There appears to be a furious agitation brewing in the GAA. A sense, as county imperils club, and players square up to administrators, and football threatens hurling, that we may be on the cusp of a great apocalypse.
Or at least another team walking in a parade with their socks down.
Rattled by the air of flux, on World Book Day, I stayed local.
Cuttin’ or Atein’ the Bushes just landed, the story of GAA in Kilcommon, Rearcross, and Hollyford, a mountainous parish in west Tipperary, operating since 1962 as Sean Treacys GAA Club.
Story of one club, story of every club.
George Bernard Shaw reminded us that we learn from history that we learn nothing from history. But in this tireless body of research, there is comfort too in finding that certain things were always so.
The book’s early match reports confirm that we had, by 1887, already settled on the modern wide-eyed template for hurling reporting.
“The music of the camáns was delightful, and the rolling and shouldering were simply perfect. What a beautiful spectacle to see the manly sons of the soil strain every muscle and sinew to outrival each other in this noble art.”
If anything, a touch restrained alongside the lyricism of today’s hurling writers and pundits. The Celtic Times had nailed the tone too when it came to the big ball:
“The second match on the programme was a football game between Donohill and Rossmore… a dour struggle.”
Echoes rumble through the pages.
By 1966, the case was being made by TJ Caplis, Sean Treacys rep, that it was unfair to club hurlers to have no match all summer if they were beaten in the first round of championship.
The county board turned a deaf ear to that plea to fix the fixtures, though there was unusual failure to grasp commercial opportunity in the verdict that it would be “a farce and a fraud” to charge two shillings entry to a match “where teams did not try an inch knowing they could come back through the losers’ group”.
The GAA’s complex relationship with amateurism is explored in accounts of the Gold Watch Tournament that drew droves to Doon in east Limerick in 1967. “Very few, if any, of the Treacys had a watch, not to mind a gold watch.”
The rich tradition of colourblindness that has blighted many a meeting of Tipp and Clare and recently saw Wexford and Galway stubbornly tog out in neighbouring pantones of purple is powerfully evoked in the great battle for colours ahead of the ’66 county junior final between Treacys and Kiladangan.
Rule decreed that, as the older club, Kiladangan got first call on both sides’ favoured blue and gold. Naturally, Treacys historians stepped up to counter that theory so the county board organised a toss. Upon losing, Kiladangan claimed their man had not been an authorised club tosser and the matter went back to the board, who, showing uncommon vision, instructed both to change rather than let them all wear the same gear.
The same final brings evidence that the fancy for psychological warfare and ‘mind games’ is not a recent phenomenon.
As men from the hills, Treacys carried a certain reputation. Legend had it they used poitín as a muscle rub, which, if a first half didn’t go to plan, could be repurposed as oral lubricant to send them out fighting in the second.
Playing up to notoriety, a mentor strode the field before throw-in with a mystery bottle, massaging some players and inviting others to sup.
There is hardship and disappointment and emigration. There are stories of faction fights and melees and controversy and suspensions and withdrawals in protest, reminders that the GAA has always thrived on a certain furious agitation and that there is no form of GAA justice that isn’t worth appealing via every possible avenue.
The age-old fondness for a little vigilante justice is expressed in the possibly apocryphal tale of Foxy Jim Nolan.
A pair of Treacys opponents arrive in casualty for stitching following a torrid encounter with the same complaint: “Foxy Jim hit me.” When a third landed, the inquiry was brusque: “Did Foxy Jim hit you too?”
“No nurse, sure I’m Foxy Jim.”
We hear much about The Sacrifices and The Demands put upon the modern player, but author Paddy Ryan puts that in perspective with memories of travelling to minor matches with brothers Dinny and Phil and one “bad bicycle” between them.
“The plan was for one to cycle so far and then leave the bike for the next one and so on.”
However, even the Ryan relay is overshadowed by the voyage made by a parish team to Youghalarra in 1909 — a 40-mile, 26-hour round trip via jennet and cart and an ambush of bricks and stones in Nenagh.
Just like in any small rural club where success is hard earned, what drives young men and women to great lengths is those precious days that will endure through the ages. That junior county title. The first west Tipp senior in 1968.
Bonfires and cavalcades and open lorries and bishops’ speeches that reverberate still. Glory drives supporters the extra mile too and ‘the milking bus’ didn’t always bring the farmers back in time.
Sometimes, there is a different swell of pride. Every Treacys man who wore Tipp colours at any grade is listed. And a book crammed with club details has a county match on the cover. The Treacys’ most famous hour: Dinny Ryan slipping the winning goal past Kilkenny’s Ollie Walsh in the 1971 All-Ireland final.
Perfect symbol of a complicated relationship. County the icing on club’s cake.
But there are heroes beyond the field. As rancour rises and insults are hurled in the coming months, we will often hear it said that the game should be all about the players.
But there are those who give their all on the field and then give a lot more back.
People like Paddy Ryan — player, mentor, administrator, historian — build and trace the bonds that glue the GAA together.
In books like this, GAA people will find a lot more to unite than divide them.
Cuttin’ or Atein’ the Bushes by Paddy Ryan (Coole) is launched tomorrow at Sean Treacys clubhouse at Kilcommon Cross at 6.30pm
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