In the Cradle of the Gaelic Athletic Association - Games, Players and Cultural Influence
The title of this lecture may be slightly grandiose and, perhaps, in need of a bit of explanation. The overall theme of the week is a retrospective look at the twentieth century in Tipperary and it is my brief to speak to you of the changes that have occurred in the Gaelic Athletic Association. Not being old enough to cover the entire century I have confined myself to the changes that have occurred since the Second World War.
The G.A.A. was formed at a time when Ireland had almost lost its collective identity. The people were reduced to isolated, helpless and alienated individuals, leading to a loss of pride and self-confidence, shame, worthlessness and self-hatred. In order to counteract this, Cusack realised that a sense of solidarity and a national identity had to be created.
The Association achieved three very different purposes. It encouraged local patriotism. It inculcated among its members an uncompromising hostility to foreign games and it revived local and national pride. It played a major part in the resurrection of the national spirit and it inspired the separatist ideal which led to 1916 and the War of Independence. It became a very successful movement, because, as you are well aware, it was concerned with much more than hurling and football matches. It embraced a much wider field. It was a distinct culture, a particular way of looking at things, a worldview that was unique.
The organisation considered itself a cornerstone of Irish society, equal in standing with other cornerstones like the Catholic Church and Fianna fail. Like them it claimed to be representative of the authentic Ireland, as the salt of the Irish earth, as the template of Irish nationality. It claims the allegiance of vast numbers and after winters of rugby and soccer internationals, thousands of followers return to the terraces and stands of G.A.A. stadia during the summer as if to a spiritual home. It is a reflection of the hold the organisation has on the minds and hearts of Irish people.
In the course of this talk I hope to reflect on the changes that have taken place and on where the organisation has changed over the past fifty years. But side by side with that change is much that has remained very much the same. One aspect of G.A.A. behaviour that has nor changed, for example, is time-keeping. Whereas today most major games begin on schedule, such is not the case in many lesser games. For some reason the G.A.A team finds it difficult to get to the field on time. Games are very often late starting. Referees are sometimes as late as the teams. When I was chairman of the west board a few years ago, I imposed fines on teams who were late for a fixture. And the excuses I was offered were most inventive: punctures, funerals, cows on the road, players delayed at work, etc. It interests me enormously how these same players, when they play soccer at 12 o’clock on Sundays during winter, are never late. The culture of that organisation does not tolerate lateness.
Why then is it the case with the G.A.A.? I suppose it could be described as a vestigial remains from early decades. Matches were invariably late starting in the fifties and with the endless stoppages allowed on the field of play, late finishing also. And, I suppose, that psychology of lateness was but a reflection of the wider society. Remember the priest used to be late for Mass. When I was serving in the late forties we had two young priests in the parish, Fr. O’Meara and Fr. Comerford, and a very old P.P., Canon Molony, who wasn’t too aufait with what was happening. These young priests found it impossible to make 9.30 Mass in Redwood in time. They lived in Rathcabbin and they usually arrived to a screech of brakes about 9.45 to 9.50. One morning Fr. Comerford arrived without the communion breads and had to rush back to Rathcabbin for them before Mass could begin.
And yet it wasn’t like that everywhere, if Kavanagh’s lines on the dance in Billy Brennan’s Barn are an accurate reflection of life in the Monaghan countryside in the twenties. The poet is alone given over to contemplating his lot as everyone is gone to the dance:
‘Half-past eight and there’s not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman,
Not a footfall tapping secrecies of stone
Was there a culture of earliness in the twenties or was it that their lives were so miserable that every minute of a dance was an enjoyment to be experienced and savoured. But, I digress.
Let me present two cameos that encapsulate a picture of the G.A.A. in an earlier time. The year is 1929. My father, a Shinrone man, is playing with Offaly in the All-Ireland junior hurling final at Thurles. He ties his boots and togs – made out of bleached flour bags – to his hurley, slings it over his shoulder and walks down to Brosna Station, on the Birr-Roscrea railway line. He takes the train to Thurles, makes his way to the field and contributes to the defeat of Cork. After the game he puts on his clothes, without the benefit of a shower, returns to the station and back home the way he arrived. He recalls that few in the parish knew he was playing and fewer were interested in the result.
Come forward nineteen years to 1947. The month is December. The venue is Gaile. The occasion the county intermediate hurling final of 1946. The teams Lorrha and Moycarkey. No report of the match appeared in any of the local papers. I have come across nobody who is sure of the score. The County G.A.A. history gives 4-4 to 2-3. But memories say Lorrha won by a goal. I came across a speech by former county chairman, Hubie Hogan, in which he stated Lorrha won by 4-2 to 2-4. Paddy O’Sullivan from the parish recalls there were seven Lorrha supporters at the game and can name them all bar one. The Lorrha lads went home after the match and there were no celebrations. Paddy claims there were people in the parish who didn’t know for years afterwards that Lorrha had won the county final.
Either of these experiences would be inconceivable today.
I suppose one area where there has been dramatic change since the fifties is among the supporters. Then they were predominantly male with a few mature women thrown in, plus boys and girls. I recall a trip to Tullamore with my uncle and three other men in 1949. I can’t remember the match but we went to the pub afterwards and I drank plenty of lemonade. As we drove home I was seated in the centre rear and had a fierce longing to go for a leak. But I was embarrassed to ask. Eventually they had to go and we stopped on the side of the road. They had already done the job and returned to the car and I was still relieving myself. I could hear their talk: ‘Will he ever stop?’ I eventually did to my great relief.
My memory of attendances is of predominantly males in dark suits and hats. Looking recently at some footage from All-Irelands in the fifties there is a scattering of females, mostly mature and wearing hats. The impression is of a predominantly male following, with none of the young women one sees at matches today on view.
Today, as we are so well aware, all has changed utterly. More and more one finds the family group at big games, father/mother, and teenage or even younger children of both sexes. The big problem arises is August and September when they can’t afford the prices of admission to major games, if they are lucky enough to get tickets.
The big development in support for Gaelic Games from the family group goes back to 1987 in this county, when the famine finally ended. In this regard most people recall Killarney. But I like to refer to the N8 from Cashel to Dublin on the Sunday morning of the All-Ireland semi-final. People were moving early. There was a great display of colours from the cars, packed mostly with family groups. There was a magnificent atmosphere. Just under 50,000 people attended that game on August 9. It wasn’t a double header, just the contest between Tipp and Galway. It was the greatest attendance at an All-Ireland semi-final since 1958, when Tipperary beat Kilkenny at the same stage.
I don’t think this development has been sufficiently noted. There’s a tendency to associate the huge development in support with the arrival of Clare in 1995. I suggest it started with the return of Tipp in 1987.
The rise of Waterford in 1998 brought another great upsurge in support for hurling. On the day they played Clare at Thurles, I watched the supporters of the blue and white. They came in such numbers, fathers, mothers, children. They were decked out so well in tee shirts, hats, badges, neckbands, flags and banners. They were a sight to watch.
I suppose the increase in the wearing of colours is a spin-off from soccer and from Ireland’s participation in the European and World cups. The Irish supporters flaunted the national colours in a way which made Jack’s army unique and exciting. That phenomenon has spilled over into the G.A.A. and it has been helped by two other developments, the wider availability of sport and leisure gear from major suppliers like Nike, Adidas and others, but from local producers as well, who can turn out tee shirts, jerseys, scarves and other gear at the drop of a hat. There is also the proliferation of sports shops, many of them fronted by former players, who cash in on this development. Latterly county boards have been getting in on the act. Clare have been there for some time and Tipperary arrived on the scene in May.
There is also the improvement in the quality and design of these goods which makes the county and club jerseys attractive leisure wear and they are worn widely in club areas. For instance if you visit Donnycarney you will find the red/yellow of Craobh Ciaran all over the place. And the same applies in other club areas, especially when the club is successful.
None of this would be possible if there wasn’t surplus money around. The Celtic Tiger has seen to that with more earnings available for leisure pursuits. Many people have money to spend following a team and this involves not only going to the match and supporting the team but identifying with the team colours by wearing the appropriate gear.
I suppose there’s a social and psychological dimension as well. When we think back to the drabness of the fifties, the predominantly dark colour of the clothes, particularly men’s, the heavy duty serge, the general depression that hung over all, the poor economic condition of the country, the widespread poverty, there was very little scope for colour and bunting apart from that of Papal flags and Church vestments in the processions on August 15 and other feast days.
There was also the inhibition, which restrained people from exuberant display or any kind of colourful expression. The one outlet for feeling and expression was supporting one’s team whether at club or county level, but expressing that support vocally at matches against rivals.
As well as a revolution in the range of supporters at games and in the way that support is expressed; there has also been a revolution in the facilities for games. In fact this revolution has been phenomenal. If I remember accurately Lorrha used hold tournaments at Easter. St. Vincent’s of Dublin came in 1947 for a match on Easter Sunday. I am inclined to believe that the reason for having such games early in the year, apart from the need to get the team back training for the championship, was the need to have a reasonably bare field, which was possible at Easter before the growth began. It didn’t make much difference if there were a few cowpats on the field. With a bit of luck the players would avoid them. If one were unfortunate to slide into one it could be wiped off with a tuft of grass.
The field was always a temporary one, drafted into use for the occasion. Lorrha had no permanent field until the eighties. I remember two temporary fields in use, one at the Pike and a second at Abbeyville. Cashel King Cormac’s played in different venues, the Dualla Road, the Ardmayle Road, before finding a permanent home in Leahy Park in the early fifties. Clubs found it difficult to get fields. Farmers were reluctant to make their land available. In these temporary fields the grass was seldom cut. That would be a waste. It was cropped by cattle or sheep or by the traffic of players down the centre. The wings were usually grassy. The sideline and ends were notional. Sometimes a stone delineated the corners of the playing area.
Changing facilities didn’t exist. I recall vividly coming across a line of bundles of clothes at a tournament in Lorrha in the late forties. They created a strange sight, little bundles lying forlorn along a ditch, where the team had togged out. Sometimes the players didn’t have togs. I recall watching fellows playing in their trousers with their stockings pulled up over the legs.
One of my longest memories was crowding into an upstairs room in Foley’s Pub in Borrisokane where Lorrha always togged out for their matches in that town. I was small and the players were huge men. I remember Patsy Carroll, a famous cross-country runner applying a mixture of wintergreen and olive oil to their legs before they departed for the field The pungent odour still lingers in my nostrils. After the match the supporters crowded in for porter. That was the payment because there was never a charge for the room.
Of course the primitive conditions reflected the economic conditions of the people at large. ‘Twas far from showers and washing facilities they were reared. We got the bathroom into the house in 1958 and it was one of the first in the neighbourhood. When one thinks back to these days one wonders were people conscious of BO.? I’m reminded of a statement an American politician made about the French during an election campaign at a time when American-French relations were at a low ebb during the thirties. He was denigrating French habits of hygiene. ‘Did you know,’ he asked his audience, ‘that a French person is washed only twice is his life, once when he is born and a second time when he is dead? In between he uses talcum powder.’ It may have been an exaggeration but it was a reflection that a greater part of the world probably was part of the great unwashed. I am not aware if many Irish used talcum powder after matches during the fifties. Today showers have to be available after all G.A.A. activity in a Sportsfield.
Another area which has seen a dramatic change is in training. Collective training for county teams was present as far back as the twenties. The late Bill Ryan Laha told me about collective training they did for the 1920 football All-Ireland. They spent two weeks at Dungarvan before the final. Why they picked that location I don’t know. This kind of training continued into the fifties, when it was banned by the G.A.A. I suppose there was a purpose in it because of transport difficulties in getting to a venue for central training.
Apart from that training was fairly amateurish with the emphasis on ball playing and skill learning rather than physical preparation. I recall training with St. Flannan’s for Harty Cup games under the eye of Fr. Jimmy Madden, who is now retired in Borrisokane parish. Training sessions consisted of endless backs and forwards with a run around the field to complete it. Also, we were given extra food, beef tea at eleven o’clock in the morning and raw eggs at night.
There wasn’t much difference in the training of club teams. Again there was a concentration on hurling, either in matches or in backs and forwards. Very little running was done.
Coaching as we know it today hardly existed. Former All-Ireland hurler, Jim Devitt, had a dismissive attitude to the whole idea of coaching. You either had it or you hadn’t it summed up his attitude. All the coaching under the sun wouldn’t help much if you didn’t have the ability. And, if you had the latter it came instinctively to you. We might not all agree with that attitude.
The first approach to scientific training in the G.A.A. didn’t come about until the sixties with the advent of the Gormanstown College coaching school. In today’s terms it was far from scientific. These sessions were gatherings of interested people, who were enthusiastic about the games of hurling and football and were prepared to share knowledge and learn from and with each other. Their approach was more intuitive than scientifically based and the emphasis was on what are called the three T’s, the technical, the tactical and team play. The emphasis was on developing hurling and football skills, discussing playing tactics and emphasising team play. There was little or no reference to physical preparation. This school of thought, if one might call it that continued into the seventies.
However, a change was taking place towards the end of the sixties with the arrival of the physical education graduates. Initially they came from Strawberry Hill and from Thomond College in the early seventies. As a result of their involvement with teams there was a greater consciousness of the whole physical education business. They tended to emphasise the area of physical preparation and they brought to training the three P’s, the physical, the psychological and performance analysis. For them a major emphasis in the preparation of a team had to be the honing up of the body to new levels of physical and psychological preparedness. In fact this school went a bit overboard on the physical side to the detriment of skill learning.
This emphasis on the physical side was also influenced by the change in society from an agrarian to a service society. Before then the severe physical work, which was the lot of the majority of the population, gradually game way to different kind where the majority were in more sedentary jobs.
In the past number of years there has been a gradual swing away from this emphasis on the physical and a return to the basics of the technical, the tactical and the emphasis on team play. To a certain extent the wheel has come full circle. The perceived wisdom today is that 80% of the work of training and coaching should be done with the ball. Training with the ball should supply most of the physical preparation necessary. It is interesting how closely this concurs with what Jimmy Maddin was doing with us in Flannan’s in the early fifties.
Clare are an exception to this trend. During his term as manager, Ger Loughnane strove to have his players reach new heights in physical fitness, driving them up mountains at dawn, reminiscent of Fionn McCool driving his female suitors up Slievenamon in order to pick the fastest. But, I think he may have found out that there’s more to hurling than physical preparation. His team were a tired team of players against us in this year’s Munster championship.
Something else is relevant here. During the fifties and sixties there were few juvenile competitions either at county or school level. Since then there has been a proliferation of games. Some people are concerned that boys are being asked to perform before they learn how to play. In the fifties there was one juvenile competition for the rural area and one for the urban area, plus one for both. At secondary school level there was a junior and senior competition. The county competitions were for under-15 and it was the only one until minor level. The emphasis was on learning to play with the opportunity to perform not coming until the boy was a mature fourteen or fifteen. And there was only one competition, no A’s or B’s or C’s so, if you didn’t make the first panel you had to keep practising without competition. The boy got plenty of opportunity to learn how to play.
The thinking today has gone right back with the belief that children should be kept away from competition until they have learned how to play. There should be no competitions for the under twelves rather practice sessions where the skills can be learned. The intention behind coaching should be on the technical and the tactical. Then, as the child reaches his mid-teens emphasis is put on team play and a gradual introduction into competition.
The major problem over the past few decades is the growing number of juvenile competitions. There is no recognition that the pot is full. All the emphasis has been on expansion and there has been no recognition that the pot can only take so much. There are arguments in favour of every competition and all mentors believe their competition is vital and unique and cannot be discarded. What is really necessary today is contraction, a reduction in the number of competitions for young people.
I suppose one area where the G.A.A. is very different to-day to what it was in the fifties is in the role of managers. Up to comparatively recently, every team, at all levels of the Association, had only a trainer. In many cases the trainer’s role was confined to the physical preparation of teams. Very often he had no say in the selection of a team, which was normally undertaken by a separate selection committee.
It is impossible to ascertain the defining moment when the role of the manager, as we now know it, came into being. Possibly in terms of a person with sole responsibility for a team’s training and managing, the provincial colleges championships produced the first supremos in hurling and football. In senior inter-county football most observers feel that the appointments of Kevin Heffernan in 1973 and Mick O’Dwyer in 1975 heralded and popularised the position of manager.
There were characters in the past who had the semblance of managers. One thinks of Jim Barry of Cork, Paddy Leahy of Tipperary. But they differed from today’s. In the first place they lacked the cult status enjoyed by the modern manager. Neither did they enjoy the almost totalitarian control the modern manager enjoys. They weren’t pampered and portrayed and pursued by the media in the way present managers are. They did the basic physical preparation with the team and gave advice. Their tactics were simple. The speech before the match was very often given by the county chairman.
The modern manager was an inevitable development, part of the general concentration of team control under one person in other sports. It coincided with a more professional approach to team preparation and it coincided with the greater emphasis on the physical preparation of teams. If we take Babs as the example of the first modern manager of the Tipperary team it is well to recall that a very important member of that team was the hammer thrower and P.E. teacher, Phil Conway, who was the first man to bring a professional approach to the physical preparation of a Tipperary team. It is also significant that he was dropped when Babs came to the conclusion that the team hadn’t been as physically prepared as he wanted.
Babs brought in ideas and concepts from business into the management of teams. One of the important principles in business is the delegation of authority by drafting in specialists in different areas. The handing over of the physical preparation to a different person would be part of that development. The development of a supporters club to generate more funds was another part. On the other hand when one of the management team fails to deliver the goods to the manager’s satisfaction, he is replaced by another. In contrast Loughnane would be in the mould of the old time manager, keeping everything under his control
Managers created problems initially and controlling them was a problem but matters have been sorted out now, in most cases. It could be said they have been good for the game. Apart from their more professional approach to team preparation, they have also increased the profile of the game. Managers express opinions and are the media’s delight. In many incidences their opinions are controversial and invoke responses from other managers or from G.A.A. officials.
They are also catalysts for change. They are promoters of the game, constantly striving to improve their teams’ performances and success. Because of their close focus on the game and the success of their teams they are the source of new ideas and new ways of thinking. Because of their access to the media their ideas are publicised and given a prominence sometimes beyond their intrinsic value. Not only are they listened to by the media, they are also influential in changing the ideas of supporters and members of the Association. Perhaps one way to describe their position is to see them as the radical wing of the Association, advocating change and an important balance to the conservatism and adversity to change which is endemic in the Association.
There is a downside to the existence of managers. They tend to put pressure on the tension balance within counties. Managers are concerned with their team’s success above all else. To achieve this they want to have their complete panel fit and well for all matches. They see all kinds of dangers to their players playing club games. Their attitude is that their plans and their players must be given priority before anything else in the county. This leads to tension between manager and officials and between clubs and manager.
Ultimately managers are driving our games in the direction of professionalism. The preparation demanded is well-nigh professional. The demands on the players are of professional standard. The level of fitness demanded and the emphasis on lifestyle is a major encroachment on the freedom of the individual. It may not be far down the road when the players begin demanding compensation for this kind of effort. If the manager is a well-paid individual preparing them why should they not be paid for delivering almost professional performances?
One of the most dramatic changes in the G.A.A. since the fifties is the commercialisation of the Association. It is a creeping phenomenon. Let’s cast our minds back to the un-commercial reality of life in the fifties. At that stage we didn’t have ads as such on Radio Eireann. We did have sponsored programs. This program is brought to you with the compliments of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes. But, there was no invidious invasion of our minds at every moment of the day and even during newstime. Probably the only programs left free today are religious services on a Sunday morning. And, we didn’t have television, which is driven by advertising, back then. The idea of having advertising hoardings in our stadia or logos on jerseys wasn’t even a distant thought.
Commercialisation of the Association is a relatively new phenomenon. It could be said to have begun in the centenary year of the G.A.A. Do you remember the open draw senior hurling championship sponsored by Ford. It ran for two years, was won by Cork the first year and by Tipperary in the second year. The trophy is presently in Lar na Pairce.
Even before 1984 the G.A.A. had used sponsorship in the funding of the Ceannaras block. Roughly one-sixth of the cost, £250,000, came from sponsors, most of it raised by Sean O Siochain, the former Director-General, who had retired in 1979. Also, prior to 1984 individual clubs had started along the sponsorship trail, especially in Dublin. I’m not sure of the extent of this development or what kind of sanction it received either from county boards or headquarters, but it was a reality. Perhaps it could be said that Croke Park, by virtue of accepting sponsorship for the Centenary Cup, was giving sanction to something which was already a fact of life among a growing number of clubs.
Since then the whole area of sponsorship has snow-balled. The extent to which commercial interests were prepared to come forward with financial sponsorship convinced the Association of the need to exploit this new source of funding for its activities. Early opposition within the Association to both the principle and extent of sponsorship was overcome, but a special Work Group and the central council kept both the concept and operation of sponsorship under constant review. A central council decision in early 1986 not to accept advertisements or sponsorship from alcoholic drinks firms was later reversed by congress.
Detailed guidelines on sponsorship were drawn up by the Work Group and approved by the central council, and then circulated to all units of the Association. These laid down the conditions under which sponsorship was acceptable, and a control system was then put in place. According to Marcus de Burca, the G.A.A. historian, the Association, ‘while understandably giving preference to Irish industry, has been prepared to avail itself of any assistance offered by commercial interests in order to promote the Asociations activities.’ Fears expressed in the 1970’s by opponents of sponsorship about the danger of firms intruding into the running of the Association have proved to be groundless. Also, the amateur status of the players, while under threat, has been guarded and a special delegate congress devoted to the topic was held in November 1997.
The sponsorship of jerseys, for which definite guidelines were laid down by the Work Group, became universal in 1990. This area of commercial activity has become increasingly important to sponsors in the late nineties with the increased televising of our games. The sponsor can now expect to get massive exposure if the team sponsored is successful in the championship. Not only is the logo exposed to millions of viewers during the actual televised match, but gets renewed exposure in reports of games, discussions and previews. With close-ups of players in matches the logo of the sponsor gets almost as much exposure as the face of the player.
This sponsorship of jerseys, while it is of vital importance to counties as a new source of finance in the preparation of teams, has become of even greater importance to clubs. It is a vital source of club finances. There has been no shortage of businesses and firms coming forward with such sponsorship. In small towns and villages pubs are to the fore with this sponsorship. I was in Luxembourg in 1997 on the Sunday before Patrick’s Day and went to a football match. One of the teams carried the name ‘The Black Stuff’ on the jerseys. It was the name of a famous Irish pub in the town and the place to which we all adjourned after the game. It is conceivable that clubs were recognising this fact when they influenced congress to reverse a central council decision in 1986 to ban sponsorship from alcoholic firms.
The next development was the sponsorship of competitions, which came about as the nineties progressed. The high profile sponsorship of the hurling championship by Guinness and the football championship by Bank of Ireland tends to dwarf the extent that sponsorship has permeated all units of the Association. Every single one of the sixteen championships in the west division has a sponsor now and it is not unique. It is a fact of life and difficult to imagine how boards could survive without it.
And, what will the next development be? There seems to be only one direction and that is the sponsorship of stadia. We already have an example in soccer with Eircom Park around the corner. The latest news is that the development may be under threat. What are the chances that this will happen in the G.A.A. I believe there is a very good chance. Commercial reality will drive it and neither sentiment nor ideology will prevent it. I believe it may be the reason why the new stands in Croke Park haven’t been named yet. We are concerned in Tipperary that the name of Michael Hogan may be discarded from the new structure and most of us will be mightily upset if this were to come about. Seamus Leahy suggested in an interview recently that in that event we should take to the streets. And, maybe we will. But, I believe we may be banging our heads against a commercial wall. If a sponsor comes along with five million or more to get his name on the new stand, I find it difficult to imagine how Michael Hogan can survive.
For most people the hurley stick has remained a constant during all these years. But such is not the opinion of Justin McCarthy of Cork. Some of you may be aware of Justin, a man who lives, thinks and sleeps hurling. He has an exciting history having played minor, under-21 and senior hurling for Cork, winning an All-Ireland in 1966. His hurling life was severely curtailed by a broken leg but he came back from that to play in later All-Irelands. He became the coach of the Cork senior team and coached them to the 1984 All-Ireland. He broke the mould in hurling circles by going to Clare for four years to train their senior team and later to Antrim. He came to the Cashel King Cormac’s for seven years around 1990 and helped the club to their first senior county final. His interest in coaching first manifested itself in the Gormanstown coaching sessions in the early sixties. He’s been writing a column on hurling in the Examiner since 1992.
One of his great interests is hurleys and adapting them to the needs of individuals. He believes a hurley is a very personal thing and should be selected with the same care and attention as a golfer selects his club or a tennis player his racket. According to him this is a relatively recent phenomenon. He holds that Tipperary and Kilkenny were the first counties to recognise that all players couldn’t play with the same hurley. He recalls Jerry Doyle kneeling with a line of hurleys on the sideline, each of them identified with the name of a player. Many of these hurleys would have been worked on to suit individual needs.
The average player in the fifties played with a basic hurley, made by a hurley maker and identified by nothing else but the length. It was a primitive stick with general characteristics but hardly any effort was made to individualise it to the needs of a particular player. Most of you remember the hurley carrier then with his bundle of hurleys and if a player broke one on the field he came to the sideline and tested a couple before deciding the one which suited him.
Justin claims he was the first player in Cork to put his name on a hurley to identify it as his, suitable to his physical characteristics and his special needs. He would work on a hurley, reducing its weight by shaving it or adding to its weight by putting bands on it, sometimes half bands. He would finish off the stick with tape and a proper grip. There has been an evolution in the tape used, from tar tape to cloth tape to rubber tape. All the work on the hurley was done to give it better balance to make it a finer striking instrument.
So the modern hurley is a much different instrument to the one used in the fifties, which was, in contrast, a rather basic instrument. The modern stick is more balanced and more compact. It is better formed and it is shaped and added to to suit the individual requirements of the hurler. Even its shape has changed slightly with a projection like a heel on the boss, rather than the rounded curve of the earlier sticks.
Another area of change and development is in the area of communications. The fifties are synonymous with the radio and the unforgettable voice of Micheal O Hehir.
He brought the games to a wider audience and infiltrated parts of the country where Gaelic games were of little importance. Many of you recall a visit to the seaside during the summer and the voice of Michael O Hehir from car radios drowning out other sounds as men and women listened close by while their children played in the sands or dipped in the water. The voice of the broadcaster made games from other provinces exciting and breathtaking. He made strange places known and brought new names of players to the fore. I had such pride in Lorrha when I heard Tony Reddin’s name called in the team’s lineout. Even today you meet people for the first time and, if they are of a particular vintage, they will say ‘Tony Reddin’s country’ when you mention Lorrha. The same is true of so many other names and places.
The newspapers gave extensive coverage during the fifties and this coverage of G.A.A. matters didn’t have to compete with so many other sports for column space as they do today. That decade saw the arrival of the great G.A.A. correspondents like John D. Hickey, Mick Dunne and Raymond Smith, with their detailed match reports and their striving after effect through a blaze of adjectives and mixed metaphors. Outside of the newspapers Carbery’s Annual and Raymond Smith’s many publications on hurling and football were a few of the publications available. Others came and went with very few lasting the pace. I believe that the G.A.A. person, traditionally, didn’t buy much in the line of magazines or books on G.A.A. matters. He was content with the radio broadcast, the Monday Press or Independent or Examiner to fill out the picture, and the local weekly if the county or club team were playing.
There is a very definite expansion in coverage today. This can be seen in many areas. The most obvious one is television. It took us a long time in the G.A.A. to learn the value of television exposure. For many years television exposure appeared as a threat rather than a help to our games. Fortunately, matters have changed. Most people now accept that exposure is a marvellous thing and it does not keep people away from games. Take last Sunday for instance. The Munster final was on television yet 54,670 people packed into Semple Stadium. An estimated another five thousand came to Thurles without tickets and watched it in the local pubs. They mightn’t be able to get to the game but they wanted to be as close as possible to the action.
Television is doing one other thing: it is making the game more widely known and appreciated. The medium is wonderful is revealing the skills and the intricacies of the game. It shows the courage and determination of the players. It has also helped to clean up the game because it exposes mercilessly foul strokes and nasty incidents. I believe the player is protected doubly when the match is televised. It’s the referee’s job to protect the players in normal circumstances, and to ensure that the rules of the game are observed. But the player now has the additional protection of knowing that if the referee lets go an incident which should have been punished, the GAC may use the video evidence to expose and punish the culprit.
If I have a complaint it is that RTE don’t do justice to the games. I had a discussion recently with Michael O’Carroll, a Dunkerrin man who has been a producer/director on RTE sport for thirty years. I made the point that RTE didn’t use enough cameras to do justice to the game of hurling. He disagreed with my opinion. For instance they used eight cameras in Thurles last Sunday. I know that Wembley Stadium were using a minimum of twelve cameras back in 1971. I don’t know how many they use to cover games today. If you watched the Euro 2000 games you will recall how every shot at goal had three replay angles to show the shot from different angles. I know it costs money but the day may come when some of the bigger TV companies may make an offer to the G.A.A. that they may not be able to refuse. Just imagine what eighteen cameras could have done for the Munster final last Sunday. Just imagine how well and from how many angles it could have shown up the Paul Shelley incident! I don’t have to go on.
Newspaper coverage has improved with a great emphasis on action photographs, colour and more analysis of the game. The sports supplement is a common feature. There is a big increase in individual profiles. These have put increased pressure on players as their exploits are reported in a dramatic manner and many are given star status. Sometimes this praise of the individual and his elevation to an heroic plane puts such pressure on the player that he seldom delivers in his next game.
Match programs have been improved beyond all recognition. Last Summer I was given a copy of the program for the 1932 All-Ireland between Kilkenny and Clare. It was a four page spread and a far cry from the A-4 size books you get at today’s All-Ireland. There is a disadvantage in the growth in size as it’s too big to fold and put in your pocket. Last Sunday’s match program contained 56 pages and was a bumper edition and a tribute to John McCormack, the editor, who received a McNamee Award for his production of last year’s county final program. People expect this service today. We are all aware how they kick up if there’s not a team sheet available at a game.
Another welcome development since the fifties is the publication of Yearbooks in many counties. They are not available in every county nor are they regularly produced. Tipperary has done well in this area. First produced in 1970 the Tipperary Yearbook has never failed to appear. The current edition is much improved on the first one to be produced and it is difficult to imagine it not coming out in the year. It is an essential record of the year in the county and will provide an invaluable service to club and county history writers in the future. Not only is it a written record of what happened, it is also an outstanding visual record of the year’s events. One year I counted 400 pictures in the Yearbook.
Since 1984 many club histories were produced. This development was a new phenomenon. Prior to that year I can recall only three attempts at recording club activities. Philip Ryan produced ‘Tubberadora’s Hurling Story’ in 1973, Seamus O Riain brought out ‘The Moneygall Hurling Story’ in 1975 and Bill O’Brien brought out some memories of Sean Treacy’s in 1978. George Cunningham and Tom McCarthy produced the Roscrea Hurling Club in 1980. Since 1984 close on thirty club histories have appeared and many more are in the pipe line.
In the area of general publications there were very few available in the fifties. Tom Kenny brought out Tour of the Tipperary Hurling Team in America 1926 in 1928, Fr. Meagher’s speeches to a dozen County Tipperary conventions were published a decade later. Tommy Doyle’s, My Lifetime in Hurling, was published in 1955. Canon Fogarty’s, Tipperary’s G.A.A. Story, appeared in 1960 and Tony Wall’s book on hurling came out in 1965. In contrast to this small number of books what a proliferation of publications in the past few years.
On of the memories of the fifties that seems like some vestigial remains from a darker age is the ban, a rule in the G.A.A. which banned attendances at foreign games and disallowed foreign dances at G.A.A. events. Vigilantes moved around to ensure no body attended foreign games. Those who were discovered were given bans and penalties. Some of you may be aware that Mick Mackey, a Limerick man and an inveterate supporter of Limerick rugby, had to be protected from the ban. Otherwise Limerick might have found themselves without his services. They came up with an Irish solution to an Irish problem: they made him a vigilante so he had to attend the foreign games in an official capacity. I doubt if he ever reported anyone for attending foreign games.
Of course the whole Cooney affair in 1938 originated with Jimmy Cooney’s attendance at an international rugby match at Lansdowne Road in February of that year. Cooney was banned for attendance and then was unable to declare for Tipp as he was a banned person. We won’t bother discussing the folly of the selectors in picking him when his eligibility to play was in doubt.
Since 1971 all of this climate has changed. The ban was eventually abolished at Congress that year. People of the post-1971 generation express disbelief at the kind of climate of opinion which supported the ban. They aren’t interested in the historical reasons for the ban. G.A.A. players today move easily between the codes and form the backbone of soccer and rugby teams, especially in rural areas. As well, coaches move easily and freely between Gaelic and soccer and rugby.
One thought strikes me about the ban. If it were still in existence today, and that, of course, is inconceivable, it is more than likely there would be high court cases against it. One can imagine members of G.A.A. clubs taking court action against the ban as an infringement on human liberties and an interference with a person’s right to choose the games he wishes, or the dances he wishes to dance.
The referees of the fifties were a more leisurely crowd. There was less pressure as they were under little scrutiny. The rules were simpler as the game was less technical.
Referees played a less prominent roll. I recall only one controversy from the period. The 1947 All-Ireland semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway was played at Birr before thirty thousand people. Martin Costello of Terryglass was the referee and there was controversy as he was alleged to have favoured Kilkenny on the occasion.
I seem to remember that prominent G.A.A. officials were chosen to officiate on occasions. The job of refereeing wasn’t as specialist as it is today. There was no standard dress or uniform. There were no courses to take and there were no assessments like there are today.
The contrast today is striking. Referees are certainly fitter and are expected to keep in shape. They are more aware of the rules and the game has become extremely technical. The official guide for 1943 is a one-volume book with nine and a half pages on hurling rules. The 1995 guide is a two-volume work with twenty-one pages on hurling rules. Today’s referee is seriously assessed and may be under pressure because he is being watched. In fact his performance has become a bit boxed in as he is constrained from giving expression to his personality.
He has much greater authority on the field and is very conscious of using his umpires and linesmen. He has a much higher profile and because of that is mercilessly scrutinised by the media, especially television. He has a difficult task as hurling has become a running game and it is very difficult to watch the extra steps players take to get away from their markers. Then the game is so fast, decisions have to be split second.
I suppose the biggest change that has taken place since the fifties is the dress code, which has become very strict. Black and green has become the standard. Back in the early fifties referees officiated in their county colours. When John Moloney began in 1956 white was very much in and he remembers it as a very effective dress. For the 1973 All-Ireland John wore black with white collar and white togs. Some of you remember Mick Slattery with this outfit for the Munster final between Limerick and Tipperary at Thurles that summer. Essentially referees were left to their own devices as regards dress. In the late seventies the authorities began to provide referees with gear. Then in the early eighties the black and green, which is standard today, came in and it was definitely established by 1984.
I haven’t spoken about the rule changes which have taken place and I don’t intend to exhaust the subject. Looking back to the fifties we all remember the third man tackle. You were quite entitled to jostle a man to keep him away from a team mate on the ball. Or you could shoulder an incoming forward to protect your goalkeeper. On the other hand you could bundle a player, including the goalkeeper, into the net and how often do we remember such a happening described vividly be Michael O Hehir. There’s a story told of the 1915 junior All-Ireland between Tipperary and Offaly at Athlone. Towards the end of the game Offaly were attacking strongly and backs and forwards were bundled into the Tipperary net. Felix Cronin of Lorrha, who was playing full-back for Tipperary, is reputed to have found the ball under him and threw it out wide. When the referee untangled the mess no ball was found so no goal was given and Felix became the first Lorrha man to win an All-Ireland medal. He was later to marry Kitty Kiernan. The third man tackle was eventually banned in 1975.
There was an experiment with the ‘hooter’ system, which timed games independent of referees, between 1950-52. Called the Bogue clock it wasn’t satisfactory and, after a period of experimentation, referees continued to be the sole authority on the length of games The Bogue clock remains in use in Gaelic Park, New York.
The no-stoppage rule was introduced in 1955. We recall the use of the well-timed stoppage in a game. Matters are going badly for a team so a few of their players go down ‘injured’. The intention is to put the other side out of their stride by breaking their momentum. Or one side is very tired and wants a break from the game. So, a player goes down injured. I think Cork were always very good with this tactic!
Then you remember the backs go back but the forwards remained for the throw-in, so there was quite a crowd present around the referee for the start of the game. And the game used to be started by the Archbishop of Cashel. I have been trying to find out when this practice stopped. It appears to have been the mid-seventies. John Moloney recalls the Archbishop throwing in the ball in the 1974 All-Ireland. He also refereed the 1975 Munster football final and Bishop Casey threw in the ball. John recalls the Bishop saying to him ‘If I throw it to a Kerry man, is it a foul?’ followed by a loud guffaw. Am I right in remembering the Bishop or Archbishop in danger as he scurried back to the safety of the stand? And, wasn’t there a time when there was a mock throw-in and then the real one after the Archbishop was back in his seat?
And talking of the Archbishop and the throw-in I believe the singing of Faith of our Fathers before the national anthem went sometime earlier, about the mid-sixties. I always thought people sang it with more fervour and gusto than the national anthem. Nobody has been able to tell me why it went. Perhaps there was an ecumenical reason. Maybe it had to do with the new political developments between the Republic and Northern Ireland in the mid-sixties. There is also a suggestion that the powers that be woke up to the fact that the hymn was of Protestant extraction, with an English rather than an Irish origin.
Whatever about Faith of our Fathers, Dr. Morris was upset about doing away with his right to throw-in. His upset was due to the failure of Croke Park properly to inform him they were intending to do so. As far as I understand it was sprung on him and he complained to Seamus O Riain about the treatment of him. The throw-in was confined to the four mid-fielders in 1965.
There were many other changes over the past fifty years. The game went from sixty to eighty minutes in 1970 and settled at seventy in 1975. The linesman was required to place the ball for a line ball in 1965 and twenty years later players were given the right. The change over to metre measurements came in 1978 but I still think in seventies and 21’s. In the mid-eighties the goalie had to have a distinctive jersey and his hurley could not be wider than 13 centimetres. And there were many more.
So, what of the future? I don’t claim to be a prophet but there are a few changes I can see down the road. There was an experiment some years back with thirteen aside. I can see that coming back in the future. It would make hurling a still faster and more exciting game. It would change the nature of back and forward play. It would also help many clubs and counties, who have difficulty in getting sufficient players to make up teams.
It takes seven officials to officiate at a G.A.A. game. It is much too many. It is also quite difficult to find so many for lesser games. I can see the G.A.A. experimenting with just three, the referee and two linesmen as you have in soccer and rugby. There would be no problem with goals as they end up in the net. I believe the referee is best placed to decide if it’s a point. Or, modern technology should be able to come up with a solution. So, I wouldn’t see any great problem with making umpires redundant and bringing the linesmen even more into play.
Finally, I won’t be surprised if the game ends up professional. There is tremendous pressure in that direction. Playing at inter-county level has become an almost full-time job. Full-time work demands to be paid. I envisage, in hurling at any rate, a development in which there would be eight to twelve professional hurling teams playing for All-Ireland honours and with the best of amateurs, playing for clubs, striving to get into the paid ranks. I’m not making any value judgment on whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing. It would be a sea change from all we have been used to and from everything the Association has stood for since its foundation.
Talk given at The Slieveardagh Culture & Enterprise Centre, River Street, Killenaule, July 7th, 2000