Saturday 18 November 2017

'Winter talk' gives way to an avalanche of sporting memories

M Y assertion last week that if I were to manage Mayo or Dublin, I would nearly guarantee them an All-Ireland brought responses from both counties.

Several writers took me up on the use of the word 'nearly' and one writer from Castlebar said I had covered myself neatly in that way should I ever get the job. The reactions varied from hope to downright scepticism, the latter being particularly noticeable from the Dubs' quarter.

The Castlebar man wrote: "We are so used to Mayo nearly winning nothing that I, for one, would take you up on the offer on the grounds that the disappointments of the past 58 years need desperate measures."

Meanwhile, in these dark days of deep mid-winter, my part of the world is full of what Micheal ó Muircheartaigh called "winter talk" in the absence of anything on the field of play to discuss. I have been delving into a fine book, The GAA -- A People's History, by Mike Cronin, Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse, which has greatly entertained me during the long evenings.

I was particularly taken with a reference to Michael Collins from the Irish Independent of 1921 after he had pucked a sliotar around with Harry Boland before that year's Leinster hurling final at Croke Park. Remarking on the sight of Collins with a hurling stick in hand, the writer reported: "For five minutes, the 15,000 spectators saw no longer a hunted fugitive or a Minister for Finance, but a schoolboy at play."

The delightful photograph of the two of them spoke volumes for man's innate capacity to shed the most onerous burdens and become a boy again when given a football or a sliotar to play with.

There is another marvellous picture, by Colman Doyle, of Mick O'Connell going high to field a ball beautifully against Down in the 1968 All-Ireland final. The caption says: "Recognised as one of the most stylish players of all time, O'Connell's inter-county career spanned three decades from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 1975, he published an enthralling memoir in which he offered an insight into his singular devotion to training and sporting excellence. 'Training was somewhat of an obsession with me,' O'Connell wrote. 'My every day was geared to it, exercising, sleeping and even employment . . . Nothing was going to interfere with my regular pattern of life . . . Most of my training exercises, 90 per cent at least, were done at home on Valentia Island and alone'."

O'Connell's acute insights bear out my often stated conviction that the difference between being good and being brilliant often lies in the amount of time the player is prepared to devote to practice and training on his own.

Another very striking photograph, this time taken from the Kennelly archives, shows charismatic Kerins O'Rahillys footballer, John Dowling, standing in the window of his shoe shop in Bridge Street, Tralee, with the Sam Maguire Cup in September 1955.

Standing on the pavement outside the shop are four or five of the elders of Tralee, as well as seven small boys, who seem to be more fascinated with the photographer than with John Dowling himself.

The book, of course, reeks with nostalgia and is a brilliant description of 125 years of the GAA through the eyes, not of the great players, but of the people themselves whose deep love of these games has been an abiding passion over all that time.

In the words of the GAA historian, Peter Devlin, describing the launch of the Association 125 years ago: "They had loosed an avalanche on its natural course and were helpless to recall it."

No words of mine could more eloquently describe the Irish phenomenon that is the Gaelic Athletic Association.

Sunday Independent

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