Without the GAA — and I speak as a card-carrying countryman from a dedicated GAA parish — we would be lesser souls.
Take Tullaroan, a tiny crossroads village of under 700 people in north Kilkenny. Anywhere else, it would be nothing, a one-horse town with no blacksmith, but here in Ireland its got an identity, a real and solid identity. Reason? Hurling.
Even as a youngster in Ballyhea, in faraway north Cork, I grew up on tales of the legendary men from Tullaroan; I heard of the three Grace brothers, Jack, Pierce and the great Dick, 15 All-Ireland senior medals between them, of Sim Walton and his seven All-Ireland medals, of Paddy Phelan and Lory Meagher, wing-back and midfield respectively on the GAA Team of the Millennium.
“In 1939,” recalls 90-year-old Dick ‘The Church’ Walsh (to distinguish him from Dick ‘The Chairman’ Walsh, Dick ‘Haywire’ Walsh, etc — you get the drift), “Phelan was half-back, on Jack Lynch; Lynch was out in front, as every good forward should be; Phelan let him rise every ball and then he’d take it with a flick, from the right side, from the left side — he hardly ever let him strike the ball that day.”
Remind you of anyone? Here’s the slightly younger Paddy Clohesey on current Tullaroan and Kilkenny star, Tommy Walsh: “He’s like the hawk or the eagle, they never miss when they go, and he will always come out with that ball in his hand, however he manages to catch it; He’s not a big man, Tommy, but he’s very strong in the body, able to twist a bigger man, stand into him. The bigger the opponent the better he seems to like it.”
IT’S a place of lore and legend, Tullaroan, and fittingly, less than a mile from the village, the two come together in the Kilkenny hurling museum located at the old Lory Meagher homestead, a museum dedicated to the memory of one of Tullaroan’s and Kilkenny’s finest.
A leisurely stroll around it is illuminated by the company of those two other venerable Tullaroan legends, Paddy and Dick. Both have excellent recollection and a ready, cutting wit, and soon you understand why it is that even the greatest Kilkenny hurlers are so grounded — let them assume any airs and they are soon brought to earth, because here, when it comes to hurling, there is as much cutting off the field as on.
This is Paddy on a local man, Jack Nail (O’Neill): “They’re talking about the tough Kilkenny training matches in the park now — sure they’re at nothing! Sceilp one another in the training field, that’s how you learn how to hurl.
“None of these lads today ever trained on Jack Nail, did they? I’m telling you, you needed your guard up then, because Jack was one hard man! He’d come up, after milking the cows, the cowshit still between his fingers, maybe a bit on his shoulder where he rubbed up against the cows, and he’d rub that up against you! He’d hold the hurl up like you’d hold a slashers, and he’d bring it down too! You daren’t come down last to training because you’d find yourself on Jack — no-one wanted to mark him.
“He was a sub on the 58 team, and a poor sub,” adds Dick — “Begod, he wasn’t able to hurl at all!
“He wouldn’t finish a match, he’d be put off straight away,” adds Paddy. “There was a man here met his mother — God, she says, I was praying none of my boys would ever make hurlers. Begod, says he, your prayers were answered!”
You need to know these people, you need to be there, to understand that there is no malice in any of that. It’s hurling men on hurling men, pulling hard but pulling honest. To understand why hurling has such a hold on Kilkenny people, you have to know places like Tullaroan, you have to sit and talk and drink and sing with the people. To read of the exploits of Keher, DJ, Henry, Cha and Tommy is to know but the bare bones; places like Tullaroan, the honest folk who grace them — that’s the marrow.