Hall of Fame celebrates sporting heroes for future generations
On Gaelic Games:Amid controversies, upcoming congress issues and tight-focus agonising on the fate of counties in the league, GAA president Liam O’Neill pinpointed the enduring appeal of the games when speaking at the inaugural inductions of Eamonn Cregan, Tony McTague and the Teams of the Millennium into the association’s newly established Hall of Fame.
Central to everything were the games and those who played them and that Croke Park was now doing something to honour the players who had made significant contributions.
“This new facility will serve as a permanent reminder to the greatness of the players who adorned our game at the highest level,” he said. “It is important that these players are remembered not only by those who were lucky enough to see them, but crucially by those who did not have that privilege.”
It was poignant timing, coming less than a fortnight after the funeral of one Hall of Famer, Kevin Heffernan, and the same day as that of Jimmy Smyth, a strong candidate for future induction.
Of less obvious but equal relevance was the passing of Brendan Fullam at the weekend. At a time when the GAA inexplicably paid little attention to its sporting heritage, Fullam picked up the slack and published inter alia three volumes about great hurlers, from memories of those who had long departed to the reminiscences of those still with us.
Writing in foreword to the second volume, Hurling Giants, Tom Humphries wrote: “Gaelic games have no true Hall of Fame, no physical shrine to the sporting history, but at least hurling now has Brendan Fullam and his wonderful books.” Since that pioneering work concluded in 1997, the GAA has made up a lot of ground. A year later the museum was opened in Croke Park and now attracts 100,000 visitors a year. In recent years under director Mark Dorman and curator Joanne Clarke, the facility has been consistently improved and updated – the latest refurbishment is under way and scheduled for completion next month.
It was inevitable that the desirability of a Hall of Fame would be addressed sooner or later as such exhibits are an integral part of the big US sports.
The most resonant and relevant mission statement is probably that of another team sport, baseball: “The Hall of Fame’s mission is to preserve the sport’s history, honour excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball.” Making that connection between the generations is a vital part of the GAA museum’s remit.
So much effort has gone into making it a facility that belongs to everyone: your club’s name is part of the display at the museum entrance and its database can be checked; school tours explain how the history of the association is also an important part of the country’s cultural heritage and clubs are encouraged to use the facilities for their functions.
But the lively presentation of history is important to forging that link to the past.
The installation opened in Croke Park on Monday is a fascinating combination of personal memorabilia, medal collections and video archive, displaying the Hall of Famers in action.
The scheme has the opportunity to settle and be tweaked and adapted. The current procedure concentrates on taking two players, one hurler and one footballer, from successive five-year intervals, starting in 1970, which was taken as the point of departure for the modern era.
As one of the selectors I found the process daunting because of the vast array of great players. It may be that the rate of induction is a little on the slow side. For instance the American football Hall of Fame adds to its number by between four and seven players every year and the main US team sports have been doing this for between 50 and 70 years.
The GAA might consider developing its Hall of Fame at a slightly quicker rate and also inducting from the early years of the games, the great pioneering eras which are largely overlooked in the Teams of the Millennium.
For anyone interested in Gaelic games and their evolution, however, it was most appropriate to see two players such as Tony McTague and Eamonn Cregan timelessly honoured in the very stadium – transformed as it may have been in the meantime – where they had achieved immortal feats.
They were asked on Monday about their proudest achievements and coincidentally neither opted for their senior All-Ireland victories. For McTague it was victory in the minor final of 1964 – Offaly’s first elite All-Ireland title – while Cregan went for the Croke Cup success of his school Limerick CBS, Sexton Street, a few months earlier in the final against St Peter’s of Wexford.
Peter Byrne, later soccer correspondent, wrote in this newspaper’s report: “Cregan has the physique to crown a first-class hurling make-up and while the gulf between minor and senior ranks has swallowed up many a brilliant teenager in the past, one awaits with great interest the entry of this exciting youngster into the premier grade.”
A couple of months later Offaly’s All-Ireland semi-final win against Mayo was said again in these pages to have been “due chiefly” to “the dazzling display of the team’s centre forward”, who finished with the match’s top score of 1-7. So just under 50 years ago two teenagers set out on playing careers that ultimately led to their being enshrined in GAA history.
Children visiting Croke Park’s museum and especially those from Claughaun and Limerick and Ferbane and Offaly and all of the many other clubs and parishes which have and will produce members of the Hall of Fame, can take pride in the past and inspiration for their future.
In other words, the generations can connect.