From Waterford to Galway, Roscommon and the Congo: Jim Fives’ amazing adventure

Jim Fives — granduncle of Waterford defenders Darragh and Shane — played senior hurling for the Déise and then went on to play in two All-Ireland finals for Galway. Throw in three Connacht junior titles with Roscommon and a peacekeeping role in the Congo and it’s been a full and intriguing life.

These soldiers are reasonably used to helicopters but not to what happens next.

Goma, The Congo, late 1960. Hurling arrives in Central Africa. The Irish Forces’ Western Command, captained by Lieutenant Jim Fives, is lining out against its Southern Command.

The helicopter descends and a sliotar is dropped. The match is on.

“We asked for hurleys to be sent out,” Fives recalls. “The army at home were accommodating and sent out loads of them. I suppose it was to break the tension and the monotony.”

He continues, starting to smile: “The pitch was quite good, except it was very sandy. Someone thought of this great idea, of getting a helicopter to throw in the ball. Something new, novel, something that never happened before…

“But what we didn’t take into account was the sand blew up as the helicopter came down. And if you were around the middle of the field for that throw in, you had to take a timeout to clean the sand out of your eyes!”

Not only Irish natives saw the game. Lieutenant Fives invited a Swedish counterpart in the UN Peacekeeping Force to attend. He came over after it finished, visibly excited.

Fifty-seven years on, that Swedish officer’s reaction remains memorable: “I asked him what he thought. He said to me: ‘That was Irish tribal warfare at its best!’ He had never seen anything to top it.”

There is hurling beyond All- Irelands. There is life far beyond humour. The 1960s become the 1990s and Goma becomes an epicentre for the refugee crisis attendant upon genocide in Rwanda. The city is no less involved in subsequent civil wars. There are warm places that never see peace so much as exhaustion’s cold clock.

Lieutenant Jim Fives? An Irishman in Colonial Africa, with a UN Peacekeeping Force? Here is a story for the weekend in it.

A native of Tourin, he played senior hurling for both Waterford and Galway. Darragh Fives and Shane Fives, two grandnephews, line out in defence for the Déise next Sunday.

There is more to this unusual surname. He married Judy Bailey, a native of Galway City, and they had three boys and two girls. That number five again…

Their younger daughter, Anne-Marie, played camogie with Salthill Knocknacarra and won a minor All-Ireland with Galway in 1987. Tom Fives, a nephew, won an U21 All Ireland with Waterford in 1992 and played senior hurling with the county while a club hurler with Tourin.

Himself? Jim Fives was a brilliant hurler. He captained Waterford’s senior team in 1951. They went down by a mere three points to Tipperary, a side good enough to secure three in a row in that season’s September.

Having switched counties, this hurler played in the 1955 senior final (Galway versus Wexford) and the 1958 senior final (Galway versus Tipperary). Both times, he acquitted himself with aplomb on a side that struggled overall.

Although Wexford’s Tim Flood was considered one of that era’s finest forwards, the Irish Press report after the 1955 contest noted: “Jim Fives never gave Tim Flood an inch.”

He also played for Galway against Waterford in the 1957 All-Ireland semi-final, which was a difficult occasion. “It was tough,” he acknowledges. “But I just had to get on with it, on the day. Galway lost by a good bit.”

He also played for Galway against Waterford in the 1959 Munster Championship. This experiment did not thrive from the beginning. That day, Galway went down by 24 points. “Very bad for everyone,” Fives summarises. “Nobody got anything out of it.”

Jim Fives was not only selected on the 1984 Centenary Team of hurlers who did not win a Celtic Cross but made captain of that selection. He likewise featured in 1984 on Galway’s Team of the Century. He played three times (1953-54, 1959) for the Rest of Ireland XV, a proto All Star team.

Fives at his home in Salthill, Galway, with his array of medals.

Yes, here is a family story for the weekend in it. The tale is obscure and captivating in equal measure. Born in April 1929, and now a lively 88, Jim Fives attended Lismore CBS. He was the youngest of five brothers on the family farm.

To the extent adult life ever begins somewhere specific, Jim Fives’ adult life began on the way to the 1948 Senior Final, when Waterford triumphed over Dublin for their inaugural title. He had hurled inter-county minor the year before, beaten in the Munster Final by Tipperary. Jim Fives had promise.

“I went up on the local bus,” he relates. “We stopped off in Naas at Lawlors Hotel, for something to eat. There was a Brother Murray on the bus, whom I knew from school. He came over and said: ‘They are looking for cadets in The Curragh, and you might think of it.’ As I remember, there wasn’t much time. But I put in, and I got it. That’s how I ended up in Kildare.”

The past is a different GAA rulebook. Hurling quickly became central to his career as well as to his life. One afternoon, an officer came into their area in The Curragh.

Fives smiles at the memory: “He said: ‘I want four hurlers.’ I said: ‘Yes, no problem.’ Out the four of us went with him.

“I still have no idea what team name we played under, or what name I played under. But we won that Kildare Championship.”

A tide was beginning to wax. The biggest upset in Waterford club hurling remains little Tourin’s victory over an all-conquering Mount Sion in 1950. Four of the five Fives brothers appeared on that team (Maurice Fives did play with Tourin and Waterford but was away in Dublin on that occasion, where he was studying to be an engineer).

Fives elaborates on that momentous event: “Just the following day after winning the hurling in Kildare, I got a phone call from Tourin. At the time, there was a rule that you had to be living in the county before you could play club hurling. I was illegal to play, because I was up in Kildare.

“But Mount Sion said: ‘Okay, we’ll let him line out.’ That was what the phone call was to tell me.

“We were 50/1 outsiders, someone told me, when I went down. That’s how sure Mount Sion were of winning. I played corner forward.”

Then the calm voice of a man who was as measured at 21 as he is at 88: “We beat them by five points.”

There were no celebrations for him: “My brother Tom drove me back up to The Curragh, the same evening.

“A few months later, I was commissioned and sent to Galway as a young lieutenant in May 1951.”

There was no let up on the sport front: “The Sunday after I arrived, I played with An Chéad Cath against [Liam] Mellows in the hurling, and we won. But we didn’t go much further, hurling wise, after that.

“I played football as well with An Chéad Cath, and we actually beat Tuam Stars. The football final came on, anyhow, and we actually won, beating St Grellan’s, the Ballinasloe team.”

Jim Fives has a low-key but enjoyably puckish sense of humour: “I didn’t tell anyone I was probably illegal, because I don’t remember any transfers going through. So I won three championships in less than 12 months. But I don’t know should I say too much about it, even at this stage…”

Following his senior inter-county career, there was a final act in this arena. “I got a bad back injury in 1959,” Fives notes. “I wasn’t really able for top level hurling after it.

“While I was stationed in Roscommon in the early 1960s, I hurled on their junior team. We won three Connacht Championships in a row, and lost three All-Ireland semi-finals in a row.

“The last year, there was an objection. They said I was illegal three years earlier and hadn’t ‘corrected’ myself. I thought it was funny to be found guilty of something that had happened three years before…” A circle had closed itself: “It was Kildare who objected, for the third All-Ireland semi-final. They knew me, you see, and they knew about me.

“After that, I left it so with the hurling. The publicity wasn’t needed…”

This stuff, if now entirely unfamiliar, was part of the time’s give and take. This man, like everyone older than yourself, is an education: “Obviously people would find it strange compared to today. But there wasn’t any real bitterness afterwards, about objections and appeals. People just saw it as ‘fair game’, and got on things when the issue was decided.”

Living in Galway during the 1950s while hurling with Waterford was far from simple.

“It was so different,” Fives says. “People don’t realise how difficult it was to do the travelling at the time. It was very tiring.”

Difficult decisions are usually brought to a head by a particular experience. Jim Fives went this road after a league tie in 1954: “We played Wexford down in Dungarvan, and I got an injury I shouldn’t have got. I had to be stitched inside the mouth. I couldn’t eat or drink. And I had to drive home on my own, over three hours, to Galway.

“I was passing through Crusheen in Clare and I got a puncture. I was so new to the car I didn’t quite know how to change the wheel. So I said I’d go back to the pub in Crusheen and maybe talk to someone who knew more about changing a wheel.

“The pub was closed, since it was after 12, and there wasn’t a sound inside. Nobody came out, even with my knocking. I suppose they thought I might have been a Guard…”

The past owns strange illuminations: “I remember the moon had come up. It gave me the light to go about changing the wheel, which I eventually got done. I proceeded on and got back to Galway late, after three in the morning.

“I was doing some temporary work in Athlone at the time, and had to get a train in the morning at eight o’clock. When I got to Athlone, my boss said to me: ‘I see you were late this morning.’ That was the welcome I got.

“He obviously thought I was out late the night before, which I was, but he probably didn’t think it was fixing a puncture I was at.”

That moonlit journey through Clare clarified the best road ahead. Jim Brophy, a native of Kilkenny in An Chéad Cath, had switched counties to Galway.

“Jim and myself would have chatted,” Fives recalls. “He’d been through the issue. Besides, I felt I knew the Galway people better, through club games, than Waterford people at this stage. You see, I didn’t play with Tourin after ’51.”

An outing with Connacht in the 1955 Railway Cup broke the ice. Jim Fives went to the Galway County Board and they arranged matters. The 1955 senior final saw him Galway’s right corner back. There would be five seasons with his adopted county, sufficient time at the top of hurling to remember him in 1984 as the star he was in quiet fashion.

Once the hurling was over, there was another tour of duty in the mid-1960s. Jim Fives departed to the Middle East as a UN Observer. He recalls coming into Damascus when it was entirely dark after the Six Days War. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face as I went about getting digs,” he says.

There was opportunity to travel after his duties were discharged. Judy and himself were able to take in many storied places. Visiting Petra in southern Jordan proved a highlight.

Talking about that time, Jim Fives’ voice takes on a twist, a kind of awe: “Petra is a city as old as time itself.”

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