Charles Kickham's song has always been popular in the county - it could be called the County Anthem. But it has achieved a new significance this year with Tipperary's emergence from the Munster championship after sixteen years in the wilderness. Richard Stakelum's rendering of the song after receiving the Munster Cup in Killarney touched responsive chords in the hearts of Tipperary people everywhere.
The rousing reception to the song was an understandable response after so many years of defeat and frustration. It gave vent to the county's relief and exhilaration after such a succession of failures. It carried a tone of triumphalism that rang out over Fitzgerald Stadium and teased the ears of Cork supporters as they made their hurried exits. I experienced a similar full-blooded rendering of the song in Patrick McGrath's pub in Drumcondra on the morning of the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park.
The song holds a similar position in Tipperary as 'Boolavogue' does in Wexford or 'The Banks' in Cork or, more recently, 'You're a Lady' in Limerick.
The strength of 'Slievenamon' must rest on its very fine melody. Even without the words it's a great tune. It represents the Romantic Ireland that W.B. Yeats thought was 'dead and gone'. Kickham was the great exponent of Romantic Nationalism in his writings and 'Slievenamon' was one of the finest expressions of the feeling.
The song's association with Kickham makes it all the more attractive. The Mullinahone writer endured hardship and want, ill-health and imprisonment, during his relatively short life of fifty-four years. Yet, in his great novel 'Knocknagow', which he sub-titled 'The Homes of Tipperary', he gave us the story of the indomitable spirit of Matt the Thresher and pride in one's place.
I thought the singing of 'Slievenamon' brings some of these thoughts and feelings to our minds. We have returned from the wilderness to the edge of hurling greatness again. We have triumphed over the failures and frustrations of the past number of years. We have come again into our own, back, almost, to our rightful place as the premier county in hurling. We can again take pride in our county. The name of Tipperary is once again a name to be feared and respected, as it was in the great fifties and sixties.
The interesting thing about this development is that is also touches those who don't remember the glory days. It's amazing the resurgence of interest in the county among the young. The number of teenage boys and girls who made the journey to Croke Park on August 9th was staggering. They were finding out for the first time what it was to be from Tipperary just as the rest of us were re-discovering the indescribable pleasure of being Tipperary men and women.
All of this may seem somewhat remote from to-day's county quarter-final clashes at Pairc Sean Ui Laochadha. But it isn't. Johnny Leahy, better known as Captain Johnny Leahy, after whom this field is named, represented the same indomitable spirit about which Kickham wrote. The great writer himself was born in the parish of Cashel, about a mile out the Fethard Road. According to the story his mother came in from Mullinahone to shop in Cashel in 1828 and went into labour on her way home. Charles was born in her parents' place in Mockler's Hill. And, in the distance, as one looks at it, it is tempting to imagine the scene on the morning that Fionn Mac Cumhail chose his bride, a marathon of women labouring up the sides of the mountain and their disappointment of finding Deirdre in Fionn's arms when they scaled the peak.
Alone, all alone by the wave-washed strand
And alone in the crowded hall
The hall it is gay and the wayes they are grand
But my heart is not here at all!
It flies far away, by night and by day
To the times and the joys that are gone.
And I never shall forget the sweet maiden I met
In the Valley near Slievenamon .
It was not the grace of her queenly air
Not her cheek of the rose's glow
Nor her soft black eyes, nor her flowing hair
Nor was it her lily-white brow.
'Twas the soul of truth and of melting ruth
And the smile like a summer dawn
That stole my heart away one soft summer day
In the Valley near Slievenamon
In the festive hall, by the star-watched shore
Ever my restless spirit cries:
"My love, oh my love, shall I ne 'er see you more?
And, my land, will you never uprise?"
By night and by day I ever, ever pray
While lonely my life flows on
To see our flag unrolled and my true love to enfold
In the Valley near Slievenamon.
County Hurling Quarter-Finals, Leahy Park, Cashel, September 20, 1987