Like the Church to which he pledged his life, Fr. Harry Bohan believes the GAA is at a crossroads
'Am I gone too holy?" asks Fr Harry Bohan at one stage, conscious of having spoken uninterrupted for some time on the issues of modern life and the search for meaning. "I don't want to sound like I am preaching." He has moved out of the world of hurling, but not out of the world hurling is in. There are no complaints from this corner. He is easy and interesting company.
He has surrendered little of his passion or energy at 80 ("80 going on 50," according to Anthony Daly) and on the day we meet has just arrived home to Shannon from the funeral of one of his long-time friends. He speaks warmly of the deceased, Peter Considine, and his devotion to hurling, rewinding to the 1970s when Clare flew to Belfast to play a league match against Antrim. That in itself was unusual at the time. Peter Considine was on the plane.
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This being a measure, he is suggesting, of his friend's commitment to following the Clare team. There are numerous recollections like this from a long and fulfilling life. At the close of a multi-layered conversation that covers religion, changes in Irish society, the growing elitism of the GAA, and hurling, Bohan remembers a story from the 1981 Munster hurling championship.
He was managing the Clare team preparing to play Waterford in a semi-final in Thurles in late May. On the week of the game, he went to see a specialist in Dublin to examine a "growth" on his face and was told it would need surgery. "I said, 'you can't, we're playing Waterford on Sunday'. And he said, 'if you were playing the All-Ireland on Sunday that has to go.'"
In his forced absence selectors Mick Moroney and Jackie O'Gorman took charge. Bohan had to rely on radio commentary, a gruelling ordeal: a tight match only decided in the final moments. Near the end a late Declan Coote goal and a Gerry McInerney point earned Clare a three-point win. "I was listening to the match on the radio - in St Vincent's - the sweat out through me," Bohan recalls. For years he thought it was McInerney who got the goal.
"And (Dublin hurler) Noel Drumgoole's brother, I'll always remember him, came in - it was a six-bed ward - and as he was passing my bed, he said, 'you're Harry Bohan' and I said, 'I am. But go down to that bed now and we'll have a chat after.' The match was on. And they won. And the team rang me. And I went out on the corridor to take the call. No mobiles that time. So all the team came on the phone. Didn't the fella who did the operation come along and he said, 'Into bed!'"
On the way from the funeral of Peter Considine, he had one of his many calls from Davy Fitzgerald. When Bohan returned to management under Anthony Daly from 2004 to 2006, Fitzgerald was goalkeeper. "There isn't a week that would go by we wouldn't be talking; that's for years now," he says. "What he has achieved in Wexford is unreal."
Bohan hasn't been to a match for a few years, even though in reasonably good health. Due to reduced mobility he watches hurling in the comfort of his own home. That is where he will view Clare's meeting with Tipperary this afternoon. "I love not only watching it on television but watching it on my own," he says. "If somebody came I'd nearly ask could they come back at six o'clock (laughs) when the match is over.
"A good friend from Cork rang me after Cork beat Limerick, and said, 'what do you think?' And I said, 'you can't beat class and Cork has it'. And then I went on to say: 'Tipp has it. And Kilkenny has it'. And for some reason they seem to keep producing it out of nowhere when you think they're down. Like, I was very disappointed with Galway the other day (v Wexford), I said to myself, 'jeez they're gone back - and a good bit'. But they can go back so easily. Though I have a funny feeling that Clare will beat Tipp on Sunday. I know your man (Liam Sheedy) has done a great job with them but I think the Clare forwards, with their pace, they can out-run them."
The greatest Clare team not to win an All-Ireland was his, the side that won successive National Leagues in the 1970s and lost successive Munster finals to arguably the greatest Cork hurling team of all time. That experience, of being agonisingly close, added to the heartbreak which became central to Clare's hurling existence. It deepened the craving and didn't break the will. When Anthony Daly spoke eloquently in the Hogan Stand in September 1995, having led Clare to a first All-Ireland in 81 years, he referenced the great players of the 1970s and '80s as participants in a movement that didn't start or end with one team or era but which was seamless and cross-generational.
Bohan studied in Maynooth, was ordained in 1963, and did a post-grad in sociology in Cardiff which greatly influenced his thinking and future work, especially in rural regeneration, when he returned to Ireland in '68. He tended to take a glass-half-full view of the world, and in 1974 he was the new Clare hurling manager.
Limerick, like now, were the All-Ireland champions when he took over. "Actually, our first match, was against Limerick, in the first round of the league, and in fact two of the Clare team were put off that day. They only beat us by a point.
"I suppose what I wanted more than anything was to get them to believe. I mean, Johnny Callinan and Colm Honan would say to me later, 'we thought you were off your game when you were saying to us that our target is to win an All-Ireland'. And I actually deeply believed that we could do it.
"We didn't win an All-Ireland but I think we kind of proved that it could be won. We went very close to it. It shows you how hard it is to come from nowhere to win one. You nearly have to lose a few to win one. Although they went down very badly with us, some of them."
Daly requested to meet Bohan before taking the Clare job ahead of the 2004 season. This brought Bohan back into top-level hurling. "He came down here to me and I thought he was coming to ask me to see should he take it, but he came and said he would take it if I came with him. But I'd say my contribution to that scene would be to do with a bit of the man-management thing with some of the players. But having said that it was a great experience. He (Daly) is a serious man in the dressing room. And he is a serious man to know, a marvellous character."
None of Bohan's mental vigour shows any sign of diminishing. When he returned to Ireland, armed with the knowledge of what had happened to England's cities and towns through poor planning and neglect, he could see the same outcome being inevitable here. He talks of the four revolutions of the 1960s, in information, industry, education and the Church, and how he could see increasing centralisation and emigration gradually killing rural Irish life.
"I was very lucky, the day I was ordained the Bishop told me that things were changing, that Shannon had emerged here as a fairly serious place and so on, so I was sent off to the University of Wales to do a post-grad course on the growth of cities. But this is significant because it brought me into contact with high-rise flats and the massive housing estates and when I got back here then I hoped we wouldn't do the same here. Because I had seen in England what happened in Dublin for example - the Ballymuns being built and then knocked down. The same thing (happened) in England.
"And especially because of the settlement pattern we had here, we have only two cities, Dublin and Cork, by European standards, while the rest of country was made up of villages, small towns, open countryside, and so on.
"We went on then to almost make the very same mistakes that they made in England and continue to make them in that the economy became the be-all and end-all and we have been reasonably successful in this. But most of the growth is around Dublin."
His own village, Feakle, also home to Ger Loughnane who grew up nearby, was a case in point. "That village at the end of the '70s had, out of a population of maybe 150 people, only three people between the ages of 20 and 40. So, I said, this village will die."
He called on local business people, professionals, bankers, anyone who might help, to actively revive areas that had been ignored and left to waste. Finding ways of regenerating rural Irish communities consumed him and in 1973 he helped form the Rural Housing Organisation. "I came back here one night and I never went to bed. I stayed up putting all this thing together. I'd be a fierce idealist now, and a dreamer, almost that there is nothing impossible."
Good qualifications for managing Clare so?
"It was, that's exactly what it was."
What kept you up all night, what was your dream?
"I felt the likes of the Feakles of this world are never going to get a factory. People talked in small villages of getting a factory but sure a factory wasn't going to come into Feakle. But I thought this, as simple as this, if we got houses, that young couples would buy themselves, in other words own them, wouldn't be depending on the State to put them up. So I gathered a few people around me. The first was the bank manager, John Mee, who is still alive, living in Galway. And I went down to Johnny in the bank and I said to him, Johnny I have an idea and if it's crazy throw me out. But Johnny thought it was a great idea. That was key.
"If we needed a loan to buy a bit of land in Feakle to get this off the ground, how about the banks supporting us and he said, 'yeah I will look at that seriously'. Then I asked Johnny to get involved in a committee. And I asked two or three others, an architect, an economist . . . and we built 20 houses in Feakle and it gathered momentum. Mainly for young couples. We got them saving - we said we wouldn't let anyone buy a house that didn't have the deposit. All that kind of thing, a lot of people said to me after it is a pity you are not doing it now.
"We finished up after building 2,500 houses. In 120 villages from Cavan to Cork. It grew and it grew and it grew. But then we did a bit of a study on it; what is it doing for places? The school that would lose a teacher was gaining a teacher. The shop that was going down in business was now doing business. And so on. And into the GAA. I remember the chairman of the club at home rang me a few years after we started in Feakle, we are after winning the under 14, he said, and 12 of them are from the rural houses (we helped build)."
He had an idea, too, to set up a people's bank. "In other words instead of banks catering to people's money and siphoning it off to the Dublins and the Londons and way beyond the area, that money deposited in an area would be reinvested in the area. That was the idea. I contacted the economist of the Central Bank at the time. He said at the time you would need, which would be nothing now, a million pounds starting. Sure I hadn't a penny. So that was that. But I firmly believe that if that was done we would hold the money because as you know, where money is invested, people will follow."
He reveals that later he will be attending a meeting in Sixmilebridge, one of a series of meetings with young parents. "And one of the things that comes out of it that's as clear as day as well is that young parents especially are under serious pressure now . . . the mortgage, bread on the table, the two of them working, having to work, and then some times a lot of them feeling guilty because they are not spending more time with the kids.
"And as well as that, we did a number of nights with children of parents leaving primary school going out into secondary schools, and one of the clear messages there was they are young teenagers, they are growing up physically, socially, spiritually, but they have all the new challenges, they have the bully . . . that some people's lives in secondary school were destroyed by something as straightforward as bullying. The other ones are the phones . . . parents, the worry, they haven't a clue, the worry of not knowing what they are tuning into, and that world. But kids are finding it hard to make friends. This is one of the things that came from the parents.
"See, I think the couple of things that are saving us at the moment are volunteerism, the time that people are giving, in a whole lot of different ways, whether it is Vincent de Paul, or any other way. But also within sport. And the friends that people can make through sport. I would say, in my own life, having been involved in hurling, that wherever you meet people, you are friends with people. The likes of Davy (Fitzgerald) and Anthony Daly. You have friends for life. Sport has a huge, huge, impact on the country. And then, linked to that, the basic unit of the GAA is the club. I am afraid now we are gone into elitism. That the county scene is the scene that gets all the attention where the elite players are taken away from the clubs for the best months of the year. And there is 90 something per cent of players have to sit and wait till they come back, almost, I know now it is not fully true, but almost.
"And I know that the [GAA] president is setting up some group to look at this, but if this is not looked at . . . because if you kill something at the roots, and if you do damage to the roots you do damage to the organisation. Big time. And then of course as well as that when I look at soccer now in England, and I watch Arsenal, I would support them, but when you see the kind of money that the likes of Manchester United lads were playing for in the last 12 months and they almost sulking to play and here we have lads who play for nothing and loving it. In other words, there is a huge difference.
"And the other thing I feel as well, going back to my own, is that club hurling gives people an identity. People belong. It gives them pride in their place and gives the community pride in their own place and so on. I think all of that needs to be looked at and fostered."
And you think it is in peril?
"I do. In some places a neighbour is someone who has the same address as you. But there is still that community thing. My club, the Feakle club, last year won the intermediate and should have won the Munster final. And the whole place came alive. And that's a small community. And that's huge. You couldn't buy that. That is natural."
Does it reflect society?
"It does. The GAA tends to follow what's happening in society."
Money is a root problem?
"Correct. It comes back to money. And it comes back to the old phrase, the price of everything and the value of nothing. That world.
"And you see the community dimension of life which you have in small communities and being bolstered by the likes of the GAA and the local club and the local team. I think that is huge and we can't take it for granted now. I have a simple rule about this. If you cut any organisation, if you cut any tree, at its roots you damage it. And that's what the GAA are doing if they neglect the club."
The Catholic Church to which he has pledged his life has had to alter its outlook and reform its ways. He is keen on the current Pope's approach of a value-led Church rather than one driven by institutions or hierarchies. He sees the Church and the GAA as not unalike. "I will say this. The Church is obviously at a crossroads now. I think Irish society is at a crossroads. But I think the GAA definitely is at a crossroads. There is a belief in Ireland that we still haven't adjusted to our new found prosperity. But in a society that measures everything almost in money terms, values and ethics are increasingly sidelined and have been."
The current hurling championship, with the round robin system, he feels, has created a saturation level of coverage - and he also feels it is too condensed.
There is much more he has spoken on than can be fitted here. We are near full-time. On the day that's in it, facing Tipp, he is asked about how he dealt with those steepled hurling traditions and institutions. Did they get under his skin? He recalls from his youth a fellow student in Maynooth who came from Tipperary. At the time, in the 1960s, Tipp had the most powerful team in hurling. "He used to say to me, 'You know, Harry, we feel superior to ye'. I said, 'Do ye?' And he said, 'We do'.
'Why's that?' I said. 'Because we win All-Irelands and ye don't.'
He starts to chuckle.
He was rising you? "He was rising me but I'd say he believed it too."
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