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’.