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Father's legacy more important than ever

LAST December the only son of Nicky Rackard said something at an event in Croke Park that probably discomfited a few of those present. The occasion was the launch of a hurling competition for the lower ranks, the systematically neglected, counties like Leitrim and Sligo. It would be known as the Nicky Rackard Cup.

They'd found a suitable donor; Rackard, after all, experienced lows most of us couldn't imagine. Invited to speak at the event, Bobby Rackard first consulted with his sisters Marion and Bernadette. All agreed on what their father considered his most important contribution - the years spent helping recovering alcoholics like himself.

"I think as a family," says Bobby, "that that's the legacy we would be most proud of."

His decision to use the launch to highlight drink and its damaging potential, remembering how it once compromised his father, came at a sensitive time for the GAA. Increasing public awareness of youth binge drinking in particular had piled pressure on the Association to avoid promoting alcohol through sport.

"As a family," Bobby Rackard spoke at the launch, "we would hope that this cup would be associated with the healthy promotion of sport." It was a simple, succinct message. But coming from him, it had a powerful resonance at a time when the GAA's own task force on alcohol is recommending that major sponsorships, like that which Guinness enjoys in hurling, are phased out.

"The GAA is a very large and influential organisation, an amazing organisation when you think about it," says Nicky's son. "I mean Ireland is about parishes and the GAA is the centre of focus. So, you know, sponsorship by a drinks company without a rider in the day and age we're in . . . "

By April, 2006, it'll be 30 years since Nicky Rackard succumbed to cancer, reading The Irish Field in his bed one Saturday afternoon, aged 54. His son automatically recalls the day. Along with his two sisters, and their mother Ailish, he was planning to visit his father that afternoon in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin when the word came.

It had been expected and while he wanted to live, friends told how he was unafraid of death. After six years of sobriety, Rackard had found serenity, brokered a peace with his demons. He spent the final phase of his life helping others who, like him, had experienced problems with drink. People called to his home. Some stayed for days and even weeks.

His problems with drink began while he was studying to be a vet in Dublin, which took him over eight years to complete, due to sporting and other distractions. In 1951 he suddenly took the pledge after a priest friend died. When Wexford celebrated groundbreaking All-Ireland wins in 1955 and '56 he wasn't drinking. He married in 1953, and Bobby arrived three years later, on September 12, a couple of weeks before they famously beat Cork.

BUT during a visit to New York in 1957 Rackard began drinking again and the habit grew progressively worse over the next 12 years until he quit for good and joined the AA. By then, as he wrote in a series of revealing memoirs in The Sunday Press in 1975, he had experienced "hell on earth", occasionally felt suicidal, ended up broke and almost lost his marriage.

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In recent weeks Bobby has been poring over his father's articles. He tells how he deliberated greatly before agreeing to do them. What persuaded him wasn't an eagerness to document his hurling deeds or his place in the pantheon of great hurlers which remains undisputed, but a more pressing and personal concern - to highlight the harmful effects of excessive drinking.

"There were spells of being on the dry," Rackard wrote in The Sunday Press. "There were other spells of being on the bash. There were car crashes and wild binges. There were blackouts, which experts know are nearly always a certain sign of alcoholism. Once I went to a ball on a Friday and came to myself in the local pub on the following Tuesday morning, still in my dress suit."

Bobby, and his sisters, grew up as their father's drinking gradually grew worse. But there were lighter moments. He remembers going to the 1968 All-Ireland final with his father, whom he says never talked much about his own hurling exploits. Most were relayed by others in his company. In '68, with his father a selector, young Bobby got to sit in the dugout with the subs.

He was also in the dressing-room when Rackard gave a speech that helped transform the team but can't be sure during which match it was that year. The gregarious side of his father's nature that's often talked about, however, he rarely saw. They were often out late after matches, stopping off at pubs on the way home. On one occasion they didn't get home until half seven the following morning, Bobby packed into the car with his father's friends.

In his Sunday Press chronicles, Rackard charts his personal decline with incredible honesty and humility. "Gradually, from Sunday drinking, it became weekend drinking," he wrote. By 1958 he had finished hurling, at 36, and his drinking was "causing friction" at home where his wife Ailish found herself increasingly alone with a young family.

In 1965, then a serious alcoholic, he spent his first stint in hospital to treat the illness. At that stage he was drinking daily. "The more I refused to face up to the day, the more I drank. The more I drank the worse my nerves and fears became, and the more I ducked back to alcohol."

He describes how alcohol took him from the highs of '55 and '56 to the "depths of misery and degradation."

Living with an alcoholic had lasting effects on the family, says his son. "In an alcoholic home, it's like you feel you're in the trenches to a certain extent. There's a system of operating that becomes established. In dysfunctional homes there's a lot of tension, a lot of fear, it's a difficult emotional lifestyle.

"There are variations, some have violence, there wasn't that; but there was always that threat, that's very real, very strong. I don't think he realised, or society in general realised, the damage that drink can do. I don't know what sort of attitudes to drink existed at the time, it seemed a sort of manly thing."

The GAA recently announced that it was having meetings with the Minister for Health, Mary Harney, and hopes to appoint a full-time alcohol and drugs awareness officer in the near future. GAA President Seán Kelly hinted that this would occur in the short term at a recent Central Council meeting and stressed that they weren't overlooking their responsibilities.

Their own task force's findings recommended that major drinks sponsorships, like Guinness's 10-year association with the hurling championships, should be discontinued and other sources of revenue sought. That is a tacit acceptance that such sponsorships send out potentially damaging messages and should not be associated with sport where possible.

Bobby Rackard says that it was only in recent years, through reflection and going back over his father's memoirs, that he has gained a deeper understanding of him. "Even when the drinking stopped, though life was so much better, I'm not sure I felt any more connected with him. I think while he was drinking there was a withdrawl of sensitivity, the family didn't matter.

"I always sensed there was a gap there that needed to be filled, I suppose we missed that real intimate father and son relationship."

Bobby hurled for Bunclody where he grew up and in his final year boarding in De La Salle captained their Harty Cup team. They drew with the favourites St Flannan's when he scored the final two points, and beat them in the replay. Not going on to win the competition was a big personal disappointment.

He can remember scoring 2-6 for Bunclody in a match in Ferns and his father saying that he had played "like Christy Ring." Such affirmations were fleeting enough to be cherished. He hurled minor for Wexford against Kilkenny in the championship and scored 2-1 but they lost. "I think it was the last game of hurling I ever played. My own father was dying at the time and my heart wasn't in it. It was the following February that I left (he emigrated and lived abroad for the next 10 years).

"Under normal circumstances I might have been far more motivated. There's an awful lot of stuff that's affected by it (alcoholism); your motivation, drive. You shut down emotionally in many ways."

His father claimed that shyness was at the core of his drinking. "Sober, I could hardly talk to girls at dances," he would write later. "With a few drinks I was relaxed and outgoing. Now that I know a lot more about the problem, I know that basically I was immature. That was why I drank - to break down the barriers which made me uncomfortable in mixed company.

"While the alcoholic carries a stigma, unjustly, the drunk is treated with a sort of amused tolerance. Heavy drinking and 'holding it' seems to be regarded as a manly virtue by most people and the wildest escapades are excused on the grounds of 'a few jars.'"

When he quit drink for the final time he said he was "practically down and out," with not enough money to pay for a set of tyres for his car. But he pieced his life together again, rebuilt his veterinary practice, and indulged his passion for horses, enjoying wins in point-to-points and other major race events.

With the AA he travelled the country helping people who were troubled by drink. Then, in February, 1974 he noticed lumps on his neck which he had later removed. In November '74 in the course of a routine check-up he was told he needed another operation. A year afterwards he wrote that the prognosis was good according to the doctors.

BUT he never recovered. He left content that he had reached some form of spiritual resolution in his life. "Some drinkers may not believe it but I know that sober, life is better, the sky is bluer, and the perspectives sharper. And each morning I get up, I realise that this day is the first day of the rest of my life," he wrote.

"I'd never tell anyone to give up drink," says his son. "I wonder if he were here today what he would want, what he would recommend; I don't think he would be telling anyone what they should or should not do. I think it's about awareness, it's about understanding the illness."

Reading his articles nearly 30 years later, Bobby feels a closer bond to his father. "Maybe that's what he was trying to achieve. There was the sense of him being larger than life, that he wasn't really my father, that he belonged to someone else, there was a bit of that. So I never really connected with the man I suppose.

"My sense is he was telling it (his story) because he felt somebody might learn from it. I think he struggled long and hard before he decided to do it. I've a vague recollection of receiving letters from England, I'm sure there were others from Ireland, people that found it an inspiration. To him that would have made it worthwhile. It is a kind of a soul-baring."