Thursday 24 August 2017

Tradition and toil keep the flame alive

E VERY GAA follower will have had a relationship with their club, and many will take another, the latter grouping rendering the recent sponsorship slogan of 'one life, one club' somewhat unsound. In the 25 years since the GAA's centenary there have been massive demographic and social changes that require clubs, the prized lifeblood of the Association, to respond and adapt or face possible ruin.

The most telling impact has been the movement of people east, to Dublin and its surrounding hinterland, flooding the capital with greater playing resources and impacting profoundly on the existing club matrix. Over 40 per cent of the population of the Republic resides in this area, a breeding ground for new clubs and a fresh challenge to those already established. Old clubs that catered for country players have folded and the once redoubtable bastion of Dublin purity, St Vincent's, won an All-Ireland last year with almost a third of the team from the country.

Whereas it was once regarded as an act of hideous betrayal to leave home and sign for another club, this is now a great deal more commonplace and socially acceptable. The demands of work and the contraction of leisure time, in what has been described as a time-poor modern society, have contributed to this need for versatility and compromise.

And yet, still, you will find young men and women leaving their jobs in Dublin and other scattered parts to drive through the evening traffic so that they can serve the home club. For them nothing will surpass the visceral thrill they achieve by pulling on their own native colours and following, perhaps, in the footsteps of a father and grandfather whose exploits are still recalled.

Clubs are faced with all sorts of modern pressures: competing in the larger urban areas for players; competing with other sports; denied their best hurlers and footballers because of the overbearing demands of the county team; competing with the dire and shocking instability of the annual fixtures schedule.

For many years club players had too few games and now the chronic problem is that there are too many gaps in their playing time and competitions are left unfinished. County boards are grievously failing in their duty to provide a dependable service on that score. Too many club players cannot plan a life around their playing duties with any degree of certainty.

The future welfare of the clubs, the new GAA director-general Paraic Duffy has claimed, is the most important issue for the Association. That will come as a great comfort to the thousands for whom it is their chosen outlet and source of infinite joy. The club is the starting point and the finishing point for most players, supporters and members of the GAA. Long may it stay that way.

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NO PLACE LIKE HOME

TO appreciate true sacrifice, a winter match near Keel beach on Achill Island is recommended. Faced with wind gusting in over the grey Atlantic and temperatures dipping unsympathetically, it is no place for fancy-dans and those of a delicate disposition. The goalposts are wooden, stripped bare and without ornamentation, and still they qualify as the venue's greatest extravagance. There are no dressing rooms and on this wild late afternoon in January no pitch marks or trace of life, past or present.

Last year when Davitt Park, the main pitch near the island's mainland bridge, wasn't available the local team hosted two matches at Keel, dragging visitors from Shrule and other parts of Mayo further away from the civilised world. Packie McGinty, chairman of Achill GAA club, remembers matches played here among the island's village teams, for the Scanlon Cup, a competition that started in the 1950s and is now defunct. It featured scores of emigrants home for a few months after Christmas to work the land, before heading back to London or America by Easter.

Achill has long grown accustomed to its young men heading away for work. In the Scanlon Cup, sport cut its cloth to measure. Packie's father was away from home for most of his life, working in London from where he would send back money. Much of the finance needed to develop Davitt Park came from emigrant pockets. The McGintys' experience was not unique; the majority of families at one time did not see their fathers during their working lives except for Christmas and a short time after. The GAA provided some distraction from those realities, even when, as Packie says, the players were so blue from the cold at Keel that they could not take off their boots.

One Sunday in the 1960s, Packie played in a county minor final and the next day, aged 17, he was on his way to London to find work. He's home and settled now with a grown-up family, having spent ten years in London as a carpenter and then a little more time in the Middle East and Dublin to help finance the building of a new home in his native place. Holiday homes have flourished in Achill in the last 20 years and that has kept him in regular and local employment. He doesn't drink. The club is his indulgence, his means of winding down and forgetting his ills and ailments.

It is all relative of course. Early in the current decade, in much better times economically, the club decided it needed to roll up its sleeves and turn its fortunes around. Playing Division 5 football brought them to Clare Island for a match which was a stark reminder that they needed to take stock. Around that time one of their players noticed a local newspaper poll showing the top 40 clubs in Mayo and Achill didn't feature. He stored it away but highlighted the omission when they won the junior football championship in 2007 with a stirring display of football.

Nothing comes easy for Achill, even in better times. Most of their players are dotted around the country and they all made selfless commitments to be back on the Friday nights for training in 2007, availing of the floodlights installed a few years ago, the first in Mayo. The lights meant they could train late after eventually getting through the Friday evening traffic and arriving at their westerly destination. No one asked for travel expenses. Most of them grew up together and that day in Castlebar when they won the junior championship they all bundled into a giddy and delirious heap for the victorious photograph. Packie McGinty says it was his proudest day as an Achill GAA man.

His brother Hughie is the club treasurer -- Achill isn't, he admits, Chelsea. They have to earn every cent through the weekly lottery and other fund-raising ventures to raise the €40,000 or so that is needed annually to break even. To register every team costs money. They are also obliged to sell tickets for the county board to pay for McHale Park's redevelopment. Being where they are means travelling to matches can weigh adversely on the annual balance sheet.

Of a family of seven, all of the McGintys, like their father, emigrated although four are now back in Achill or living close by. After London, Packie threw himself back into the club. London had its charms. "'Where do you play?' they'd ask you, and a lad would say 'I can play anywhere' -- they'd be using that for work," says Hughie. "It (football in London) was a great outlet but at the same time it wasn't like here. There was no identity."

Packie met his wife, a Wexford woman, in the Galtymore in Cricklewood. They celebrated their 40th anniversary recently. "You always thought with so many Achill men in the one area in Cricklewood, if they were all back home, how many titles could we have won. I came back at 27 and played till I was 42."

Hughie: "I was away for 20 years, I will never forget the day I came home: 10th of March '95."

Faced with a drain on resources, Achill had to find some way of getting by. "It was survival," says Packie. "Sometimes on a Sunday you would have no have more than 11 players, you were playing lads just to make up the numbers. There were great people in the club who held it together."

Founded in 1941, Achill had a tradition of football among the different villages on the island, which measures 57 square miles. They played one year at senior and there is one survivor from the team, which followed the first junior title in 1942, John Cooney. Most of their time since has been spent in junior ranks. Last year they were squeezed out of the intermediate championship quarter-finals on score difference. They believe they are capable of winning one.

The McGintys recall the teams they had at underage in the 1960s before most of their players moved away. "Didn't matter what team (we met) in the county," says Packie. "Castlebar was the strongest that time; we played them 13 times, and I think Achill had the seven and Castlebar the six."

Michael McNamara, a local councillor and schoolteacher, managed the Achill team that won the Mayo junior championship in 2007. They reached the Connacht final but lost by a few points in Ballinasloe, hitting a feast of wides. Last year they won the All-Ireland junior sevens. The ambition that exists now is unprecedented.

"We started training in January and I'd say we'd have trained three times a week and and they (players living away) would have travelled at their own expense. About a dozen might be present on a Wednesday night and you might be lucky if there were half of those on the team," McNamara outlines. "Our main trainer would have come from Galway. Others from Limerick, Athlone, Dublin; we were lucky in that they were nearly all single lads. One older lad in his thirties did travel from Clonee (in Meath); he has a family. He played with Thomas Davis for most of his adult career but he joined us two years ago and commuted up and down."

Packie recalls the day the pitch was opened in 2002 after a drainage job on the surface and the construction of a new stand, installation of floodlights and improved changing facilities. Dublin arrived down to play Mayo in a challenge.

"They parked out there," signals Michael McNamara from a local hotel room, "and the poor lads from Dublin thought they were going to get drowned. The tide was in."

Afterwards, they adjourned to the same hotel for refreshments and Shane MacGowan walked in with his mother after visiting the locally-based House of Prayer. He gave an impromptu performance for 20 minutes. Packie jokes that Achill GAA had him booked specially for the event.

The population has stabilised, Michael McNamara believes, though the current recession may create more uncertainty and reawaken familiar challenges. If the weather is too hard for Achill men, they have the use of a large gymnasium and if Davitt Park is over-used and needs rest, there is, like the last place on earth, Keel.

The club is benefitting from the hard work of the last ten years.

Colm Cafferkey has been on the Mayo senior panel for a few years and they are expecting up to three club men on this year's under 21 panel. In the past, players from Achill have won All-Ireland minor and under 21 medals for Mayo.

"I have to say my dream would be Mayo to win Sam Maguire and there's an Achill man on the team," says Michael McNamara. "That would be fantastic, that would be fantastic for the club."

And as the winds roar over Clew Bay, the McGinty brothers nod in agreement. There's no place like home.

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THE FIRE REMAINS LIT

IN a large farmhouse in Cavan, Peadar MacSeain, whose father was a founding member, rallies to the cause of the once opulent Cornafean. A winner of a record 20 senior football championship titles, renowned as the famous Reds, they now languish in junior ranks: a fortune squandered. Peadar was on the last team to win a senior title in 1956 and proved a conspicuously vocal presence when following his sons in later life, enjoying their junior success in 2000 in which three took part.

They are still way ahead on the senior football roll of honour but a series of factors have conspired to consign them to the more humble company they keep today. The club was founded in 1908 and a year later won its first championship. John Joe O'Reilly played for Cornafean for a brief spell before moving to the Curragh with the army and his brother (Big) Tom was a long-serving hero, still talked about in reverential tones.

Some fine players came from the outskirts, from Killeshandra and Arvagh, to play for the Reds in those days of plenty because they had a senior team and it offered blow-ins a route to the county team. When Cavan reigned supreme, so too did Cornafean, but after '56 they began the slow decline into what the author of the club history, local schoolteacher George Cartwright, would label frankly the "years of despair".

In Peadar MacSeain's house, it is easier to extract stories about the good times than the hard ones that followed. Rural depopulation, averaging 26 per cent for parts of rural Cavan around where Cornafean is located, depleted playing resources and the neighbouring clubs improved, became more independent and held on to their footballers. All of this helped erode Cornafean's invincibility. When Cartwright was growing up in the 1960s, he can remember the opening of the local pitch and Galway arriving as guests at a time when Cornafean was still a strong contender. But the decay had started. MacSeain's sons refer morbidly to "the seventies" when asked what qualified as rock bottom, a time when their fortunes went into freefall.

In his book on Cornafean, an excellent production entitled Up the Reds, Cartwright admits that the club felt a sense of "hopelessness" during its gradual decline from the mid-1960s into the next decade. In 1972, Cootehill met them in the first round of the senior championship and won 4-19 to 0-5. Cornafean had always found players; now they were paying the price for not having initiated a proper underage strategy.

In 1974, they spent their last year in senior ranks and in 1978 against Belturbet in the first round of the junior championship they barely scraped together 15 players. The next year they were beaten 13 points in the first round at junior level and in 1980 they lost by 14. One of the club's legends Paudge Masterson said in an interview that players would laugh off a 20-point defeat whereas in his day Cornafean men would cry their way off the field after a one-point reversal against Cavan Slashers.

They don't have good footballers falling off every tree like they had then. In the place of football success, the less celebrated pastime of Scór has provided some solace and brought titles to Cornafean, driven by a local enthusiast Paddy McDermott. The exploits of local athlete Catherina McKiernan have also given them something to shout about. Her brother Peadar was the last Cornafean player to represent Cavan in the championship around 20 years ago.

And for all that, you don't win 20 championships and not retain some measure of self-esteem for the rainy day. Peadar MacSeain is unflinching: he talks unstoppably about what makes a good team, the value of determination, and why Cornafean wore their red colours with such resolute pride.

"The reds were the reds and no white," he says, meaning that any modern white cuffs or trimmings would amount to sacrilege, a betrayal of their tradition; it simply wasn't up for negotiation. He gave a grandchild a gift of a Cornafean shirt some time ago and made sure it was all red -- pure and unspoilt like the old days.

For the '56 county final against Bailieboro, there was the prospect of a clash of colours and Cornafean would not give way. "We said we wouldn't change, we were going to play with red jerseys," says Peadar. "We'd have played in our skin, we wouldn't put any other team's jersey on -- that's the truth."

Those in surrounding areas may shake their heads at the enduring confidence in Cornafean long after they were a force in the game. They will accuse them of profiting from players from outside their borders. They'll joke how they now have a lovely ground and no players, whereas in the past it was the other way around.

In 1933 and '35, Cornafean had four players on the teams that won Cavan All-Ireland titles, and in 1947 in the Polo Grounds the Cavan centre back and captain John Joe O'Reilly further embellished the Cornafean story. Footballers were on every road. As a boy, George Cartwright used to get his hair cut by neighbour Josie Martin who played for Cavan and won nine senior club championship medals.

Also close to where Cartwright lives is Sean Masterson, now 80, an amiable and soft-spoken farmer who was another member of the '56 team. He takes a break from feeding cattle on this miserably windy and cold January day to talk about days past and the players he saw and admired.

He welcomed the junior championship nine years ago but admits that back in his time it would have been barely acknowledged. "They won a junior championship in Cornafean way back and the presentation of medals was up in the hall. And they got a crate of stout and went away over and lay down on hay and they drank the stout and they didn't go near the presentation. It didn't mean a thing."

His hero was 'Big' Tom O'Reilly and he has paid tribute to him in verse. "Like, Tom was streets ahead of John Joe. Big Tom played his heart out for Cornafean. He could catch it one hand on his shoulder."

And then he recites in a mellow Cavan lilt: "I remember the great men, a pity they grew older; I remember Big Tom with one hand, bring the ball down on his shoulder."

Most of the old footballers have passed away but in people like Cartwright, Masterson, MacSeain, and those who still love Cornafean and what it represents, the fire remains lit. "Look," says Cartwright, "I know that Cornafean would have been despised in the county because they won so much and there was an arrogance about them. That is a legacy of too much success. Everyone loves the underdog."

To paraphrase Brendan Behan's wife: they've seen the two days.

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FOREVER YOUNG

IN the Faughs clubhouse lounge in Templeogue, you can pay homage to a famous past in between buying rounds. Part social hub, part museum, the odour is old world. Among the exhibits is a trophy cabinet containing the All-Ireland hurling trophy that preceded the McCarthy Cup, won in 1920 by Faughs when representing Dublin; photographs of triumphant Faughs teams stretching back to the 19th century; and long-serving chairmen saluting you from wooden panels where their names are respectfully carved.

This is an ancient order. The GAA's formation and that of Faughs go almost hand-in-hand, only a year dividing them, and Michael Cusack bore witness to both landmark events. It was in his Civil Service academy headquarters in Dublin, now the location of the Dergvale Hotel, where the Faughs club was founded, and the name agreed. The inaugural year, 1885, is displayed defiantly on the clubhouse exterior, like a declaration of immortality.

Through many of the key moments in Ireland's emergence as a nation Faughs was present. Harry Boland, later killed in the Civil War, and friend to Michael Collins, won championships with the club, hurling at full-back, and later served as chairman of Dublin County Board. Over the generations that followed, numerous esteemed hurlers found a home at Faughs when their work took them to Dublin.

But for such a long existence it wasn't until 1981 that the club could say it had a permanent home. That year they moved to their current location and began developing facilities and looking to the future, realising that the world in which Faughs lived for generation had changed a great deal. Unless it changed, it would die. Other clubs that served the city's rural settlers fell by the wayside but Faughs has managed to adapt to ensure its survival. Eamonn Rea had almost given up hurling when Faughs and he converged in 1970 and he went on to win championships on teams that formed a rainbow coalition of players from different counties. In the next decade, the current chairman PJ Newman arrived from a junior club, Delvin, in Westmeath. PJ remembers training in Terenure and having to play their matches away before they finally got a settled home. For most of the club's lifetime moving about has been par for the course.

In Rea's playing days, there were two adult hurling teams to look after and no underage structure but that had to change. Over the past 20 years the transition from being a safe house for capital-based rural hurlers to a club rearing its own talent from the local neighbourhoods has been in full swing.

Benefiting from a thriving GAA coaching programme in Dublin, Faughs have adapted to the modern era and now cater for kids from six all the way up to their adult teams. The senior hurling team is now evenly split between country and home-grown talent. As the years move on, the balance will tilt more towards locally produced hurlers as Faughs look to add to their record 31 senior hurling championship title wins, this year marking the 10th anniversary of their last success.

"I used to travel home to Delvin for matches," says Newman, "but my brother had been with Faughs and I eventually signed. I settled in, I enjoyed it. I felt at home. I never really missed going back to play with Delvin after that. It was only culchies and rednecks who played hurling in Dublin then, but you go into the city now and see lads walking around with hurls and it's now cool to play hurling."

Rea, winner of an All-Ireland medal with Limerick in 1973, played with O'Toole's initially after coming to Dublin just over 40 years ago. He can't recall exactly why he then moved to Faughs but he went on to add 16 years' service as club chairman. He talks of his first championship won with Faughs, against St Vincent's, the Dublin thoroughbreds and the good relations that have existed between the clubs. They made a point of going for a drink in the clubhouses at away games and invite others to do the same when hosting matches at their own headquarters.

Even in this clubhouse where the legacy is so visible, there is nothing stuffy or conceited about the men who welcome you in. That has been the success of Faughs and it promises to lead them back into the good times again. Already their underage work is bearing fruit, with hurlers being grafted onto county development squads and successes posted at minor and U16 B level. Further down the age graph, they are competing at the top tier. They are a purely hurling club although there is an early Dublin football championship holding up their large stash of honours.

Some of the parents of their young players have no GAA background and Rea tells of one rugby man from Terenure who has, as all are encouraged to, become immersed in the club's activities. He is talking high stakes, about winning an All-Ireland club.

Fittingly, the cup awarded to the All-Ireland club champions perpetuates the memory of the Faughs chairman, Tommy Moore, who served in that role for almost 40 years, a publican from Kilkenny whose influence is fondly recalled and warmly appreciated.

Next year Faughs will celebrate 125 years in existence. They hope to mark the milestone by bringing Marcus De Burca's history of the club, published in 1985 for the 100th anniversary, up to date. In the time since, the aspiration of establishing a viable juvenile structure has been fulfilled and Faughs continue to remain a colossus in the tradition of GAA clubs. Forever young.

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