The Whaling Tradition in Hurling

‘Call me Ishmael’. . . one of the most famous opening lines in literature, it could so easily have continued ‘. . . and I’m a hurler.

The comings and goings associated with the GAA 125 have led to a great deal of introspection and reflection on the last century and a quarter of our great games. Among the gems uncovered from highbrow academic research, attic clear outs and garage spring cleans have been documentary evidence that hurling could so nearly have been an international sport, but for a global decline in whaling.

In an old seaside shanty, down near Bantry that was scheduled for the wrecking ball before the credit crunch hit (now earmarked for development as a visitor centre) a gang of builders discovered an old seaman’s chest clasped shut with a rustic padlock. Serendipity meant a small key dangled by a length of gnarled hide. Upon opening the creaking chest, the builders realised it no ordinary seaman had stowed his belongings. No, this was the box of Pandora and the builders, one from Newtownshandrum and the other from Portumna in Galway tipped back their 125 peaked caps, ruffled the hair and gazed in wonder.

The chest held treasures beyond measure: a pair of ancient hurleys and an almost-finished stave from a barrel with a rough bas fashioned at the end; a leather bag with half a dozen or eight wizened and browned sliotars; a couple of pairs of nailed brogues; a peaked cap with the legend Corcaigh embroidered across the front. Other items included a smaller rosewood box containing a series of dog eared parchments; some dageurrotype photographs of sepia tone – one in particular of a striking young women of sallow skin and waved dark hair. It bore the legend Dona Christiana.

Unfolding the yellowing parchments, the fella from Newtownshandrum was surprised and stunned as the most remarkable tale unfurled before his eyes. The Galway man, more used to utility than ornament, set about boiling the kettle for tay and sandwiches and a read of the Irish Daily Star which he unfolded from the back seat pocket of his trous.

In 1887 a shipful of whalers had set out from the port of Kingstown in Cork, bound for the rich seas near the Isles of Cape Verde. They enjoyed the sailing on the vessel the Prionsias O Murchu, a ship of sturdy construction that handled itself well in all weathers but excelled in negotiating rough seas and storms. When they needed reassurance, the whalers from Cork knew that aboard the O Murchu, no evil should they fear.

The parchments revealed the ship sailed hither and thither, occasionally meeting with a sister vessel the Sean O Ceallaigh or the Naomh Niocláis. Both were formidable sea faring hulks that were manned by other sturdy fellas from seaports and fishing villages along the Southern seabord. Occasionally a gobdaw from the far North would be on board, acting the wag but being treated with a mixture of amusement and astonishment as he guldered in a loud voice.

The reason the whalers from Cork loved sailing? They could disembark on the beautiful Cape Verde Islands, relax a while under the blue Southern sky and when fully rested, they break out the barrel of hurls and set about a match amongst themselves. Sand in their feet, wind in their hair. Occasionally an ash hurl split and burst; then the ship’s cooper would fashion a new blade from an old barrel, or on occasion he might scrimshaw a bit of whale bone for the same effect. The mammalian caman swung easily with a slight oiliness and the unmistakeable whiff of ambergris.

The other presssing occupational hazard was the pucking of a ball into the Atlantic, especially during on-deck training sessions at sea. Typically the Northern hurler was the most likely candidate, pulling wildly sending another sliotar billowing off to starboard and down to the hurlers in Davey Jones’ locker room where the inches were no more.

Betimes the O Ceallaigh would pitch up or maybe the Naomh Niocláis would weigh anchor and a contest between crews would ensue with the occasional blood flow from a split hurler joining the detritus and entrails of dead leviathans trickling into the Atlantic.

The highlight of the trip for the owner of our sea chest, a fella called Ronald O’ Donovon Rossa, was the regular stopover in the island of Madeira, there to sample to the local fine produce and to meet his beloved Christiana. A fine and graceful athlete, she took to the hurling with a gay abandon and pucked the sliotar as sweetly as any of the lads on the ship. Many times he returned to visit and they sported, stick and ball, hand in hand on the beach.

It was almost the start of a beautiful legacy until alas, an unmentionable disaster was to strike and soon the whaling was no more. But, to this day the people of Madeira think what might have been.

The Lawstrynx

The Lawstrynx he lives a very strange life,

He sleeps most the days & lives by the night.

But most times he just can’t recall where he’s been,

He’s that busy been seen,

If u get what I mean.

Good times, & mad times every night of the week,

But the Lawstrynx don’t know

Cos he don’t know where he’s been.

His wallet’s much lighter a morning,

His head is in pain

But tonight & the next he’ll go again & again

And again & again he’ll adle his brain,

Wondrin’ where has he been with & who & even what was her name.

He’s chalkface white, hollow, washed out & strained

Gaunt from too much in his haunt yet again.

Supping & chinking & shorting & shots,

Talking & talking about nothing a lot.

So if you should see him, call him by his name,

And remind him that Lawstrynx means the man with no brain.

The Cause Endures.

I have fought the good fight.
I have finished my course.
I have kept the faith.

2 Timothy 4:7

I have had people ask me over the last day or two how I feel after our Toome Riders cycle on Saturday.

The answer is simple. I felt fine when it started, fine half way through, totally wrecked for about eight miles when I hit the proverbial wall and reasonably OK for the last few miles home.

Thanks to the people in the group I made it home with the group. I would have got home by hook or by crook, taxi, support vehicle or phoned home. Anyhow, the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf. Paul Boyle, Damian and Frances and the others made sure I wasn’t me fein on my bike. Go raibh maith agaibh.

In retrospect, I don’t really know why I agreed to do it. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. I don’t mind when I’m out on the road cycling but this idea of building up miles didn’t do it for me I have to say. Others really got into it and I admire their effort from afar.

Part of me wishes I could have cycled 100 miles but for several reasons, none of which I’m sharing here I decided that I wasn’t doing it and that I wouldn’t be able to do it. More summer horriblis than anus horriblis but that’s my personal story.

Dressed in the ridiculous cycling garb I felt like the only gay in the village. As my friend Martin Dummigan used to say, the outfit was so tight you could almost count the hairs. Marty I would add wasn’t talking about men in cycling gear just in case anyone would get the wrong impression of him.

On reflection it has been interesting the appeal the Toome Riders cycle has had to all cross sections. There are people now bought into and involved with Eoghan Rua that would previously not have been. Next thing we can get them to sign up as bona fide members.

These sorts of events like fashion show tend to attract new interest. It serves to broaden the appeal of the GAA to show that it’s not just about kicking ball, pucking a sliotar, shouting at refs and talking shite at committee meetings. Having done work for Croke Park and written about social fabric, we are living breathing examples of it in practice.

Over the years we have organised Corporate Dinners that raked in the dough from builders coining it in the boom years. We have had ticket draws, bike rides x 2; fashion shows. We have had duck races. We have built our pitch which is something for everyone to call their home.  And on Sunday I was talking to one of the other senior members of Eoghan Rua. He was been around here longer than me and is someone I respect enormously for all he has done and continues to do.

As we ruminated on the goings on and comings and goings and all the recent successes on and off the pitch, we agreed that the success of what is being done now will only really be gauged when the next generation takes over.

They will have a pitch and a clubhouse and a user base that we never had until now. And there will be coaching expertise and the Eoghan Rua way of doing things. Of the attention detail that we know brings success, and how that will hopefully be firmly embedded in the fabric of the place so that players find conditioning and diet and community involvement and commitment to the cause and loyalty, punctuality and the importance of team over individual – all things worth buying into.

In listening to Kilkenny men talking about their success – underage success and silverware is all very well – but at the end of the day, you are wanting to turn these mini gaels into senior players.

I once went to a beach in Oman called Ras Al Hadd where greenback turtles hatch and return to the sea. On their way down the treacherous sand they have to make their way past crabs that try to intercept them to kill them and pick over their remains.

Their way of catching the fledgling turtles is to pluck out their eyes. A small proportion of turtles make it through, to take their chances in the open ocean. There, other challenges await. And they don’t even have their parents there on the sidelines as they make their run for it, screaming at them and urging them on. The mark of success is when they return years later to the same beach to enable the next batch of turtles to be born and set off on life’s path. And so it continues.

And as I contemplate my own continued active involvement, it would be rewarding and reassuring to know there is a legacy that can be built upon. When I go out the swing doors in the next year or two I hope to meet plenty more passing me in the other direction. There are certainly more bodies than there were. I am tired at times and don’t know for how long this can continue.

The advertisment says ‘Ask not what your club can do for you, but what you can do for your club’ echoing JFK’s famous words.

Eoghan Rua has given me opportunities galore. I have some great friends and there are players that I will meet in years to come, and with a single glance we will know we shared some of the times of our lives.

On Sunday at Croke Park I looked at that spot at the foot of the Hogan steps with a certain disbelief that I had ever stood there and listened to Méabh’s words.  “Tá athas an domhain orm an corn seo a glacadh. . .”.

Senator Edward Kennedy said when conceding defeat in his own ultimately failed bid for the White House:

“the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

The same words are in my mind, resonating, reverberating, except for me they reflect optimism, and the promise of a bright, bright future.