Comhairle do Leanbh um Oíche Nollag (Advice to a Child on Christmas Eve)

December 24, 2016

Comhairle do Leanbh um Oíche Nollag

Séideann an ghaoth,

Is ní shéideann an ghaoth.

Téir chun do leapa

Go luath istoích’

Advice to a Child on Christmas Eve

The wind blows,

And the wind fades.

Take to your bed

Early this night.

Little Cute Blond Boy Sleeping Under Christmas Tree

Téir chun do leapa

Go luath istoích’

‘Born in a Herdsman’s Shed’ – A Christmas truce

December 23, 2016

As the soldiers of both sides cheerily departed for the front lines in France and Belgium in August 1914 the politicians told them it would ‘all be over by Christmas’. But it wasn’t. Instead, on that first Christmas of the War, the soldiers – many of them volunteers from Ireland, indeed a great number of them probably hurlers and footballers – found themselves bogged down in deadly trench warfare, sometimes less than a hundred metres apart.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 something magical and mysterious happened – the killing stopped – and men from both sides gingerly left their positions and fraternised in the ‘No Mans’ Land’ between the trenches.

For that first Christmas away from home, family and friends of the soldiers wanted to make their loved ones’ Christmas to be special. They sent packages filled with letters, warm clothing, food, cigarettes, and medications. Yet what made Christmas at the front really seem like the traditional festival was the arrival of so many small Christmas trees in the trenches.

On Christmas Eve, many German soldiers put up their Christmas trees, decorated with candles, on the parapets. Hundreds of the trees lit up the trenches. The British ‘Tommies’ could see the lights but it took them a few minutes to establish what they were. They could hear the Germans celebrating and calling out to them. In some parts of the front line, the two sides took turns to sing Christmas carols to each other.

This friendliness on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day was in no way officially sanctioned nor organized. Some of those who went out to meet the enemy in the middle of No Man’s Land negotiated a truce: ‘We won’t fire … if you won’t fire’. Some ended the truce at midnight on Christmas night, others extended it until New Year’s Day.

One of the main reasons Christmas truces were negotiated was in order to bury the dead. There were corpses out in No Man’s Land that had been there for several months. Along with the revelry that celebrated Christmas was the sad and sombre job of burying their fallen comrades. On Christmas Day, British and German soldiers appeared on No Man’s Land and sorted through the bodies. In a few rare instances, joint services were held for both the British and German dead.

Many soldiers enjoyed meeting the un-seen enemy and were surprised to discover they were more alike than they had thought. They talked, shared pictures and exchanged items such as regimental badges for foodstuffs. An interesting example of the fraternization was a soccer game played in the middle of No Man’s Land between a British regiment and the Germans, which the Germans won by three goals to two.

The strange and unofficial truce lasted for several days, much to the dismay of the commanding officers. This amazing show of Christmas cheer was never again repeated and as World War I progressed, the story of Christmas 1914 at the front became something of a legend. It showed that even in the most hell-like of conditions, the essential goodness of human beings prevails and the spirit of the infant Christ can overcome enmity and bring people together.

The Irish poet, Thomas Kettle, was killed in the War in September 1916. He captured that Christmas spirit in a poem he wrote to his little daughter, Betty, shortly before he died:
“So, here while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor –
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret scripture of the poor.”


Thomas Kettle

Padraig Ó Méalóid – Cuimhní

November 23, 2016

‘An Nuacht á léamh ag Padraig Ó Méalóid…’ Once heard, you never forgot that mellifluous voice and the beauty of his Irish pronunciation.

Padraig Ó Mealóid, whose death has just been announced, was for many years an outstanding journalist, newsreader and broadcaster on RTÉ, Raidio na Gaeltachta and TG4.

In 1959 he joined Radio Éireann when it was located in the GPO building in Henry Street, Dublin and, like many who passed through those legendary portals, he was imbued with a commitment to public service broadcasting and to excellence in everything he did.

I had the privilege of working with Padraig as a friend and colleague during my time in the Newsroom of RTÉ from 1979 to 1990. The first day I set foot in the newsroom I spotted the Nuacht desk journalists beavering away at the far end. As I walked towards them for the first time, I did a quick mental calculation. Would I speak to them in Irish or English? I knew that whichever I chose would remain the choice for all my time there. I have always found it difficult to change to Irish with someone whom I first encounter in English.

Fortunately, I opted to speak Irish and enjoyed wonderful collaboration for years with all my colleagues in Nuacht, most especially Padraig. As their confidence in me grew, they asked me to contribute frequently to their bulletins and it was a privilege to do so.

Padraig started out as a primary teacher and it was in that capacity that I first encountered him. It was in Mount Sion CBS, Waterford, then an All Irish school and I was six years old, in First Class. Our teacher was out sick and we were told that ‘Mr Mellett’ would look after us instead. I still remember the wonderful Geography lesson he gave us explaining how condensation from the Atlantic is blown Eastwards towards Ireland and falls as rain when it is elevated to colder temperatures over our Western mountains. Then, we had a fun spelling game. We would gladly have swapped him for our regular teacher.

It was during his time in Waterford that he met and married the love of his life, Clare McCarthy, who predeceased him. He worked in Waterford during the era of a great county hurling team and I often felt that, after the hurlers of his native Galway, he had more than a soft spot for the hurlers of the Déise.

My sympathy goes to his children, grandchildren, siblings and wider family. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.


John Halligan: Politics for Slow Learners?

September 8, 2016

Minister of State for Training and Skills, John Halligan TD, is back in his home town of Waterford today with his political promises and commitments in ruins. But it could have been so different, if he had played his cards right.

Catherisation labs are vital in diagnosing and treating serious cardiac issues and there has long been a local campaign in Waterford complaining about delays in cardiac patients in the South East receiving the appropriate medical treatment. Minister Halligan staked his political career and reputation – and his vote to elect Enda Kenny TD as Taoiseach last February – on a commitment by the new government to sanction a second cath lab for Waterford University Hospital.

Instead, Mr Halligan settled for a letter from Finance Minister Michael Noonan stating that the necessary additional funding would be made available ‘subject to a favourable recommendation from a clinical review’. This is one of the oldest and most cynical tricks in the political handbook. Buy time, and a vital vote, by kicking a can down the road under the guise of a ‘review’. Halligan fell for it and is now railing bitterly, and impotently, at the inevitable outcome.

The review was carried out by the internationally eminent Belfast-based cardiologist Niall Herity.  It recommended against a second cath lab in Waterford but suggested refurbishment of the existing unit and extension of the opening hours. This would be followed by a further review next year to see what impact the changes make. A key issue determining the outcome was where heart patients from Tipperary and Kilkenny are allocated – Tipperary patients to Cork, Kilkenny patients to Dublin. The understanding in Waterford was that if these two counties were allocated to them, the case for a second unit would be unassailable. Instead, it looks like Professor Herity’s report may form the basis for moving some cardio work from Waterford to Cork.

A commitment to a new lab ‘subject to a favourable recommendation from a clinical review’ was never a sufficient basis to support Enda Kenny for Taoiseach and to go into government. The agreement to support Kenny and the new government should have been in return for a written commitment to immediately sanction the second cath lab. John Halligan had a strong card to play up to the moment the Dáil voted on Kenny’s nomination, but he threw it away. Kenny, in particular, and Fine Gael were so keen to get a second term in office that there is every likelihood they would have given the necessary commitment. Halligan won’t get a second chance now, no matter how much he blusters.

The late Tony Gregory (like Halligan, from an urban socialist gene pool) showed how this kind of politics should be done. In February 1982, the Dublin Central TD and his strong team negotiated detailed written commitments from Charles J Haughey for a range of projects. Unlike Halligan, Gregory was methodical and streetwise in his dealings with the wily Haughey who was anxiously striving to have Fianna Fáil replace a short-lived FG-Labour government. Haughey desperately needed power having survived an abortive leadership challenge.

He went alone to Gregory’s constituency office and brokered the deal. Gregory was accompanied by his brother, Noel, and constituency activists Mick Rafferty and Fergus McCabe. What emerged, it was estimated, could have cost the exchequer £80 million in a full year.  The written agreement included commitments to nationalise a 27-acre site in Dublin Port.  A total of £4 million was to be allocated to employ 500 extra people in Dublin’s inner city, while 3,800 jobs were to be created over three years. State funding would be provided to build 440 new houses in the constituency and another 1,600 in the rest of Dublin.

A critical factor was that Gregory had the deal witnessed by the then General Secretary of the ITGWU (now part of SIPTU), Michael Mullen, who was himself a Northside Dubliner and a friend of Haughey. Gregory was able to walk into the Dáil with the agreement under his arm, read the full text into the record and then traipse up the steps to the lobby to vote for Haughey.

Halligan was never temperamentally cut out for government. From its formation, publicly and privately, he has wrestled with his conscience, his colleagues and his constituents. We’re now at the fourth occasion where he is threatening to resign from government if he doesn’t get his way. We went through this already on the Sinn Féin Dáil motion on Water Charges, Mick Wallace’s Bill on abortion and the government’s response to the EU ruling on Apple’s tax bills. Each time he huffed and puffed and eventually backed down with nothing achieved in return.

This time, his options appear to have narrowed to only one (unless the hospital consultants in Waterford throw him a lifeline and accept the review outcome). After a day wrestling with his conscience – and winning handily –  he says he will remain in government ‘for the time being’. However, the campaign for a second cath lab in Waterford University Hospital has been set back by years, or at least until there is another election and a change of government.


John Halligan TD


All Ireland Sunday: Mass, the Mater and Barry’s Hotel

September 3, 2016

There’s a Mike Eddie in every parish of every county in Ireland. You know the breed yourself. A good country farmer; estate car full of bailing twine, posters from the last local elections, fertiliser bags, balls, flags, hurleys, jerseys, kitbags and – most importantly – the entire U-12 panel. His life was dedicated to the GAA, to the parish and of course to his family, twelve children in all.

He was the county board delegate, the fixtures secretary, team selector, gateman, club historian, groundsman, dispenser of wisdom and, of late, monthly club draw organiser extraordinaire.

His love of the GAA began in the Forties when he first lined out at underage level for the club. He went on to win two county senior championships in the 50’s, the win in 1959 being the last time the parish scaled such dizzy heights. Despite all of this, the highlight of his playing career was in 1948 when he was selected for the county minor team for a Munster Championship first round game against Cork. Many’s the time he regaled the regulars in the local with tales of this narrow defeat and the common thread through all of his stories was the obvious pride which sparkled in his eye when he talked of this, his only ever appearance for his county.

When emigration led to the disbanding of the club in the early 60’s, it was Mike Eddie who kept the flame of the Gael alive in the area, ensuring that promising youngsters were catered for with the neighbouring clubs and in the mid-70’s it was he who called the meeting which led to the re-forming of a club in the parish.

From being Chairman of the club (and on occasion secretary, treasurer and even PRO) he graduated to county board level and eventually became chairman of Bord na nÓg. It was in this capacity that he was perhaps at his happiest, travelling the length and breadth of the county to parish leagues, divisional finals, county underage games and county finals. He knew every youngster in the county, not only by form but also by name.

He couldn’t sing and he couldn’t dance, but when the call came for entries from the club to Scór he set about ensuring that every man, woman or child with even the slightest intimation of stage suitability was conscripted for the good of the club. Many’s the poor reveller who sang an old ballad while tanked up on Arthur’s black fuel after hours in the local on a Saturday night and found himself press ganged into the ballad group for that year’s Scór effort, all on the indisputable insistence of Mike Eddie himself.

Indeed, he took to the stage himself on a plethora of occasions, an ever present on the parish Tráth na gCeist team for over twenty years. All-Irelands were his specialist subject and he hadn’t missed either a football or hurling final since the mid-50’s. One of my own first All-Irelands was as a young gosoon in the back of his Datsun estate, reliving a ritual that had evolved over forty odd years; mass in Kilcullen, park at the Mater, breakfast in Barry’s Hotel, pints and a feed on the way home in Naas.

In later years, a word of praise from Mike Eddie after a league or championship game was worth ten from anyone else. Victory or defeat was greeted with the same seemingly nonchalant indifference. But deep down we all knew he felt the emptiness of defeat and the self-satisfaction of victory as keenly as any of the players. He was as much a part of the club and the parish as the leaves on the trees or the water in the river. Always there, we took him for granted.

Thus it was a sombre parish which turned out to a man to say a last farewell to Mike Eddie. His passing was sudden, but its impact will linger. Only the week previously he had told me in his own amicable way as we supped a pleasant pint, that there was no such thing as bad porter, only good porter or better.

Over a hundred black-and-amber clad current and former players lined the avenue from the road to the church; the U-12’s through to his comrades from the 50’s. All stood silently in recognition of his contribution to our parish, to the county and to the GAA in general. His ten sons took it in turn to bear his coffin, in grief at the loss of a father. Deep down we’d all lost a father.

Yes, there’s a Mike Eddie in every parish in Ireland, but in ours, the search must start again.

dublinhotels 002

Barry’s Hotel… many a fine breakfast was eaten there on the way to Croke Park on All Ireland Sunday…

Who is really to blame for our Housing crisis?

August 1, 2016

In ‘The Sunday Business Post’ of 24th July the academic commentator Elaine Byrne wrote a column on the Housing crisis. It followed the recent publication of the Government’s new plan for housing, called Rebuilding Ireland. Under a headline ‘Labour fails on housing again’, Elaine Byrne largely ignored the Government plan but used it as a pretext for a sustained attack on the Labour party. A waste of good column inches.

By an extraordinary analytical somersault Elaine Byrne managed to turn her recent reaction to the Government’s Action Plan on Housing into a diatribe against the Labour Party. This is analytical gymnastics of a high order indeed, but a few facts might help Ms Byrne down from the perch she seems to be impaled on.

She contends that ‘the current housing crisis happened under Labour’s watch in government’.  You might imagine that statement refers to events that happened during Labour’s participation in coalition with Fine Gael from 2011 to earlier this year. Instead, to make her case, Ms Byrne harks back to the Labour/Fine Gael coalition that was in power in 1974 when Judge Kenny’s celebrated report into the exorbitant cost of land for building was published. She says ‘Labour never implemented it’.

Her position seems to be that no party in government since 1974 – other than Labour – bears any responsibility for the housing crisis. But consider this. There have been twelve general elections since 1974. Labour’s share of the votes cast averaged 11 per cent and its number of seats won averaged nineteen. The four times it was in government was as a minority partner. Labour always had insufficient public support to do more than ameliorate the policy excesses of the bigger parties.

It is absurd to ignore the responsibilities of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and the Greens – all of whom were in government over that period and who either relied on free market forces (fuelled by crazy overseas borrowing) to supply houses, or else slashed public expenditure on housing when they wanted to balance the fiscal books.

This latter point is underlined by a quick glance at the figures for housing completions from 1974 to 2015. In the years 1974 to 1984 the annual total for house completions in all sectors remained steady at between 20,000 to 25,000. Expenditure cutbacks by from 1985 onwards by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Ministers for Finance dragged the figures for completions below 20,000 annually. A recovery began in 1992, followed by a steep rise from 1995 all the way up to a peak of more than 90,000 in 2006, followed by a catastrophic plunge from 2007 onwards. This boom/bust cycle in housing completions occurred almost completely under Fianna Fáil-led governments. Labour was nowhere near it.

Further analysis of the figures confirms that the composition of housing completions changed radically from 1987 onwards, with local authority completions declining drastically year by year and remaining low to this day. The high output numbers of the early years of this century were pumped by private sector speculative housing – for which there was no real demand and no sustainable financing.

Judge Kenny’s report is the benchmark for tackling the socially unjustifiable exorbitant price of land for housing.  It is indeed regrettable that successive governments – of all political hues – have failed to implement it. The essence of Kenny was that local authorities should be empowered to compulsorily acquire development and industrial land at a small margin above its existing agricultural value and that land sites should be bought at less than their potential market value. The problem with this proposal is that the Courts have consistently ruled that compulsory acquisition can only be done by way of full compensation for market value. That approach renders compulsory acquisition too costly and too time consuming to make any real inroads on housing delivery.

The learned Judge himself was well aware that his central proposal ran a huge risk of falling at the hurdles of Articles 40 and 43 of the Constitution, the ones that unassailably protect and entrench the protection of private property rights. His solution was that the President, before signing the Bill to give effect to his report, would ‘fire proof’ it from further challenge by referring it to the Supreme Court to see if it was repugnant to the Constitution.  It was a flawed idea based on two big assumptions – that the President would agree to refer and that the Supreme Court would uphold the Bill implementing the Kenny Report.

Along with Judge Brian Walsh, Judge Kenny was one of the first ‘activist’ judges who, in the early 1960s, started to put flesh on the concept of judicial interpretation of the Constitution. In his 1965 landmark judgment in the Ryan ‘fluoridation’ Case, Judge Kenny held that the Constitution protects further personal rights that are not expressly mentioned in the document. The Supreme Court endorsed this finding and ushered in a new era of judicial activism where the ‘small’ person was encouraged to challenge the State.  That may explain his optimism about how the Supreme Court might rule on his recommendations.

Unfortunately, in this century, the Superior Courts are much less inclined to intervene actively in the same way.  This will continue to be so, as long as Articles 40 and 43 continue to excessively defend Property Rights over People’s Rights and severely constrain a Minister’s scope for intervention to regulate the price of land or rents. A simple amendment to Article 43 would signal to the Courts to interpret the law in a way that would give the Government greater flexibility, while still providing robust protection for legitimate property rights. Article 43 needs to be amended so that the protection for property rights is made subject to a prior ‘right of every citizen and person lawfully resident in the State to a home’; a right which the State would be constitutionally required to defend and vindicate.

Minister Coveney’s document ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ is silent on the issues raised in the Kenny Report. The recent Labour Party Private Members’ Bill to implement Kenny is a step in the right direction and shows the party’s thinking when untrammelled by coalition restraints with conservative parties. However, much more is needed. We need a concerted civil and political campaign to ‘Amend 43’ to give a fairer balance between Property and People.

Unless that happens, any plan dealing with housing and homelessness is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.


Department of Housing, the Custom House, Dublin.

Joyce, Bloom, ‘The Citizen’ Cusack and the Gaelic Athletic Association

June 16, 2016

The writer James Joyce – he of ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegans Wake’ fame – is probably the last writer you would associate with matters to do with the Gaelic Athletic Association…

Certainly, you could visualise John McGahern, perhaps, punting a rain-sodden football around a boggy field in the bowels of Leitrim or ducking out from Saint Pat’s teacher training college in Drumcondra to a match in nearby Croke Park, hoping to spot a good looking girl on the terraces. Patrick Kavanagh, certainly. Didn’t he reminisce about playing in goal for his native Inniskeen in some Monaghan junior championship or other and allowing his opponents to score the winning goal in the final minute in controversial circumstances? Ah, but not Mr Jemmy Joyce, the darlin’ of the American academic circuit.

Young Joyce was, by all accounts, a pale, sickly youth. His early schooling was with the Jesuits in Belvedere College, at that time more renowned for cricket than any other sport. Later, while attending Clongowes, surrounded by ‘Lilywhite’ country, his eyesight was deemed too poor to even try out for one of the rugby teams. His father, the Cork-born John Joyce, may well have been familiar with Gaelic games, but he determined that his son would not be exposed to these sports by attending a Christian Brothers’ School, like, say, the nearby O’Connell’s Schools, ‘with Micky Mud and Paddy Stink…’

Yet, in his celebrated evocation of the city of Dublin – the novel ‘Ulysses’ – the main character in one of the book’s central and most extended sequences is none other than Michael Cusack, a prominent founder of the GAA.

In what is called ‘The Cyclops Sequence’, the scene is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub in Little Britain Street. Holding court in a corner of the bar, accompanied by his ‘mangy mongrel’, Garryowen, is ‘The Citizen’. This character is, in fact, a representation of Michael Cusack.

Round after round of drink ensues – whiskey and Allsop’s Ale. One of the drinking company, a man called Joe, tells ‘The Citizen’ of a number of Irish Nationalist MPs heading that night to the Westminster Parliament for a debate. ‘Nannan’s going too’, says Joe, ‘The league told him to ask a question tomorrow about the commissioner of police forbidding Irish games in the park. What do you think of that, citizen? The Sluagh na h-Eireann’. Joe then gives us the clue to ‘the citizen’s’ identity: ‘There’s the man’, says Joe, ‘that made the Gaelic sports revival. There he is sitting there. The man that got James Stephens away. The champion of all Ireland at putting the sixteen pound shot…’

And as Joyce then puts it: ‘So off they started about Irish sport and shoneen games the like of the lawn tennis and about hurley and putting the stone and racy of the soil and building up a nation once again and all of that…. A most interesting discussion took place in the ancient hall of Brian O’Ciarnain’s in Sraid na Breataine Bheag, under the auspices of Sluagh na h-Éireann, on the revival of the ancient Gaelic sports… ‘

Joining in this discussion is the book’s central character, the cuckolded, wandering Jew, Leopold Bloom. Sparked by Bloom’s temerity in offering a view on anything, as he is portrayed by Joyce, Cusack is shown to be narrow-minded, racist, opinionated, argumentative, bombastic and xenophobic. Soon, ‘the Citizen’s’ comments become derogatory of Bloom’s Jewish origins, degenerating finally into a physical assault where he throws an empty Jacob’s biscuit tin at the unfortunate man.

Bloom, however, stands his ground and cites the names of many famous Jews in his defence, including that of Jesus. Now, in all fairness, neither the Old nor New Testaments are works that many GAA followers would be overly familiar with. All of us, of course, have become familiar with the decent Limerick man who stands behind the goals with the black-on-yellow placard ‘John 3:7’ but that’s probably as far as it goes. This level of familiarity is more likely to be found, perhaps, among the followers of soccer clubs like Linfield and Glentoran among our separated brethren in ‘The Wee North’.

Yet, if you look carefully enough, you can see passages of the testaments that are metaphors for aspects of the modern day GAA. Many a manager has had to stretch the resources available to him on a county panel in a way that would put to shame the miracle of feeding five thousand people with only five barley loaves and three fishes. And Seán Boylan’s transformation of many’s the mediocre player into an All Ireland winner is reminiscent of the good Lord’s conveniently turning of water into wine in Cana of Galilee.

But who would we cast as Moses leading his people out of the captivity of Egypt into the Promised Land? Or the modern day David who slew Goliath? Who would be the candidates for such exalted positions? Would it be a Mick O’Dwyer leading Laois to their first Leinster title in fifty-seven years?  In hurling, the names of Ger Loughnane and Justin McCarthy would have to be considered as prophets.

Whatever county you support in this year’s championships let’s hope the appropriate scripture for them turns out to be not just John 3:7 (‘Do not be surprised because I tell you, ‘You must all be born again’…) but maybe the one about the resurrection of Lazarus… (John 11:1- 44 inclusive)…


Michael ‘The Citizen’ Cusack … Hardly the kind of fella you’d want to pick a fight with in a pub …

Minor football… and the thorny path of Young Love

June 14, 2016

By the time you reach minor level, as a young footballer you will have encountered – and overcome – many difficulties.

In smaller clubs, you might have been approached at fifteen years of age to enter the murky world of minor football although the grade is really supposed to be for under Eighteens. At that young age. you’re in awe of those big, hulking seventeen to eighteen year olds, each with the very small beginnings of a beer belly.

You see them walking moodily around the school, making sarcastic comments at teachers that you’re still afraid of. You watch in frustration as the girls in your year, especially the one you fancy, almost throws herself at the six foot one midfielder. A rage builds inside of you that you can’t let out till you’re at home in your bedroom and your mammy wonders have you been drinking too much cocoa at night.

The star minor footballer is a lad who is respected by old and young alike. He is the great white hope of the parish; the fella who’ll bring back the county title when he gets to senior grade, barring he gets lured by some crowd to play Aussie Rules or … worse … to a soccer club in England. Then, cue screams and yowls of protests from the oul fellas at the counter of the local pub who mutter to themselves that ‘the pup was never much good anna-ways, nor nayther was his oul fella before him.’

So you have a lot to live up to. As you begin to go to the minor training sessions, a strange thing occurs. Those same lads who are eighteen or so, begin to recognise you at school and grunt a greeting towards you as you walk nervously past them down the corridor.

However, with the big lads noticing you, the ‘wan’ begins to as well. She comes up and actually talks to you. Her eyelids start fluttering, the sly grin, and the fidgeting of the hair nearly make you run for a bucket of water to cool down with. You stutter like a diesel car on a frosty morning as you talk about how the science teacher is such a so-and-so for having giving out to the ‘wan’ for a bad test result. Then… awkward silence …

This awkward terrified silence is like sitting in a dentist’s knowing you have to get three teeth pulled. You begin to sweat like Christy Moore playing the old National Stadium as you panic about the next topic of conversation. And then the question you have to ask her… are you going out on Saturday night?

A surprised glance at you confirms your fears that it was the wrong question, but she tries to remain cool.
‘Of course I am.’ ‘Why?’
‘Well I thought we might meet up at the nightclub.’
‘But there’s not a hope we’ll get in.’
‘Sure we’ll try it’, says you, beginning to get courage back.
‘We’ll see. It’s only Tuesday after all. See you in the next class.’

You have a Homer Simpson ‘d’oh’ moment as you realise you have asked her not only three days too early, but maybe even two years too early as well. And there is the small matter of the Championship derby match on the Sunday morning when you could be making your debut.

By Friday, you are on Cloud Twenty, never mind number Nine and you know that something has got to give, either the ‘wan’ or the football. Now, at any other age it would be a foregone conclusion that you would ignore the match and go out with the girl. But at fifteen or sixteen the aul’ brain is still not functioning in that kind of way. Remember, it is a mere three years since you were playing under twelve football.

Reluctantly, you decide the pride of the jersey and the parish is more important and you approach the ‘wan’ cautiously. You tell her you forgot you had a match on Sunday morning and you can’t go out the night before. You wait for the slap, or worse, the tears, but they don’t come. You’re happy enough see that she has a relieved look on her face and you arrange to go out some other time.

Fast forward then to Sunday morning and the big match. You’re nervous as a kitten togging out in the dressing room. Some of the other fellas look suspiciously hung over, though they’re not supposed to be drinking. You put on the jersey and try to remain calm as the red-faced trainer goes bananas in front of you talking about pride in the parish and all that sort of guff.

You walk out onto the field and take your position. You note your opposite number is six inches taller than you. Despair sets in. How are you supposed to beat this lad? You see your Daddy and Mammy looking at you with pride – or maybe worry – from the sideline. Your Mammy blesses herself. Now you’re really worried.

But then salvation of a sort. You hear someone shouting good luck to you from another direction. You scan the crowd for a messenger of hope, and then you see her. The ‘wan’ is there with a parish jersey on. She gives you a smile and a thumbs up and you’re walking on sunshine. You give her a wave back and your marker looks at you with disgust, but you don’t care. This fella would probably be more interested in the internal workings of a Massey Ferguson 165 than a member of the opposite sex.

By then you’re distracted by cheers and shouts. The referee is about to throw up the ball. You go for it and the game is on.

Ah yes. You’re a minor footballer now…

tipp minorsTipp minors having won a football All Ireland

The last resting place of Maurice Davin

June 2, 2016

In the silence of a graveyard there is diversity.

Here, quietly, lie people of different backgrounds, beliefs and ages – the very young, the middle-aged and the old.

This is true all the more so in an ancient graveyard where Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter lie side by side peacefully, united by death in the way the patriot Theobald Wolfe Tone once championed as a rallying cry.

Churchtown graveyard is on the Waterford bank of the river Suir, midway between Carrick-on-Suir and Kilsheelan, in the parish of Dysart. ‘Dysart’ is the anglicised version of the Irish word ‘díseart’ meaning a wilderness.  Churchtown is the literal translation of the Irish place name, Baile an Teampaill. According to the great historian of the Déise, Canon Power, Saint Aidan also known as Mogue, the Bishop of Ferns, founded the original ‘teampall’ or church in the sixth century.  The dead have been buried there since that time.

The earliest surviving legible headstone is from 1587. It is one of two headstones of the same pattern belonging to a branch of the Butler (Ormond) family who lived at Ballindisart. It is the grave of a nephew of the head of that family. Tradition says that he and the other young man were killed in a duel they fought to decide who was to inherit the estates.

The churchyard changed hands after the Reformation but most of the surviving headstones record Catholic burials. It includes the vault of Colonel James Roche of Glen, county Waterford. He was known as ‘Jim the Swimmer’ because of a daring exploit during the Jacobite siege of Derry in 1690. He swam up the Foyle to the city to bring news to the defenders that provision ships were on the way. The news encouraged them to hold out, they broke the siege and thus the fate of Ulster and the rest of Ireland was sealed. A grateful King William granted Roche the lands of Glen.

Yet, here also lies the body of Volunteer Frank Norton, 5th Battalion, 3rd Tipperary Brigade of the Old IRA who was accidentally shot at Churchtown on 6th August 1922. His headstone bears a quotation from Patrick Pearse’s moving poem, written from his death cell in Kilmainham Jail, to console his mother: ‘My sons were faithful and they fought’.

It is fitting that this ancient, historic graveyard is the final resting place of Maurice Davin, the first President of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and his equally athletic brothers, Patrick and Thomas, along with their ancestors for three previous generations.  The Davin clan originated in county Fermanagh and their family tradition had it that they migrated South in the army of Black Hugh O’Neill in the seventeenth century and helped to defend Clonmel against Cromwell in 1650.  They were industrious people. They farmed and were involved in the river trade that flourished during the nineteenth century.

Maurice was a man of splendid physique – a boxer, a rower and an athlete.  He swept all before him in Ireland and England in hammer throwing and shot putting. But he was a thinker as well as a doer. He abhorred the stranglehold of the ‘gentry’ on athletics and feared that cricket and other games were in danger of wiping out hurling and Gaelic football. So, at that famous meeting in the Billiards Room of Hayes’s Hotel, in Thurles, on 1st November 1884, Maurice Davin became the first President of the GAA. Under his inspiring leadership ‘it spread like a prairie fire’ and became the greatest amateur sporting organisation in the world.

mdavinMaurice Davin

On June 1st 2013, Liam Ó Néill, Uachtarán Chumann Lúithchleas Gael, unveiled a nine-foot high bronze statue honouring Maurice Davin in his birthplace, Carrick-on-Suir, county Tipperary. On June 2nd, the Catholic bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Dr William Lee, laid a wreath on Davin’s grave. This article appears in the commemorative brochure for these events and is reproduced here by kind permission of Seán Nugent, Cathaoirleach Contae, CLG Thiobrad Árainn.

Heavenly hurlers

May 30, 2016

There is a perennially sun dappled corner of Heaven where the hurling people gather. Whenever your turn comes, I hope you’ll mosey round there.

True, you may be tempted to dawdle along the way, taking the opportunity of shaking the hand of the great Abe Lincoln and chatting about his Gettysburg Address or spend endless hours with a truculent Bonaparte as he – yet again – pores over the map of a little Flemish village called Waterloo and wonders where it all went wrong. Sipping cool white wine by the banks of a babbling brook with Helen of Troy no doubt has its attractions as indeed might a few sessions with the flame-haired Grace O’Malley as she recalls her greatest military exploits against the invader.

Still, if it has to be for an eternity, wouldn’t it be better to spend it pucking around a sliothar, coaching an Under Fourteen side to success in Féile or discussing the relative merits of, say, Ring and Mackey with the great men themselves?

It won’t be too hard to find that hurling corner. You’ll probably hear the distinctive ‘tick … tock’ of ash on leather through the still warmth of evening air. The intermittent shouts from beyond the high hedgerows. Sometimes of approval or encouragement. Occasionally, with a hint of derision.

If there’s a game on, there may be an oul lad at the gate, with a bit of a limp, a heavy overcoat and a flat cap thrust close to his pate, even though the sun is splitting the proverbial rocks. More than likely, he’ll be standing beside a kitchen chair with a Jacobs ‘Marietta’ tin box plonked on it and a few forlorn notes and coins nestling in its silvery bosom. However, if it’s your first time there, and you’re a new face, he’ll likely wave you through the gate without charging you at all.

Some days, you might pass a few bedraggled kids sporting battered hats made of crepe paper and waving a tattered flag or two. Don’t worry. Wizened, undernourished unofficial programme sellers will not accost you. For, truth to tell, unless they mended their ways afterwards, most of them headed down below. At least to Purgatory, if not even further down.

It won’t be long before you’ll start to pick out a few familiar faces and famous figures. Maybe men you played beside yourself. Or against. Or you saw them playing or heard the old men telling tales about their exploits in the long nights after Samhain. Or heard the ethereal voice of Mícheál O’Hehir exclaiming about them through the valves of an old battery ‘wireless’ as family and neighbours crowded round in the kitchen on the first Sunday in September.

Along the sideline, you’ll see familiar sights again. Lads sweltering in thick, woolly, grey Order of Malta uniforms touting huge white canvas bags full of carefully rolled cotton bandages, with bottles of Dettol disinfectant and smelling salts.  Hoping to God (Who’s never too far away. He is, after all, President for all eternity of Cumann Luthchleas Gael Neimhe) that the worse they will be called on to minister to will be a touch of cramp or a bit of a scratch on the hand.

The subs will be there, draped in their long belted overcoats, picking distractedly at oranges and looking as disgruntled as ever. No one is ever happy to be a mere sub, even on a hurling team in Heaven. Among the crowd, behind the familiar wire fence, hawkers, musicians and balladeers ply their wares among the distracted spectators. ‘Big brother’ bottles of Kia Ora Orange and Dwans red lemonade to beat the band and all carefully maintained at that tepid temperature so beloved of the seasoned connoisseur.

If it’s just training or a bit of a puck around that’s on, you’ll get to meet the men and chat with them. The Mackey brothers, John and Mick, are always ready with a big smile, a wink and a shouted ‘G’wan ‘Ahane, the spuds are boilin!’. Sim, Jim, Drug and Lory will be there too, pucking the sliothar back and forth between them, always a Cats’ conspiracy. Jack, too, will be as courteous as ever. A man of steel behind a velvet cloth. Ringey. Well, he hasn’t really changed, you know. Ringey will glance at you and pass some little comment that’ll put you in your box in jig time. If you’re lucky, maybe he’ll just enquire brusquely if you’re a ‘Glen man’.

Occasionally – if it’s only training – and there are no major theological rows or disputations going on somewhere else (for they love these) some of the Irish saints will come round and tog off. Finbarr of Cork, as you might imagine, is a tight, wiry little hurler. He never gives up. Never knows when he is beaten and can dish and take punishment with the best of them. So, too, Canice of Kilkenny and the great Munchin of Limerick is a wristy player, as such.

And Patrick? Ah, poor Patrick. Great apostle and preacher and all that. Even gave his name to Patrickswell in the county of Limerick, a parish that has produced many a fine hurler over the years. But, Ringey often says the great man would do well to win his place as a sub on some Junior C team up in Offaly or over in Carlow. Of course, they didn’t play much hurling in his Welsh childhood (those vital formative years for good hurlers) nor was there much chance of a puck around while herding sheep as a youth on Slemish Mountain in county Antrim.

Heaven is still a place where a star player who is having an off day and is being marked out of it will have his reputation salvaged by an urgent hiss from the sideline: ‘Lie down! You’re injured. We want to bring on a sub!’ This whole thing about using panels and tactical substitutions, blood substitutes and so on has yet to catch on up there.

After a game, there’s always great craic in the celestial clubroom. The usual strong, hot tea and thick, meat sandwiches made with slabs of white bread. Later on, when the crowd has cleared and only a few of the true hurling men remain, Jack will produce a bottle of his favourite Paddy whiskey – the one with the map of Ireland and the four provinces in different colours on the label. He’ll gesture towards the blue tip  of Munster on the map.  ‘We’ll drink it down as far as Tullamore’. Like he used to say to the civil servants when he wound down with them after many a late night negotiation beyond in Brussels. Then, they will talk of great men, of great games and great scores; debating and arguing the merits and demerits of one over the other. They never reach agreement. It just goes on eternally.

One of the great things about hurling in Heaven is the way they often re-enact great games. It could be the ’36 final when Limerick powered past Kilkenny by 5 – 6 to 1 – 5. Or 1940 when they again beat the Black-and-Amber. You could whistle up Kilkenny’s first ever title when they defeated Clare. You can even ask the powers that be up there to change a result for you, if it makes you feel better. So, for a change, Kilkenny might lose the famous ‘Thunder and Lightning’ final of ’39 by what Jack used to call ‘the usual point’.

If you’ve a mind to, you can tog out yourself in a re-run of any of those famous games. Don’t worry if you never got beyond Junior or Intermediate level or gave up the hurling after ye lost that Minor championship. Generous, decent men like Ned Power or John Keane of Waterford or Limerick’s Mick Herbert will be on hand to carry you, cover for you, so that you’ll enjoy the experience. You’ll get to know what it’s really like to ascend those steps, plastered in sweat, your hair sticking out at all angles, a few teeth missing, blood streaming from an eyebrow, before hoisting the bit of silver and joining that elite group who have uttered – or even, muttered – the words ‘Is mór an onóir dom an Corn seo a ghlacadh ….’ Then, roaring rather than singing, the first few bars of the county song into the microphone.

For my part, I’ll be content to be standing at the Killinan End of Semple Stadium on a scorching July Sunday, dapples of perspiration on my fair, freckled face in the middle of a terrace where we are packed tighter than John West sardines in a tin. There is less than a minute to go in the Munster Final. The men in the white jerseys with blue collars and cuffs are two points behind their opponents. A free in. A stocky figure in a white jersey stoops, lifts and strikes. Past five or six defenders, the sliothar rattles the back of the net. We are a point in front! A dejected goalkeeper pucks out but as the ball is dropping in midfield the referee blows the final whistle.

Ah yes, indeed.  That would be Heavenly hurling…


He’ll gesture towards the blue tip  of Munster on the map of the four provinces adorning the label. ‘We’ll drink it down as far as Tullamore’.