One of the many voices in our kitchen when I was growing up was Michael O’Hehir and the Sunday afternoon game. The GAA (Chumann Lúthchleas Gael) has been blessed with its RTE broadcasters. I don’t think anyone can equal the inimitable Míchéal Ó Muircheartaigh, whose all inclusive broadcasts today are a performance in themselves. I think I am the same as most people to say that I turn down the sound on the TV, and turn up the volume on the radio when Ó Muircheartaigh takes flight.
I don’t know what technique Ó Muircheartaigh uses to memorise all the background information of the players, their clubs and colours, the boreens where they live and play, and their mothers, not to mind the local neighbours glued to their broadband internet in Honolulu and other exotic places that he throws out with delight; but O’Hehir had a different intimate touch. In his autobiography, published in 1986, he recalled that in his early days of broadcasting, he would picture in his mind’s eye a man called Patrick Garry, from Ballycorrig, Co Clare. “For some years before I started, he had been bedridden,’ he wrote.“So I’d imagine myself talking directly to him.... In those formative years it was not the people of Ireland or anywhere I was speaking to, but to Patrick Garry, doing my best to tell him what was happening.’
O’Hehir commented on an amazing 99 All-Ireland finals between 1938 and 1985, causing a sensation in 1947 when the All-Ireland football final, between Cavan and Kerry, was played in New York. The clamour for radios was at fever pitch at home. On the eve of the match apparently, there wasn’t a radio to be bought in Ireland for love or money. O’Hehir’s voice, at full volume, blazed across the entire country. Journalist and commentator John Waters described a childhood memory of O’Hehir’s voice, growing up in Roscommon ( An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland, 1997). “ As a child I remember what seemed like many but were probably just a few All-Ireland Sunday afternoons, when we would have the entire town to ourselves as Michael’s voice boomed from every window. Even then I thought it was surreal. We could walk the length of the town and back twice without meeting another soul, and all the while to be accompanied by this voice.’
I can well remember crowds of men gathered round cars parked along the Salthill prom, and Michael’s distinctive voice holding them in his spell. His voice appeared to echo from Palmer’s Rock to Blackrock.
Loughrea loses to Cashel
I am taking most of the above from The GAA - A People’s history * which is a different take than the usual history of this prodigious sporting movement which is unique to Ireland. Instead of reeling off the highlights of 125 years of games, rows and achievements, this superbly illustrated book describes the very heartland of the GAA itself. There are chapters on the politics, the community involvement, the music, the parades and culture, the new pitches, the hats, flags, and rosettes, the crossroads, the women and the hero worship. It shows the entire GAA experience in a country that has changed dramatically since its inception in the late 19th century. Yet, despite all that has happened in those years, the GAA is still effectively the glue that has shaped many of our rural communities. It is the source of enormous emotional pride in local parishes and schools. Because we know the struggle that it takes to get to Croke Park, something very special happens to the very air we breathe on All-Ireland day. There is a giddyness that not only effects all of us on this island, but among the Irish gathered in their hundreds around televisions across the world.
There was quite a Galway involvement in the beginnings of this great organisation. It is interesting that South Galway was the birth place of not only the GAA but also the Irish Literary Movement spearheaded by Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole. The GAA founder Michael Cusack was principal of the national school at Lough Cutra, near Gort, in the 1880s. He was very familiar with the hurling traditions of South Galway where he had many friends including William J Duffy MP for Loughrea. The idea of uniting all Gaelic games under the one banner was agreed as the best way to promote pride in our Irishness, in sport and community. A deputation, consisting of Duffy, John P McCarthy and John Sweeney ( all from Loughrea), Peter Kelly (Killnadeema) and Michael Glennon ( Kilchreest) called on Dr Patrick Duggan, Bishop of Clonfert, at his home in Loughrea. They invited him to become patron of the new organisation. The bishop, however, was 71 and not in good health. He was delighted to hear about the new movement, and promised his full support, but advised the deputation seek a younger man. He suggested Dr Croke, the Archbishop of Cashel.
The honour of hosting the foundation of the GAA on November 1 1884 went to Dr Croke’s home ground of Cashel, rather than Dr Duggan’s Loughrea.
Hot political debates
As with the Irish Literary movement which saw the founding of the Abbey Theatre, a great flowering of new writing talent, all reflecting the Irish character, warts and all, it was impossible to ignore the political agenda as it was at the time. Lady Gregory and WB Yeats unashamedly championed Irish nationalism with such provocative plays as Caithleen Ní Houlihan. Similarly the GAA quickly found the confidence to reflect the concerns of the Ireland of the time. The late Fr Paddy Lee, historian and the first biographer of Nora Barnacle, reported that at the Galway County GAA Convention in Athenry on October 13 1882, apart from organising games and schedules, the meeting “ discussed self-government, the improvement of the conditions of the working classes, land reform, and the promotion of Irish manufacture”.
Hurling was extremely popular in Galway in the 1880s. It was reported that a number off young men were prosecuted and fined two shillings and six pence for playing hurley near Kilkerin in 1885 (Was it against the law to play hurling? Maybe a reader will tell me). But there are reports of huge crowds at club hurling games, including a 7,000 attendance in Ardrahan to see the locals take on Craughwell on Sunday November 21 1885; and a similar crowd at Clarinbridge when the home club played host to Laban.
Yet, politics continued to turn many meetings into hot political debates. William Duffy MP resigned in high dudgeon as Loughrea’s county GAA secretary because of the Parnell split. And later in 1920, at the height of the War of Independence, glowing tributes were paid to the county secretary Stephen Jordan ‘whose enthusiasm and diplomacy had held the GAA together in a very trying year’. With the Civil War disrupting much of the GAA’s activities in 1922, the championship was deferred to the following year. Galway won Connacht, but lost to Dublin in the All -Ireland football final. However, Galway made amends by winning the All-Ireland in 1925.
Not to be outdone, the Galway hurlers also made their presence felt in the 1920s. They played in five All-Irelands winning in 1923. After graciously not accepting a walkover against Limerick, Galway, powered by legends Kenny, Gill, and Kelly, became the first team from Connacht to win an All-Ireland title in any grade.
Next week - More on the GAA, and what the late Breandán Ó hEithir had to say...
* The GAA - A Peoples History by Mike Cronin, Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse, published by The Collins Press on sale at €29.99. This handsome book is one of a new generation of books on Irish history, thoughtfully illustrated, with reproduced original documents and letters, and easy to read typeface. A pleasure to look through.