There’s something deeply patronising and self-serving about the way in which some from traditionally successful GAA counties wish to carve the championship up for their own ends and shunt Carlow — and all the Carlows — off to a ‘B’ championship, writes Paul Rouse.
No human can function without memory. On a practical level, memory allows us to meet the basic challenges of living, the practical fundamentals of getting through the day.
But, of course, there is another aspect to memory which is critical to how people live: it can be found in the way that remembrance of the past — either personally experienced or inherited from stories learned from other people — shapes the decisions we make in our lives.
Sometimes this happens by way of trying to recreate a good experience or to avoid recreating a bad one.
And, at its most potent, it sees memories mix with dreams to create an ambition for what the future might look like.
When Carlow play Dublin this weekend in the Leinster Senior Football Championship, remembrance of the past partially explains why the game is being played at all.
It is the tradition of competing at the same level and of dreaming of recreating the occasional momentous, once-in-a-generation result that has thwarted the designs of those who wish to separate the Gaelic football championships into separate tiers.
In the case of Carlow, the touchstone of history sits in the 1940s. In that decade, with war raging across the world and Ireland isolated in ‘Emergency’ with fuel and foor rationing increasingly severe , Carlow reached three Leinster Finals in four years.
By the way of these things, Dublin provided the opposition on each occasion. And in keeping with the spirit of the age, it was a most turbulent experience.
Having made the Leinster senior football final for the first time in 1941, Carlow were denied the opportunity to play the game in the summer. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease confined the team to their home county and led the Leinster Council duly nominated Dublin to represent the province in that year’s All-Ireland competition.
As if to emphasise the importance of agriculture to Carlow, when the Leinster final was eventually rescheduled in November, a core of the team were unable to train.
The drive to harvest beet for the local sugar factory, the major source of employment in the county following its opening in 1926, left Carlow without proper preparation and they lost to Dublin.
They were back again the following year — and this time there was a deep controversy. Carlow duly lost to Dublin in the final, but immediately launched an objection. They argued that there were men on the Dublin team who had broken the ban on GAA members attending or playing “foreign games”.
According to Willie White in his excellent article, ‘Carlow football in the 1940s’, in the journal Carloviana, one of the players in question was Jimmy Joy and he had been seen entering Kilcock Rugby Club the previous April. Joy had form — he had previously been a rugby player but denied the charge. He said he was in Kilcock on the day in question but was not there to play rugby.
That 1942 objection against the Dublin team was defeated, however. It fell on the intervention of the then GAA President, Seamus Gardiner, who dismissed the evidence of a witness (who was alleged to have seen a Dublin player entering a rugby ground) on the basis that he wasn’t a member of the Association’s Vigilance Committees.
These things were taken seriously in Carlow. Rugby and cricket had enjoyed great prominence in the county before the founding of the GAA and the men who ran the Association in the county were wedded to its broader cultural mission.
In 1941, for example, the chairman of the Carlow County Board, Thomas Ryan, said the “code of the GAA aimed at moral justice between man and man, right for right’s sake, irrespective of the consequences. Hence the complete difference with ‘foreign’ games played for gain or to obtain a ‘cap’ and means of living; hence the ban.”
Carlow applied the rule and banned those who did not comply with the GAA’s rulebook. In a county of little more than 40,000 people, this was a significant policy choice.
Those Vigilance Committees — a sort of GAA secret surveillance operation, where some members were appointed to special committees to inform on how fellow members spent their hours of recreation — were both a product of the times and something incredibly jarring.
Either ways, Carlow were not going away. After disappointment in 1943, losing narrowly to Laois in the Leinster semi-final, they were back in the Leinster final in 1944. Almost inevitably, Dublin provided the opposition. This time the game was played in Athy. And Carlow won.
Driven by the fitness of an intensive training regime, they outlasted Dublin to win by 2-6 to 1-6. A local journalist reported: “There were scenes of great jubilation at the end as the Carlow players were carried shoulder high from the field, and all other worries were forgotten.”
The victory unleashed a tidal wave of emotion across the county. When news of the result reached Carlow town, for example, several large bonfires were lit and jubilant locals gathered around them: “Gramophones, accordions and musical instruments of every description were brought out to enliven the festivities, and dancing took place around the fires until late in the night,” The Nationalist and Leinster Times reported.
It was to the All-Ireland football semi-final, played in Croke Park, in August 1944.
The stories of that day are a central part of the lore of Carlow GAA. For example there was the group that set off from Carlow on the Saturday afternoon before the game. Their bicycles took them on the road through Tullow, Rathvilly, and Blessington. Reaching Tallaght on the outskirts of Dublin city, they pulled in at a pub where the bicycles of fellow Carlow travellers were piled deep outside.
It was 8pm and they settled in for the night. The following morning, once mass was said, the men were joined by more and then more again, and they set off into Dublin.
“The ride into the city did us good,” one of the travelling party later recalled. “It took the stiffness out of our bones from the journey the day before, and left us in right form to cheer on Carlow.”
In the end they lost to Kerry by 3-3 to 0-10 in front of 40,000 people, but the adventure was a wonderful one.
And the thing is: this was a breakthrough that was earned. By the mid-1940s Carlow established themselves as a genuine force in football. Through the 1930s the playing structures for county clubs were seriously improved.
A new county ground named after Dr Matthew Cullen, a recently deceased bishop and GAA enthusiast, was opened in 1936. More importantly, also in 1936, a league for rural primary schools was initiated. Welded together, these developments created the environment for Carlow to prosper.
Carlow has proved unable to sustain competitive inter-county teams since. But it is a magnificent GAA county. Its club championship is hard-fought and, unlike most counties, it properly seeks to fulfil the ambition of fostering both football and hurling. This, alone, leaves its board and clubs deserving of respect.
By contrast, there is something deeply patronising and self-serving about the way in which some from traditionally successful GAA counties wish to carve the championship up for their own ends and shunt Carlow — and all the Carlows — off to a ‘B’ championship. The people of such counties have essentially never shown interest in such competition.
By contrast, there will be a great crowd of Carlow people to support their team against Dublin. Perhaps the might even launch into a verse of a ballad to remember the team of ’44. That ballad begins:
Come all ye Scallion Eaters, Hoist the banner of the Gael,
As every town and hamlet’s Getting ready for the trail!
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