Mount Sion to the bone

FRANKIE WALSH was a high-scoring half forward on a magnificent Waterford hurling team but though his honours are great, they are not the whole man.

Frankie captained Waterford to the county’s last All-Ireland SHC triumph in 1959. He was on runner-up teams in the 1957 and 1963 finals and won three Munster SHC medals. He won a National Hurling League medal in 1963. Like so many of the greatest hurlers of his era, Frankie played with distinction on six Munster Railway Cup inter-provincial teams between 1957 and 1966. With his club, Mount Sion, he won 13 Waterford senior hurling medals and four senior football medals.

To those of us reared in the working class ‘top of the town’ and who went through childhood and early teens revelling in the success of a great Waterford team, he was — above all else – a Mount Sion man to the marrow. It is as that, as much as for his many other feats, that we remember him.

Mount Sion Christian Brothers’ School is on Barrack Street, opposite the old military barracks. It is surrounded by small, well-kept two up, two down houses along narrow streets that stretch all the way to Walsh Park. It has been said, wisely, that Mount Sion GAA club is not based on a parish, but on a people. A people imbued with a love of hurling. A casual observer might think that a working class, inner-city area was infertile ground for planting the seeds of hurling. Yet, the ancient game was played in the same area in the 18th century in places like the Barley Field and on the historic Hill of nearby Ballybricken.

The Christian Brothers founded the club in 1932. There developed a symbiotic relationship between club and school. It became similar to the great hurling nurseries in other counties and provided a steady supply of talented players for the county.

There was a well-trodden path for the aspiring Mount Sion hurler. First, the Dr Harty Cup for senior colleges’ hurling in Munster, minor for the club and county, then on to senior level for club and county. Frankie Walsh followed that very path.

In 1949, he began hurling with Mount Sion CBS in street leagues where there was intense rivalry between teams drawn from the city’s housing estates and roads. In 1953 he starred on a Mount Sion CBS team that won the school’s only Harty Cup.

Mount Sion schools and the GAA club based on them had a unique ethos. Whatever controversies may engulf the Christian Brothers today, their founder Edmund Rice’s vision was to take in the poorest of poor boys of Waterford, feed, clothe and educate them for free at Mount Sion.

For over two centuries, working class boys flocked to the school and, building on the solid foundation they got there, went on to have successful professional careers. Many were infused with a love for Irish traditions and history and, above all, the game of hurling. Frankie personified it.

He was an idol to the young lads of Mount Sion. I remember a day in 1959 when – along with the other Mount Sion men who backboned that year’s winning team – Frankie brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup to the school. As he walked in the gate, he was mobbed by hundreds of young lads cheering and trying to touch the cup. As the unruly mob squeezed through the double doors of the old primary school, I made a lunge forward and my fingers touched the base of the cup. It was as if a current of electricity surged through my arm. A bond and love for hurling was cemented – that was the idea of the visit, of course – and I have never forgotten that moment.

He is the last Waterford captain to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup but it was something he took no pleasure in and his fervent wish was to lose it. Sadly, he has not lived to see it happen.

Fine tributes have been paid to Frankie and he has earned every one of them. But to the people of the streets, roads and housing estates at the top of Waterford city – his own people – he will forever be remembered as Frankie Walsh, a Mount Sion man to his core, Fear Chnoc Síon go smior.

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