Wednesday 21 March 2018

Bringing divine inspiration to a life less ordinary

Iggy Clarke recalls the challenges of hurling as a priest and the emotion of leaving the church

Iggy Clarke was a priest when he helped Galway to the 1980 All-Ireland title but he later decided he didn’t 'want to be celibate for the rest of my life' and is now a counsellor
Iggy Clarke was a priest when he helped Galway to the 1980 All-Ireland title but he later decided he didn’t 'want to be celibate for the rest of my life' and is now a counsellor
Three-time All-Ireland winner Sylvie Linnane admired the physicality of Kilkenny teams he faced
Fr. Iggy Clarke with the McCarthy Cup

Dermot Crowe

'The crowd appealing for Iggy . . . and there he is! He's coming! He's coming! He's there!'

Michael O'Hehir,

September 7, 1980

Here he is again, Iggy, 35 years later, looking a picture of health. Fr Iggy as we knew him then. Part of that stirring presentation when Joe Connolly, in native tongue, summoned him to the podium to jointly raise the Liam MacCarthy Cup. The crowd chants his name and then he appears, in clerical garb, to a rapturous liberating cheer. In his right hand he waves the cup, saluting the delirious thousands below. Galway have just won their first All-Ireland senior hurling title in 57 years.

Iggy Clarke was devastated to miss the final, bookended by two finals he played in and lost. In the weeks leading up, resigned to his fate, he fulfilled media duties to deflect attention from those who were going to play. It gave him something to do, a sense that he was contributing. He said Mass on the morning of the game. But not playing was torture.

With around ten minutes to go, and Galway leading, he started to make his way over from the Cusack Stand dug-out to avoid the crush when the whistle sounded. His shoulder couldn't take much contact and his fear was that he might become engulfed in the crowd. He just wanted to be near. The idea to invite him to the podium was unexpected. How does he feel now, when he sees it replayed?

"I feel very emotional I suppose. And very grateful. When I look at my part in it, which is Joe handing over the cup and that, I find I am always very appreciative and grateful for that. Because it was a great recognition by him and the team of my contribution. And the piece before that, where the crowd start looking for me, I find that so, so moving. It's like they wanted me to be part of it and they wanted me to be there.

"I knew if I got caught up in the crowds I was finished. I had two pins in my shoulder so I knew I couldn't get jostled around, and I remember saying (to the players), 'I'll see ye over there'. And there was a man, Pat Guthrie (Croke Park official), so I had an arrangement with him. I said, 'look, if I come around, make sure you get me up on to the stand'."

By 1980 there were only four men left alive from the last and only Galway team to win the All-Ireland. One had passed away a few weeks before. In 1973 Clarke was on the Galway team beaten by London in the championship and on the team destroyed by Kilkenny the year before. He was captain of the team that defeated Dublin in the 1972 All-Ireland under 21 final. Belief started to invade places previously tightly guarded by doubt and suspicion. The win over Cork in the '75 All-Ireland semi-final was the first by Galway over that county in the history of the championship. They lost senior finals to Kilkenny in '75, the last throw of a great Cats side, and again in '79. By 1980 they were ready.

Once he got over to the Hogan Stand Clarke had a seat beside the President, Patrick Hillery. The crowning moment would be Joe McDonagh's rendition of The West's Awake, with Bishop Eamon Casey rising to his feet a few rows back, joining in, giving it socks. The crowning moment of Connolly's melodic speech was his declaration of love for the people of Galway, borrowing from the Papal visit of the year before. It was of its time.

Iggy Clarke was ordained in 1978. Down the years priests played under different names and many great players had their careers cut short because of their vocation. Clarke never saw himself being any different and he was a Galway senior hurler for six years before he became a priest. He laughs at the notion that he might have been treated more sympathetically by opponents.

"Not a bit. To me there was no place for piousness and holiness. You get down to business and you do the business," he says. "It's a competition and whoever wins, wins. And certainly if I felt someone was taking advantage, or trying to take advantage of me, I wouldn't so much get into arguments but, by God, I'd let him know who was there. That he wasn't going to railroad me."

Some tried? "Oh yeah, people tried it over time."

What did they say? "Ah 'you're worse than any of them. You think you're good but you're . . . they bring that into it. You'll say no confession after this'. Stuff like that. I never engaged in it much but when the next ball would come I'd be . . . (hurling) more physically."

Proof of him having no special privileges came in the semi-final against Offaly in 1980. "I was marking Mark Corrigan and I remember the ball came in and it ended half-way between us and the full-back line and I made up my mind I was going for it. So I went for it and I picked up the ball and I saw Pádraig Horan, who was full-forward, coming out and he was going for me. So I kind of side-stepped him. But I didn't realise Johnny Flaherty was coming in behind. Hit me there (points) and I was gone.

"I had the ball in my hand so the ball wasn't free. I knew when I got hit. Everything went hot. There was no free for it. I remember Sean Silke standing over me. And he was saying, 'let it go', because I had the ball in my hand. I remember opening my hand that way (demonstrates) and letting the ball just roll out. I was stretchered off and taken to the Mater (hospital). I knew that night I wouldn't be playing the final."

* * * * *

Clarke's point had levelled the match but Galway took command after the interval and led by eight points when they lost another player, in different circumstances. Sylvie Linnane played on the right side of the half-back line, with Silke in the middle. Sylvie had also scored a point when he was sent off in the 52nd minute. Another Galway point followed but in the final 12 minutes they went scoreless and Offaly added 2-1. They were screaming for the final whistle.

Sylvie Linnane's career started in 1976 and ran until the infamous All-Ireland final against Tipperary in 1989, overshadowed by the Keady Affair. He was fearless, flame-haired, a pocket of energy and now, all these years later, he remains adamant that the decision was wrong. But, unlike Clarke, he was fortunate to make the final.

"The Lord have mercy on Pat Carroll, we had a ding-dong battle Pat and myself. I was after getting a belt over the ear. I got nine stitches in it afterwards. Played on and a ball came up along the line and I went to put him out over it. I gave him a jab of the hurl and I got put off straight for it," he recalls.

Did you feel it was deserved? "No. No way. I got a fortnight (ban) and played in the final. There was no malice in it, he got no cut, nothing. The ref turned around and said, 'why weren't you wearing a helmet?' I didn't wear the helmet."

Linnane came on as a sub at wing-forward in the previous year's All-Ireland final loss to Kilkenny, replacing Bernie Forde. When the moment of deliverance came in 1980 he was on the field throughout. Of the speech and those moments on the podium he is matter-of-fact. "Ah sure it was a wonderful occasion but I wouldn't be for the speeches. You win the trophy."

There is priceless coverage in the dressing room afterwards, where Mick Dunne carried out interviews, long before the dawn of controlled and soulless post-match interview rooms with designated speakers. Sylvie is drinking a bottle of milk.

"It's 1923 since we done it before and we had to make a break," he declares. "Galway hurling was going down and we brought it up today."

Mick Dunne: "Well I don't know, you won an under 21 in '78 and that's not that long ago. The Railway Cup earlier in the year. It's been a great year."

Sylvie: "Still, ah nothing like the MacCarthy."

Fifty-seven years then, 27 years now. The lost years since have weighed heavily on recent generations and great hurlers have passed through without climbing the famous steps. Linnane won two more, including '87 which finished with a hard-fought win over Kilkenny and a personal duel with Harry Ryan that bordered on the comical. The sequence where Ryan dunts Sylvie, and is then tripped by a stray leg by Conor Hayes is one of the game's pantomime moments.

Sylvie lost to Kilkenny in '79, and on the club circuit with Gort he helped beat Midleton in an All-Ireland semi-final on a Saturday in 1984 before hurling the next day in the final against Ballyhale Shamrocks. They drew and lost the replay. He had his battles but he is an admirer of Kilkenny's hurlers and regards many of them as his friends. He recalls visits and overnight stays to his home by Richie Power, with a young Richie junior in tow.

They were on opposite sides in '87. "Well, I remember it quite well, it was quite a physical game and it was Kilkenny that brought the physicality into it. But fair play to Galway, they stood up to it. Kilkenny's free-taking was very poor on the day. They put a lot wide. It was time for us to get the rub of the green. We lost in '75, we put an awful lot wide that day. In '79 against Kilkenny as well. So it was time we got one back," he says.

Was he surprised at Kilkenny's physicality in '87? "No, I wasn't one bit surprised. Kilkenny were always a good hard hurling team. I like their style of play. They play to the wire, they don't go diving or anything. They're good hurling men."

* * * * *

By '87 Iggy Clarke was three years retired, having quit after Galway lost the 1984 All-Ireland semi-final to Offaly. He hurled away for his club well into his 40s, and in the mid-90s he left the priesthood. He had finished hurling by then. Ireland was a very different place to when he was ordained, but he says his decision was internal, not influenced by the turmoil going on in the church. On a year's sabbatical in America he made up his mind.

"It was coming to the time when I would be appointed as a PP. I was a priest in Loughrea for eight years. That (being PP) meant going out into a house on my own out the country. So I thought long and hard about it. I suppose what I was saying to myself was, 'do I want to be celibate for the rest of my life?' And I was thinking, 'nah I don't think so'. And I don't want to live in a house on my own. So to kind of deal with that I think I started working too hard. I kind of burned myself out. Or near it. And then I went to America. I was around four years thinking about it before I made the final decision. I was naturally concerned that I was a high profile player and that the media would have an interest. And I had to consider that aspect of it against my decision. And at the end of the day, I said this is for me, I am going to go for it. And before that you had all the thing about Bishop Casey in '91 or '92."

Did that influence you in some way?

"No. No. It made it more difficult."

Did it? "Ah it did yeah, in the sense that there was a lot of focus on bishops and clergy. It made it more difficult. There was an air of suspicion around. I suppose the (child) abuse hadn't ignited at that time. It was just ahead of that. I remember trying to decide then with the bishop how I was going to do it. He wanted to make the announcement, I said no, that I'd prefer to do it myself."

So he asked the local priest to allow him make the announcement after communion at some of the Masses. "I felt I had nothing to hide. I wasn't going to go running. I didn't want to go running or hiding. This is me. This is my decision. It's a terrible hard one. And I invited people to meet me after all the Masses and . . . it was very emotional. Very emotional scenes. Even in the church as well as outside. As I was talking I could hear people crying and that kind of affected me and I got emotional myself, and had to try and recover. And then people were visibly emotional outside the church. So that was very, very difficult. I went back to a friend's house for a while, had a bit of dinner and made my way back to Dublin (where he was doing a course in career guidance). There was a lot of media interest."

He had already informed his family. "My father was 97. People had advised me not to, that it would kill him, like. I had a very good, close relationship with my father and he was the one man I wanted to say it to. He used to go for a walk every day. So we went off for a walk. The first Sunday I said it to him, he said, 'Ah you'll be alright, you'll get over it, it will pass'. The following Sunday I came back at it again and said, 'Look it Dad, I am thinking seriously about this', and I remember he turned around and he says, 'Well sure whatever you think yourself'. And they were the very same words he said to me when I said I was going into the priesthood."

Hurling helped Iggy Clarke re-establish himself, find a new career path. At the 25th anniversary celebrations for the 1972 All-Ireland winning under 21 team, which he captained, he was seated near the CEO of the Vocational Educational Committee. "He had a great interest in GAA and I remember him leaning over to me and he says, 'what are you doing now?' And I said, "I am in UCD'. "Oh are you, and what are you doing?' I said, 'career guidance'. 'When you're finished now, I'll have a job for you'. He appointed me here (St Killian's VS in New Inn as a career guidance teacher) and I worked between here and another school." Eight years ago he was made vice-principal.

"It was like the church didn't represent me anymore, or I didn't want the church to represent me anymore. I wanted to do other things. I did career guidance that year in UCD and then I discovered I loved the counselling side of it. Because counselling was half that course. I got on a two-year course there for counselling. I am qualified now as a counsellor."

He says he isn't a frequent Mass-goer. "Institutions, the church, wouldn't have the same appeal to me now as . . . I was institutionalised probably in my thinking to some degree but I didn't see myself as institutionalised. So I would have a much more open, and broader, view of life, and after-life. I suppose in the church you are never really encouraged to think about re-incarnation or anything like that. Now it makes a lot of sense to me. I've changed big time. I would see myself as much more spiritual, or spiritually evolved maybe, rather than religious or confining myself to religious practice or routine."

He is married now to Mariel, who has similar interests in spiritual learning and teaching. "My wife Mariel does angel therapy and regression therapy and we do a lot of work together. I have read a lot of books she has, and that influences my thinking on things I would always have had an interest in. Like the soul, and the soul journey. To me in some ways I have kept that philosophical, spiritual side of myself, I have kept it very much alive but I don't see it in any way as represented by the institutional church."

How did you meet your wife? He takes a deep breath. "It's an interesting story too (breaks into laughter). I was a priest in Loughrea at the time." He called up to a house after a funeral for tea and she was there. "Then I was saying goodbye to everyone and Mariel was there at the door and she is very social and outgoing and she was hugging everybody and she says (to me) 'sure I can't hug you (chuckles)' . . . so she says, 'ah you are the priest who has a swinging brick for a heart'. And I remember feeling distinctly, 'oh God, you don't know me',."

What did she mean? "I suppose some people . . . they saw me saying Mass, they saw me removed and they didn't know me as a person. That was the first meeting. I was thinking, you don't know me. That was the perception. The difficulty is, and this is being part of an institution, you are placed in a role and people expect you to be in a role. They don't expect you to be all over the place emotionally.

"So the following day actually, I was hearing confessions and herself and her brother came in to me and said their father had died. So I was able to give her a hug then in consolation. Our contact started that way. We probably didn't see each other for some time afterwards."

Was there some spark at the time? He breaks into laughter. "You are an awful man. It developed slowly. It was a friendship for a good few years, just an ordinary friendship. I had left the priesthood by the time we got in contact again. It was like hurling and leaving the priesthood. I never seem to make rushed decisions. But I suppose when you talk about a spark, I think there was a feeling, I don't know, it's all a bit clichéd, but there is a feeling that in a sense we were meant to be. It was like throwing off the shackles in a way. She was very outgoing, vivacious kind of person. I suppose it has rubbed off on me. And it has allowed me to be me."

* * * * *

Sylvie Linnane played into his 50s, finishing as a centre and full-forward on the Gort Junior C team. He loved the fun with younger lads, going for a few pints afterwards. He remembers his battle with Harry Ryan in '87 and how he took an "uppercut" to the chin "before the national anthem". It didn't floor him but he felt his feet stagger.

Ryan scored one point off him and Galway won by six. He won his third medal the following year and he'll be in Croke Park today with his family, hoping to see a new era begin.

"Playing Kilkenny any time is going to be hard, you are going to earn your crust, you are not going to get it handy, I can tell you that," he says.

Can he see Galway winning today? "I think they have a great chance if they play the right players, and experienced players. We have to take up TJ Reid, we have to take up (Richie) Hogan. Walter Walsh did harm the last day (2012), he got 1-4 on Johnny Coen. I thought we were very slow on the line the last day against Tipp. We are as good as any of them from centre-field up. If we can hold our own in the backs . . . If we put on our experienced players I think we will do very well."

Sylvie doesn't say Chicago, he says "Shee-kaygo". His son, Sylvie Óg, will be coming home from there for the match and the memories reignite of Joe Connolly from the podium speaking of Galway's scattered emigrants watching in 1980 and tears in their eyes. Sylvie and his wife Margaret were guests on Up for the Match last night and the challenge now is not marking forwards but getting tickets to cover everybody in a grown-up family extended by partners.

They have four boys and a girl. Another son is flying in from London. "I wrote to Croke Park and got a couple (of tickets)," says Sylvie. "I got a couple from the county board. We're still looking for a few. There's women involved here now and they have to be brought."

Does he miss it, the playing? "Ah no, there comes a time when you have to step back from it. I love going to the matches now, seeing my own sons playing, seeing Gort playing, seeing Galway playing. It's grand to see them getting stuck in."

* * * * *

For a few years after retirement Iggy Clarke stopped going to matches, to disconnect, because he never saw sport as more than part of life. He spends a good bit of his time now helping the GAA set up support networks on mental health issues, which takes him around the country. When Kilbeacanty needed help after Niall Donohue died in 2013 they asked for Iggy. Part of his weekend will be tied up with helping a club learn how to deal with these issues, but the mind keeps returning to the match.

Can this, like 1980, be a special day? He thinks it can without losing sight of the task. "I remember watching the Leinster final and I was saying to myself, God, their (Kilkenny's) first touch, their little flicks, their little hooks, their tenacity and their work-rate, the intensity of their work-rate . . . I said, 'we are a good bit away from that'. I believe we will have to hit the ground running, and stay running and when the final whistle goes you'd want to be still running (laughs). If we are to beat them, we will have to run at them and stay running."

He remembers his first major senior championship game in '72 against Kilkenny when he felt his heart was going to "come out through my chest". It might feel like that today if Galway are heading up the steps, victorious.

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