I love this time of year, as we are enthralled and excited by the business end of the GAA championships – especially the hurling. The older I get the more I appreciate everything that our ancient game stands for. Hurling encapsulates all that is best in us as a race of people; the bravery of the warrior, the skill of the artist, the nobility of the cause and the honesty of the combatants.
Was I a hurler myself? Luckily one doesn’t have to be a great singer to know when someone else is singing the song right – and that’s how it was with my hurling. Hurling was all we had back in the day. It was badly needed escapism for us as kids in the 1950’s and for that alone I owe a lot to the game.
In the school playground we were all Christy Rings, Nicky Rackards and Tony Reddins. On Summer Sundays we waited breathlessly by the radio for Micheal O’Hehir’s opening introduction of “Baile oraibh go leir a charde.” My happiest playing memory is of scoring 3-2 in a county under-age final in Mullingar.
Now in the autumn of my life, I have very few regrets. One blemish is that I qualified as a ‘past hurler’ at too young an age. I took a career break from my hurling in order to concentrate on my drinking career. Thank God, that only lasted the same length as the hurling career! The beauty of it all is that we never stop being a fan, spectator, and lover of the game. I am a season ticket holder in Croke Park and attend just about every game. There is no doubt in my mind but that hurling is the greatest game in the world – and I have seen them all.
I told you about my happiest match I played in. Now, in the interest of balance, I had better relate the story of the most nightmarish match I was ever involved in.
Canada celebrated her 100th birthday in 1967 and I was working in a place called Thompson, Manitoba. There were over a hundred young Irish lads there and we did a bit of hurling and football. I had never previously played football, but the big ball helped because we were always short of hurleys.
The Irish Canadian Club decided to stage an exhibition hurling match as part of the ‘Astum Peemo Waka’ (Cree Indian for ‘Come and have fun’) festival. Fifty new hurleys were ordered from Ireland and the teams were picked. I was chosen to play as a forward.
I would be marked by a 6ft Kerryman who worked on the meat counter at Safeway and was known to us as ‘John the Butcher.’ Naturally we all knew each other well and the banter leading up to the weekend of the match was intense. I was relieved to know that John had played little hurling, so I made a point of ambling around by his meat counter any chance I got. I reminded him he was lucky he was used to the sight of blood!! John put on his ‘shop face’ and smiled back at me.
Then disaster struck: The hurleys went missing at Winnipeg Airport. No decisions were made until the day of the match, because the club kept being promised they would be found and delivered on time. It didn’t happen …
An hour to match time and everyone playing the blame game. There were several splits in the camp. Half an hour to go and it looked like we would play a seven-a-side, but those with hurleys didn’t want to give them to anyone else. (“If this hurl is going to be broken today, I’ll break it myself!”) Final decision forced by the clock: We would play football instead! Too late to make team changes or alter selections.
I spent most of the hour on the hard deck. I had thought that ‘John the Butcher’ was called that because he worked in a butchers shop. Another thing I didn’t know was that he had played senior football back in Kerry. I caught one ball for the duration and fearing the next ‘dunt’, I sought to offload quickly to a teammate. ‘John the Butcher’ nonchalantly intercepted my attempt at a fisted pass and his size eleven boot deposited the ball in the other half of the field. But do you know what he did in the second before he kicked that ball? He looked at me, put on his ‘shop face’ and smiled!
After school I never won another hurling medal: No All-Star; no featuring on any ‘team of the decade.’ Be that as it may, I believe I should get a mention in the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ … I played a hurling match without a hurl!
When selling yourself, don’t misrepresent the goods.