Monday 11 December 2017

Billy Keane: It's a day for tradition, a light touch and the last of the boys of the old brigade

Declan Ryan celebrates with Brendan Maher, left, and Lar Corbett after Tipperary's victory in last year's Munster SHC final, one of the most traditional days of the GAA calendar
Declan Ryan celebrates with Brendan Maher, left, and Lar Corbett after Tipperary's victory in last year's Munster SHC final, one of the most traditional days of the GAA calendar
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The held-up line of traffic behind him on the windy mountain road was as long as the St Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

The last of the boys of the old brigade straddled a vintage Honda 50. He was going to get to Killarney and the Munster SFC final in his own time. We were all going to Killarney in his own time.

It was hotter than hell but the old boy was wrapped up in a heavy grey coat that might have been handed down by his grandfather. You'd have to call in a plastic surgeon to take that coat off him. A coat for all seasons.

His paint-flaked helmet was as fragile looking as a partly boiled egg. The soles of his folded-over-at-the-knee wellingtons rested on pedals as polished as a saint's relic.

He was a hardy oul' buck, lean as a goat, and his determined jaw stuck out into a cracked plastic windscreen bolstered by a manure bag pasted on with black tape. His goggles must have fallen out over the side of the plane piloted by Alcock and Brown.

Out went his neck like a greyhound leaving the traps and the promontory of a jaw pointed the way like an explorer's bowsprit. "Look", I said to my friends. "There he is, the last of the boys of the old brigade."


We tried to pull in to get a photo with him but the traffic coming against us was unrelenting. Sometimes the mind's eye holds an imperfect image, but a hazy abstract can be every bit as evocative as a photograph.

So it goes on. Tradition. The love of the game, the backing up of your kinsmen, the day out and the joy of maybe seeing a new star come through or to witness an old hero validate his greatness.

You kinda felt if he missed Munster final Sunday, it would be the finish of him. The motorbike daredevil understood that the psychology of staying alive involves never giving in and keeping true to the passions of your boyhood.

Tomorrow the story flows on. Cork and Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds. In the hurling. Maybe the most traditional day out of all.

I sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud when it comes to writing about hurling.

Our oldest game wasn't played in our town but as the shore paddler said, 'you can love the sea even though you can't swim'.

The heatwave will wring every ounce of sweat from players and spectators.

Thousands will march down the Ennis Road. They'll stop in the cool of the Ardhu Bar to pick up tickets and slake the thirst on a holy day when only the most wary will be saving hay or on emergency watering duty in city gardens.

The referee's warning to mind the gap at the throw-in will not be heeded. The first few minutes will echo back to a Celtic twilight when this game was played in mountains and forests – back in the days when a squirrel could swing from Malin to Mizen and only alight on the ground of Ireland when ice-carved Atlantic rock refused the seed of oak and ash and bonny rowan.

The likes of you and me watched from tree tops, crags and crannogs.

Today we bear witness from stands and terraces, but the response is the same. It touches our inner core in a way that no other game does. For hurling was made for us Irish.

I was in a friend's pub lately and he pointed at the TV. "Do you see that yoke there in the corner? Well I have to take out three different licences on that before I can switch it on."

We are so subject to rules and regulations now, only hurling provides relief from the constant governance. So what if referees give a little leeway for the occasional bout of rough play?

It's as therapeutic as roaring out to sea from a wild headland or jumping into an ice-cold lake on a hot summer's day.

Light-touch regulation proved to be disastrous for our banks, but a light touch is a necessity for hurling.

We wrote a little poem. Especially for today. There was an old travelling man by the name of Jack Faulkner who used to frequent our pub. Jack was a wise man with gentle ways, but when something important had to be said, he said it.

One day Jack came in when my father was reading a poem.

"What's that you're reading, Johneen?" asked Jack.

"It's a long poem, Jackeen," replied my father.

"Ah," said Jack, "but isn't poetry bad enough without it being long?" Best literary advice ever for aspiring poets.

So here's the poem. And it's short, so read on. It'll be over before you know it.

'For John Leahy' is the name of it, after the Limerick man who explained Munster hurling to me.

We were reared

By the oldest ghosts

of the older days

To cheer and praise

Every sky high catch,

Every stolen hook,

Every feint and flick,

Every scythe line cut,

Every heart struck puck.

Every victory cry

Every do or die.

Our clan have backed their men

From the year memory began

Cheer now and cheered then

For every whip crack snap

of every blasted ash

This is no place for the safe

Bulls of men rattle every gate

The hunter herons patient wait

Sliotar sling shots the nets will shake

And we'll roar the glory of the Gaeil

Old souls remain at every game

Ash graft on ancient grain

Only the faces change

The players are still the same.

Irish Independent

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