Championship Preview: In Kerry, the well of tradition is there to be drawn from. But it will no longer win an All-Ireland

WHEN Kerry won one of the most dour and tactically conservative All-Ireland finals in recent memory, last September, it would have been easiest to have put it down to tradition. Kerry win All-Irelands because that is what Kerry traditionally do. 

Right? Kerry’s rich football heritage has been the wellspring for many the fine yarn, poem and ballad. The likes of Joe Smyth, his nephew, Liam Mac Gabhann, Bryan McMahon, his son, Garry, Dan Keane, of Moyvane, and Cormac O’ Leary, of the same parish, are just some of the many who have contributed to the vast store of poetry and balladry that feeds into the Kerry football legend.

In more recent years, Moyvane’s greatest living poet, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, published a book of poetry entitled In Praise of Football. It contains paeans to well-known figures, such as Mikey Sheehy, Páidí Ó Sé, Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston and Jimmy Deenihan.

It was Fitzmaurice also who wrote, over a decade and a half ago, in his brilliant book, Kerry on My Mind, that there is a “larger-than-life, hyperbolic dimension to Kerry people. Cute and canny as we are, we seem to revel in living our lives in public — perhaps that is why, as a county, we have produced so many storytellers, singers, writers, footballers and talkers who need to perform in public. It is as if the closed, secretive atmosphere of the small village — and Kerry is full of small villages — explodes and displays all in public.”

When Kerry were receiving their All Ireland medals last December, another Fitzmaurice, Eamonn, chose, on a whim, to quote some lines from Garry McMahon’s poem, ‘Dúchas’.

Anyone in Kerry who appreciates pub and terrace lore will recognise this poem as the one that begins with the lines “You say tradition counts for nought when two teams take the field...” Fitzmaurice chose the verse that contains references to our native language, to Mount Brandon and to the Skellig Rock, to embellish an already powerful end-of-year speech that had ‘been-there-done-that’ veterans gushing in their praise.

Kerry people like their nostalgia and their sentiment just as much as anybody else and Fitzmaurice, an exemplar of North Kerry pragmatism, knows better than most when the traditions of Kerry football should be harnessed, and used in the proper context, to make people feel good about themselves.

Tradition has a time and a place in Kerry, and in football.

I, and many others who were part of the 1997 panel that finally ended Kerry’s 11-year wait for an All Ireland title, only ever saw Kerry’s football tradition as a double-edged sword.

Rather than being an inspiration in the three or four years prior to 1997, when Derry, Down, Dublin and Meath all won titles, the sheer weight of that tradition, and the burden of expectation that came with it, was too great for a lot of players. Even having Ogie Moran, a living legend with eight All-Ireland medals, as manager, couldn’t help. It was only when another one of the gilded generation, Páidí Ó Sé, came along and told us to forget all the baggage of the past decade, and to pay no heed to the voices from within the traditions of Kerry football, that players felt sufficiently liberated to go on and forge their own identity.

That was why, during the course of a roundtable discussion ahead of this year’s championship (the contents of which appeared on these pages last weekend), I bristled when Conor McCarthy suggested that children in Kerry were kicking a ball, and dreaming of playing for Kerry, from the moment they’re born. The notion that Kerry’s footballers and Kilkenny’s hurlers win games, these days, because of birthright and DNA is just far too simplistic.

The nature-versus-nurture debate has been raging since long before the GAA was founded, but those who subscribe to the myth that Kerry, or Kilkenny, still have an advantage in the modern game, because of history and geography, are ignoring the sheer amount of hard work that goes into maintaining the tradition, such as it is.

[timg]GAASuppKerryVDown1968_large.jpg[timg]

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Mick O’Connell in full flight for Kerry, against Down in the 1968 All-Ireland final.The nature-versus-nurture debate has been raging since long before the GAA was founded, but those who subscribe to the myth that Kerry still have an advantage in the modern game, because of history and geography, are ignoring the sheer amount of hard work that goes into maintaining the tradition.

People have spoken, and written, of how last year’s All Ireland championship winning panel had so many players from that now mystical U21 game, in 2011, when Cork demolished Kerry by 22 points, and of how nearly a dozen of that Kerry squad contributed to last year’s senior victory. It is almost as if the implication is that once they copped themselves on and put on the green-and-gold jersey at senior level, all their failings magically disappeared. What is rarely remarked upon is how hard it must have been to have all the flaws and kinks ironed out of their game.

In a revealing interview after the Munster final, last year, James O’Donoghue spoke of how much the Kerry public were criticising their players when he was trying to become one. “You’re kind of questioning are you a true Kerry player and do you deserve to be wearing that shirt?” said the ‘player of the year in waiting’ as he reflected on wrestling with the burden of tradition.

If anything, it is those who refuse to acknowledge tradition, and, indeed, those who show it a healthy disrespect, who are successful in the modern era.

Think of Eamonn Fitzmaurice, the teacher of history, the man whose great-grandfather won an All-Ireland hurling medal with Kerry, and of his willingness to offend tradition since he took the post of Kerry senior football manager: appointing a Kildare native, Cian O’Neill, the first outside selector in the history of Kerry football was a gutsy enough move. When he finally bit the bullet and closed the doors to Fitzgerald Stadium, later that year, he risked alienating not just the die-hard Kerry supporters, but an entire tourist industry in the county.

Playing Donegal in an All-Ireland final, while mirroring certain aspects of their game, would never have been forgiven in some quarters had Sam Maguire not been delivered.

As a player, Fitzmaurice suffered at the hands of perhaps the most iconoclastic team of them all — the Tyrone of the mid-noughties. If that group taught Kerry anything, it was that in order to win matches in the new era, one must play without fear and without regard to traditions.

Cavan, in 1933, and again in 1947, Derry in 1958, and then Down in the 1960s and 1990s, had already got under the skins of Kerry folk by the time Armagh and Tyrone arrived on the scene in 2002/2003.

The sacking of the Kingdom never went down well at home. Only in hindsight was it ever accepted that the Ulster counties won their finals and semi-finals, against Kerry, because they were the better teams, with better preparation and tactics. It was often easier, at the time, to see Ulster innovations as an assault on the finer traditions of Gaelic Games. But Kerry have always adapted to new departures. It wasn’t until they went toe to toe with Donegal, last September, however, that people began to realise that the Kerry way is built on humility, on competitiveness, and on tough-minded decision-making. The well of tradition is there to be drawn from and to be used in context. But it will no longer win you an All-Ireland.

This presents us all with a conundrum: if the supposed guardians of the beautiful game are willing to do whatever it takes to ignore any, and all, aesthetic considerations in order to win, who then is going to look out for tradition?

A number of years ago, TJ Flynn, co-author of the book Princes of Pigskin — a Century of Kerry Footballers, compiled a list outlining 100 reasons why Kerry were kings of Gaelic football. The reasons included Kerry players having better nicknames, ads for Bendix washing machines and ‘five-in-a-row’ t-shirts, but most related to tradition, to culture and to customs.

Those things still inform the way Kerry people think and feel about football, but, as the game changes, they are in danger of going the way of ‘the Ghost Train’ to Croke Park.

Of course, the trick in Kerry was always to be on that train in the first place.

You could call it what you liked after that.

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