Charleville: A town on tenterhooks

Charleville town is full of colour, this week, lifting it out of the ordinary. Which is apt, because Charleville town is anything but ordinary this week.

Charleville: A town on tenterhooks

Charleville town is full of colour, this week, lifting it out of the ordinary. Which is apt, because Charleville town is anything but ordinary this week. The colours are red and white, the local GAA club colours. Hardly surprising, since the parish is readying itself for a biblical exodus to Croke Park tomorrow to support its team in the All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling final.

I saw the first red and white flags outside a farmhouse a couple of miles south of the town when I visited. Many more as I approached the Dr Mannix GAA Sportsfield, where Sunday’s team learned their craft as boys and men. Red and white chequered flags fluttering outside the Sportsfield, and on the windows of the houses in Holycross Place, and outside The Four Winds; red and white balloons in the windows of Treasure Chest; red and white flags and bunting outside the credit union, and JP Moran’s, and the old courthouse, and Bridget’s, and O’Brien’s Bar; red flowers in The Flower Pot; red and white flags and signs, and red and white cars arrayed outside Cavanaghs of Charleville; red and white ‘best of luck’ signs from Centra, from The Charleville Show, from St Joseph’s Infants School on Smiths Lane; even an ecumenical best of luck from Ballyhea GAA, out the road.

Charleville is remembering. Martin Condon and James Foley of Cavanaghs rattled off years and teams and old players as fluently as if they were the names of family members—– which in a way they are. “Only six of the 1958 junior team that got to the county final are alive,” James said, “we’re honouring them at our Up For The Match event tomorrow night. The theme is the journey from junior to senior.”

Martin was club secretary from 1976 to 1988 and Cavanaghs have been sponsoring the club for over 40 years. He remembers the good times and the not-so-good times. “I remember looking out the gate on the Sunday morning of a league game and wondering would so-and-so turn up or would he be playing soccer, would we have a team? Now we have a great second team too, they nearly won the county.”

James told me he has a photo on his phone of an Under 12 team from eight years ago and most of those lads are now on the current team. They stuck with it, they had great coaches all the way up. But also how only four of the 2012 team that got to the All-Ireland Junior Final are still there for Sunday. “We had to build again,” he said.

Another man I met talked about Jack Meade [the current team’s full-back] and how his grandfather played in two Harty Cup finals. He mentioned the ’46 and ’47 teams and how the club was senior from 1947 to 1952, then junior from 1960–2011. “So it’s nice to be going back senior again,” I suggested. “Oh, ‘tis then,” he said, his eyes sparkling. Yes, Charleville is remembering.

Charleville is forward-looking. Mike Keane, the club chairman, outlined development plans for their second field. How the club had received a capital grant of €63,000, and besides the Up For The Match fundraiser, ‘The Hollywood Comes to Charleville’ show would also be a major fundraising event in March.

“Seven women are organising that,” he said, “and it’s great to have them involved, they’re doing a fantastic job. We’ve senior hurling next year, so we need all the facilities we can get. Our only regret is we won’t have senior league as well, so we could play more matches against Ballyhea and Newtown and all the top senior teams to bring our fellows on.”

Martin Condon also pointed out there are 10 players starting tomorrow under 21.

While honouring the players and volunteers of the past, the club is clearly focused on the future, too. Yes, Charleville is forward-looking.

Charleville is ambitious. They drafted in Ben O’Connor to coach the team — a masterstroke. When I spoke to Ben, he was more focused on the minutiae, the detailed tasks he wanted all the players to do (or try to do), all through the game. He spoke of the team’s journey (in more ways than one) from playing Kilworth in Kildorrery last April, to Páirc Uí Rinn, to Páirc Uí Chaoimh, to the Gaelic Grounds, to Semple Stadium. And now this.

“The club will have a great day out,” I said.

“We will if we win,” Ben said, and I could see that old thread of steel still running through him, the one that all the true greats of sport are graced with — while the rest of us have to manage with just flesh and blood.

He looks as fit as he was when he adorned Croke Park himself on momentous days, but when I pressed him on the importance of his coaching input on the team, he wasn’t having it. “It’s all about the players,” he said. “After we beat Feakle in the Munster final before Christmas we said we’d give the players a bit of a rest — it was a 16-week break. And they dug it out of the fire that day, we were 10 points down at half-time. But they came back to us, wanting to do something. They really got what we were all about this year. We brought them up to Croke Park last weekend to get a feel for the place, so it wouldn’t be strange for them Sunday.” He also mentioned the importance of the video analysis by Sean O’Donnell. I got a strong sense of attention to detail, the fine marginal gains at the highest level. Yes, Charleville is ambitious.

Charleville is proud, right now. An air of optimism and expectancy is pulsing around the town, as though the first swallows of summer were here already. I met two women buying flags from my old pal Michael Anthony near The GAA Sportsfield. “Are ye all set for Sunday?” I asked. “Oh yes,” one of the women said. “Can’t wait.”

Have ye a family connection with the team?

“We do,” she said, but wouldn’t be drawn. “Are you proud of him?” I asked. “Very,” she said, and her expression changed and I couldn’t tell whether she was looking inward or outward — perhaps both.

“There’s a great sense of pride in the town right now,” Mike Keane said, “You can see it in the colours around the place. Businesses and schools and everyone has bought into it.” When I asked Martin Condon if Sunday meant a lot, after all these years, he exhaled and inhaled and said: “Ah, it does, it does,” and the look on his face meant he didn’t have to say any more.

“The soccer club helped us out last week with an all-weather pitch,” James Foley told me. “They had to move six teams of their own to facilitate us and they wouldn’t take a penny. It’s not a question of if people are going up on Sunday, it’s a question of how they’re travelling.”

Not if, but how — those words fixed in my mind as I drove out of town.

Yes, Charleville is expectant and optimistic. Charleville is proud, and rightly so.

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