In the mid-1950s, when I came here as a teenager, this place was a sleepy little backwater where a dog could lie down on the white line in the middle of the road. The stores all closed on Sunday and everybody went to church. People worked the farms, went lobstering or fishing. The town centers were filled with mom and pop stores.
I really loved the towns. There were a few celebrities tucked away in the woods. We were proud they’d chosen to live here. If we saw one in town, we’d pretend we didn’t see him. Let him have his privacy.
Today, the Hamptons is filled with celebrities and billionaires going to private parties where paparazzi shoot pictures and the guests are enthralled. What is this all about, anyway? Then it started happening to me. One day I walked into a room and the people, instead of saying, “Hi Dan,” said instead, to one another, “Look! It’s Dan! Of Dan’s Papers!” Then I realized that just five minutes earlier, Michael J. Fox had walked through that room. Everyone was still awed.
I called it the Celebrity Gas. It would descend into a room when a celebrity arrived, linger a bit after he left so people could bestow it on the next person, but then, after someone opened a window to let the celebrity gas escape, it would be over.
This was a fairly unsatisfactory explanation of this phenomenon, but I think yesterday and today I experienced it in its purest form.
My wife Chris and I have been traveling through the Irish countryside by car. Yesterday, we drove into a charming 12th-century town called Cashel, located in Tipperary County, and stopped and got out to look around. Almost every window of every pub, restaurant, clothing store, antique shop and meat market was festooned with blue-and-yellow pennants and blue-and-yellow banners and flags of a sports team called Tipperary. We knew it was a team because the shield on the banner had what looks like crossed hockey sticks. But this was summer. We asked someone.
“They are playing Saturday,” we were told.
“Where?” we asked.
“Dublin, it’s the finals.”
In a restaurant I asked a waitress what sport this was. She said hurling, but it was in a thick Irish brogue, and we thought it might be curling. But it couldn’t be curling. Curling is played on ice.
“Is it anything like baseball?” I asked the waitress when she returned.
Of course, I went to read the newspapers. There are half a dozen Irish daily newspapers. In the sports section of every one of them, we found pages and pages about this upcoming match. Millions would watch it on TV. Hurling, it turns out, is the national sport. It’s also a sport only played in Ireland. And this was for the national championship.
A taxi driver explained it to me. “It’s like your World Cup,” he said. “Or your Super Bowl. I’ll put it this way. Tomorrow at 5 p.m., everything will shut down in Ireland.”
I decided I could get into this.
The next day, we stayed in Kilkenny at a fancy hotel. Before breakfast, up in our room, I read up on the game. All papers had it front page. Flipping through one, I found five pages of stories about the game, about the health of one of the star players, a strategy interview with the coach of Kilkenny, a feature analyzing the two team’s playing style. Kilkenny has won 35 national championships. Tipperary had only won twice in the past two decades. They were the underdogs. But they had a chance. Another article gave brief histories of each player. Another article was titled “The Road to the Final” and listed the scores of each game played and who it was against. There was an interview with several stars of the teams. And there were predictions by each of five sportswriters working for this one newspaper, The Irish Independent. Four said Kilkenny would win. One said Tipperary.
I made it clear to Chris that at 5 p.m. I would be watching this match. We would be arriving at a new hotel in a new town that afternoon. I had already called ahead to confirm they had a pub in the hotel. That’s where I’d be.
“You can watch if you want,” I told her.
“I’ll watch part of it,” she said cautiously.
After reading the papers, we went to this fancy hotel’s breakfast room. It had a Romanesque motif. The waiters and the maître de were in uniform. We were led to a table, and we ordered.
And then I saw that at the very next table there were two young men wearing the blue-and-yellow Tipperary uniforms. They were from the team. Wow! And the celebrity gas came over to me.
“Look over there,” I whispered. “And don’t say anything.”
“I think those are players for Tipperary. What are they doing down here, three hours from Dublin, if they are playing at 5 today? I’m going to ask them.”
“Don’t embarrass them,” Chris said.
I got up and strode over. They looked up.
“You playing later today?” I asked.
“Yup,” one said.
“Just want to wish you luck. Go, Tip.”
They nodded. I tripped over my feet going back to our table. “It’s them,” I hissed to Chris.
She said nothing.
“I forgot to ask them why they were here when they should be up there.”
She continued to say nothing.
I took out my iPhone, balanced it behind the little vase full of flowers in the center of the table where they couldn’t see it, and focused the camera at them. As it turned out, I got only one of them. (It’s the picture that accompanies this story.) They were paying their bill. One of them signed the bill the waitress had set down, then picked it up and showed it to the other, perhaps looking to see if the second agreed that the tip was right.
“I think he’s looking to see if the tip was right,” I said.
The second person nodded, the first put it back down. Then they left.
After that, as we were eating, it occurred to me I had gotten myself all excited about a sport I had never seen played and knew nothing about, had made a decision of who I would root for, would spend two hours later that day cheering Tipperary on with dozens of other people in a pub with every chair turned toward the TV over the bar, and the whole time trying to recognize who I had just taken a picture of at breakfast.
And I did that. What a wonderful game. These 30 young men, barreling around between the goalposts bordering a field even bigger than a soccer field, spent the whole two hours beating one another with sticks while trying to get the ball, about the size of a hardball, either between the goalposts or into a net under the goalposts. And no, I could not recognize my friend from breakfast. But I did notice they all wore numbers on their shirts. I took my phone out and looked at the picture. Dammit, his arm was across his numbers. Final score, Killkenny 2-17, Tipperary 2-14.
Going to the locker room to comfort my new friend was out of the question. I hoped he’d be okay. And so, after the requisite rattling of the chairs, we all got up and left.
Later that night, Chris said something that brought me up short. “Weren’t those just two guys who were going to the game? You know how the fans dress up?”