Bonkers About Conkers

Joe Nawaz is a surprise smash in Belfast's third annual conkers competition

The author wishes to apologise in advance for the amount of bad conker puns that appear in the following article. The awfulness of the puns in no way reflects the author’s own sense of humour, but rather an inability to conker the urge to include them.

It’s not the first time I’ve been stood up by a female, but it was one of the most socially awkward occasions. My four-year-old niece clearly decided she had better things to do than accompany her uncle to the third annual conker competition in Belfast's Cloth Ear.

Mind you, the word ‘conkers’ does conjure up visions of autumn, small boys in the park, trying to find the biggest, killer conker to string then pickle/varnish/creosote and then (ahem) conquer your playground enemies in a flurry of horse-chestnut related blood-lust. I guess four-year-old girls are too mature for such macho nonsense.

Not me. I headed along to the Cloth Ear fully intent on triumphing over a series of terrified boys, smashing each of their conkers into atoms and with it their confidence, innocence and self-worth. Having a small child accompany me would at least have added a veneer of respectability as I gleefully take revenge for a childhood of conker inadequacy.

Action from the Cloth Ear Conker Cup heat between Lucas Irwin and Conor Poulter.Thankfully for the kids, it doesn’t work like that. The sensible people at the Cloth Ear, led by the valiant and cheerfully stressed Maurice, had arranged events into kids and adults categories. I was forced to pick on somebody my own size.

An afternoon of face painting, games and other conker-related events kept the kids busy while their parents knuckled down to the serious business of annihilating each other in inter-conker-mental ballistic warfare.

This is no ordinary event. Joe O’Neill and Grace Carney of the Irish Conker Championship (who started the Irish Conker Festival in their home village of Freshford, Kilkenny in 1989) were on hand to invigilate, adjudicate and ensure that nobody twitched their string in an attempt to avoid an opponent’s conker.

The Cloth Ear, through connections in Kilkenny, brought the conker craze north three years ago. Judging by the large and enthusiastic turnout today, it looks as if many of the families here are old hands.

As Carney explains, there are 13 rules to the game of conkers, including the regulation length of the string (20cm between knuckle and nut), three strikes each, no snagging and even a tennis-style playoff if players reach a stalemate. The kids all get to try their hand at the conkers, in the spirit of fun of course. But it is in the adult category that the real drama lies.

Judge O’Neill brings a level of professionalism to his role that demands a similar attitude from the competitors. Whilst I size up some of my potential adversaries in the earlier stages, it's apparent that nobody wants to lose. Least of all in front of their children, urging them on from the sidelines.

Mind you, the pressure to perform in front of your idolising, cheering little ones is more than some can bear. As I stand with Carney watching the good-natured but actually tense exchanges between some of the alpha dads, eyes glassy and determined behind safety goggles, I’m relieved not to have the added burden of a four-year-old niece’s expectations (although the wee turncoat would have probably cheered the opposition).

Nobody actually breaks cover and admits that they want to win, but most clearly do. And I’m no exception. Conkers come and conkers go, before I finally get called up to be confronted by a very nice mum called Angela.

She has form. I saw her crush a grown man with a swing of her shoelace in the last round, her celebrating children around her, treating her as the conkering hero. Even as I smile and say good luck, I’ll be damned if the same thing’s going to happen to me.

It’s a battle of wills as much as dexterity, with little requests to raise your string or move a little bit to the side. I even accidentally (I swear!) bounce my conker off her safety goggles at one point – a warning shot across the brows.

After five minutes of studied swinging and counter-swinging, not to mention a couple of unfortunate tangles and a whole heap of psychological manoeuvring, it goes to a playoff. We have nine goes each to hit the other’s conker, with the most hits being the winner. 

I edge it 6-4 and feel giddy with a combination of relief and jubilation. It’s all I can do to walk back without jumping up and clicking my heels. All those years of inadequacy and ineptitude and other words beginning with ‘in’, and finally I’m a contender.

Jim McCormick versus Paul Barbour in the 'Big Kids' category heats of the Cloth Ear Conker Cup .Returning to earth after my flukey first round victory, Carney offers some advice: brute force isn’t everything. She once went through a whole competition and won it without having to smash a single conker – her male opponents’ sheer strength was their undoing in each round. It's reassuring, because there are some big hitters here, male and female.

The drama takes on a near-oedipal (in the least shocking sense of the word) turn in the quarter-finals as McIlroy senior and junior find themselves pitted against one another. 

Referring to his 17-year-old Sam’s appearance of deep concentration in an earlier round, Mr McIlroy informs me that ‘he always looks like that,' saying, 'who knows what’s going on in there?’ He echoes the despairing sentiment of parents of teenagers everywhere, but also unwittingly sets himself up for a tragic fall of Greek proportions: Sam mercilessly trounces him.

As for me, with a few sneaky investigations into technique and strategy I gather a game plan - looking nonchalant and keep my string as short as possible.

Unaccountably, this gets me to the quarter finals where I’m confronted with a giant of a man with more swing than the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Remembering my plan, I hold out my puny-looking nut, dangling on its now-quaking string, and squint my eyes in preparation of the coming conker blitzkrieg. Sure enough he smashes his own brittle nut leaving me clear passage to the semis. I’m living the dream.

All the while the kids are clearly having the time of their lives, thanks in no small part to Maurice - scoremaster, event manager, compère and all-round conker-quistador. His initial suspicion, that I’m a conker hustler, never goes away though. When my semi-final opponent doesn’t show after being called for the third time (Conker Rule 12) I am landed, by default, in the final. I’m sure he thinks I’ve somehow paid him off or spiked his drink with laxatives. All of which, by this stage, I’d be quite happy to do.

What started off as a bit of harmless fun is now something altogether more primal, urgent, even sinister. It’s not about the taking part. It never was. It’s all about the winning.

Well, it is until my fellow finalist obliterates me in less than 30 seconds. His kids never doubted it. They all laugh and cheer as I see defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, my sad, now conker-less string dangling pathetically from my clenched fist.

To the winner, the conker tree of victory and valour and the opportunity to take part in the Irish Conker Festival in Freshford on October 23. I get the conker consolation necklace of despair. Turns out I didn’t really want to win anyway. After all it's the taking part that counts. Until next year that is. Next time I’m bringing an army of child relatives and a copy of The Art of War.

The very definition of family fun? I would have to concur.