Tommy Murphy never took a drink in his life, but three and a half decades as PRO of Carlow GAA brought him through the front doors of a lot of pubs. He saw one-liners based on Gaelic games floor more men than bad whiskey.
“After matches in a pub, lads would be talking about what they’d do on the field and what they wouldn’t do, the All-Irelands they could have won and nearly won, and some oul’ lad at the counter with the flat cap crossways on his head would level them all with one comment.
“The GAA is a great equaliser like that. It’s the greatest spirit level you could imagine in Ireland to keep people’s feet on the ground.”
Murphy has seen the good and bad with Carlow. He was around in 1999 when the county had four men sent off in the first outing for red and yellow cards, and this year he saw CarlowRising become a catchphrase on social media.
The latter is one of the biggest changes in the GAA he’s seen, given how significantly it’s altered the role of the PRO: “Up to the late 70s in clubs and county boards you had a chairman, secretary, and delegates, maybe a youth officer, though I can remember cases where there was a treasurer and two assistant treasurers, or a chairman, vice-chairman and deputy vice-chairman.
“That got tidied up in the late 70s and the office of PRO came in, but it was a time when a lot of club grounds didn’t have a scoreboard, never mind social media.
“That time the only people reporting were the provincial papers. They kept the accurate account of the games down through the years.
“That’s hugely important. I’m not being defeatist when I say this, but if someone goes to do research on games in 20 years’ time, they may be able to find plenty of comments about them on social media, but where will they find a good report of a game?
“The teams, the scorers, the subs, an accurate report . . . where will they get the facts? We had a parish priest here one time who had an expression: the written word stands, and there’s a lot in that still.”
Now he’s stepped down from his role, Murphy can bring some perspective to bear on the county’s fortunes.
“The last two years were good. Going back a bit further, in 2008 and 2009 we won the Christy Ring Cup, and one of the great things the GAA did was to bring in those tiers of competition — the Christy Ring, Lory Meagher, and Nicky Rackard competitions.
“We had good panels in those years and were well able to compete with teams in our group. This year as well, I think Colm (Bonnar, Carlow hurling manager), had it in his mind to do as well as we could, and we ended up winning the Joe McDonagh Cup and got to Division 1B.
“Now just because we’re competing for the Liam MacCarthy doesn’t mean there’s no gap there between that level and the lower levels. That gap exists and it still exists and we’re a way off the Corks, Kilkennys, and Tipperarys. But we still knocked great craic out of the last couple of years with the hurlers, and with the footballers. I think there could be a B and even a C competition in Gaelic football at intercounty level.”
His logic is sound enough: “I have a different reason for suggesting we could have different tiers at inter-county level.
“I’ve looked at a lot of good footballers, good county players — back to 1962, when we were in the league semi-final against Down, when they beat us by two points. I can remember the late Micheál O’Hehir saying on the radio that time, ‘it’s great to see Carlow back in the big time’.
“The next time we won a trophy was 1994, an All-Ireland B championship in football.
Obviously between 1962 and 1994 you had a lot of players who gave years to the county without winning anything.
“The difference in hurling is that every county is more or less happy with where they are in terms of the competition they’re in, they seem to accept that.”
Going to matches for over half a century gives someone a bird’s-eye view of changes in tactics and strategies, of course.
“The catch-and-kick, old-fashioned style of football is gone,” he says. “From a spectator’s point of view nearly all games are at the one level, nearly every team now is playing to a system or a pattern. We don’t see that great high fielding any more, or the way lads would say long ago, ‘he’s class’.
“They meant someone did something above and beyond the call of duty to lift the team.”
Class? Tommy Murphy could tell you all about it.