DONAL OG CUSACK: At home on hurling’s holy ground

Former Waterford hurling legend Ken McGrath talks to the Leinster players before the start of the recent Ken McGrath All Star Challenge game between Munster and Leinster at Walsh Park, Waterford. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

John Fitzgibbon’s father, Vincie, told me something once in Cloyne when I was a young fella.

He said that when he walked into some places he could feel hurling. He could sense it. When he walked into Thurles for instance, he could feel hurling. When he walked into Cloyne he could feel it. Hurling leaves something in the air. That resonated with me.

I picked Eddie O up last Friday and we drove east to Walsh Park in Waterford. Crowds were clogging the roads before we even got there. You got a sense of two things. The love people have for Ken McGrath and what sort of a place Walsh Park is.

We had no passes or tickets but to be in Walsh Park last Friday night was to be in a hurling place. We got waved through. Parked across the road from the ground. Walked in. Meeting people, seeing familiar faces, listening to little wisps of the talk.

I said to Eddie O: “You can feel hurling in this place, Eddie.”

“You can,” said Eddie.

I could feel hurling. You can’t imagine football being played on Walsh Park. I know it happens and I can forgive it, but it’s a hurling field first. The field in Cloyne is a hurling field. If there are young fellas playing any other sport on the sacred grass you know it’s just a short distraction. Hurling places are different. The smell, the sounds, the talk, the people. Hurling.

In we went. I get pulled over by some lads doing a spot for TV. They’re talking about Ken. Good. Good. They are delighted with a little co-incidence. Ten years ago this week was the greatest Munster final of all time, they tell me. Yeah, yeah. Cork lost of course. That always makes them great finals in Waterford.

Into the dressing room. First thing. A flashback. Am I dehydrated? Am I hallucinating? Up on the table like an Adonis, is Himself. Father from here. Mother from there. Neither a hurling place. In better nick tonight than he was 10 years ago. Séan Óg.

God, have some decency a chara. We have feelings! Nearly everybody in the room is getting older. There’s a bit of ruin in most of our faces. The next time anybody rubs us down like that will be with embalming fluid.

I take a look at the programme. Grand. Down as No 1.

Brendan Cummins gives me a big grin.

I’m sitting there. Munster playing Leinster in a benefit for Ken McGrath. Looking around at the faces. We all battled each other for years in Munster championship games and beyond. It feels right to be sitting in here together, though.

I notice that Eddie O has sat down beside me. Eddie O is 75 going on 30 so his name isn’t on the team sheet. If a place has a sense of hurling about it though, Eddie feels right at home.

He just swans into the dressing room wearing his white jacket like he just got off his yacht in Miami. I half want to ask him out loud, you playing tonight Eddie? Name isn’t on the sheet boy? But I’m enjoying myself and so is he. Some of the boys know him. The rest probably think he’s my father.

Ken McGrath comes in with his young daughter Ali. He makes a grand speech. Just right. Then Ken and Ali walk around and shake everybody’s hand. Perfect.

Next in is Davy Fitz. Place is swarming with old goalies tonight.

Davy is in charge of Munster. Now most of us in the room have flaked each other every now and then but every single one of us has had blue murder with Davy at some time or other. Even the Clare fellas in here I’d say. Once in Boston the two of us were playing for Munster. It was decided Davy would play the first half in the goals and I would play the second. A couple of minutes before the half-time whistle Davy goes down in the goalmouth like he has been assassinated. Helped off the pitch in agony to a round of sympathetic applause. A nation held its breath. Would he live? And replacing the great Davy Fitzgerald, eh Dónal Óg Cusack.

Davy says a few words that go to the heart of it. People like to think that the man is half mad. We’re all half mad though, and the half of Davy that isn’t mad is smarter than anybody gives him credit for. He talks about hurling, health, passion and family. Things that are important. Great words. Gets it just right. We all clap.

We’re getting the jerseys on. I notice John Mullane’s legs are jigging. He’s twitchy like a racehorse. Can’t stop. Same syndrome as Seán Óg. Pair of them getting younger when the rest of us are getting older. I notice Eddie O is standing in the middle of the dressing room now. I don’t know whether he’s looking for a jersey or about to make a speech. He looks so at home I’m beginning to think he’s been in every dressing room I’ve ever been in.

Time to go. A couple of the Waterford lads say a few words. Big crowd out here, we’ll do it properly boys. Proper warm-up before the parade. By now Seán Óg is doing stretches against the wall and Mullane looks like he needs to be safely detonated. The rest of us are thinking the same thing. Warm up AND a parade. We’ll be dead before the match. Some fellas are feeling their wrists checking they still have pulses. “Right”, says Davy, “out”. He opens the door and Mullane launches himself out like a rocket. Still has the zero to 60 acceleration.

Big Dan Shanahan has a grin on his face. Leave him off, he says, leave him off.

We all stand there imaging the sight of Mullane bursting out onto Walsh Park like an electric hare but with no team behind him. It would be good to follow him out about a minute later all stiff and limping but Seán Óg would give the game away. I know he’s half mad already that Mullane beat him out the door.

We jog away out. Mullane is coming back down the tunnel at half speed looking for us. I’m passing out the door. I get a tap on the back. “C’mon now Cusack”. What? Eddie O is standing there like the Queen launching a whole fleet of ships. “C’mon. Good man. Way ye go.”

Mullane says to me as we’re warming up “re you doing a Davy Fitz on it tonight, coming off at half-time injured?” Nothing will do me but to say it to Davy.

“I might be getting injured before half-time Davy. Remember Boston?”

Davy looks at me. I don’t know how he’s taking it. Next thing he just says to me: “You know you’re the only one who could nearly figure out what we were doing last year.”

Nearly figure out! That shuts me up. Nearly. He’s either giving me a compliment or having a laugh at me. Either way it’s the smart half of Davy’s brain talking again.

I enjoy the chance to give Cummins a bit of stick. ”Brendan, go out there to about 50 yards, will ya. Warm me up. Drop them into me at a nice height. Good height. Good lad.”

Off he goes rolling his eyes.

Before we start another face looms. Damien Fitzhenry. The four horsemen of the goalkeeping apocalypse are here tonight. Fitz is in goals for Leinster.

“Listen,” he says with a grin, “I’ll be taking the end with the wind at my back. Just letting you know.”

He goes away off, jogging down the field. Before he goes he says to me, “I need to see you afterwards. Don’t forget. Important”.

One of the umpires comes out to me from behind the goal and shakes my hand.

“The last time I did umpire behind you,” he says, “was the day in Thurles when you got your injury.”

The last day I wore a Cork jersey. A sentimental night in a place of hurling.

The game starts. The Leinster forwards are useless. After 10 minutes I’ve no problem telling them that. I’m mad for a game of hurling. It’s a lovely night. Good crowd. And there’s something else in my head. This is the last time I’ll ever play in Walsh Park. After all the years coming over here to play. So I start shouting at the Leinster forwards. Abusing them.

The only one of them that might do something is Eddie Brennan.

And he has the bad luck to be marked by Seán Óg. What can you do? To shut me up John Gardiner, my own buddy and half-back, pops a ball back into me from 45 yards out for a laugh. Gah still has a cut about him. At another stage he drives a point over from about a 100 yards out. Because he still can. Himself and Séan Óg go off after about 20 minutes. They are both playing for Na Pairsaigh at the weekend. In the cheering and clapping they get when they come off you can feel the sentiment between Waterford and Cork people for that great time just gone. I was sorry I didn’t think to come off with them.

Half-time comes too soon. No saves to make. A few catches and clearances. Cummins takes the goal for the second half. I sit in the dugout talking to Waterford lads. Stories about Tony Browne heading off fishing. Old yarns. Kids wandering up with hurleys to be signed. I notice at the end that Leinster have scored four goals in the second half. Poor Cummins is more decrepit than he looks. It needs to be said.

The games finish. I’m coming off and a young fella asks me for my jersey. So cocky it’s no surprise that he has a Cork accent. It’s a one-off but I give him the jersey. There’s a knock on the dressing room door a little while later as we’re getting changed. He wants the shorts and socks as well. They’ve already been given to another young fella, though. He goes away. Not at all happy. Gas.

A man finds me in the aftermath.

“Do you remember me,” he says.

“I don’t?” I say.

“A few months back you pulled up beside me on the street looking for directions to Ballygunner.”

“Oh yeah.”

“I was so flustered that I said to you, ‘are you the queer fella’? I felt bad after and want to apologise.”

What can you do only laugh.

There are a few nice words in the dressing room. And goodbyes.

Some of us are staying over. Other fellas are for the road. Davy Fitz gets it right again with his short speech.

Next thing somebody catches me by the sleeve. “Where are we going now Dónal Óg?” Eddie O. Fully charged up for the long night ahead. So back to Mount Sion’s clubhouse.

The memories grow a bit dim.

Some sort of The Sunday Game-style Questions and Answers thing is going on at the top of the hall. I get called up. There are two fellas on stage that look like Eddie Keher and Noel Skehan. Can’t be still knocking around can they? Was I not at their funerals? I thought Keher was dead years ago. Kilkenny fellas. Always spooking you.

I sat down with Eoin Kelly, (the Waterford version) in a corner and we had a good old chat. Then another tugging on the sleeve. Eddie O. “Come with me Dónal Óg.”

You can’t swing a mouse in the Mount Sion clubhouse but Eddie O leads me to an empty room. There’s a man in there with very nice braces sitting at a table. “Listen to this man Dónal Óg,” says Eddie O.

The man is Martin Óg Morrissey. Mount Sion is a city club that came out of the Christian Brothers on Barrack Street and turned the little streets all around into a hurling place. Marty Óg captained and played on the only Mount Sion team to have won a Harty Cup. They beat Flannan’s in Thurles in 1953. His friend, the great Frankie Walsh — Eddie tells me he was known as “The Nettle” — played that day too. Seven Mount Sion lads went on to backbone the Waterford team that won the All-Ireland in 1959. They beat Cork along the way.

Another classic.

We sat and talked about Ringy and Frankie and the old days with Martin Óg. That’s where Eddie O comes into his own. He’s a pathfinder in hurling places. If you want to meet the Rattler Byrne, if you want impressions of Johnny Clifford, if you want to know about Ringy’s regard for Frankie Walsh, well Eddie O will cut a path through the jungle and deliver for you.

I don’t remember what time I hit the bed but I seemed to be getting up again before I had shut my eyes. Early start. On the road to lovely Skibbereen on Saturday morning to do some missionary work at a hurling coaching camp. One day they might quit their low down football ways and become a hurling place like Mount Sion. Early days.

Something came back to me as we were driving and the head was clearing. Damien Fitzhenry coming and finding me after the game had finished. He had a hurley in his hand.

Here, he said, sign this. We might never be together again.

He handed me the hurley. I added my name to the three names already on it. Davy Fitzgerald. Damien Fitzhenry. Brendan Cummins. Dónal Óg Cusack. Ah Damien, what a great thought.

All those years we stared at one another from different ends of pitches from Walsh Park to Ennis to Thurles to Croke Park. There was a bond there between us. Once we were kings. Or thought we were. Now we are four names on a hurley somebody might pick up and look at 50 years from now. Maybe a few yarns will be told.

Now we are part of the atmosphere and history of hurling places, fellas who once played, growing old in the great tribe of hurling people.

We head on west. Eddie O beside me, chipper as ever. Chances are if somebody picks up Damien’s hurley in 50 years and tells a few yarns about the names written on the bás, it will the bold Eddie O.

Great days and no better man to tell of them...


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