A Time for Everything, and a Time to Hurl

A time for everything. . .

This is a more recent article, I wrote it about a parent going out to watch their young lad start hurling.

LIKE HIS FIRST steps and his first words, the first time your young fella hurls in a match, it’s something you’ll never forget.

Of all the places to be in our club, Under 8 hurling is where it’s at – it beats them all for the innocence, and the beauty of the fledgling game.

As one oul lad says, leaning over the wire, pipe in gob, hurl in hand: ‘you can see their DNA from the way they hurl when they’re wee.’ By the way he hurls the ball, by the way he carries himself; from a shrug of the shoulder, to a side step, to the young ciotóg who’s strong side is the wrong side. The genealogy’s plain to see.

It’ll start indoors maybe, hurling with a plastic bas that can do no damage worth talking about, although the odd skelp can sting a knee and concentrate the mind. The loose whaling as a cub hurler pulls with gay abandon – the shiny new helmet he got for his birthday makes him lose all fears. Like the superheroes on the television, he, himself, alone, sees a field around his body that fends off any invader. Invincible he is, invisible to foe, rock solid to his friends. He sees the ball. And nothing else. He’ll be neat and tidy when he grows a bit and he’ll hurl, no fear of that.

Times go by. . . when they learn to lift and strike, it’s as if a new world has opened and unfolds before them. Henry Shefflin in the back yard burying the ball time and again. . . bottom corner, top corner. Round the dog, past the trampoline, over the bar. Shanahan to Canning, bang. The neighbour’s window gets a rattle but thanks be to God for the new double glazing. The sliotar throws back in, a flying ground stroke scalds the backside of the cat as she runs for cover. The dog ambles off the field in the manner of the inneffectual junior corner forward who’s just been given the shepherd’s crook and called ashore. Happy he’s no longer in the line of fire.

Come Spring, come the big day. The biggest stage of all. The Blitz. First time hurling against another team. The new club shirt, clean in parts but the hint of the pre-match pasta stains the front.

It takes our lad a minute or two when the ball’s thrown in, the ferocious pull, the big tubby lad a few inches taller who bestrides the pitch like a seven year old collossus. His weight throws the others about like rag dolls. Our man gets a fierce belt on the knee, the tears well up as he goes down. Next ball a shove in the back and after that another clip as he tries to lift. The cat moved a lot easier than these boys and the garden was a safer place. He feels the burning in his eyes. ‘Come on our fella’ says the coach, ‘you gotta stand up for yourself, or do you wanna come off for a while?’

The eyes flamed a look, through the bars of the helmet. Defiant, determined, twas as if he’d been set free. Next ball. Next ball. Like his grandfather slicing in the bog, hurley down, he nicks the sliotar, neat as can be. One second the hand is there, the next the ball disappears and he’s away to the side. With a flick off the wrists he drives it down the field. The cheers of his mother unheard. Next ball. Tidy as you like. Another hops at his knee, he gathers and clears. You see it takes any man a minute to get into his game. And so it begins.

To everything its place and everything has its place. But when you’re Under 8 hurling, it’s the only place to be.

Another Martyr For The Cause

Distraught - this woman doesn't know what to do now she has lost her previously 'normal' husband to the GAA.

A married woman has contacted us concerned about her husband and recent changes in his behaviour.

With no-one else to talk to she was told to contact Talking Balls, her advisor or counsellor or whoever it was told her that we were highly knowledgeable, thoughtful and would give good practical advice laced with common sense.

The woman and her husband had recently moved to a new area for employment reasons. He had never displayed much interest in games gaelic and athletic before.

She, being a bit of a snob and having been brought up by a highly self-opinionated father, who considered the GAA to be the preserve of layabouts, gobshites, mucksavages and fellas who pursued a political agenda masquerading as sport, always found the GAA mildly distasteful.

Her own sense of opprobrium had been fuelled one day when she unwittingly gave a gaggle of GAA youngsters a lift home from school and they trailed muck and ordure into the rear of her spotless 4X4. The mark of studs and those awful blades could be clearly seen on the Camel coloured upholstery and needed more than a good valeting to remove.

Imagine her chagrin then, to learn that her husband had fallen in with a bad lot in his new job. These men were heavily, and she means heavily involved. They talked non-stop about hurling, football and even camogie, that dreadful game where big girls wore very short skirts and ran round a mucky field after a ball. It was the height of unladylike behaviour.

Over a period of months things took further and more turns for the worse. Her husband had started bringing their son to Gaelic and now the daughter had taken up camogie. She came home one day with a hole busted in the knee of her new skinny jeans from competing for a low ball. The boy had already put the knees out of a nice pair of those Canterbury trousers that the rugby boys wear so well.

Her husband had started heading off ‘up to the Pairc’ to watch all sorts of matches, senior football, hurling, underage camogie, seven a side blitzes. Before she knew it he had been co-opted onto the committee and was holding sub committee meetings in their kitchen and telling these big rough fellas with weather beaten faces, rough hands and ill fitting O’Neills gear that the ‘wife will make you a cup in your hand.’

Although rough looking there was something very civil about some of these men, not at al like the coarse creatures she had seen one day when she had followed the husband up to the Pairc to see what all the fuss was about. There they had been bellowing red faced at a young fella refereeing a game in a gusting gale.

The final straw had come when she caught husband sneaking out the door, himself clad in the O’Neills tracksuit and beanie hat. A row had ensued during which in a discussion about his forthcoming birthday and their wedding anniversary he had informed her that he would like a set of training cones for the former and wouldn’t be able to go out for a meal for the latter as it coincided with a championship match.

And her reason for contacting Talking Balls? Well it was to ask whether, as a friend had suggested, she go with the flow and submit to the inevitable or whether she issue her husband with an ultimatum. She realized that the latter would be futile as she might get the answer she didn’t want.

Another widow to the cause. Give her a year and she’ll be coaching fundamentals, making tea and sandwiches and bellowing at referees herself.

A Band of Brothers – This Was Their Year

Book Review

“There is a destiny that makes us brothers,

No one goes his way alone;

All that we send into the lives of others,

Comes back into our own.”

Edwin Markham

A few years back Christy O’Connor wrote his seminal book about hurling goalkeepers – Last Man Standing.

It was a fantastic read offering a real insight into the minds of inter county players. Their mentality, their preparation, their hopes, their fears.

I remember vividly the passage about the Limerick keeper being hit with a sliotar on the testicle which duly disintegrated on impact. The things that struck about the book was that these were ordinary guys, fellas we all knew and if we didn’t know them we knew someone like them. A brother. Friend. Clubmate. A son. Nephew

The life of an intercounty player is monastic. Those that do it properly live for the game. They eat properly. They cut out the drink and the social life. They need to have understanding partners, wives, girlfriends. And as they get older it gets hard if they have children.

When I first heard about Declan Bogue’s book This is Our Year it didn’t really capture my imagination. An intercounty player from each team talking about the year they had had? Didn’t sound like something I would be bursting a gut to read. The usual platitudes. I would maybe give it a quick peruse in Easons to see if it was worth the cover price. I should have known better.

My attitude to books is straightforward. Having read enough badly written rubbish in my life so far I’m not one for wasting time reading books that don’t appeal. Paddy Russell’s book sits on my shelf. Pretty much unread. Dara Ó Sé unfinished. Brian Cody’s. Underwhelming.

In any book and a sports book in particular the writing must be good. The avoidance of dry, repetitious match details and player banalities is a skill in itself.

Trying to capture the appeal of a particular sport which is familiar to many of us is a difficult task. Trying to strike the balance between factual information and recounting details of matches that the readership will have attended. It is difficult. Some can manage it.

So approaching the whole concept of This Is Our Year in a pretty lukewarm fashion, I didn’t really pay much attention when it was serialised in Gaelic Life, where author Declan Bogue is Editor. These boys won’t say anything interesting I thought to myself and busied with reading the Big Interview.

Until one Thursday morning, sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea I started idly to read an extract about Dick Clerkin. I had always considered Clerkin an abrasive boy. I had watched him joust with Dara Ó Sé over the years. True or not, word was Ó Sé agreed to play a Railway Cup match for Munster because it would mean he was up against Clerkin. Here was a fella I had watched in action in Celtic Park. In Croker. I had my mind pretty much made up about the sort of fella he was.

Until I read the extract where he talked about his mother and the impact some of the criticisms of him by Joe Brolly and others were having. It was compelling stuff. It had all the passion and intimacy of our games. I know mothers of intercounty players. The big intercounty midfielder standing up for himself that we all see, is still the wee lad that kicked ball in the back garden. That’s what his mother sees.

Immediately after launch I spent a day or two scouring around the bookstores looking for the book to buy it. By that stage some of what Kevin Cassidy was saying about the Donegal set up was coming out. About the savagery of training. About the professionalism. About his own sacrifice and dedication. It confirmed what I had thought when I read the Clerkin extracts. This was good stuff. Eventually I tracked the book down and bought it. And boy but I enjoyed reading it.

The thing about gaelic games in Ulster is that it is inherently local. We know these boys. Our clubs play against them. We see them at matches. We see them hang over the wire at underage matches at their clubs. We see them coaching.

And then, on the big days we see them in Championship. Most of us don’t see them do what it takes to get them to Clones on Ulster Final Day. The sacrifice. The uncertainty. The self doubt. The savage commitment. Their expectations of aspects of their set up. The disappointment when injury strikes. The excitement when new management meets expectations. The unspoken dissatisfaction when it doesn’t.

The brilliance of Declan Bogue’s book is that has managed to get a group of intercounty players to trust him with their thoughts. It is the honesty and insight that makes it compelling reading. At times if I were to quibble I would say I rushed past accounts of matches that I watched or was at but that is a necessary part of the structure. For others that will help.

The irony in the fall out from the Donegal camp following the book’s publication is that one of the Ulster counties – Cavan –  was represented by their management Val Andrews. Andrews has his own fair share of achievement and evidently saw no problem in taking part in a project that casts a searingly honest spotlight into the nooks and crannies of intercounty preparation. When I finished reading the Cassidy situation had snowballed and rolled out of control. The irony is he is nothing but complimentary about Jim McGuinness and his regime.

Others are less restrained. Paddy Cunningham is forthright and critical of the Antrim set up. I was surprised having read it that there was not comeback from the Antrim management. Maybe there will be but as with Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane’s comments, if there is a problem in the camp, fix it. Don’t talk about it or seek to nail the guy who has the balls to say we could do better.

Likewise, the most shocking passage in the book is not from one of the nine protagonists. Rather Ross Carr, father of one delivers an ultra critical attack on the Down management in defence of his son. He rails against Aidan’s lack of game time with Down. As a former manager I would have thought he would have been more restrained or circumspect but again, it is to the credit of the book and its author that he has managed to capture these passions. There it is, ugly or not. Like it or not.

The narrative structure is excellent as it successfully interweaves the stories through one another in much the same way Christy O’Conner did in Last Man Standing. It is written at times as third party observer of the player in his own natural environment. The fly on the wall offers a great insight into Cassidy’s kicking preparation at home at Magheragallon – a dedication to his craft that ultimately brought Donegal back into the game against Tyrone and earned a quarter final victory against Kildare.

Likewise the description of the day in Ballinascreen when Skinner Bradley damaged his knee. Bitingly honest. Accurate too. The players I have spoken to that were there have confirmed every word of even the smallest detail even before I ever read Bogue’s account.

In other places the main players recount in their own words. The fact that not all were top of the bill in the Championship adds to the interest.

Mickey Conlan of Derry troubled with injury, sacrificing everything to make the team including changing jobs, a decision which I think he would admit has benefitted him greatly. Barry Owens, brilliant player in a bruised and broken Fermanagh set up. My admiration there is greater than ever.

Ricey is perhaps the most reserved of the subjects. Cassidy has been well documented and harshly treated in my view. Aidan Carr’s story is one of a plane that never really took off. Val Andrews is insightful. Stevie McDonnell refreshingly honest. Paddy Cunningham may have a few extra sprints to do come pre season!

And last but not least Dick Clerkin. It was his account that brought me to the book. Since he has started writing for The Examiner. What Clerkin’s story tells us, if we didn’t need reminding, is that these boys are amateurs who are professional in everything else they do. So that the rest of us can chat about football the whole summer through. But, if something does go wrong, as it did for Dick, he still has a mother and a family to go home to. We would do well not to forget that.

Declan Bogue captures that. All of it. The essence of what it is to be a gaelic footballer in Ulster. Just because they are familiar doesn’t mean we know them. But after reading this, you will have a better idea of what it takes to get them to Clones on any given Sunday every summer. And that is what makes this tale of this particular band of brothers such a compelling read. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

The Returning Old School Hurler

The Old School Hurler. Age never wearies him, he hurls every day as if it's his last.

This article first appeared in the All Ireland Hurling Final programme.

The tale of the Returning Old School Hurler, like the story of the man who’d been abducted by aliens only to come back to earth, is a tale worth telling.

In a club far away from the heartland of the Déise and the Cats lives our man. A Legend perhaps. The Returning Old School Hurler may have emigrated, succumbed to a fragrant or, more likely, nagging wife, or over-depended on the drink. Now he’s returned, pressed backed into service, reluctantly, with a gnawing in the pit of his now-larger-gut.

Our man, as someone that could ‘hurl a bit’ is asked to put his shoulder to the wheel one last time, to help a posse of precocious young Turks find their own feet at senior level. His role? To pull hard, early and often; to show example; to demonstrate his guile and to dispense restorative justice to liberty-takers, if required of course. The latter achieved with as much subtlety and aplomb as the deft flicks by which he lifts and clears the ball from a melee of players on the edge of his own square.

In his day Lucozade was something brought to hospital; on a coul day a t-shirt worn under your jersey – not one of these skintight affairs that looked like something guys would wear to a nightclub called the Pink Paradiso. The balls too seemed lighter these days – in the mists of time poccing a water-logged sliotar over the bar late on to seal victory was a valuable life-skill, requiring wrists of iron and the swing of Thor to heft the hurley. And what of the hurley itself?

He returns to his mother’s garage to retrieve his sticks – linseed oiled and sprung, long, and elegant, with narrow grips of bare ash, sweeping down in curves sweetly-grained to a supremely crafted bas with honed blade. When he pulled them from his bag, the dressing room fell to silence, staring in wonder – bananas temporarily unchewed and Energise undrank. Our man pondering the unexpected interest, but saying nothing – as usual. Short shorts, too tight for comfort, a badge-faded battle-worn jersey – barely legible: County Final 1989.

On the field he raised a greying eyebrow – the young Turks’ hurls like malnourished saplings beside his own – colourfully gripped but armlength short it seemed to him. Not for the Returning Old School Hurler – his hands dipped in rosin, sliotar seized from the air with the speed of a cobra strike. The 37″ hurley? He could hook a man across the road twas that long, but could he wield it? Oh yes. In style. With panache. In any situation.

Gradually the younger players knew – they were in the presence of a higher being. When he trained, they watched. When he played, they played. And when he finally spoke, they listened.

Old School. Twas as if he’d never been away you know.