Strange, really, that life-long affair with hurling and football; strange, I say, because often love of and involvement with sport is handed down from generation to generation. Neither of my parents came from particularly ‘sporting’ families.
True, my father was a huge greyhound enthusiast — both with coursing and track dogs. He was treasurer for a while of the local Point to Point Race Committee. I’ve found no record that his father or grandfather were ‘GAA men’ but no doubt they supported all parish sporting endeavours.
On my mother’s side, the Twomeys had broad sporting interests, including all aspects of equine sports. As a boy I heard that Jamesy Kelleher was a ‘way better’ hurler than Ring or Mackey but then he was married to my grand-aunt, Auntie Sis.
Growing up here in Bartlemy in the 1960s, one simply had to be a supporter of hurling in particular. The local club, Bride Rovers, was reformed in 1965 and the next decade brought four East Cork titles to the parish — and two more final appearances. All around me were local heroes — super heroes I thought they were: Tony Walsh, the Meades, Heskins, Sheehans, Tom Riordan, the Gubbins, Pat O Connor... and they were only the lads from this side of the parish.
As well, for the first time since 1946 we had an All Ireland senior medal winner in the parish when my double cousin Seanie Barry lined out in the red and white of Cork and ended a 12-year famine in 1966.
Seanie’s uncle, David John Barry (we buried his son, Tom, last Saturday) and Dave Ryan got me going to matches in a big way.
Of course, Mam went to championship games — our Chapel Field was the ‘Hurling Pitch’ for a few years — but Dave and David John went to every single game.
It didn’t take a genius of a selector to realise my vocation in the GAA was never going to be on the playing fields. In 1972, when I was just 15, I started attending club and East Cork Board meetings — 45 years later I’m still going.
I was lucky, I suppose, that I married a girl from a hurling family. Her brothers played, as she did as well as her sister. People say jokingly ‘Oh ya, your man John Arnold — sure, he’s married to a farmer from Bartlemy’. In reality, only for such a sporting matrimonial coupling I could never have devoted so much time to the GAA.
I love the GAA, all about its history and the great people who made it what it is today. The whole organisation is built on voluntary effort from members and players. Truly, the club is the basic unit, the bedrock, the foundation, the grassroots of the GAA.
They say about 5% of all hurlers and footballers ever get to wear a county jersey. That’s the reality —95% of those who play the ancient hurling game of our forefathers and Gaelic football will start and finish with their club.
From next year onwards, the GAA have decided that the Minor grade (which has been under 18 since 1928) will be under 17. Just last week, I was talking to one of our club under-age coaches about the under 7 team — they are hopefully the Minors of 2027.
Last week, I called to a friend of mine in Killeagh, Tommy Seward. He has been a GAA stalwart for decades. We spoke of the fun, the enjoyment, the pride, the satisfaction and the sense of volunteerism we’ve got from the GAA. Thousands like us in the four corners of the country are the same.
Our involvement in the GAA has probably cost us thousands of pounds, punts and euros over the decades, but what about it? We were never in it for what we could get out of it, only for we could put into it at local level.
We spoke too of changing times as the two-tier GAA expands. The inter-county scene, the inter-county manager and media deals now seem to rule the roost. They say ‘money is the root of all evil’ — will money, greed and a growing sense of entitlement be our ruination? I hope not, but I have a gnawing fear.
On RTÉ a few weeks back, Michael Duignan asked ‘Will the GAA ever have enough money?’ He’s still awaiting an answer. In fairness, down the years credit where credit is due, the GAA has been outstanding in seeing that huge funds are annually given to clubs and County Boards in the form of grants and loans. What I fear and, I’m sorry to say, I predict, is that we are on the slippery slope to semi professionalism in the GAA.
Before long, the club who trained a lad from under six up along the line will never see their pride and joy in their beloved club colours if he becomes an inter-county player — the same has happened in club rugby.
They say if it ain’t broken don’t fix it — a guideline I agree with. This year in the GAA we had, to my simple mind anyway, the best hurling championship in years. Growing up, I can recall eras when it was Cork or Tipp in Munster and Kilkenny and Wexford in Leinster and 50-1 the rest. This year we had wonderful provincial championships, All Ireland quarter and semi -finals and a classic final. It would be a brave pundit who could forecast which of the five hurling counties in Munster would capture the Provincial title in 2018.
Similarly in Leinster next year — any one of four, maybe five counties could capture the Bob O’Keeffe Cup.
Unbelievably, the GAA has summoned delegates from all over the Country to Croke Park next Saturday to attempt to wreck this scenario. I use the word ‘wreck’ after careful thought.
The GAA hierarchy last year decided on a ‘Super 8’ format for the All Ireland Football quarter-finals from next year on. ‘Oops’, someone then thought, ‘we’d better change the hurling too just for the sake of change’, so, hey presto, the crazy proposal was hatched to turn the provincial competitions into round robin Leagues.
We are heading down the road of inter-county competitions (for the elite 5%) from February to August. Club players (the 95%) will have a window of opportunity in April and, after a long summer tanning themselves, they’ll really get going in late August — just as the days shorten.
It makes me sad to see where we are going, where the GAA becomes a ‘commercial product’ to be sold to the highest bidder. I shudder to think what the great GAA people of the past would think of us now!
So today, dear reader, I decided to make a journey around the five hurling counties of Munster to visit places and people special to me. My trip today is not a pilgrimage, maybe I will say a prayer or two, but no, it’s just to remember and evoke the spirit and memory of those who meant so much to the GAA — the GAA of the hurler and footballer and club personnel who did it all for the sheer love of it.
My itinerary for today began this morning in Innishannon at the graveside of Con Murphy. He was one of my inspirations for years — a club and county hurler, referee, GAA President and Cork icon.
Next stop was just outside Kilmallock in Limerick. Here in Tankardstown cemetery lie the remains of GAA founder JK Bracken a stonemason from Templemore in Tipperary.
Across the Shannon then and on up to north Clare to Carron to visit the birthplace of Michel Cusack, another of the ‘Thurles 7’. A teacher, Cusack set up his own academy in Dublin, where the Dergvale Hotel is, on the way to Croke Park.
Over to Thurles then, where it all started in Hayes’ Hotel on November 1, 1884. I love just walking into Hayes’ thinking of that historic meeting. A visit too to the Mortuary Church of the Cathedral where the mortal remains of Archbishop Thomas Croke lie.
Out the road then to Carrick-on-Suir. Between there and Kilsheelan, actually in County Waterford, is Dysert Churchtown cemetery where Maurice Davin is buried. He was an international athlete who advocated that Irish Athletics should be self-governed.
Home to Bartlemy then after a 400mile journey.
I suppose I could look for 50 cent a mile from Central Council of the GAA in expenses. No, I don’t think I’ll bother.