'Every lad is different, but our goal's the same'
Musician and hurler John Walsh is not living the rock and roll life in London, as he tells Damian Lawlor
IN February last year, mechanical engineer John Walsh left to take a job in London with an international construction firm. With little or nothing doing at home, he was glad of the chance but also saddened to leave behind a lifestyle that was rich in all the right respects.
Walsh spent six years in college, earning a degree and then a Master's before breezing through a summer in Boston, laying bricks and hurling for Wexford on a J1 visa, content in the knowledge that when autumn kicked in there was a thriving sporting and musical career waiting at home.
He had captained St Kieran's to the 2004 All-Ireland senior colleges title, a serious landmark for a Laoisman in a famed hurling bastion dotted with future Kilkenny stars like Richie Power and Richie Hogan. Three years later, he won a Fitzgibbon Cup All Star award and quickly established his place at wing-back on the Laois senior team.
But as his hurling prospered, so too did his music. Walsh was a guitarist and singer in Na Fianna, the popular contemporary ballad group. They entered RTE's All-Ireland Talent Show, made their name and were signed up. There followed three years of mayhem. Eventually, Walsh had to put the hurley aside to pursue a professional music career.
"I basically went two years full-time with the band," he says. "We went on a great roll with concerts, tours, singles and TV and radio shows. It continued up to a few weeks ago when we played at half-time during the Dublin-Limerick Spring Series game in Croke Park. I was making a living, but then the job came up in London and I couldn't say no – the role was right up my street."
Walsh put his music career on hold and settled into his new environs. Before long, hurling came calling again; this time his adopted 'county' wanted him.
"Hurling communities are tight no matter where you go," he explains. "So even in London, lads I played with in college knew I was coming over. I was asked into the panel but, with the new job, couldn't give the necessary commitment."
The Exiles caused a shock by winning the 2012 Christy Ring Cup, following their Nicky Rackard title a year earlier. Next Saturday, with Walsh now their captain, they play Carlow in the first round of the Leinster championship, having beaten Meath in the Division 2B final only a few weeks back. "I'd been in the job about 12 months and had settled a bit," he says. "You're always on the go in construction but I soon got a handle on it. Having missed hurling for two years, I made the call to go back."
Manager Eamon Phelan wasted no time in making Walsh team leader. On St Patrick's weekend, London were due to play Down in the league but Na Fianna were also due at a festival in Germany and Walsh had committed to the band. As the weekend approached, however, he knew he couldn't let his other team down. He cancelled his original flight back to London, booked a different one and then repeated the process all over again when the GAA changed the time of the throw-in.
Two flights booked at his own expense to fly back and play against Down. With little sleep and fuss, however, he played the gigs, flew in from Germany and helped London to a priceless seven-point win in their promotion race.
"The effort that everyone puts in here is incredible," he shrugs. "We're all in the same boat. From Eamon and his backroom staff to Tommy Harrell, who has devoted 50 years of his life to keeping London GAA going. The work that man puts in is inspirational. There are downsides, of course.
"When I wasn't involved with London, I went home to see friends and family every second weekend, but being with the team means that can't happen any more.
"Since Christmas, I've only been home once. My family has had to come to our matches in Mayo and Armagh to see me – the same for the boys from other counties, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Limerick, Galway.
"Trying to explain the fixtures to our folks is not easy, though," he laughs. "Earlier this year my dad was enquiring about our schedule and I told him we were playing Down at home. 'Where's home?' he asked. 'London,' says I. 'Sure that's not your home!'"
To many, playing for London hardly seems the pinnacle of Gaelic sport, but those involved treat it very seriously. While hurling usually retreats in winter, the first seeds of their summer were sown last November when 40 players were invited to a meeting. Training started soon after: two nights a week in the gym or on the paddock for stamina; ballwork at weekends.
Then the St Gabriel's guys, who reached the All-Ireland intermediate club final in March, returned. In all, 35 signed up, their schedule ranging from three training sessions a week from December to April to four sessions when the clocks changed.
And with those brighter evenings Walsh noticed a huge step up in focus. "Every lad is different. But our goal is the same. We have guys who'll stay on the field practising for an hour after we've finished and then others will stop off for a bit of chocolate on the way home. We have fellas looking for ten per cent body fat and others who avoid the gym like the plague. My point is, there's room for everyone who's good enough.
"Every hurler in London is here not to play, but to work. This is important to remember. We're not over here to party or sun ourselves. It takes a massive effort to make training and matches. Most guys are involved, like me, in construction – as engineers, managers or tradesmen. So they need to get to work early in order to get time off to train. This means being on-site for 7.0 to get off at 5.0pm to make training at 7.30. A lot of our lads only get home around midnight and are up again five hours later to be on-site early. That's why we're so tight and we
respect each other. It's like a college hurling team – people moving in and out, loads of different counties, but we're all Irishmen and we're all hurling men. We might be forgotten about back home but that just means there's another point to prove as well."
It's hard to credit the spirit they've fostered given that London hurling is traditionally a revolving door. This year, there are 17 new players on the books. The irony is that although so many of the squad are involved in construction, few stick around long enough for more solid foundations to be laid.
"All that might change," Walsh argues. "We've won three trophies in the past two years, we all have loads in common now and are mainly in the same age group: 22 to 27. At the same time, there are many disadvantages to hurling here. The London footballers were told they weren't allowed home to play challenge matches ahead of their championship and, likewise, we don't play in any of the pre-league competitions, such as the Walsh Cup. This is a major disadvantage when preparing for the league. It's also nearly impossible to arrange challenge matches with other counties – the cost of travel is too massive."
Unlike the main hurling counties, the biggest challenge London face is getting the 30 "best" lads out. But Walsh says everybody has bought into the set-up this year. "It's as professional as possible," he insists. "All of the management have their specific roles and responsibilities set out by Eamon."
It's Phelan's third year in charge and he's joined by trainer Tom Quaid from Limerick, a former US scholarship athlete. Another Laoisman, Tom Simms, and Tipp native Gavin O'Mahoney are the selectors. JP Rea looks after gear and logistics, while Jim King supplies physio. Walsh says the wheel would not turn, however, without Harrell, their administrative engine.
They're ready for the championship now. "We're a good team," he says. "We do all the usual stuff lads at home do – eat the porridge, yoghurt, fruit, drink three litres of water and feed up on chicken and pasta. We've cut the fast food, beer and chocolate, but the difference from teams back home is that we're not machines either."
Some day, Walsh will get home to Laois and embark on the next phase of his life. Right now, though, the 27-year-old has tunnel vision.
Their summer starts on Saturday. His might be an alternative championship tale, but to prepare for it John Walsh and his London teammates have taken much the same steps as every team in Ireland.