The All-Ireland football final salutes the past, celebrates the present and takes a peek at the future. Ahead of the senior game, old warriors parade on the turf where once they were kings. Prior to that, tomorrow’s men from Galway and Kerry grace the minor match, in the curtain-raiser for a day that cherishes continuity.
And it is that melding of continuity, tradition and community that makes the association unique. Few organisations anywhere in the world can lay claim to such an elevated perch in the national psyche.
The essence of those three ingredients of the association was doled out in nourishing helpings recently when former fooballing great, Jack O’Shea, gave a talk in the clubhouse of St Mary’s of Caherciveen, Co Kerry. There was both eating and drinking in what he had to say.
O’Shea was there as part of the Daniel O’Connell Summer School, a local hero ostensibly detailed to talk about a glittering career which had yielded seven senior All-Irelands and four Player of the Year awards.
Instead, he spoke not of what he had achieved, but what he owed. If, as the old African saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, then Jacko outlined how it took a town to mould a footballer for the ages.
“When I look out here,” he said standing at the top of the packed function room, “and I think of the medals I won, I see so many faces who were part of those medals, people who I played with, who administered me. People whose homes I entered”. He was, he claimed “an ordinary Joe Soap” who was born “without a silver spoon”.
“It was a tough upbringing but everybody in Caherciveen stood by us, we were accepted and that played a big part in my career. We didn’t have a TV in our home. I used to go to several homes in New Street to watch TV.”
He threw out the names. Br Keating, who, on a visit home from Africa, brought him and his friends to Killarney to watch Kerry for the first time. Paddy Murphy, who trained him at various underage levels. What he remembered about Paddy was how he had managed to pour eight or nine of them into a Renault 4 to strike out across South Kerry to matches.
There was Junior Murphy. When Jacko was starting out as a plumber soon after leaving school, Junior would leave his car open outside the girls’ school where he taught, for Jacko to use as transport for his tools. And Frank O’Leary, who, long after Jacko had left the town, wrote him a good luck card before every big Kerry game.
He mentioned his mother, his five sisters, his whole family and the family beyond in the community.
“I would never have achieved anything but for the people who grew up with me,” he said.
And what a childhood it was. He may have missed out on the silver spoon, but what he had was pure gold.
“All through my youth there was a competitiveness there,” he said. “I was competing all the time, out of school, racing, everybody competing. I grew up with that aspiration. I was trying to do my best. I was never lazy.
“When turf was delivered to somebody on New Street, I ‘d be the first out to put it in.”
Then there was the drag hunting he used to go on with his father, up and down the mountains, through the fields, endless hours on his feet. His career on the pitch was never blighted by injury, and he ascribed that not to luck but a childhood of constant motion, challenging all that nature and the elements had to throw at him.
“I feel a part of everybody, and everything I achieved I achieved for you, every family. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, I’m very fortunate.”
The floor was opened to the memories of others, and from the back of the hall, another candidate for the pantheon, Maurice Fitzgerald, gave his tuppence worth.
Just as Jacko had spoken of fetching balls for his childhood heroes, Mick, O’Dywer and Mick O’Connell, so Maurice worshipped at the feet of his close neighbour, Jacko.
“As I child growing up, nine, 10, 11 years of age, it was the way he wore his socks, the way he curled his togs down, every single thing about him. I wanted to be like Jacko,” Fitzgerald said.
The memories spilling out across the room threw the present into sharp relief. Without minimising the major negatives which blighted this country in past decades, there is also room to reflect on what has been lost. How many children today get the opportunities that Jacko thrived on? As the country grows increasingly urbanised, childhood freedoms are curtained, parental anxiety replaces trust, the open prairies have been fenced off in the name of security.
Other changes have been wrought which throw down challenges to the sense of community in rural Ireland in particular. New Street, where O’Shea and Fitzgerald grew up, flickers where once it burned brightly. I remember the street as a bustling hub. Many of my school friends lived there and, as might be expected, they always fielded the best players in street leagues.
Today, much of New Street stands empty. During the summer one woman who lives there related to me that somebody had come home from abroad and moved in a few doors down.
“It’s great,” she said. “When I’m going to bed now I can see there’s another light on in the street.” So it goes with thousands of voids around the country. These are the unoccupied homes in towns and villages, once built in all the right places, until time’s brutal expediency has rendered them no further use.
But wait, who’s that out there shooing away the ghosts. As the talk ended, and everybody poured out of the clubhouse into late August’s slanting sun, a figure could be seen out on the pitch, kicking balls in languid arcs over the bar.
There he stood, Bryan Sheehan, another Mary’s man who was wearing Kerry colours, practicing — 48 hours before he would take to the field in Croke Park against Dublin.
Sheehan had been too absorbed in the present to know that the past was being chewed over in the clubhouse. As he addressed another ball, and raised his eyes to take in its projected flight, young children stood behind the goal, waiting in attendance on the latest local to occupy a gilded lineage, wanting to be Bryan Sheehan.
The big wheel keeps on turning.
Gratitude to Stephen O’Shea, Caherdaniel for recording Jack O’Shea’s talk and alleviating my regret for not doing so.