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Round-the-clock call of the land and the dressing-room are becoming increasingly incompatible


Monaghan’s Darren Hughes is part of a dwindling number of ‘dual stars’ who mix football with farming. Photo: INPHO

Monaghan’s Darren Hughes is part of a dwindling number of ‘dual stars’ who mix football with farming. Photo: INPHO

Monaghan’s Darren Hughes is part of a dwindling number of ‘dual stars’ who mix football with farming. Photo: INPHO

The legendary Kerry footballer of the 1940s, Paddy Bawn Brosnan, had a pretty blunt take on the constitution of the optimum Gaelic football team that reflected the times.

For the versatile Dingle man, who featured on every line in a 15-year career, "a few farmers, a few fishermen and a college boy to kick the frees" struck the right balance for what was required.

It was much quoted and self-explanatory. Land and sea bred innate toughness that manifested through the spine of any football team, allowing them to physically dominate. The inference was that the 'college boy' stayed on the periphery of the rough stuff, applying a bit of polish after that to tidy up any loose ends.

Being so deeply rooted in rural Ireland, Gaelic games has always had a strong connection with agriculture. Bawn's words implied that there were plenty of farmers available and there were.

Even through the 1980s into the 1990s, few teams went to war without at least one. Endorsements were still prohibited but some companies were able to circumvent that by getting well known GAA players-farmers to promote their agricultural products, thus the Wexford and Galway hurlers, Tony Doran and Joe Cooney, and Meath footballer Liam Harnan featured on TV advertisements. The wiry Kilkenny centre-forward John Power was another synonymous with the working of the land.

Now? You'll think hard to come up with more than a handful of names.


Earlier this year the Gaelic Players Association collated the areas of work of the inter-county players that they deal with and from 2,491, just 45 were listed as working in agriculture. That's 1.8 per cent of the playing pool, by comparison to 5.4 per cent nationally that the 265,400 working in the agriculture sector at the time of the 2016 Census represent among the population.

Not surprisingly, the education sector dominated with 773 students, 160 undergraduates, 20 post-graduates, another 28 listed as 'graduates,' 134 'school', presumably covering teachers and 154 in training/education, just over 50 per cent though some overlap between graduates and students is to be expected in that.

Obviously, those figures will have changed slightly with the changes in squads since the resumption but they provide a snapshot nonetheless.

"Two things have changed in tandem in 30 or 40 years. The intensity required to play football has increased and the intensity in agriculture has also upped some serious notches as well," says former Meath defender Harnan.

"It's volume. I'm milking 130 cows at the moment, maybe 140 or more next year. I'd say in 1987 (when he won his first of two All-Ireland medals), we might have been milking 70 or 80 cows. In general, farming has become more intense," he observed.

Westmeath footballer John Heslin is a product manager with MSD Animal Health, having undertaken a PhD in heifer reproduction, and is also a part-time beef farmer outside Mullingar.

"Looking at the way inter-county commitment has gone, it doesn't suit every occupation, one standout recent departure being Jack McCaffrey (a doctor)," noted Heslin.

"Football is predominantly geared towards a nine-to-five job without doubt with the labour element of it for those that are actively on farms every day, there are fewer of them every year.

"The numbers have reduced and I'd definitely put it down to the commitment and the labour element.

"The same can be said for how many carpenters or labourers there are in inter-county teams. A 10- or 12-hour day is labour-intensive, it's quite tough to then go and play and train at inter-county level."


Monaghan's Darren Hughes. Photo: Sportsfile

Monaghan's Darren Hughes. Photo: Sportsfile

Monaghan's Darren Hughes. Photo: Sportsfile

Heslin is a part-time beef farmer in partnership with his father Peter. If his herd were dairy, he thinks he'd find it impossible to give a commitment to Westmeath. Yet that's the nature of Darren Hughes' work each day, on the Scotstown family farm where he has a 100-strong herd.

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For Hughes, it's all about time management, something he does well considering he manages to shoehorn in a couple of other jobs, including sales work with Gerry Cumiskey's Volkswagen dealership in Dundalk.

"There is no point in being a busy fool," said Hughes. "What has freed up time in a sense is that we have two (Lely) robotic milking machines so I am not tied to milking morning and evening," he explains.

"It's a different management system that you are just working around so you can do your different farming things at different times. I can be freed up at 9.0 in the morning on an average day and it leaves me the rest of the day to do other things whereas, if you have to milk the cows you are only finished the milking at 9.0 and then you are in for the breakfast and maybe you are moving fences and feeding calves. Then it's dinner time and then you are ready to milk again in the evening.

"People think it's difficult and ask the question, 'Lads, it must be tough farming and playing football' and I throw it back at them that I'd find it far tougher leaving training at 10 on a Tuesday night, driving to Dublin, going to bed and getting up at 7.0 the next morning to go and sit in an office all day."

Still the job never really leaves him. Training and games can provide an escape from the problems he leaves behind but they are problems he will always return to. Spring calving will inevitably stretch him as it coincides with the busiest run of league games.

"From February 1 to St Patrick's Day would be the most intense period, 80 per cent calving in six weeks. Alright if you are there at home but if you are at an away game in Kerry, gone early on a Saturday and not home until Saturday night, I'm lucky that my dad is there to keep an eye on things. And the technology he embraces plays its part.

"Boys would be laughing at me on the back of the bus checking cameras and putting cows in the systems and different things."

Technology gives Heslin peace of mind too.

"From my perspective, I have ear tags on my cows at home so I am seeing a report on the cows live and it reports back to me. I can see when an animal is sick, when an animal is in heat and need to be inseminated," thus allowing him time to get away and train.

"There are a lot of improvements in technology and that's actually an area that my company is currently working in as well."


Family back-up is important too and making sure that, in the days leading up to a game, risk is reduced.

"There wouldn't be any labour-intensive work carried out before a big game in an area where there is potential for an accident," Heslin says.

"Of course, we operate the best health and safety as possible but when you are within distance of an animal, you are never too far away from a potential kick.

"Myself and my father were castrating bulls the week before the county final (Heslin captained St Loman's to victory over Tyrrellspass) and there was a loose leg that came from an animal and it hit an arm and the comment was, 'Jesus, will you hold on to that animal, there's a county final next week!'"

Not everyone can juggle quite like Heslin, Hughes and others like Meath's Pádraig Harnan, a nephew of Liam and Tipperary footballer Jimmy Feehan.

Barry Reilly featured prominently for Kingscourt in their recent Cavan final defeat (after a replay) to Crosserlough, leaving many to wonder why he hasn't been a regular part of the county squad.

There is some basis to the perception that intensive farming has kept him away.

"It's one of the reasons, maybe 50 or 60 per cent, time generally though. From the month of June to December I'm quieter, it's your off season on the farm but from February 1 to the middle of June you just don't have the time and that's the main training season and the league."

The round-the-clock demands of the land and the dressing-room are becoming increasingly incompatible yet Hughes mas managed it for 14 seasons now.

"If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be at home managing the home farm, I'd have laughed at you," he recalls.

"Not that I didn't have an interest in it, I just didn't see a future in it. I went to university, travelled, worked for a few others and came to realise that at home wasn't that bad."