John Arnold: A first flush of mushrooms, as our hurlers seek Gaelic Trinity

Our national treasure of hurling is in safe hands for the future, says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: A first flush of mushrooms, as our hurlers seek Gaelic Trinity

Former Cork hurling trainer Jim ‘Tough’ Barry in the 1940s. He famously said the hurlers could come overnight, like mushrooms.

I NEVER met or knew Jim ‘Tough’ Barry, the legendary Cork hurling trainer. I was only 11 when he passed away in 1968, but strangely, I was thinking of him last Monday evening.

I had a ticket for the Munster Minor Hurling Championship Final in Thurles between Cork and Waterford. With two lads from my own club involved, it was a game I looked forward to.

Relieved, as ever, of my bovine milking duties for Monday PM by my much better half, my job before I set off for the Trip to Tipp’ was to move the wire to give the cows fresh grass after the milking.

As I traipsed across the second paddock of the Field Below the Chapel Field, I saw them.

When all at once I saw a crowd, 

A host of white mushrooms;

Beside the wire, beneath the grass,

Flattened like buttons in the breeze.

Ah yes, Monday August 9 of this year of Our Lord, 2021 — a bit early for mushrooms I thought, but then I’d spotted the first real ‘black’ blackberries last Saturday.

There’s always something magical about the first flush of field mushrooms each year. A few Sundays back at Mass, one of the readings was about the ‘manna from heaven in the desert’ and I suppose the mushrooms are a bit like that.

Before I even bent down to pick a handful, I thought of Tough Barry and his conversation with the great GAA writer Raymond Smith. In his book The Clash Of The Ash, Smith recalled his last encounter with Barry in Joe Dignam’s hostelry in Cork. Barry had been involved with Cork winning teams in the 1926-31 period, in the ’40s, and with the three in a row team of the 1950s.

Like Moses long ago leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, Jim ‘Tough’ Barry was still there in 1966 when Cork ended a 12-year barren spell at hurling’s top table. He had told Smith that “Cork can come overnight, like the mushroom you might say. But whereas the mushroom fades, Cork never fade and die.”

I suppose since 2005 those words of Jim Barry might have sounded a bit hollow. Then, as the Bible says, ‘Man cannot live on bread alone’, similarly Cork cannot survive on tradition alone, but by hell it can help sometimes!

We were at a mixed marriage —Cork groom and Kerry bride — over the weekend. The nuptial celebrations in Beauty’s Home, Killarney, decreed a Saturday evening return to Leeside. Taking the Rocky Road to Dublin on Sunday morning, then, was never a feasible option, but what a weekend of hurling we had.

Of the ancient sport, someone wrote long ago ‘Clatter and clash in it, leather and ash in it, surely a sport’.

I love the game, not just its skills and speed but the history, the lore, the stories and the great characters involved down the ages.

They call horse racing ‘The Sport of Kings’ and soccer is referred to as ‘The Beautiful Game’ — no doubt aficionados of these and other sport pastimes will laud their favourite, but few can quibble with the beauty and grace of hurling. Truly it’s more than a sport, more of an artform.

Last Saturday, there were two ‘delayed’ 2020 County Hurling Finals played in Cork, and then on Sunday the Rebels took on The Cats for the right to meet what’s been termed the ‘best Limerick team since Mackey’s time’. I had an interest in all these games, yet Sunday morning found me far away from the madding crowds.

We headed for the picturesque pitch in Lismore straight out from Mass. Under 9s camogie games were on the programme between Bride Rovers and the host club. There, by the Blackwater, with mature trees abounding the enclosure, the young cailins played their hearts out. Like everyone in the Decies, all the adults present were a bit sad that Waterford had lost the night before. The girls playing the camogie had more important things on their minds than winning All Irelands! The next ball was the thing. In these mini games, no scores are kept because all those who play are winners — there are no losers.

Though in love with hurling for more than half a century, I was never a good practitioner so I’m clean useless at coaching or imparting the skills of the game to the youngsters. I marvel though at the mentors who give tirelessly of their time and energy to the next generation.

On our way home from the Kerry wedding, we listened intently to the Cork Junior Hurling Final of last year — well, last year’s final being played this year, ye know what I mean. Two teams, both first time ever in a final — Harbour Rovers of Glanworth and Lisgoold.

Remember the song Torn Between Two Lovers — well, I felt a bit like that! I’ve lots of friends and relations in both places, but Lisgoold are our nearest neighbours on the Eastern horizon. I was resolved that whoever won, I’d join in their joy on Saturday night. Lisgoold won a great game.

They say dreams don’t always come true, but in sport the wheel always turns — though sometimes very slowly. The hurlers from the Owenacurra valley have often tried, but never before last year did they even reach an East Cork Final. Often they nearly made it but got pipped at the post.

Like Jim Barry’s proverbial mushrooms, they didn’t fade and now are an Intermediate Hurling Club.

The GAA is founded on ‘for the glory of the little parish’ and local rivalry is the stuff of dreams, but we can appreciate and glory in the success of others too. Every club, every parish, indeed every county deserves its place at hurling’s top table at some time or another.

I’ve been in many places on the night of a County Final win, and Lisgoold on Saturday night was truly Mardi Gras with the entire community giving vent to the pent up joy of a century.

Three or four years ago, there was a sense of doom and gloom in Cork hurling circles as 2005 faded into the memory. We were nearly winning All Irelands at Minor and Under 21 level but not getting to lift the cups of glory. All’s changed, utterly changed now.

Cork are in three All Ireland hurling finals in this month of August and things look immensely brighter. Imagine an opportunity to win the Gaelic Trinity!

We’ve no guarantee of winning any, but at least we’re there and in with a sporting chance, three chances even.

When we were in Kerry at the weekend we did a bit of touring. I was thrilled to see that the Skellig Michael is open for visitors again. Those little primitive beehive huts where once dwelt the monks of old are amazing structures.

Far from civilisation and the madding crowds and out of reach of all modern telecommunications of any kind. It’s the ideal place to ‘get away from it all’ and with ticket fever now as prevalent as Covid, Skellig is where I’ll be for the next two weeks.

I’ll talk to ye all again in September!

You know, as we travelled home from the Under 9s games in Lismore last Sunday morning, I was happy that our national treasure of hurling is in safe hands for the future.

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