Drivers punch their horns, two pretty girls who almost demand to be described as colleens wave and smile, and three lads leave a hostelry for the express purpose of engaging me in conversation.
My moment of fame vanishes forever when I pass a trophy to a colleague. Eyes swivel immediately on to him, he is the centre of attention as the growing congregation give praise.
To stand with the Liam McCarthy Cup in Kilkenny is akin to loitering with the World Cup in downtown Rio de Janeiro. It is impossible to articulate precisely what Gaelic games mean to the Irish but you can feel it in the stands of Croke Park in Dublin, in a clubhouse in Kildare or on the pavement in the shadow of Kilkenny Castle.
It is more than a game or games. Hurling and Gaelic football are part of the psyche of the population, part of the history of a nation, part of the will and spirit that demands a language will not be lost, a culture will not be dissipated on the winds of change, that an identity can be both modern yet still have a debt to the past.
The sports both define and explain Ireland. Gaelic football, a game of round ball, of carrying, bouncing and kicking has its final tomorrow at Croke Park, with Dublin meeting Mayo. But Kilkenny is a hurling city in the same way that the Copacabana is a football beach.
The clamour over the cup on the Parade of this county city is part joyous but is laced with regret. Kilkenny are the Manchester United of hurling, a skilful game best described as shinty on amphetamines. They have won the All-Ireland final, a competition between the 32 counties on 34 occasions.
This year the final is between Cork and Clare and the cup has to go back to Dublin for the final that weekend. I pass it on quickly but it lingers in the hands of Richie Power, the Kilkenny forward. The county have appeared in every All-Ireland final since 2006 and have won six of them.
Power, bright and engaging, has been deprived of what he could be forgiven for seeing as his annual trip to Croke Park, but he has, nevertheless, the unmistakable demeanour of a winner. A chat with him on the training ground alternates between the nonchalance of him flicking the sliotar (the ball) on to his hurley (a curved stick) and flicking the ball between posts with a metronomic regularity.
The quiet Irish brogue, however, cannot conceal Power's devotion, even obsession. A son of a legend, Power has carved his own destiny with a swish of the stick he holds. He plays to win. There is nothing else.
The stadium in Kilkenny holds 42,000, in a city with a population of 25,000, Croke Park accommodates 82,300 and tickets for finals are as hard to find as a child in Kilkenny without a hurley. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) generates about €60 million every year yet Power receives only his travelling expenses.
He says: ''I would not want to be paid. Never. The joy of winning and the pain of losing would not be made any different by me being paid. I just feel money is not an issue. This is about playing for your club or representing your county.''
He briefly surveys grounds teeming with children clacking hurleys like swords or scrambling after sliotars and says: "They say every child in Kilkenny is given a hurley at birth and the ambition is to turn out for your club and then your county. I have been lucky enough to do that.''
Luck, of course, has had little to do with it. Power, at 27, has won six All-Ireland winners' medals and trains with a devotion and duty that consumes most of the free time he has after working as a sales rep.
"It can be looked on as full-time, almost,'' he says of playing, "because you have to train hard but also live a life that means everything is aimed at improving your performance. So you don't drink, you eat properly, you train continually.''
So why does he do it? Why the sacrifices for no material award? "Hurling is special in this city, this county. It is special to me. I do not know how to describe what it means to me, to us. I suppose it is a peculiarly Irish thing and it is just part of us.''
Domhnall O'Donovan is a man alone among 82,300 souls. His team is one point behind in the All-Ireland final. The Liam McCarthy Cup, held in my hands just 36 hours earlier, is somewhere in the depths of Croke Park, waiting for Cork and Clare to decide just who will be named champions. O'Donovan, who has never scored a championship point in his career, has the sliotar in the last seconds of the final. A corner-back, he should not be in this position. He admits cheerily later that he is the last man his team-mates would want to rely on in such a situation. "I said to myself I will go for it and I fell over as I was hitting it, so it was the crowd that let me know it was over.'' O'Donovan makes his point, Clare draw and the All-Ireland championship will be decided next Saturday in a replay.
With more than 2400 clubs in Ireland and 300 across the globe, O'Donovan's dunt was the shot heard across the world. It was the money shot, too. The final will generate about €3m in gate money, adding to the GAA's healthy coffers.
There is both myth and mammon inside Croke Park. The financial report of 2012 shows a GAA revenue of €52m with a surplus of almost €9m. The money goes back into the game, to counties, on grants for development of the sport, and on player welfare.
The myth is more alluring, yet has an affecting substance. The GAA, set up in 1884, uses its resources to promote Irish music, song and dance, and the native language. It once enforced what was called The Ban stopping members of the association playing or attending such sports as soccer or rugby. It was lifted in 1971, and rules which barred members of the security forces in Northern Ireland becoming members of the association were later changed.
Croke Park remains a secular cathedral, built in 1870, shaped and updated gently but dramatically into a marvellous stadium. It is a place of sport, theatre and quiet remembrance. On the day of the final, it shakes to the roar of a capacity crowd sitting unsegregated in the red of Cork or the yellow-and-blue of Clare. The eye scans the modern stands and rests on the terracing of Hill 16. This section provokes comment and speculation, all intriguing, some perhaps even true. The best guess is that the standing enclosure was once called Hill 60 in reference to a battle fought in Gallipoli in 1915, but was later renamed 16 to commemorate the Irish republican uprising. It may be best to dismiss the reports that the Hill was rebuilt by using rubble created by the 1916 insurrection, not least because most of it was built in 1915.
But the stadium does hold a poignant spot in Irish history with the events of November 1920, when the British military shot dead 13 spectators and one footballer at a challenge match. This followed an IRA murder of a group of undercover British agents. Croke Park has echoes of death and violence. It also speaks to reconciliation, with the visit of the Queen to the stadium in 2011, a moment of extraordinary power in the history of Ireland. But on this September Sunday it shakes with the passion of hurling and to the impact of O'Donovan's shot.
Twenty-four hours earlier, on a September Saturday, John Holden, a businessman and a character who immediately projects a simple integrity, surveys the interior of Sarsfields GAA Club in Newbridge, County Kildare. Outside, a director of Experience Gaelic Games leads a group of journalists in a game of Gaelic football. The ba' is long burst for this correspondent, who engages Holden in a conversation about his history, finding he has been a player, coach, public relations officer, and secretary at the club founded in 1897. He is now chairman. Quite an honour, I suggest. Holden pauses and looks down. "It would be an honour to sweep the floors of this club,'' he says simply.
This is not said with any bombast but rather is a testimony to what Holden, Sarsfields and the GAA hold to be central tenets of Gaelic games. First, there is the volunteer ethos, stretching from unpaid players to unpaid officials. Second, there is the belief that Gaelic games form a rallying point for the community.
"You can't pick your club,'' says Holden of his life in Newbridge. "I was born into Sarsfields and I started playing with them at 17 in 1980, and have been involved at some level ever since. I come here for a drink, I come here with my wife and family, I would bring any function into this club. That is the view of most. We would do anything to help the club, that is why there are functions here all the time.''
Newbridge, a town of 25,000 people, has Sarsfields and Moorefield, both with 1400 members. There are smaller clubs in the town with hundreds of members. At a conservative estimate, one out of every six people in the area is a member of the GAA.
"I could not say precisely what the sport and the club means to me,'' says Holden. "It is part of my life and that of my family. It is part of who we are.''
The rain splatters on the clubhouse window, obscuring the view of the Gaelic football outside. The excited shouts are part of the soundtrack of any sport but the football and hurling are special, they whisper of something else. They are part culture, part identity, part individuality, part community. It is difficult to state the precise constituents but, simply, what occurs on September weekends in Croke Park or on most days throughout Ireland is more, much more than a game. n
Hugh MacDonald was a guest of Failte Ireland. More information on Kilkenny and hurling at thekilkennyway.com. Tourists can learn to play by visiting experiencegaelicgames.com. Visit the Gaelic Games Association at gaa.ie.