The language traditionally used to describe a particularly rough breed of hurler or Gaelic footballer was rich and varied, depending on the colloquial colour of any given dialect or region.
Oddly enough, it was the digestive capacity of said breed that offered an especially rich seam of metaphors with which to portray his fearsome mien. Rough? "He'd ate iron, that fella." Or, "He'd ate whins, so he would." Or, more commonly, "He'd ate ya without salt, the lunatic."
This latter testament was somewhat puzzling, implying as it did that if the chap merely added a few condiments, his cannibalistic tendencies would somehow be more civilised.
Admittedly these expressions were coined at a time when the plain people of Ireland ate their dinner in the middle of the day and wouldn't dream of touching a boiled turnip without first dusting it with salt. The fact that a man might eat a small corner-forward without salt must have been truly shocking.
It wasn't all fun and games for the rough men of the playing fields either. They had a reputation to protect every time they loped onto the pitch for battle. And it was that bit harder to protect without their false teeth in place. Dentistry had yet to become a priority in those days. So all the talk of what they could eat, and indeed ate, overlooked the fact that many of them were indebted to their dentures for the successful chewing of their daily meat and potatoes – indentured masticators, as it were.
These ferocious omnivores of local legend, therefore, often looked distinctly gummy in their togs and jerseys. Which helped to make them look a bit mad, as well as bad, as they sauntered over to greet their next victim.
Of course, it didn't mean they were toothless in the tackle – or, to give it its more technical term – the assault. No, they were in their natural habitat here, an environment with little law and less order. They could play puck here for an hour, happily making complete fools of themselves in the process. Lacking much science or technique, they would end up swinging at fresh air and lunging at shadows most of the time.
But if the right chance came along, they could break a fella in two with a good hatchet job. Crack a few ribs, bust a collarbone, break a jaw – I was only going for the ball. Mostly it was orthopaedic damage.
Nowadays there are cameras everywhere while match officials are more vigilant and less tolerant. There is a plausible system of sanctions and a general climate in which violent play is considered unacceptable. ("We all have to get up for work on Monday morning.")
It still goes on in the hidden fields of the club game. But under the bright lights of the county game, Neanderthal man is extinct. Or so we think. But maybe he has just adapted; maybe his rogue gene has merely mutated. Maybe he is disguised beneath the hair gel, the gym muscles and the fashionable shirts. Maybe he has just swapped chicken and pasta for iron and whins; powdered supplements for Custard Creams; vodkas and Red Bull for pints of Smithwick's.
He knows he can't get away with the rustic savagery any more. It's too crude, too obvious, too dumb. He can't be swinging haymakers or trying to crease someone with a late cruncher. He has to be more subtle. If he tries to maliciously break bones he'll get caught by some match official, or by the all-seeing camera.
So the badness has gone underground. It has become more psychological than physical. It has become more intimate. It is oral in nature: bites, poison words, gobbets of spittle, fingers fish-hooking the mouth. That's a nice how-do-you-do, in this day and age.
Donegal did well last week to flush this out of the underground and up to the surface. They have publicly alleged that their young forward Paddy McBrearty was bitten by a Dublin player in a league match two weeks ago. They were pro-active from the beginning. They reported it to the referee at half-time. They reported it to the substitute referee at full-time. They took photographs of the wound on McBrearty's shoulder. They invited a member of Dublin's medical staff to inspect it after the match. McBrearty was taken to hospital in Letterkenny and given precautionary injections.
The Dublin player was named last week as Kevin O'Brien. He denies the allegation. But a GAA disciplinary committee has proposed that he serve a three-match ban.
The Dublin County Board is supporting O'Brien. Chairman Andy Kettle has said that the Dublin medic who inspected McBrearty's wound deemed it to be "a bruise, not a laceration". There the matter rests for the moment.
The general consensus is that biting is a new degradation. But last Sunday Colm O'Rourke recalled in his column that he'd been bitten during his playing days. And in 2001 it was testified to this reporter that a Westmeath player had been bitten by a Meath player. There is good evidence that Kerry's Colm Cooper was bitten by a Tyrone player in 2003. And video footage from 2010 appears to show the Dublin player Philly McMahon biting down on the shoulder of Cork's Paul Kerrigan.
It is sad behaviour, not as in poignant, as in pathetic. They are almost literally atin' them without salt these days.