John Arnold: Football has been good... but the hurling has been something else

For me hurling is not just a game - it’s a way of life, so says John Arnold ahead of the All Ireland this weekend
John Arnold: Football has been good... but the hurling has been something else

This was a year we should have been honouring Cork hurler Christy Ring, with major events, says John Arnold, but Covid stopped that. However, in this year of doom and gloom we have had some magnificent games. Picture credit; Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE

“OVER the next few days, people from the eight baronies which make up the Decies will be on the move to support the men in blue and white. From Coshmore and Coshbride, Glenaheiry, Decies-within-Drum, Middlethird, Gaultier, Upperthird, Decies-without-Drum and from Iffa and Offa, they will travel. Have a great weekend, a great game and bring Liam McCarthy back.”

It’s all of 12 years ago since I penned those lines. In September, 2008, the Waterford Senior Hurling team had qualified for the All Ireland Final for the first time since 1963 — a gap of 45 years — and hopes were high for a third Senior title.

Alas, the dream of thousands was shattered by a ruthless Kilkenny side, that captured 13 All Irelands in 16 seasons.

Waterford reached the final again in 2017 and lost by the slim margin of three points. Well on Sunday next the 13th day of the month of December in this covid year of 2020 the hurlers of Waterford will once more cross camáns with a mighty Limerick side.

Back in September I was one of the many naysayers who shook the head when the GAA announced that the Senior Inter County Hurling and Football championships were going ahead.

I must admit I had serious misgivings at the thought of winter competitions. I know we have floodlit grounds, all weather pitches and the best of facilities but I just couldn’t fathom the idea of empty stadia with the crows and seagulls the only spectators. Hurling in November and December - no, I felt ‘twould be awful and of a poor standard. Even Homer nods and mea culpa, mea culpa mea maxima culpa - how very wrong I was!

I have spoken to people, far and wide, over the last two months - some with ne’er an interest in any kind of sport, and one and all they’ve been enthralled by what they have seen on their TV screens. Yes the football has been good but lads the hurling has been something else. In the past we might have said, kinda half jokingly, that hurling is the best game in the world, well there’s no doubt about it now. Show me or tell me of a better game anywhere in this planet, galaxy or entire Milky Way!

Ok I admit I’m biased. For me hurling is not just a game - it’s a way of life. 

How lucky I am to have been born in a place where hurling is part of our culture and our heritage. I was never able to master the many skills of our national game but that didn’t deter me from getting involved -that’s too weak a word - no my lack of skills actually propelled me hook, line and sinker into this wonderful game.

I attended my first Hurling All Ireland in 1972 and could count on the fingers of one hand the Finals I’ve missed since. Yes I love hurling with a passion and that love affair exists all over this great country where folk love and appreciate the game. Archbishop Croke back in 1884 said hurling was ‘racy of the soil’ - what does that mean? Hurling is of us, for us and is one of the handful of traits that makes us uniquely Irish - our language, our music and history but especially hurling.

Between hurling and football I’ve been lucky to have attended, I think, 94 All Irelands yet as much as I love these big games I’d have the same yen and grá for a Junior C game or an under 12 challenge game.

Hurling people are special. They have to be because the dedication, time, effort and blood sweat and tears we all invest into hurling is beyond logic!

Tadhg de Búrca, right, and Shane McNulty of Waterford celebrate following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match last month, between Kilkenny and Waterford at Croke Park in Dublin. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tadhg de Búrca, right, and Shane McNulty of Waterford celebrate following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match last month, between Kilkenny and Waterford at Croke Park in Dublin. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The hurling heartlands of Antrim and Down have never savoured success at the top level of inter county competition yet their enthusiasm never dims. The same applies to Waterford. The All Ireland Hurling championship commenced in 1887 -that’s 133 years ago. Only twice ever, 1948 and 1959, have the Decies hurlers gained the Blue Riband of our native game yet they foster the game the same as in Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary.

I love being in the company of hurling people - at the eve of the hurling Final in Dublin or at the first training session for a group of under six hurlers.

At Christy Ring’s graveside in Cloyne back in 1979 I listened as Jack Lynch said that as long as young boys felt the tingle of ash on leather the name of Christy Ring would be remembered ‘and that will be forever’. A century ago Ring was born and who would have thought that in a year we should have had major events to remember the greatest hurler of all times that a pandemic would change our sporting outlook.

In this year of doom and gloom the pure goodness and innate kindness of Irish people has shone through brightly. We in the GAA can be rightly proud of the manner our hurlers have put on magnificent exhibitions in empty stadia. I feared crowd-less games would be lifeless and insipid but the opposite has been the case.

Just two years ago as Limerick strove to bridge a 45 year gap most of the country was behind them and in an epic final they won. Next Sunday John Kiely’s men are back again looking for another All Ireland. It’s a unique final but Waterford will try and ‘park’ history and sentiment as they seek just their third ever Crown.

As I write these few lines I’ve a song playing in the background ‘Farewell Lovely Deise’, a song I’ve often sung myself. I suppose ‘de Banks’, Slievenamon and The Rose of Mooncoin are so well known as Hurling anthems - oft sung in victory. Because Waterford’s haul has been sparse no one song has become synonymous with Decie success but this is my favourite verse:

There's a spot in my heart for the folk of Lismoer,

And send me a shamrock from the famed Knockanore,

By the groves of Blackwater and Tallow by the Bride,

Fare thee well lovely Deise I'm leaving tonight.

I know nearly every parish and hurling club in West Waterford and the hurling folk are resilient if nothing else.

The Liam McCarthy Cup at  Cloghroe NS back in 2005. Picture: Larry Cummins.
The Liam McCarthy Cup at  Cloghroe NS back in 2005. Picture: Larry Cummins.

Here in Cork we yearn for the glory days to return - it’s 15 years since Liam McCarthy came to Leeside and we are desperate for a win. Well glory, glory to those hurling fans and fanatics in Waterford - imagine it’s only people in their 70’s in that great county who can vividly recall the last win! Yet year after year they nourish the game, encourage the youth and follow their team. In Thurles and Limerick, Cork and in Croke Park too they have kept the faith. Like the Mayo football team they have been so, so close to ultimate success in recent years and their dreams live on. I have plenty friends in Limerick too in rural hurling heartlands and by the majestic Shannon.

No one ever ‘deserves’ to win an All Ireland. They are all hard earned though sometimes counties like Kilkenny seem to have the ‘Midas Touch’ - lads I just hope we get a great final next Sunday - imagine it’s nearly Christmas and ‘the only sport in town’ is hurling!

Normally on Hurling Final Sunday morning you’d find me early in the Croke Park Hotel. There one could mingle with All Stars, hurling heroes, GAA Presidents and the real grass roots. ‘Tis often I’d meet up with my friend Jim Nicholson from Knockanore and his wife Anne in the hotel foyer and then the sliotars would be flying! Like all other hurling fans from both Limerick and the eight Baronies of Waterford they’ll be watching at home this year.

Ah yes, it’s surely been a strange year. I still think that in the future 2020 will be remembered as the ‘year of the covid and the best hurling of all time’.

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