For two hours last Sunday, the brilliant Limerick full-forward Seamus Flanagan stood in tribute to Willie Hough in the West Limerick village of Monagea, writes Paul Rouse
That Flanagan was in a protective boot following ligament damage sustained in the All-Ireland hurling final makes his show of respect all the more impressive.
But Willie Hough had inspired many men in his lifetime and now he continued to do so as his memory was being honoured.
Monagea GAA Club were unveiling a plaque in honour of Hough, the greatest hurler to come out of the parish.
He played at centre-back on the Limerick team that won All-Irelands in 1918 and 1923 – and was the captain in 1918.
Flanagan was joined in Monagea by the current Limerick manager John Kiely and by his colleague in the full-forward line, Aaron Gillane.
The three men brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup with them and, although official events were only due to start at 10am, hundreds of people queued from before 9am for autographs and photographs.
The great parallel between the team that Willie Hough had captained to an All-Ireland title and the current Limerick team is the emphasis on youth.
And Hough was central to the establishment of that emphasis back 100 years ago.
Such was the respect that he was held in Limerick at the beginning of 1918 that – as well as being the finest hurler in the county – Hough was so well regarded that he was invited to serve on the selection committee which chose the Limerick team. In fulfilling this role he pushed his fellow selectors to focus on youth. He argued that older players had tried and had failed, and it was time to renew the team with young players.
And so it was that the Limerick team that won the All-Ireland in 1918 had players aged between 18 and 27, and was at that point the youngest team ever to win an All-Ireland.
Their ultimate victory in that year’s championship – defeating Wexford by 9-5 to 1-3 in the final – brought Limerick their second ever All-Ireland title after a gap of 21 years.
It was met with the kind of celebrations that always follow the ending of a long drought, filled with the acute disappointment of the near-misses.
But the story of this 1918 success does not begin to tell the story of Willie Hough’s life – he is not a man who can simply be defined as an All-Ireland winning captain and that captaincy is not enough to explain the erection of the plaque by Monagea GAA Club.
The story of Hough’s life and times – and the context of both – was told in a fine speech given by Timmy Mulcahy, a Monagea clubman, at Hough’s grave last Sunday morning.
It was a speech that did full justice to Hough’s contribution to Limerick hurling, but also touched on many other aspects of his life.
For instance, Willie Hough served as a primary school teacher in Monagea National School from 1914 to 1958. He had previously taught in Waterford (where he hurled with De La Salle – captaining the team to a senior county championship – as well as playing with Waterford seniors).
He had also taught in Cork where he hurled with UCC, but declined the invitation to hurl with Cork as they were drawn to play Limerick in the Munster hurling championship.
Willie Hough – whose wife Rena McCarthy also served as a teacher in the school – is remembered locally as going about his work quietly and methodically. He loved the Irish language and used it as often as he could. He also loved history – particularly the history of the 16th and 17th centuries in Ireland, the Cromwellian and Williamite wars, and the plantations.
His passion for poetry saw him particularly fond of the writing of James Clarence Mangan and he sought to instill that love in his students.
Like Mick Mackey, his successor as the most beloved hurler in Limerick, his contribution to the GAA did not end when he retired from playing for the county.
He played on with Monagea until his late 30s. He then earned a reputation as a referee of some distinction. He refereed National League hurling and football matches, Munster hurling championship matches and was also put in charge of an All-Ireland semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway.
By then, Willie Hough was already volunteering as an official with the GAA. He was vice-chairman of the West Limerick Board from 1924 to 1928 (that is to say when he was still a county player).
He was also elected treasurer of the Munster Council of the GAA in 1936 and remained in the role until 1968. Across these decades of service, the position of the GAA in Munster was transformed. In 1936 it had 427 affiliated clubs and £5,000 in assets. By the time Hough’s tenure was ended the number of clubs had almost doubled to more than 800, and the value of the Council’s assets exceeded £175,000.
It is worth noting that in all his commitments – as a hurler, as an official, as a teacher – Hough stayed at the task year after year - his was deep love not shallow lust.
Such stoic longevity is not the type of thing to excite people who compile Teams of the Century, or who decide the reasons for the inclusion of particular individuals in biographical dictionaries of sporting greats, but it is precisely what earns the respect of communities who prosper from such dedication.
In the impressive booklet that was published to mark the unveiling of the plaque, the DCU historian William Murphy set Hough’s story in the context of the story of the GAA in the 20th century. Dr Murphy, himself a decorated dual player who captained Monagea to win the Limerick junior football championship in 2001, wrote: “Willie Hough lived through extraordinary change in the life of the GAA, but more than that, he helped to ensure the future of hurling in his native county and the growth of the Association in the province. Pride in his achievements are entirely justified.” The timing of the unveiling of the plaque to Willie Hough could hardly have been better, with Timmy Mulcahy noting in his oration, the ‘outpouring of joy and happiness in the past three weeks’ across Limerick.
Mulcahy also drew attention to the greatest achievement of the GAA. This is an achievement that binds Willie Hough to Seamus Flanagan, binds together the clubs of West Limerick, and binds the organisation as a whole:
“We have many faults and failings in the GAA, and we have plenty of critics, but there is one thing that can never be denied.
“It has forged unbreakable bonds and lifelong friendships, and has inspired the songs and stories that have brightened up many a winter’s night, and hastened many a spring.
“There is no organisation that has done more to instill into the people a pride and passion in, and love of, their native place.”
Ultimately, this pride and passion explains why so many people gathered to honour the memory of Willie Hough.
It is a credit to the Monagea GAA club that they took such pains to honour one of their own in so powerful a manner.
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