house was sporting blue and saffron flags and learnt that for the first time in more than 50 years Clare had won a semi-final, and that ever since, the county had been in a state of riotous uproar.

"In our neighbourhood," explained my hosts, "the win was celebrated for most of that Sunday night, rendering Sixmilebridge a ghost village on Monday. Later that day the enthusiasts struggled out of bed to greet visiting players who had arrived to be lionised, so on Tuesday they needed to rest again. On Wednesday morning the hungover rose and contemplated returning to work, but having concluded that 'Sure, the arse is out of the week now,' returned to their beds."

Clare had not won the championship since 1914, the blame being put on a local witch, Biddy Early, who in the early 1930s had put a curse on the Clare team: not until every one of its members was dead would Clare win anything again. From that date Clare won nothing, not even a provincial title. But this year the last member of the team to which Biddy had taken exception had expired, and the lads had gone forth and conquered.

My spies kept me posted as the pre-final tension heightened. The local garage owner painted his establishment and two cars blue and saffron and added to the cars the legend "Yahoo", which is the famous Clare shout. A few days before the match, in Dublin against Offally,anticipating victory and the celebration that would follow, a sign was put up in the village saying "Sixmilebridge to Croke Park, three hours; Croke Park to Sixmilebridge three days." The weekend of the final, my friends, a sedate and reliable pair who were staying put, were charged with fetching a Jesuit to say Mass in their local church in place of its two priests, who had taken off to Dublin. But even Colm and Alva, who normally have not the faintest interest in hurling, had become infected. Their dog sported the county colours on his collar and their dinner table had as a centrepiece a candle with a blue and saffron rosette.

So there was I yesterday week, being driven to Dublin airport by my friend James (who never follows sport), with both of us fretting at the news from the radio that Offally were ahead. After check-in, we went to the nearest bar, which was full of leaping, happy people. "Who won?" I asked the barman frantically. "Clare." My paternal grandmother's blood coursed through my veins and I cried "Yahoo!"

Part of the problem between the British government and Sinn Fein is that the former think like cricketers and the latter like hurlers. Hurling goes back to times mythological, but essentially resembles a controlled faction fight, with 30 chaps hurtling around the field hitting a hard ball (and frequently each other) with sticks: the game moved so fast that I couldn't even follow it properly in slow motion.

As the sea of blue-and-saffron wavers and wearers around the "Bye-by Biddy Early" banner screamed victoriously and started to pour on to the pitch, the commentator shrieked: "These are the men about whom they will write and sing ballads for the next hundred years ... The bodhran will beat, pipes and violins will play and the Clare shout will be heard throughout the world." Truly, it is a wonder that the English and Irish manage to understand each other as well as they do.

I've been writing this diary for only about eight months, and already Audrey Clifford has made a takeover bid. "When you decide to give up your diary, let me know," she writes from Cumbria. "The idiosyncratic flourishes in these parts." Now look here, Audrey, just because I revealed that I'm 51 doesn't mean I'm on my way out. Might I point out that Harriet Harman has just declared her intention of protecting me and my contemporaries from ageism when she grasps the reins of power.

In gratitude, I publish David Lennard's lines on one of the lady's other campaigns:

Harriet Harperson

is trying to effect a cultural conversion

By replacing the stunning lovelies on

page 3

With sober essays on equality and PC.

Harking back to a perplexity I voiced the other week about how terrorists procure balaclavas, Audrey tells me that the place to find knitting patterns would be in war-time copies of women's magazines. Philip Jaggard writes: "I am able to disclose that a huge hoard of balaclavas was unearthed some 30 years ago in the attics of a stately home in the republic. They had been produced by the busy needles of the Irish Women's Association for soldiers serving in the Crimea. They are now popularly referred to as 'ballyclavas'."

This does not solve our problem, Philip. No self-respecting IRA terrorist would wear an oppressor's cast-off.

"I don't call you 'an old bag'," said the friend who in a recent column I had quoted as thus addressing me, "I call you 'an old bat'." He sounded as if he thought the former mode of address impolite. Yet the following day on the phone my Scots friend Val cried, "It'll be terrific to see you, you old bag."

Why "bat"? Why "bag"? Why not "crow" or "suitcase"? Brevity, perhaps.

Anyway I have a much better insult than either of these to brag about. In Catholic Eye, a lively papal fanzine sent to me from New York, there was a paragraph which dismissed as "Mz Ruth's hoary tripe" a mildly critical article I recently wrote about the Pope, and summed me up as "a featherweight sage".

Having last week read that no completions of "While crossing the Alps on a tusker/Hannibal espied a young busker" had come up to the usual standard, Mike Bradshaw and Shaun O'Riordan came leaping in to save versifiers' honour with, respectively: "Who with zest and elan/Like a true petomane,/Could glissando from zephyr to bluster"; and "This will-o'-the wisp/Had an inverted lisp/And promised Hannibal's wife he would fusker." I don't know what "petomane" is, but Mike is a regular and I trust him.

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