Glen Rovers are looking to bridge a generational gap as they bid for another Cork title tomorrow at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
One evening 10 years ago, on the 25th anniversary of Christy Ring’s death, Diarmuid O’Donovan was going about his business in the Glen Rovers clubhouse when he overheard one of the young lads there express surprise at the number of Glen men on Cork’s 1942 All Ireland-winning team.
There were seven of them, Ring and a future Taoiseach included, and given that Glen Rovers had won their eighth consecutive county title the previous year, this possibly wasn’t the most unlikely statistic in the history of the GAA. But if the youth was struck by the information, his amazement was nothing compared to that of the elders in the club. A youngster who wasn’t au fait with the gaiscí of the men of the Glen 60 years earlier? Tsk.
They were stunned. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been. Even in hurling, a sport that venerates its past more than most, few lights burn brightly into eternity.
The Glen contest the county final tomorrow and for hurling folk of more than one generation, their presence there will produce vibrations. Ring. Lynch. Denis Coughlan. John Fitzgibbon. Seanie McGrath. That striking three-tone jersey, with the black hoop added in memory of the men of 1916.
These are folk for whom names like Glen Rovers and Ahane and Rathnure and Holycross will always produce vibrations. But what of the youth of today, like yer man 10 years ago? Do they know the club with which the Rackards did battle, or Mick Mackey or John Doyle?
They’re aware Tommy Walsh and now Padraig Walsh hurl for Tullaroan, but can they name the two members of the Team of the Millennium who also wore the white jersey with the green sash? Do they care? By the same token, how many people under the age of 30 not from within a ten-mile radius of Dungourney have heard of Jamesie Kelleher? The certainties of one generation are the Chinese whispers of the next.
Clubs rise and fall, clubs with a storied history not least. They do so for any number of reasons. The turning of the wheel, the rise of gifted individuals and then their fading, demographic factors. Glen Rovers have won two Cork titles in the past 40 years; such has been the wealth of newsprint devoted to the subject, sometimes it seems as though the effects of the population shift on the northside of the city from Blackpool and surrounds to the suburbs should be a module on a sociology course in UCC.
In Kilkenny, it was the introduction of the parish rule in the mid-1950s — players now had to line out for their home parish, instead of throwing in their lot with whomever they fancied — that did for the ancient powerhouses. Tullaroan, who head the roll of honour on Noreside, have won one county title since 1958. Mooncoin, who come next, have won one since 1936.
And naturally some clubs, unlike the poor, are no longer with us. The last time Tubberadora, the original powerhouse of Tipperary hurling, were champions was not in the last century but the one before that. Nor will Lahorna De Wets, the Premier’s premier in 1902, be bringing home the Dan Breen Cup any time soon.
It’s for such reasons that the return of the former landed gentry is calculated to put a smile on the face of history-minded hurling people. One didn’t have to be a Tulla person to rejoice when that club won the Clare championship in 2007; the last time they’d done so was in 1933, with the great and tragic Dr Tommy Daly in goal. Ahane went from 1955 to 1998 without success in Limerick. And so on.
Appreciating the echo of bygone music is not to be confused with deploring the sounds of the new. In this day and age, it’s not merely desirable that a suburban outfit like Na Piarsaigh burst onto the scene and win two Limerick titles in three seasons, it’s essential. We relish seeing new teams make the breakthrough, as has to be the case if the blood in the GAA body is to circulate properly, yet at the same time we love seeing old relics of the past wake from their slumbers. These are not mutually exclusive positions to hold. There are many rooms in this particular house.
There’s one drawback in all of this. Hurling folk may love their heritage but tend to cherish it more in the breach than the observance.
Dónal Óg Cusack’s recent call for a central database of inter-county players — championship appearances, scores etc — was a sound one. Poor Leo McGough, the Carlow-based statistician, must be fed up to the back teeth of hacks ringing him to check facts (guilty as sin, m’Lord). We do so because we have nowhere else to turn. The GAA should have taken ownership of its statistics long ago instead of leaving it to others. It is not too late to start.
The same for books. It might be overdoing it to expect Croke Park to have its own publishing arm, county boards ought to be far more proactive on the publications front. The Fairytale in New York, Paul Fitzpatrick’s splendid account of the Polo Grounds final of 1947, came out last year; it is a book that should have been attempted by somebody three decades ago or more, while the principals were still with us. Paul Fitzpatrick is 30. Two years ago, this writer penned a biography of a significant hurling figure. The book saw the light of day only just in time, for in 2013 no fewer than eight of the people interviewed for it passed to their eternal reward. Every year in every county irreplaceable GAA memories are lost forever.
Or what about Seamus Ó Ceallaigh’s biography of Mick Mackey, long out of print and inaccessible to the youth of today: a ludicrous situation. How relevant is the Mackey/Ring debate these days? Did Mackey possess something intangible that Henry Shefflin, for all his medals, didn’t? Or could it be that Shefflin is a field marshal in a way Mackey wasn’t and didn’t try to be? Having Ó Ceallaigh’s book anew on the shelves might or might not settle such debates. But it would certainly stimulate fresh discussions.
In the meantime, Glen Rovers will uphold a long tradition at Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow. One candle that still blazes and that enriches the game in doing so.
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