Beef, Tea and Raw Eggs
The success of St. Flannan's College in this year's All-Ireland final brings back some memories of the school in the early fifties. It was always one of the great nurseries of hurling and its catchment area brought together players from Offaly, Tipperary and Limerick as well as from Clare. It was a time when the honour of playing for the college subsumed county loyalties and made us fight to the death for one another.
St. Flannan's was a tough place to be in the fifties. Older students told us it was a paradise in comparison with life during the war years. But we knew the fifties only and Kavanagh's line about the 'black bread and sugarless tea of Penance' keeps repeating when one remembers the fare in those days. It was bread for breakfast, stale bread for lunch - two slices with a smear of jam between them - and bread for tea. Sometimes we got brown but we had no great respect for it. I recall a rhyme: Don't eat Demoses bread./' Twill stick to your belly like lead. / You 'll fart like thunder, that your mother'll wonder. /So, don't eat Demoses bread. For the benefit of the uninitiated, we christened the kitchen staff, Demoses, ironically after Demoethenes, the great Greek orator, whom we studied.
In such a situation to get on the hurling team was the goal of all. It was a relief from the monotony of school life and it brought special privileges. In order to build us up for matches we got extra brown bread! But, we also got beef tea for elevenses, when the rest of the poor devils slunk around cold and hungry. And, we also got raw eggs, a couple a day. Then there were match days and the luxury of four-course lunches in places like the Ardhu House Hotel in Limerick. They were marvellous!
In September 1955 we looked forward to the Harty Cup, and as usual, with confidence. In the previous twelve years St. Flannan's had won six times and in doing so had, to coin a phrase, established their divine right to win! North Monastery won in 1955 but we were determined to halt their gallop. We beat St. Colman's in the first round and came up against the champions in the second. We drew with them at Thurles and were lucky to do so but we felt confident of taking them at the second try.
We got huge encouragement from the college authorities and nothing was spared in getting the preparation right. Leading the support machine was Dr. Tom Maxwell, the President, who lacerated us with his tongue after one defeat. 'I don't mind a Flannan's team beaten, but not a hurley broken!'. He had a plate in his head, the result of a bad accident, and he'd fly off the head easily. He used to eat Craven A cigarettes during a game and stamp them out, half smoked, under his feet, interspersing puffs with un-parliamentary language. After him came the team trainer, Fr. Jimmy Madden, retired in Borrisokane and approaching eighty years. He took us through our paces and that was everyday except Saturday. For some strange reason we had our dinner at 3 pm, when school finished, and went training straight after it. Says something about us and the dinner! 'Twas always backs and forwards and very intensive sessions they were with the occasional game thrown in against Clarecastle or some other Clare club team. We never did any running or physical build-up.
Anyway, we came to Thurles for the replay on November 27. We were bad in the first half, conceded some easy scores but came alive after the interval to come within a point of North Mon. We were on top except for the Mon goalie, Seanie O'Brien, who, when his team were under terrible siege, stopped everything , even midges. He was unbeatable. We failed to score and North Mon got a goal from a free in the dying moments to win by 3-6 to 3-2. We were devastated.
The team, with county initial after each name, was as follows: Kieran McDonnell (T), Seamus King (T), Jock Slattery (T), Colm Wiley ©, Tommy Barrett ©, Francie Keane ©, Joe Hoare (Lim), Brendan Hennessy (Ky), Jackie Rohan ©, Joe Noone ©, Mick Walsh (Of), Mick Slattery ©, Sean Williams (T), Denis Baker ©, Patsy Nealon (T).
The outstanding player was Kerry student, Brendan Hennessy from Ballyduff, who was later to make his name playing with New York. He was closely followed by Jackie Rohan , who had played wing-back on the 1954 winning side. Jackie gave up the game soon afterwards and was a tremendous loss to hurling. Joe Noone had the distinction of playing with Clare and Galway minors in 1955! He was discovered and came back in September an illegal player. He was dragged up to Doc Maxwell's room one night and dictated a letter to the Munster Council stating he knew absolutely nothing of G.A.A. rules, and got reinstated! Mike Slattery turned to refereeing at an early age and made a name for himself behind the whistle. Colm Wiley captained London to an intermediate All-Ireland in 1968. Many of the others gave distinguished service to their clubs.
Forty-four years on it is difficult not to be nostalgic for these days and to look back at them through rose-tinted glasses. They were tough days but we were tough and survived. At least, most of us did. But when we look back today we don't remember the difficulties of surviving. Rather we remember the hurling we played, the camaraderie we experienced and we still argue about how we should have beaten the Mon that day in Thurles. I wonder where is Seanie O'Brien!r.
Munster S.H. Semi-final Replay, Cork, June 12, 1999