Wednesday 21 August 2019

'A moment for the ages. I don't even need a video of it. It'll be there until I die. That's what hurling can do'

With a place in the All-Ireland final on the line, the Model County's fanatic followers are daring to dream about finally recapturing Liam MacCarthy

The Wexford hurling team
The Wexford hurling team

Dermot Crowe

Here they come once more, the Wexford hurlers, accompanied by a great rollicking swell of humanity. When the battle is imminent their followers are not to be found wanting. They travel devotedly in their droves. You can quantify that support through simple arithmetic, but how do you evaluate what it's worth or measure the transcendental power of the connection?

Two years ago they were instrumental in setting a new attendance record, just over 60,000, for a Leinster senior hurling final. Their forefathers helped set the all-time record for an All-Ireland senior final in 1954 against Cork. Two years after that, in the National League final involving Wexford and Tipperary, another record stemmed from the surge of spectator interest from the South-East.

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Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: SPORTSFILE

We know they travel in huge numbers. We know of the seismic impact of Wexford in the 1950s and their luminous headline names. We've heard of Boolavogue and Vinegar Hill. But my: Wexford in full tilt and bombast is a splendid sight and sound. Today they will deafen the residents around Croke Park with the noise, unless Tipperary come out early and silence them with their prized forwards and the heavy tanks of their tradition.

Kevin Whelan, an academic and historian, spends his days in the book-lined splendour of a pristine Georgian building on Merrion Square where Notre Dame University has a foothold through the Keough-Naughton Center. There are young American students chattering in a room he leads you to, where he unzips a bag that has been left on the floor. He pulls out a hurl. Professor Whelan is hurling, and Wexford, mad.

They'll have 11 of the visiting students in Croke Park today and all, he assures you, will be shouting for the purple and gold. They've already been shown the rudiments of the game, with some of the Dublin-based Wexford hurlers lending a hand in practical demonstrations in UCD. Whelan has travelled far and wide, seen a multitude of sports, but for him nothing beats hurling or nothing surpasses home and the county he is from.

An enduring childhood memory is of a visit by Nicky Rackard, the local vet, to his homeplace. The children were out pucking a ball around the yard. When the main business had been attended to, Rackard took one of the boys' hurls and boomed the sliotar into the next galaxy. "He drove it out over the roof, way up into the clouds," says Whelan. "Like, if Cúchulainn had come into the yard it couldn't have been any more (dramatic). I still remember, it was like a kind of a god had come down to you."

And we are off, talking of Wexford and trying to make sense of what makes them what they are. "I am a historian and for four decades have been researching the history of hurling before the GAA was founded," he states. "And Wexford was the county that everyone associated with hurling. In a deep traditional sense we were a hurling county. So something was lacking in the county when we weren't good in hurling, so that is why the Rackards, and not just the Rackards but all those lads, were so revered in Wexford.

"After the Famine, when the hurling had died everywhere, there were only three parts of the country where hurling was still played. East Galway, which is still a hurling heartland. The area around Cloyne in east Cork. And then an area north of Wexford town. Up along the coast there, Buffer's Alley and Castlebridge and all of those. Those were always the backbone of Wexford hurling. And Wexford hurling was strong in the early years of the GAA as well. But then we faded from the First World War onwards for some reason. But we were always a hurling county."

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Since the Liam Griffin-engineered All-Ireland win in 1996, Wexford, with the exception of the 2004 Leinster title, drifted out of the reckoning until their recent revival. For a time around ten years ago the hurlers played second fiddle to the county footballers, who reached an All-Ireland semi-final and stoked memories of the four-in-a-row, ground-breaking team of 1915-18.

"I don't mean any disrespect towards the footballers but it wouldn't lift Wexford people in the way the hurling would," says Whelan. "The hurling defines us as a county. There's three things that define us. (The rebellion of) '98. Hurling. And they're closely knitted together. And I suppose the farming because we would see ourselves as being a prominent farming county."

But Kilkenny, and its proximity, has shaped them too. How could it not? "I would hope that I don't have a racist bone in my body, but I do with Kilkenny," he says mischievously. "And I think most Wexford people have. The hurling might have died in Wexford if we didn't have those feckers across the border to annoy us.

"And I grew up on that, you know, slightly crude thing of the Kilkenny crowd pissing in the powder in '98. They don't have the same animus towards us that we would have towards them because they've always been able to beat us. Tipperary would be different.

"So Kilkenny will be more fired up playing Tipperary than Wexford. But Wexford will always be fired up more against Kilkenny than any other county. Always. So, that's kinda there. I would have that in myself and I know a lot of Wexford people would have. My wife often says, oh get over yourself. But if you are behind a Kilkenny-registered car most Wexford people will try to pass that car even if it's on a bad bend or anything else. Because you wouldn't want to give them the satisfaction of being in front of you. So, one of the most dangerous places in the world to drive if you are a Wexford person is south Kilkenny (laughs)."

The Leinster final must have been sweet then, you suggest, but he is quickly rewinding to the win over Kilkenny two years earlier in the Leinster semi-final - arguing that it was more meaningful by being long overdue.

"We didn't go up there hoping to win, we went up expecting to win," he says of the recent Leinster final. "Now that's what Davy (Fitzgerald) has put into Wexford, which is a great thing. And it's unheard of in my lifetime, three wides in the whole game! Normally, Wexford would have three wides in the first three minutes. And the level of discipline in the team.

"But it was the game two years ago down in Wexford Park, where we beat Kilkenny . . . because it was the first time in a very long time that we beat Kilkenny in the senior championship. Like Jackie Tyrrell, he wrote an article in the paper around that time, he said basically that he wanted to drown Wexford and then hold them down until you see no more bubbles. A killer (laughs).

"I was once beside Brian Cody when (painter) Mick O'Dea had done a painting of a Kilkenny team in the 1920s. And they had a shindig down in Kilkenny. I was there because I knew Mick. And I ended up beside Brian Cody. There were a few paintings. One was of the Black and Tans, the next one was of the Kilkenny hurling team. And whatever way Mick had painted them they kinda looked the same. So I said to Cody, look at that, Kilkenny look like the Black and Tans and he said, 'yeah, two killing machines'.

"And the same evening somebody asked him, if he'd want someone that would die for the jersey, and he said, 'no, I want a lad that will kill for the jersey'".

And then he thinks of DJ Carey over-carrying before scoring a crucial goal in the 1991 Leinster semi-final, leading to Wexford's downfall. "Like, I mean, God Almighty, there's lads who've run 100 metres and taken less steps than DJ took that day. Our team was really good in the early '90s. By the time we'd won the All-Ireland ('96) we were already an old team. So we didn't get a legacy out of it."

We have gone slightly off track now, talking about Kilkenny when we're meant to be focusing on Wexford. So, he has a stab at it, explaining the Wexford condition. "It's dangerous to psycho-analyse a county, isn't it, there's many different kinds of people and whatever. But take the Wexford hurling psyche, if I could use that, I suppose in the past Wexford would have relied a huge amount on passion. And Wexford people, they are kinda slow to rise, we don't get excited too often, we are fairly phlegmatic in a way, but then once Wexford people get going, you better get out of the way."

In 1996 Griffin drew on those ancestral forces, the men who fought on Vinegar Hill, and two years later the county had the bi-centenary of that event. "The big tragedy for Wexford was that we did not win in 1998, our bi-centenary," says Whelan. "We'd a very good team that year and we were beaten by Johnny Dooley - oh my God, the nightmare. I am putting myself in a bad humour thinking about it. And fair play to Johnny Dooley and Offaly but if Johnny Dooley struck that ball 1,000 times . . . it went through so many legs . . . and I believe to my dying day that we would have won an All-Ireland that year. And it would have been the greatest thing ever in Wexford. Johnny Dooley killed 150,000 Wexford people that day."

But to explain the impact of Wexford on hurling, or perhaps hurling on Wexford, he has a favourite reference point. "In 1996 Tom Dempsey scored a goal for Wexford (in the All-Ireland final) and I, and every other Wexford person that was there, jumped when he scored that goal and there was at least, I would say, 40,000 Wexford in the crowd. And only 90,000 people in Wexford (at the time). So, Tom Dempsey put well over half the Wexford population in orbit. Can you imagine any other sport anywhere in the world which would lift that much of the population off their feet at any one moment? And that's the great thing, isn't it? The bond between the players and the team.

"Like that moment, it's a moment for the ages. When I have a bad day I will replay that moment in my mind, I can see it, I don't even need a video of it. And it'll be there until I die. And it'll lift me again. And that's the thing that hurling, or sport, can do. It lifts people out of the ordinary into the extraordinary."

But Wexford, being Wexford, it is up and down. Diarmaid Lyng came into the panel in 2004, the year they won the Leinster Championship, and when he finished in 2012 they had little to get excited about. "In terms of the fans, I don't have that interpretation, I don't have that viewpoint on Wexford supporters because I played at a time when we were in a hurling recession unquestionably and we didn't have that support," he says. "I felt probably the hardest place to play in those years was Wexford Park because you could feel and hear the sighs of disappointment and the strain building up on the players. I don't know if the others would remember it that way. But I definitely felt it when I was playing.

"The character that we were as a group, we did not embody the characteristics I think Wexford people associate with their hurling team. I think in that time the football team from around 2005-06 on began to embody those strengths and it told in the support, not even in the support but the type of support, the bit of wildness in the support. That does seem to be returning or has returned. I think the team is embodying again the elements of what we consider Wexford-ness to be."

Lyng remembers reading an impression of Wexford given by Eddie Keher. "He said the Wexford songs about their connection to 1798 and how they re-embraced this spirit in the stories and the songs were worth at least five or six points a game. He seemed to be genuinely saying this. They thrive on these stories of the past and do so through song. I think everyone has that, just we have our own unique version."

Kevin Whelan was ten when his sister Eileen lifted him on to one of the crash barriers on Hill 16 so he could watch Wexford defeat Tipperary in the 1968 All-Ireland final. It was his first time in Croke Park. He went a long time after worried that he might go to his grave without seeing them win another. He recalls the win over Kilkenny two years ago in Wexford Park, and looking back on the crowd behind him at the final whistle rather than down on the pitch. "I saw three generations: the young people, the parents and the grandparents. You could see the fire being lit. You could see the young fellas saying, 'I want to do that'.

"I would have given my right arm to be good enough to play for Wexford. But that team, they know when they go out they are carrying people like me on their shoulder, but not just me. They are carrying 150,000 Wexford people. Now it's a weight, but you've got to be able to take it. Like I would have travelled all over the world and I would have great respect for the lads, and not just our lads but hurlers in general, about what they do and how they represent us. You know, what great role models they are. They have brought us back to the top table in hurling and what's not to like about that?"

Wexford, Whelan adds, escaped the worst ravages of emigration by being able to live off rich sustainable farmland. They are a deep-rooted and settled people. "I could bring you to farms in Wexford where the Normans who came here in the 12th century . . . their family are still on the same farm. The north of the county, where I'm from, we're kind of mountain men and we're Gaelic, whereas down in the south of the county is all the Normans. We tend to produce big strong men."

He jokes that Wexford is the easiest place in the world to carry out a robbery because most four-digit security codes are 1798. Or a variation? "Jesus no," he intercedes, "that would be disrespectful."

What, he's asked, do Wexford people take from 1798? "Pride. And the sense that we were warriors. And that we did this when the other crowd didn't. We'd have a very strong sense of that. Very strong. That's the thing about Wexford too - we'd never have an inferiority complex. There would always be that sense that deep down we were warriors. That was bred into us, that is in the DNA of Wexford."

And now he says, more than ever, it is a strength. "Nowadays with young people there's phones and there's WhatsApp and you know you can live a digital life, a vicarious life, where you can be looking at stuff on Hollywood or New York or rappers or whatever, right? You now have young people who live in a globalised world; how do you keep them motivated? But to have that anchor and to have that sense of tradition and pride and history. Wexford produces an awful lot of writers and historians as well. We are kind of naturally reflective but that comes out of the whole '98 thing as well because you grew up with that. You can't escape it."

Diarmuid Lyng has been living in west Kerry for the past three years and watched the Leinster final in Kane's pub in Ballyferriter. It was the first time he observed Wexford since retirement without feeling envy, where he finally felt liberated and became a follower again. He will be in Croke Park today with his 19-month old child, who will see Wexford for the first time. In his childhood, Lyng was charmed by the storytelling of their neighbour John Quigley. He filled his head with stories of Wexford, tales from on and off the field.

Lyng was 15 when Wexford won the All-Ireland in 1996. He and a number of others around the same age managed to get into the hotel Wexford were celebrating in on the night they defeated Limerick. Those hours will stay with him forever, though he could never relive them as a player. Players, their families, followers of all ages all on the floor dancing. And then Wild Swans belted out 'Dancing at the Crossroads'.

"Imagine," he says, "having the good fortune to be there."

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