PM O'SULLIVAN: Begrudgery puts Kilkenny back in the firing line on All-Ireland football weekend

All-Ireland football weekend focuses every sort of issue and maybe not just the obvious ones.

Come Sunday, Cork’s footballers of 1990 will be fêted at halftime in the Senior Final, same as Cork’s hurlers of 1990, four weeks ago, stood before the crowd. Those players’ achievements remain a unique assertion of dual county status in modern times.

The silver anniversary of double triumph might prompt thoughts on dual competitiveness and the questions involved. Item: this topic is rising like a bruise in Tipperary GAA. Quite a few people in that county reckon football was a hindrance to their Minor hurlers of 2015.

By the by, Kerry have a measure of dual success at stake this weekend. Should the county’s footballers retain the Sam Maguire Cup, the Kerry hurlers’ hold on the Christy Ring Cup becomes that bit more notable.

Fair enough, no glamour in the slightest. But this scenario would form a double in its own right. Would it not be the most notable dual double since 1990, given that Cork failed on the football front in 1999 and Galway on the hurling front in 2001?

The argument is there, if Kerry keep Sam. Some class of an argument would be there, once the hangovers kicked out and winter talk kindled.

All the while, there is continued imbrication of Kerry and Kilkenny. The Special Ks and so forth. Never is this plait tighter than when the two counties are mapping Septembers.

That Kilkenny’s hurlers polished off what many observers believe an open-ended two in a row winds the association. The Kerry footballers’ display on Sunday afternoon might not only be a winning one but a prospecting one.

Human nature is human nature, all around Ireland. Begrudgery is one sliver, silver sharp, of why we will never have socialist utopias.

Following All-Ireland hurling weekend, you could read acrid online comment by Tipperary natives urging that Kilkenny “should be forced to put 40% of their resources” into Gaelic football. There are those for whom a supposed attitude towards big ball matters bestows unfair advantage for small ball titles. This ilk even alleges that Kilkenny is not a true GAA county.

Item: not fielding in the NFL. Winning the British Junior Championship this summer availed naught. Reasoned discussion is not the nub. Whistling past the graveyard of championship ambitions is the beck.

Who hears anything about requiring Tyrone to devote 40% of their resources to hurling? No, this contagion of opinion breaks out whenever Kilkenny look set for titles in a row (as in 2003, when the gallimaufry of bias took off). There has been scarce little handwringing about Monaghan ways with a camán.

Why not choose coherence and fairness? The shooting season, nearly upon us, offers analogy. To wit: you cannot initiate a debate on game birds and then confine the discussion to pheasant and snipe, leaving off mention of grouse, partridge and woodcock.

The same caveat applies with GAA codes. The organisation is not a two code one, a body concerned solely with Gaelic football and hurling. Since rounders is a special case, three codes complete the mix: camógie, handball and ladies football.

Fair and coherent discussion of a county’s standing therefore assesses its contribution in a five code context rather than in a two code one. There is no gainsaying this reality, not for those unswayed by the blandishments of begrudgery.

Kilkenny representatives, down the decades, have managed significant impact in three spheres: camógie, handball and hurling. How many other counties offer comparable range? How many counties with a comparable population base do so?

Damian Cullen published a telling piece in The Irish Times in August 2006. That ‘September Road’ column parsed the cold statistics, factoring in population with regard to the four main codes. A Tipperary native, Cullen concluded that Kilkenny are “pound-for-pound the number one GAA county”.

Then comfortably ahead of Cork, Kerry and Tipperary, the stripy men are now even better positioned following 14 further All Ireland titles in the relevant grades. The addition of handball would likewise be to their advantage.

Practicalities are never remote. Via Senior, Intermediate and U21 panels, hurling occupies around 100 Kilkenny players. Forging a decent football side from the remaining candidates between 20 and 30 would be hard at any time and is especially difficult in an era where levels of athleticism and fitness have skyrocketed.

I spoke to Diarmuid ‘Gizzy’ Lyng in 2010 and he was adamant about how his county simply does not have the numbers sufficient to anchor top level hurling and Gaelic football. As of 2011, the population of County Wexford was 145,273; of County Kilkenny, 95,419. The 2011 population of County Kerry was 145,502. Those numbers sharpen to a point.

Ignorance is alien bliss. Moons ago, I played Minor football in stripes. We trained three times a week for several months.

As I recall, there was a round robin tournament involving Carlow, Waterford, Wexford and ourselves. Then we got hammered by a Stefan White-inspired Louth in the first round of 1985’s Leinster Championship. So it went.

Training over, the football panel was brought down to Langton’s for soup and sandwiches, same as the Minor hurlers. There was overlap between the two panels, three or four dual players. Frank Morgan, man of the match in 1984’s replayed All Ireland Minor Final against Limerick, proved as talented with big ball as with sliotar.

Gaelic football is not discouraged. I had a stint as Ballyhale Shamrocks’ U14 manager and saw how the standard at primary school level is decent. But the talented lads gravitate to the main code.

What else? They like to be tested. And they are the fourth generation for whom Kilkenny is synonymous with the most beautiful game.

Why lament a cowslip among the daisies? Hurling is not so robust a bloom as to scorn the idea of heartland. Hurling is part of what makes Ireland Irish, much as cowslips elect a meadow.

My own parish supplied the last man to captain a Leinster SFC win: Knocktopher’s Dick Holohan, in 1911. He was later a Cumann na nGaedheal TD and grandfather of Frank Holohan, who captained Kilkenny to an NHL title in 1986.

The family owned the Tournament Field outside the village, where several early County Finals were held. That pitch was surrounded by hawthorns and the father, young in the 1950s, remembers looking up at the liquorice eyes of roosting owls in a tall dense sceach that must have been, he says, a century old.

That boy would make it his business, goal nets up for the Mount Carmel Cup, to head there on the Monday after any Sunday games, so as to release hares tangled in those nets. Their nails left deep scratches on his hands.

Now the ground pushes up corn, hard by the Norman Keep. The hawthorns, like all those fields’ ditches, are vanquished by the empire of tillage.

Knocktopher was a stronghold of football in the 1900s and ’10s. An elderly man, much involved with the club from the 1940s to the 1960s, told me the old footballers had resented the coming of hurling and did not share his delight in the success of Lory Meagher and Kilkenny during the 1930s.

Sport is one arena in which history is never bunk, as per today’s U14s. Hurling’s pivot in Kilkenny was three successive titles 1911-13. Those players, first to wear the striped jersey, were fêted as never before. They enjoyed civic honours and each received a wallet of notes the equivalent of a weighty five figure sum in present terms.

Jealousy over this largesse contributed to the team’s break up and no further victory until 1922. But there was no going back. Footballers had become sheep in tillage country.

History swerves on, genetics and geography a mutable gift. The criterion of fairness stays still. Or should do.

Even on All Ireland football weekend.


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