Monday 11 December 2017

Hurling coursing in their veins

Seán and Josephine Canning have raised seven hurlers, and each one is as treasured as the next, writes Dermot Crowe

Seán and Josephine Canning: 'To win the senior championship was great for the likes of me,' says Seán, 'I never won nothing.'
Seán and Josephine Canning: 'To win the senior championship was great for the likes of me,' says Seán, 'I never won nothing.'

T HIS is where a hurling story begins. In 1964 at the Crystal Ballroom in Kiltormer, Portumna's Seán Canning, 19, summoned the courage to proposition Josephine Lynch, two years his junior. Whatever charm he worked that evening, it laid the basis of a relationship that has endured to this day. They went on to have six children. Or so they thought.

In October 1988, a seventh came along, seven years after the last. His name was Joe. They would all play hurling with distinction, the five boys and one girl that preceded him, they would all represent Galway, and all but one of them would win an All-Ireland medal. But Joe, his brother Frank says, proved that "the best wine was saved till last".

"We got the shock of our lives," Josephine admits when they found out that another child was imminent. "I say to everybody," adds her husband Seán in devilment, "it took us seven years to make him."

By the time of Joe's birth, both parents were in their 40s and 19 years separated Seamus, the eldest, and the newborn. He settled quickly. At two years of age, Joe was togging out in the house, humouring his audience, an oversized jersey hanging well below the inside of his shorts, a helmet fixed like a crown on his head and a hurl in his hand. There was no show like a Joe show.

They remember him watching videos of Portumna games when he was a couple of years old, fascinated, and then the endless time spent practising outside. He had a sheepdog who faithfully recovered the ball whenever it landed in the next field. He'd take frees left and right, copying Pat Fox using his left hand, and his brother Davy using the right.

When he came of age, he took over the frees for Portumna from his brother Frank. In one of the earliest recordings of him playing for his national school, Gortanumera, not yet ten, he can be seen on the silent film wearing number six and slamming in goals like he was on a score bonus. He finished the game with 4-6 and while a good deal smaller than he is now, there is evidence of the nonchalant mastery of the game that has become his trademark.

His parents attribute Joe's brisk development and level-headedness to having had so many older siblings looking after him. When Ollie was playing minor for Galway, he would take him to most of the training sessions. His sister Deirdre was a caring influence. They all rubbed off in different ways. From his mother he drew his composure.

But each new game is a new worry. "Well," says Josephine, "you'd just say do your best, you can do no more, best of luck and I'd shake the holy water on them. That'd be me (laughs)."

Seán is, he admits, a more passionate and animated spectator. He has seen the club rise out of a long recession, when they couldn't field an adult team and he had to hurl next door in Killimor, to the unforeseen boom they're savouring today. To have his sons play a key role is the stuff of fiction. Each one has a county medal and most have All-Ireland clubs, with Ollie providing three All-Stars and Joe one.

Both parents have hurling in their blood but they never believed in compulsory education; if the children wanted to play, they did all they could to facilitate that. "They will make mistakes but I just want them to hurl the ball," says Seán. "Play the game, play the ball, I would not condone anything else. We had ups and downs ourselves. They won't hold back from it anyway, they are able to mind themselves."

* * * * *

T oday Seán and Josephine Canning, who'll be married 40 years next September, will get into their car and drive to a much-awaited hurling match in Thurles. It has wide appeal but their interest is still primarily coloured by family. Three of their sons are in action against Ballyhale and another, Davy, may emerge from the bench. The stakes are high but having their own flesh and blood on the field heats up the atmosphere even more.

These are happy troubles to have. Ivan stands in goal, facing the murderous cunning of a feted Ballyhale attack, while Ollie, the mercurial and staunch defender and the family's highest hurling achiever, until lately that is, will hope to produce another of those Napoleonic exhibitions of defiance. Joe seems to exist in his own orbit; he has a hurling nation in thrall. Many are content to go to a match just to see him play.

Seán marvels at the opposition, talks them up, asking if Portumna have a chance at all. Portumna have been there since he was 16, and over the years he has served as club chairman after retiring from playing. Without the Cannings Portumna would not be the same force. Ollie, though residing in Galway, is currently assistant treasurer, aside from being Galway captain nearing the sunset on his inter-county career. Seamus has been treasurer while Frank has also had a spell as chairman and served as team selector when they won a second All-Ireland last year.

The club has contested an incredible six county finals in-a-row. It won't last forever but if it all stopped now the family would look back on an abundance of dizzy memories. "I remember the U21 B in '89 and I was the happiest man that time, Francis, David and Seamus were on it. 'Twas near Christmas, the last Sunday in December, there was a fog, 'twas nearly dark before it was over. To win the senior championship, sure, was great for the likes of me, I never won nothing, (except) one east board medal and a junior medal. All the times in Waterford with the boys for the Tony Forristal were great, the people we got to know, the other parents. I remember the '92 All-Ireland minor final when Ollie came on for two minutes in Croke Park, at 16; he was only a small little lad, and I remember I was so proud that day."

For Josephine, there was the homecoming after Portumna won the county championship in 2003. "We gave them all the encouragement parents could give them," says Seán.

Seán hurled intermediate for Galway and his brother Frankie was a Galway minor for three years when they played in Munster in the 1960s. In 1966, they were beaten by Cork in the Munster final and six Portumna lads were on the panel. All of them, including Frankie, later emigrated. That was a constant scourge back then, stripping the parish of its best hurlers.

Frankie returned at the start of the 1980s and opened a pub in Woodford where he still resides and a year later was part of the Galway senior hurling squad that reached the All-Ireland final and lost to Offaly. They say there are similarities between him and Joe, in style and physique. Seán spent some of his adult hurling days with Killimor, the neighbouring parish, when Portumna couldn't field. He won a junior hurling medal and returned to Portumna to add another, scoring 1-2 in the county final at 37 in 1982. They beat Ardrahan and the record books showed that Portumna's last comparable achievement was a junior title win in 1914. He made one last playing appearance at 42. "I hurled with (my son) Francis when he was 15, in goals, and Seamus was on the intermediate team at 17 playing the same day. I hurled just to make 15."

In 1992, Portumna won the intermediate title and they haven't looked back since. "It's brilliant, for someone my age. I never dreamt of it. We went to the county final in 1995, Sarsfields had a great team at that time. But six county finals in-a-row. Two All-Ireland clubs, like . . ."

* * * * *

W hen they met in the Crystal Ballroom, Seán and Josephine had plenty in common. They lived only ten miles apart, they were both from farming backgrounds, and they both had hurling in their veins. One of Josephine Lynch's brothers, Kieran, later won An-Ireland club medal with Kiltormer in 1992 and two others, Tom and PJ, hurled, winning several county medals, with PJ later playing for Roscommon after moving there. There were seven in her family and when she was young she remembers her father going to a field near the house and directing a match with all the children as his orchestra. There a love of the game was consummated.

She nursed in Ballinasloe but had to give up her job when she got married in 1969 and later she returned to work in elderly care. Hurling is a game she enjoys but she has gone to fewer games in recent years and admits to worrying about injuries. In the 2006 county final, Joe suffered horrific facial injuries in an incident which caused serious divisions and rancour in Galway. It put her off going to games for a while but she will be there for the major events because she feels she should be supportive. Both parents feel more comfortable now that Joe has had a few years behind him.

"We worry if we think he's taken out of a game but he's able to mind himself now, he's after getting strong," says Seán. "We thought he was after getting too much hurling too for a while. Thanks to be God, he is well able to manage himself. The other brothers and sister, I think he really looked up to them and they looked after him and gave him a level head. He doesn't want huge publicity."

Joe is the only one still officially living at home, although he is in his third year at university in Limerick and based there during the week. Ollie gets home a few times each week for training and stays over and all the others, except Frank who is in Ballinasloe, are within easy reach. Many of them have started their own families and the Canning dynasty has been embellished with 13 cherished grandchildren.

On this day there are sporadic visits from Ivan, Seamus and Deirdre, and various young children, some of them playing on the grass outside the house where Joe was seen applying himself to mastering the game not all that long ago. Joe has given them the prospect of a few more good years but they are loath to make predictions and demands. What will be, will be. When they won the county final in 2003, Joe was too young to be involved, so Ivan, Ollie, Davy and Frank hurled for Portumna, and Seamus was in the subs. By the following year, he was on the team and hurled in the county final where they lost to Athenry by a point in injury time. They won in 2005 and he scored 1-11, aged 17, later winning man-of-the-match against Newtownshandrum in the All-Ireland club final. He was made. He even crafted his own hurl for one of those early county finals, using Ivan's carpentry workshop, and he continues to carry out his own running repairs. Soon, his brother Seamus plans to start making hurls and launch a business. It's a tough field but the Canning name won't do him any harm.

* * * * *

L ast year Seán Canning was given strong medical advice not to go to the All-Ireland club final against Birr. He took a second opinion and went anyway. The source of the medical concern was a heart attack he suffered on the day of the 2005 All-Ireland final, when he was in Croke Park to watch Joe in the minor match and Ollie in the senior.

On the way to the ground, Seán complained of a pain in his arm and in the stand he felt discomfort in his chest. Josephine and he had planned a special weekend, booking into the CityWest hotel for two nights and on the Saturday they were in RTE's headquarters for Up for the Match, Josephine speaking briefly about having sons involved in hurling. The mothers of Seán Og O hAilpin and Diarmuid O'Sullivan were seated next to her.

On the Sunday, the family met near the Hogan Stand and took their seats. Seán and Josephine were in the lower section so they could greet Joe at the final whistle. It was a routine they were familiar with; he had already won an All-Ireland minor medal the year before. As the match with Limerick progressed, Seán felt pains in his chest and the last thing he recalled was Joe scoring a goal before he went for some help. A member of the Red Cross found him a doctor and by the time his wife came around they had him on a stretcher and he was on his way to the Mater Hospital. There he suffered a serious heart attack and was placed in intensive care, still wearing his Galway shirt, most of his family oblivious to his predicament.

Josephine had stayed at the ground because they didn't want to have Joe alarmed when he went looking for them at the final whistle. She greeted him when he won and then went to the hospital when word came back that Seán's condition was serious. The news was kept from Joe and Ollie until that evening. Their father was lucky. There had been no damage and later in the week a stent was fitted. He was discharged on the Friday.

The next day Ollie and Joe arrived, Joe with the minor cup. Seán is a passionate follower but he doesn't think the match caused it, though it may have contributed. There were signs while out on the farm in the time leading up to it that all wasn't as it should be.

"I never expected, ever, to get a heart attack. It wasn't in my family, my parents lived till old age. I wanted to go back in (to the match), but the doctor said no. He said the match was over and I said I wanted to watch the other match as well. The hospital staff were brilliant. I was very lucky. Hurling is a mad man's game maybe but I was lucky I was in Croke Park because of the help that was present.

"The only thing I was really disgusted about was having interrupted the whole lot, Josephine had an awful evening. I disrupted their day. We'd a meal and all booked for that night, paid for and all, in CityWest."

He heard the news that the senior team had lost and felt terrible for Ollie. "I really thought in '94 when Ollie won a minor that he was sure to win a senior All-Ireland. So I was so sorry for Ollie that day. I sent for the video. I got it straight away when I got home." He resolved to lose weight and shed two stone. But it wasn't the end of it.

At the All-Ireland club semi-final in Limerick last year, they had been on the field congratulating the players on winning when he said he felt slight chest pains. Josephine insisted on driving home and getting him to a local doctor. He was sent to hospital in Ballinasloe and he suffered another attack, though not as serious as the first.

He told them he wanted to go to the match and they asked if he had any respect for his family. "Seán said," recalls his wife, "it would be better for him to die above in Croke Park with all his family around him, than to do die at home on his own." He took some tablets to relieve the pressure on his heart and went to the final to see them win a second All-Ireland. He has done well in all tests carried out since and looks fit and healthy as he heads towards 64.

The show must go on, after all. Today they will share another adventure. Semple Stadium, the old hurling theatre, awaits -- their Crystal Ballroom for a day.

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