When Clare won the 1914 Munster hurling championship, they were reputed to have prepared better than any team in history.
This revolution in preparation was rooted in past failure.
In 1914, the Clare County Board had issued an appeal for funds to help its team be “properly trained and equipped”, because “we now find ourselves occupying a very insignificant position”.
The ambition was to ape what successful counties ‘like Kilkenny, Kerry and others had done.’
By 1915 the various aspects of the modernisation of the game of hurling, and the parallel modernisation of the GAA, had brought dramatic change to how players prepared for games.
Training regimes stressed the importance of physical fitness, skill-based drills, and practice games.
In Clare, for the 1914 championship, it meant taking a full week off work before championship matches and training full time for hurling.
All of this cost money, of course.
As a means of fundraising, Clare chairman J Shearin suggested organising some concerts throughout the county: “Then they could get the players to Ennis to train.”
The Clare training fund — like that of training funds in many counties — was well-subscribed, with the GAA clubs, the general public, and businesses all contributing.
Clare enjoyed a season of unprecedented success, winning the Munster championship and progressing to the 1914 All-Ireland hurling final where they were slated to play Leix (as the hurlers of Queen’s County were officially known as in GAA circles).
Throughout the season, the Clare hurlers headed for a week’s training in Lahinch and in Lisdoonvarna before their championship matches, with Clare County Council, a local National Insurance inspector and a local doctor, Dr McDonagh, all giving use of their cars to convey the team.
Throughout the week before the 1914 All-Ireland final, they stayed in the Temperance Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, and among the exercises they undertook were running, walking, hurling, and gymnastics, as well as receiving massages.
Each man was up at 7am for a five-mile walk and was usually in bed by 10.30pm to recuperate.
The training was overseen by the trainer for the team, Jim O’Hehir (father of the
renowned Gaelic games commentator Mícheál); he instructed that no drinking or smoking should take place, for even “smoking of any kind is almost as harmful as drinking”.
There were strong rumours, however, that some members of the team had occasionally indulged in “certain spa water brewed on the banks of the Laney”.
There were other distractions, too, as a letter-writer to the Clare Champion wrote: “Our boys being so good looking, and of course such heroes in the eyes of the fair sex, attract quite a number of fair ladies to the vicinity of their training quarters every evening and as a result we have some ‘tripping in the light fantastic toe’ which is all very well in its own way, taken in moderation ... but it should not come off every night and on no account be prolonged after 10.”
As it turns out, Clare duly hammered Leix: the final score of the 1914 All-Ireland hurling final was Clare 5–1 (16 points), Leix 1–0 (three points).
Leix had themselves been appearing in their first final and although the defeat was hard to take and brutally comprehensive, it spurred Leix to still greater efforts in 1915 and they duly won the county’s only All-Ireland hurling championship.
The story of that success is told in an extraordinary collection of documents which record the meticulous preparation that was undertaken by the hurlers of Leix in the years 1914 and 1915 as they failed — and succeeded — in their efforts to win an All-Ireland hurling championship.
There are training schedules, printed advisory handouts to players, correspondence on the picking of the team and all the basic detailed work that can only flow from countless hours of commitment to a cause, undertaken by people who are working for a greater good well away from the spotlight.
This was a success that was rooted in the vision of a small few men, who mobilised many around them, committed to the cause of Leix hurling, that brought the county from the margins right to the mainstream and then on to the peak.
It was arduous, intensive, laced with failure for several years, but was ultimately successful — a reminder of what can be done if people of determination row as one.
But if the success of Leix was driven by the few, it was shared by the many.
In the course of the enormous celebrations that followed Leix’s success, bonfires blazed and a procession through Abbeyleix saw team captain John Finlay carried shoulder-high behind a pipe band.
Congratulatory letters arrived from many parts, not least from Algernon Coote, Lord Lieutenant of Queen’s Co, who wrote from the House of Commons: “Will you convey my hearty congratulations to the Leix team, upon winning the hurling championship?”
A telegraph also arrived from Westminster from the nationalist MP for Queen’s Co, Patrick A Meehan. The thing is that the archive of documents that tells the story of Leix’s success also includes that enduring phenomenon of the GAA — the anonymous letter.
Back in 1914, hearing of the training being undertaken in Clare an anonymous letter was sent to the secretary of the Leix County Committee which implored the players to “leave off work and train. If ye do not, ye will be not only beaten, but disgraced”.
We know of that anonymous letter because it was archived and eventually bought by the GAA Museum.
It may indeed be tame in comparison with the letters received by Éamonn Fitzmaurice and Stephen Rochford and John Kiely, but it is real nonetheless and it offers an insight into the culture of the time.
Abusing people who run teams — and doing so anonymously — runs through the history of the GAA. It is as much a part of the story of the GAA as the glory of striking a ball with a stick, or of playing for the honour of the little village.
It is absolutely the actions of a small minority — but small or not, it exists and is shameful. And there is no excuse capable of being made for it.
The prevalence of anonymous abuse will come as no shock to anyone who has ever managed a team at any significant level.
Sometimes it is a letter, other times it is a phone call, more recently it is an email.
These are the direct approaches to the person and exist alongside the more general sewage propagated on social media.
It is worth noting that this abuse is emphatically not the product of social media — rather social media is the visible part of a way of behaving that has long thrived in private.
It is worth noting also that there is no suggestion that anyone should be beyond criticism. Differing opinions — no matter how strongly held — are essential to living; dissent must sit at the core of every functioning institution.
But personal abuse written anonymously is not dissent; it is, instead, the fruit of a diseased mind.
An archive of such letters in the Croke Park Museum would demonstrate just how diseased those minds are.
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