Friday, October 11, 2013

What We Can Learn from the Clare Hurlers

First published in the Western People on Monday.

And then, after the heartache of the All-Ireland Football Final, the sweet and soothing balm of the hurling. It’s normally the football that brings the curtain down on summer and announces the dread return of winter. For the past two years the hurling replays have allowed us that extra half-hour of playtime before it’s time for bath and bed. Having been left empty-handed at the end of the Big Show, a lot of people in the County Mayo were grateful for one last game that could be enjoyed, rather than endured.

Cormac MacConnell, that great Fermanagh writer from a great Fermanagh family, once wrote that he knew just enough about hurling to know that he knew exactly nothing about hurling. And so it goes for most Mayo people, if not the majority of the country. Hurling is a mysterious priesthood, a game for initiates for whom it is the one true belief, while those outside the cast can only peer through the window at the great and ancient game.

The nation’s attitude to hurling, lik the nation’s attitude to a lot of things, is a strange one. If all the people who like to remark that hurling is the greatest game in the world actually played it or promoted it, a camán would be as commonplace to every child in the country as his or her Xbox. But talk is cheap and hurling remains where it has always remained, among its strongholds.

And in the light of that domination, what a thing it was last Sunday week to see Clare rise roaring once more from the bottom of the table, to overturn doubters, dissenters and all to bring the Liam McCarthy Cup home to the Banner for only the fourth time ever. Clare, that most marvellous of counties. God help you there in County Clare, stuck between Kerry and Kiltimagh, as the old people used to say.

While Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary hurl on the beautiful, rich land of the golden vale, the land in Clare is a lot like the land in the County Mayo – no less beautiful, but not at all as rich or fertile. And not only that, a feature of the Clare landscape is also the world famous Burren, about which a Cromwellian planter once remarked to his bitter disappointment that “there isn't tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man.”

But maybe there’s more to life than hanging, drowning and burying men. Music and hurling are far more worthwhile pursuits, as a typically impassioned Anthony Daly told an enthralled nation twenty years ago, when Clare last burst on the scene to carry the big pot away.

What a team those men were. What men that team was. The manager Ger Loughnane, who had drank enough bitter gall during his own playing days in the 1970s to know that any pain was worth not knowing defeat again. The imperious Lohans guarding Davy Fitzgerald’s goal. Daly and Seánie McMahon at half-back. If you imagine our own O’Sheas armed with sticks you get an idea of the Clare midfield of Ollie Baker and Colin Lynch. And upfront, the veteran Sparrow O’Loughlin and the firefly skills of Jamesie O’Connor on the wing.

There was no-one whom Clare feared in those days and, on the days when they were defeated, they died with their boots on.

Now, nearly twenty years later, under the management of Ger Loughnane’s own goalkeeper, Clare have done it again. Davy Fitzgerald isn’t the media’s idea of a polished performer. Not only is his heart on his sleeve, but his very guts are there, heaving for all to see. But behind that raw passion is a brain that is the hurling equivalent of the Rolls Royce motor car. There was a lot of debate about Clare’s tactics this year but, after all the talk, there is one thing that is sure. Clare won.

Clare of 2013 are an echo of Loughnane’s great teams of the 1990s, in that they are built from the back up. David McInerney, Brendan Bugler and Tony Kelly are worthy successors to Brian Lohan, Seánie Mac and Jamesie. The big difference between the teams of the nineties and the team of 2013 is the performance of young Shane O’Donnell in the final.

Only told he was starting an hour before the game began, O’Donnell scored three goals and three points to lead Clare past a valiant Cork, a Cork who would have reeled any other team in Ireland back. But not Clare, who were very much destiny’s children in 2013.

In a post-game interview with Shane O’Donnell broadcast on last Monday’s Morning Ireland, Clare’s latter-day Cúchulainn put it all in a nutshell. “Sure this is my first year on both panels, 21s and senior,” said O’Donnell. “I don't even have the all the baggage that the lads have from years gone by where they should have won things but they didn't. And it's a lot easier going out and playing when you don't have things in the back of your head like that.

It’s a lot easier going out and playing when you don’t have things in the back of your head like that. In Mayo, we have more things in the back of our heads than that young man could dream of. He thinks the baggage of twenty years a lot. He should try sixty.

But this isn’t to have a pop at O’Donnell. The man is the toast of the nation in these hard times and if he’s not, he should be. This is just to say that, reader, someday that will be us.

Someday that will be a Mayoman talking about how the only thing that matters is the here and now. That days come one by one and you either seize them or let them go forever. That piseogs and curses aren’t worth a bale of wet straw compared to the courage, talent and the eternal optimism of youth. God speed the day and, while we await it, up the Banner and may they enjoy a warm and short winter.