That rare breed of nature
On Munster Final day, Leo Cullen pays homage to a singular giant of the ash
A bus is making its way down a narrow street but hardly able to move because of the throng of people waving flags, hitting the sides of the bus, shouting. A bus with the widest front windscreen I'd seen up to this time of my young life, tall men stooped within, holding hurleys and kit bags. Seated in the front seat, looking directly ahead, a pale man with lined forehead and severe crew cut, one of his shoulders and an arm completely swathed in bandages. Nestled in the other arm, a cup trophy. And despite the clamour of adulation reaching him through the open windows, he seemed a little removed from it all - a little, you might say, haunted.
It's a Monday night. The year is 1962. The bus is the homecoming chariot of a victory team. The team, collected from the train at Thurles station, is heading down narrow Friar Street and will eventually squeeze through The West Gate to be feted and drowned by the loudspeakers on Liberty Square. The near riot on Friar Street is because my brothers and I, and many like us, heedless of parents, are too impatient to wait on Liberty Square. The man with the crew cut and in some pain is Jimmy Doyle of Thurles Sarsfields; the year's team captain, the captain who lay stretchered in the changing rooms after the game and had to tell his teammate Tony Wall to go and collect the cup for him. The cup, the one now nestling in his arm, is the Dr MacCarthy Cup. The defeated team, beaten by a mere two points, is valiant Wexford.
Why did Jimmy look so haunted on that humid Monday night? Was it from the pain of the injury suffered the day before? Was it the dizziness of his achievement - captain of a Tipp team, his life had been given over totally to the game of hurling. Setanta the Solitary, every night training with his black-and-white sheepdog, Pal, whose job it was to retrieve each ball Jimmy pucked; each practice ball hit over the spot on the green door behind the scoreboard: "Jimmy Doyle strikes it and the ball has gone over the bar".
Was he overpowered by the adulation? Did I only imagine his haunted look? Could it be I was protecting that little stick wizard? "Yellow," my father used to say of him. My country-favouring father - he hadn't fancied Jimmy's 'townie' crew cut, nor maybe his aesthete artistry which didn't fit with the times, and so had dubbed him 'yellow'. Jimmy was never yellow. Hunted down by defenders, he simply slipped out of their reach. Was this what he was attempting to do behind the windscreen of that bus?
When I became an adult, and less attached to hero worship, I once, in the course of my worldly duties, had to make a farm inspection on a farmer near Athy - not at all hurling country. When this withdrawn, slow-talking farmer from beside the canal heard I was from Tipperary, here were his words: "Jimmy Doyle of Tipp, I 'folleyed' him. Every Sunday, my parents went to a pub in Athy and left me at home, and I had a great ould time listening to Micheal O'Hehir on the radio. Sitting in the kitchen, I'd hear: 'And the ball has gone to Jimmy Doyle. He strikes the ball and it has gone over the bar'. Every time he got the ball, you knew Micheal O'Hehir was going to say, 'the ball has gone over the bar'. I loved Jimmy Doyle."
The town will be quiet this Munster Final morning. Anticipation will hang above Bohar na Neave. There will be terse hellos between men whose greetings are by way of hurling comment: "Will the boys do it today?" "Waterford are a good team, plenty of nice hurlers." I'm thinking of a man who won't be around, won't be walking his dog those quiet hours before the game, a man who lived for the artistry of it, a man gently plucked from the earth in the same way ash saplings are plucked for the making of hurleys.
It's a pity Jimmy Doyle will be missing this one, between two hurling teams with an abundance of the class he would have adored; he, and the backward farmer from near Athy; and my father too, whose prejudice was blown away by hindsight, so that he came to understand the elusive spirit of nature that was Jimmy Doyle - the hurling spirit.