Heard about the 29-year-old Mayo footballer who went back to college to study medicine and hurl Fitzgibbon? And is now closing on bringing a first-ever All Ireland hurling club title to Mayo? While winning Sam was once his obsession, hurling has always been Cathal Freeman’s passion
For a moment listening to Cathal Freeman describe a childhood steeped in the wonder of hurling, you’d think he was like any other country lad that he plays Fitzgibbon with in Limerick.
The family home had the archetypal gable wall that he’d bang a ball against, all day, all night. His elbow still bears a scar from when he was five, haring after a ball. He and his brother almost daily would, as he puts it, “beat the head off one another”, either in the back garden or down on the local club field.
The game owned them and they felt the game belonged to them as much as any kids from Galway, Tipperary, Cork.
Freeman’s background and profile, though, differ considerably to those of his younger teammates in UL. For one, that local club field is now named after that brother he’d play and scrap with; though he was born only 33 years ago, Adrian Freeman, tragically, is no longer with us.
And that Adrian Freeman Memorial Park resides in Mayo, hardly a hurling heartland and undoubtedly a football one.
Cathal himself would weave a small part of the county’s grand football tapestry. In 2008 he’d kick four points from play in an All-Ireland minor final against Tyrone alongside Aidan O’Shea.
The following year he was kicking frees for the U21s while his cousin Alan remained rooted to the bench.
Two leg fractures then robbed him of some precious years and even more precious pace and confidence, yet through sheer grit and character, he’d earn a recall in 2013 to the senior county panel that would get within a point of Dublin and of ending that interminable famine without Sam.
In those years the cause of Mayo football became something of an obsession but hurling always has been his true passion.
Between going back to college in his late twenties to study medicine along with everything else, he no longer plays football, not even with the local club, Aghamore. Yet he still hurls. With Mayo. With UL. And above all, with Tooreen, astonishingly the Connacht intermediate champions two of the past three seasons.
It doesn’t take long in Freeman’s company to deduce he’s both a deep and lateral thinker. Ask him about the current state of hurling in Mayo and he’ll begin by saying, “Like any large-sized problem, it’s multifactorial”— that’s not a word you hear much from anyone still playing a sport, ‘multifactorial’— before recommending, among other things, a Team Connacht comprised of players from the province’s counties other than Galway.
A reason he can endure the odd quizzical look from his younger, blueblood, UL teammates — “On one of our first nights out, one of the lads said, ‘Who is the fella with the Mayo gear? Is he the team doctor or something?’”— is because he has noticed that Mayo is about the only non-Ulster county not to have a player feature in the knockout stages of the Fitzgibbon Cup the past 10 years and it’s something he wants to correct.
But it’s when it comes to the subject of his home hurling club and its history that his nerdiness is at its most magnificent.
“In my head I have a ranking of who the greatest Tooreen players are, even though I didn’t see many of them play,” he volunteers at one point, “and I was fortunate to be coached from eight right up to minor by the no.2 or no.3 on that list, Dom Greally.”
In his appreciation of past Tooreen teams, he can inform you of one of the most remarkable and forgotten facts in hurling history— that two Roscommon teams, Tremane in 1976 and Four Roads in 1988, shocked Galway opposition to win the Connacht senior club championship; even though, as he phrases it, “I wasn’t a thought in my parent’s heads at the time,” it “still lives with me” that Tooreen didn’t make a similar breakthrough in 1978 when they had Ardrahan on the rack.
He was around himself alright for 1999 when Toureen pushed Athenry hard; Eugene Cloonan & Co ultimately prevailed by seven points before going on to win it all the following St Patrick’s Day. “I was only nine but I still remember thinking, ‘God, we’re so close to doing this.’”
His greatest sense of gratitude and reverence though is reserved for the club’s founding fathers. In the mid-1950s a 14-year-old called Michael Henry boarded in St Mary’s in Galway for the year and came home with this interest in hurling and floated the idea to some friends that they should form a club.
And so they did. Kenny would later go on to work in England, where he still lives, yet would still fly home to hurl with his buddies.
Once, according to legend, he persuaded the RAF to drop him over for a game in Castlebar. When you could establish a hurling club on the Mayo-Roscommon border, you were capable of swinging anything.
“I just think it’s incredible, that a group of lads of only 15, 16, 17 years of age started a hurling club by themselves out of nothing and left such a legacy of joy for generations like mine. A few of them have started to pass away but thankfully I got the chance to meet and thank them all.
And what was really beautiful was when we won our first [intermediate] Connacht two years ago, it was Michael Henry who presented us with our medals, 60 years on from him founding the club.
Over the years they’ve seen other clubs come and go. The same year Tooreen was founded, Belmullet were county champions, and were so again as recently as 2001.
When Tooreen reached their first county final in 1963, they lost to a crew called Moy Slashers, mostly made up of lads from Kilkenny and Wexford working on some project on the River Moy.
When Freeman’s father, Seamus, and uncles were playing in the 70s, Ballinrobe were their biggest rivals. In 2007 Freeman himself lost to eventual county champions Ballina Stephenites featuring his future county football teammate Ger Cafferkey.
Now, just 12 years on, Ballina no longer have a hurling team. Nor do Belmullet or Ballinrobe. Instead just four clubs in the county are playing adult hurling: Castlebar Mitchells, Westport, Tooreen themselves, and Keith Higgins and the Ballyhaunis boys a couple of miles down the road.
Why so few? Well, as he says, it’s multifactorial.
“No county, bar probably Kerry, is as obsessed with football as Mayo. Mayo people identify themselves almost entirely by their football team. Even with [a hurling man like] me, when I had the opportunity to play football for Mayo, I absolutely burst myself to make it happen.
“The other great problem with hurling is that you actually need to be proficient at it to enjoy it.
The barrier to entry is very high. Now, once you pass that barrier, nothing — football, anything — compares to it in my eyes.
"But you can pick up a football, bounce it, [hand] pass it off and you’re in the game, you have some part to play. Whereas in hurling, it [the hurley] can be a foreign object to so many people. There’s some unbelievable work going on but in Mayo it will be an incredibly hard sell.
“The truth is it’s dying a death. We’re blessed [in Tooreen] with a miracle crop of lads at the moment, just like Ballyhaunis were there for years. But the overall state of the game in the county is only going one direction and that’s downwards.
"Because there aren’t nearly enough numbers.
“Our club alone provides somewhere between 12 and 15 of the county panel. So think of the Mayo team training now for the national league starting at the end of January. A few Fridays ago they were training in Bekan in the Connacht GAA Centre.
So were Tooreen. We [Tooreen] had 32 lads togged out. Mayo had only 10 or 12. Sure half the squad were wearing blue and white.
Freeman is as much a historian of Mayo hurling as he is of Tooreen, partly because for some periods they amounted to one and the same thing, and so he can tell you about what he terms the “two golden ages of Mayo hurling”.
The first was in the mid-80s when Mayo operated in the old Division Two, rubbing shoulders with Dublin and even Tipp, and once shocking Waterford with a Castlebar Mitchells goalkeeper and all 14 outfield players from Tooreen.
He happened to catch the tail-end of the second golden age — the second half of the noughties. In 2008 they came within a point of Carlow in a Christy Ring semi-final with players from all parts of the county.
The following year, Freeman’s first, they beat Westmeath and Kildare to get back to another Ring semi-final.
But then Down hammered them and the economic recession devastated them further; that winter there was mass retirements and mass immigration, with Adrian Freeman one of those who headed to Australia.
Those who stayed at home, like his brother Cathal, would try to keep the flag flying, and in 2016 even raised the Nicky Rackard Cup above in Croke Park, but while that made everyone — the GAA, the game’s guardians, Mayo — look respectable, for Freeman it was masking a reality.
The game in the county — in too many counties – is barely breathing. The Ring-Rackard-Meagher model may be outdated.
“Is it better than what was there previously? Absolutely. But it’s been there for 15 years now. How much has hurling progressed in that time? For sure you have fluctuations. We’ve had some good years. Only two years ago we won 2B of the league.
On paper that looks great. But if you scratch the surface, we won it with four clubs. It’s going to come to a stage where we’re not going to have a team in a few years.
"And while I don’t have that much knowledge of other counties, I’d imagine their situation isn’t too dissimilar to our own.”
For some form of representative hurling to continue, to help the game to develop, even survive, in a county like Mayo, he’d be in favour of amalgamating some county teams.
Freeman considers it one of the honours of his career that he got to hurl for Connacht, just as Adrian and their uncle Eamonn and Dom Greally did before him. At the tail-end of 2016, Micheál O’Donoghue made him and Cathal Dolan from Roscommon more than welcome to train with Galway’s squad as part of their 2017 All-Ireland-winning pre-season that doubled up as inter-provincial prep.
For Freeman it’s “a killer” that there’s no longer any inter-provincial outlet as it was “one of the ways you could mark yourself out”.
But a Team Connacht, consisting of players from Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, and Sligo, playing in the Joe McDonagh, or even some day the Liam MacCarthy, would be an even superior lifeline.
“God, it would be an unbelievable carrot, to have the opportunity to test yourself. Because at the moment those opportunities are so limited.
If we don’t want the game to die, we need to give lads outlets to play at the highest level they possibly can.
"At the moment it’s more attractive to play with Tooreen than it is to play with Mayo, because we get to play in finals in front of big crowds. But if you gave lads from all these outlier places like Ballina a carrot and opportunity like [a Team Connacht], they’d be more inclined to go for it.
"There are some fantastic hurlers in places you wouldn’t think but the carrot to really push on is not as apparent as it is elsewhere.”
And yet, as much as he’d love to see something like that happen, he quickly has something to add. “Now, I will say, the GAA has far bigger structural pressures and priorities than that.” Like? The fixtures calendar. Try explaining to a girlfriend from south Dublin why in December you have a challenge game with the college on the Thursday, a challenge game with the club on the Friday, another with the college on the Saturday, and another with the club on the Sunday.
“She said, ‘Why are all these friendly games now?! It’s nearly Christmas!’ And I had to say, ‘That’s just the way the GAA is!’
“But lads will not keep doing it. . Before, young people used to move from the country to towns. Now they’re moving from towns to cities. More of my friends live in Dublin — well, Perth, actually — than anywhere else. Even if you reduce it to a 12-month calendar season which they’re moving it to, do you think you can keep asking lads to traipse up and down the road from Dublin for that length of time?
In ten years’ time we’re going to have a massive problem on our hands just to keep club teams around the country going.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a period of two or three months in the year where lads could go off and explore other things and then their manager can say, ‘Right, this is our programme of games from June to November and this here — say, March — is when we need you to really buy into it’?
“The GAA has to make a decision about who they are as an organisation. Last month O’Neill’s came out saying jersey sales had been hit by the shortened inter-county season. And I was looking at that and thinking, ‘Right, where is the most pressure going to come from?’ Don’t get me wrong, there is a case for the GAA to generate revenue.
"There is no comparison between the facilities your typical GAA club has and your soccer club. But we have to make sure we’re doing right by our members and that we remain primarily a community and socially based organisation.
“If you look at England, it’s become mostly a country of strangers. Hardly no one knows each other. And that happens to varying degrees in cities in Ireland too. It’s happening in a lot of aspects of Irish life.
"We’re all glued to our phones. My father might go up on the train to Dublin for the day and he’ll mention how he got chatting to some fella in the train station or on the train itself. Hardly anyone does that now. If I’m on the train, I’ll have my laptop out, my phone out. I’m either working or watching something on Netflix. But the GAA can have a very central role in developing social interaction and social cohesion.”
He produces the aforementioned cursed phone for a moment, then shows you his favourite picture of 2019. It’s of a pitch in Athleague covered in blue and white and the community and diaspora of Tooreen after they shocked Conor Whelan and Kinvara in the Connacht club final.
“If we weren’t playing that Sunday, if we weren’t on the run we’re on now, how many people from Tooreen that might otherwise have been having a bad day wouldn’t have got to see Johnny who lives 50 yards down the road?
But all of a sudden they might have got chatting, maybe even gone for a pint together afterwards, and people feel better about themselves and more included. That’s what we have. That’s what we must keep.
Such moments are all the more cherished down around Adrian Freeman Memorial Park. Within nine months of moving to Melbourne where he was working as a civil engineer, Adrian was driving along a straight road with a few friends when a nurse, coming off a long night shift, nodded off at the wheel, crashed into his car, causing his car to spin into a tree.
Adrian was killed, along with a Kerry friend, Robbie Twomey, in the seat behind him.
“It was freakish. That tree was the only tree on that road for miles. A few days later I was having a beer with a couple of other lads in the car and there wasn’t a scratch on them.”
The loss of Adrian scarred him for years. It still stays with him. That’s a big reason why playing for Connacht was such a big thing for him, why playing for Mayo and Tooreen is such a big thing for him; it’s what Adrian did, it’s what Adrian loved to do.
It even informed his decision to go back to college 15 months ago after working and earning a wage for years in IT.
“I was talking to my sister Louise who is a doctor and she said to me, ‘You still have an itch to do medicine, don’t you? If you’re going to do it, you need to do it now, otherwise you’ll settle down, buy a house and never do it.’
Not long after that then I was over with Donal O’Sullivan, the Limerick [football] goalkeeper who I’d have played Sigerson with in NUIG, and when I mentioned the doctor thing to his mother, she said, ‘Yeah, that would suit you. Something with a bit of soul in it!’
“After what happened [with Adrian], I have a very clear understanding of my own mortality.
While we’re here, it’s important we do things that intrinsically satisfy us, that have real meaning to us.
For a time that meant throwing himself into the cause of bringing Sam back to Mayo. They didn’t quite make it on his beat or even in Ger Cafferkey’s but there was glory and satisfaction in the trying.
“I remember one cold night when I was studying in Galway and Caff was working there, we were out in Dangan for a running session. Normally I’d be good to train but this night I just was not feeling it.
"But Caff was like, ‘No, you’re doing it.’ There was no ifs or buts about it. I hated that Caff ended his career without an All-Ireland and his reputation took a bit of a hit towards the end of his career after a couple of tough days at the office. That team was full of great leaders, great men.”
Now he’s trying to win an All-Ireland with Tooreen. Another cause with a bit of soul about it.