We’ve come a very long way since lads changed by the ditch in 1741

As we chatted we recalled old days and times and GAA teams past and pondered on the question ‘Is the fun, the craic, gone out of it?’, writes John Arnold in his weekly column.
We’ve come a very long way since lads changed by the ditch in 1741

IDENTITY: Guest players had their ‘name, date of birth and mother’s maiden name’ written on their hurleys in case a suspicious other side asked the ref to check who they were. Picture; Larry Cummins

I WAS in the company of two men from Carrignavar last week in the home of hurling. We were not in Croke Park nor Thurles either. We met here in our own native County of Cork, not on the banks of our own lovely Lee but in the countryside where history was made nearly three centuries ago.

When I was very young growing up here on our farm I often went up the fields with Paddy Geary who worked for us. One of the jobs he’d be doing in the spring time especially was what we called ‘scouring’ the ditches. This was process whereby he’d cut back all the briars and furze bushes and small thorn trees that were growing from the sides of the ditches. The implement he used to do the cutting was a billhook — a bit like a sickle or a reaping hook. The billhook had a semi circular blade which Paddy always sharpened with a special stone. He kept up mighty edge as the stuff he was cutting was tough, tangled and twisted. He held the billhook for cutting in his right hand and in the left hand he’d have what we called a gawlog, this was a Y shaped stick. With the aid of the gawlog Paddy would kind of hold the material to be cut in place and then with one swift swipe of the billhook he’d cut the lot and move on to the next bundle. The Y shaped gawlog took it’s name from the Irish word gabhal which can refer to anything forked.

When I met the two hurling men from Carrig last week we were in a townland called Gleann an Gabhal- the Glen of the Fork in the River. This townland has for centuries been simply called Glenagowl — sometimes written as Glenagaul. It’s just off the Rathcormac/Kildinan road. True enough there’s a little fork in the small river that flows in the hollow here. We were on the higher ground in the townland looking at a field that has taken it’s place in GAA annals. Away in the distance we could see the Comeraghs in Waterford and at another angle the Galtee mountains and closer by the Nagles. When we met there last week all was quiet, it was early February but there was a touch of spring in the air.

All of two hundred and seventy eight years ago in the year of Our Lord 1741 a hurling game took place here in the townland of Glenagowl. In the 1700’s the game of hurling was still popular all over much of Southern Ireland. This was the era of the big estates where landlords held sway. In the Rathcormac area the Barrys of Lisnagar — a branch of the Barry’s of Barrymore, ruled the roost. Many of these Anglo/Gaelic rulers had hurling ‘teams’ amongst their tenantry and well over a century before the GAA was founded these so-called ‘lords of the manor’ promoted the game. No one can be absolutely certain why ‘teams’ from Cork — mainly North East Cork and Tipperary met here in Glenagowl in the autumn of 1741. It may well have been to herald the return of ‘good times’ after nearly two years of tremendous famine and hardship. The contest may have been simply arranged for a wager — we can never be sure and the result of the game? Well that’s in doubt also! Luckily the bard or poet (the ‘reporter’ of the time) who accompanied the Tipperary men went back to the Premier County and proceeded to pen a fine long poem in Irish lauding the praises of his team, claiming they were the winners. Well didn’t ‘news’ of this spurious claim reach Sean O Murchu in Carrignavar and no better buachaill was there than Sean to set the record straight!

As us three surveyed the ‘pitch’ of 1741 we mused on the story of Gaelic games since then. It’s been some roller coaster of a story indeed. Over a long and lingering cuppa we reflected on the growth of what’s termed the ‘greatest amateur sporting’ body in the world. All of us are steeped in the GAA but nowadays I begin to wonder about the future. As we chatted we recalled old days and times and teams past and pondered on the question ‘Is the fun, the craic, gone out of it?’ Truly we’ve come an awful long way since those lads ‘changed by the ditch’ in Glenagowl in 1741 but the inter-county scene especially — is it still as enjoyable as ever?

As a player my club playing career was extremely short. No selector had to come to me and drop me from a panel because I knew at a very early age that hand to eye coordination was not one of my strong points! I played an under 21 football game in Watergrasshill. My togs got ripped during the first half and I’d nothing on underneath — I recall taking ‘baby steps’ towards the dressingroom — the shame of it! Oh I would have loved to have been a decent club player or to play with Cork-well what an honour and reward that was and I’m sure it still is. Trouble today is everything is so ‘professional’ though we are still amateur — in name at least.

Back in 1927 our club had a ‘home’ game in the East Cork Junior Hurling League in the month of June — just four weeks after we’d lost to them in the Championship. The pitch here at the time was a roadside field in the townland of Knocknaboola. The admission fee was 6d but approaching the start time of half 3 very few had paid in. Most of the crowd remained outside on the road in order to watch the game by looking over the ditch. Well if they did the local Club, short of cash, were having none of it. They pulled up the four goalposts and moved the ‘pitch’ down to a different field — well away from the road. When all the ‘tanners’ had been collected the game got underway — we won a thriller by a point 1 2 to 1 1. I heard an old-timer explain that back in the 30’s or 40’s if players say for a Minor (under18) team were scarce they’d often get a few ‘guest’ players maybe from some place like Dromcollogher in Co. Limerick. Well one of the ‘outsiders’ was a great hurler. Before the game David John Barry our mentor told him his ‘name, date of birth and his mother’s maiden name’ — at that time the opposing team could demand that the referee ask such and such a player for ‘his particulars’ in order to prove he was a bona fide player! All the relevant information was written in pencil on the hurley given to this ‘guest’ player. Well he played a blinder in the first half and the opposition were a bit suspicious of his geography, genealogy and pedigree. The ref called him over and asked him his name, age and his mother’s maiden name. Unfortunately hadn’t he broken his hurley during the first half and had been thrown in a replacement with no ‘particulars’ written on it! He was in a bit of a quandary but was thinking on his feet ‘Well I got a bang on the head there while ago and I have awful concussion so I don’t know who I am’ — he got away with it!

Lately I was doing a bit of research for a cousin of mine on the GAA in West Waterford. In May of 1893 a football team from Cappoquin travelled to play Tallow in a game which had been ‘mutually agreed by both sides’. When the visitors arrived Brideside Tallow said they had no team to play and had never agreed to do so in the first place! Rather than go home the Cappoquin men adjourned to a local hostelry where they over imbibed. Several hours later Tallow announced that they now had the required 17 players and asked that he game commence. In the words of a Cappoquin ‘Correspondent’ “some of our men were unable to see the ball” Tallow won by two points to one! You know I could nearly write a book about all those GAA stories, lads what fun we’ve had down the years.

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