'Golden age' of hurling celebrated in new DVD

Thu, Nov 11, 2010, 00:00

AN IMPORTANT archive of All-Ireland hurling finals from the 1950s has been released to the public. Yesterday in Croke Park, GAA Gold was officially released by president Christy Cooney and features highlights of the finals from 1948 to ’59.

The DVD has been compiled by the Irish Film Institute (IFI) from a series of films shot by the IFI’s predecessor, the National Film Institute (NFI), for distribution to cinemas.

The film was sent for processing in London as soon as the matches were over, and the developed and edited highlights were generally on the screens by the following Friday.

Although RTÉ television came on air in 1962 and provided live coverage of All-Ireland finals, the highlights films continued to be produced until 1979.

The period covered in the release is a fascinating one in GAA – and particularly hurling – history, covering the game’s “golden period”, which saw attendance records (in the 1954 and ’56 finals) established that stand to this day.

It also includes three-in-a-row wins for Tipperary and Cork, as well as the famous Wexford team of the 1950s, who won back-to-back MacCarthy Cups in 1955-56. It is bookended by Waterford’s All-Irelands in 1948 and ’59.

These finals also feature some of the most famous men to have played the game: Tipperary’s John Doyle, Cork’s Christy Ring, the Rackard brothers from Wexford and, in the final year, a young Eddie Keher, then a Kilkenny minor brought onto the senior team for the 1959 replay against Waterford.

Structurally the films are formulaic, but this adds to the interest for a modern viewer, as there are plenty of crowd shots, with supporters arriving at Heuston Station and walking up O’Connell Street and other thoroughfares on the way to Croke Park.

After the monochrome conformity of the early years, the pictures burst into colour in 1959 for both the draw and replay, as well as some very rare footage of the official opening of the new Hogan Stand the previous June.

The matches themselves are interesting in terms of evolving techniques of filming action on the field.

In the historical notes which accompany the DVD, Dr Seán Crosson, programme director of the MA and Post-graduate Diploma in Film Studies at the Huston School of Film and Digital Media in NUI Galway, acknowledges that the footage compares poorly with “today’s sophisticated televisual coverage of hurling with its various camera angles and instant replays of crucial moments”. But he adds that the films nonetheless “are some of the earliest, at times admittedly faltering, indigenous attempts to capture the fastest field sport in the world and were a necessary step in the evolution of sports filming in Ireland”.

Evolving technique aside, there was a practical problem with the filming. The cameras could hold only 200ft of film, which lasted about two minutes, and the constant need to re-load meant the action footage is disjointed, leaving the commentators, starting with Micheál O’Hehir, to maintain the narrative with their voice-over.

The camera operatives who shot the films make an impressive list: George Fleischmann, a former Luftwaffe cameraman who crash-landed in Ireland and who had worked on Leni Riefenstahl’s feature film about the 1936 Olympics, Olympia; Brendan Stafford; Bob Monks and Vincent Corcoran.

The impetus to film the matches came from GAA general secretary Pádraig Ó Caoimh, who was a member of the NFI board and who in 1947 had arranged for the Polo Grounds final between Cavan and Kerry to be filmed for screening back home.

Ó Caoimh suggested the NFI start filming finals at home in Croke Park and ensured that the GAA facilitated the work.

According to Kasandra O’Connell, head of the IFI archive, the original films have been digitised and the sound clarified.

This is the first of a series of GAA highlights releases, and an equivalent DVD featuring football finals is due next year followed by similar discs covering the 1960s.

She also said at the launch that hurling and football finals are the most requested titles in the IFI archive collection.

GAA Gold is available from the IFI shop and all leading DVD retailers, priced €19.99.