A riveting story of hurling's golden era

 

Keith Duggan Sideline CutNone of us are getting any younger. Or so they say. I am not convinced about that. After the All-Ireland football final, a bunch of us went drinking around Dublin's staunchest pubs and, although our ages ranged from approximately 24 to 49, it was blatantly clear after five pints that no one had managed to progress past the age of 17.

Those All-Ireland final nights are strange. The aftermath of a hurling final is accompanied by a kind of melancholy and hours after the football final concludes, it is as though the city centre drops in temperature by about 10 degrees. The referee that gets to whistle the September showpiece does not just end the championship, he announces the onset of winter. In the days after a championship ends and the hurling and football victors retreat to their respective counties to honour and abuse the silverware in untold ways, the onset of the next year's championship seem impossibly far away.

County finals and parish rows and local hostilities are played out in the dead of winter and the mass movement of the All-Ireland seems so fractured and localised is hard to imagine how it will gather momentum in time for the following spring.

But - magically - it always does. And all the gossip and hearsay, the rumours of retirements and alcoholism and ruined backs and emigrations are either proven true or disregarded and before we know it, we are smack bang in the middle of another thunderous season. The championship is such an epic affair now. It starts out much like one of those marathon election night television sessions, when John Bowman confronts the nation with a solemn face and absurd tie and lets the country know that is going to be a long time before he can make sense of anything. The modern championship teases and second guesses all through May and June but once July is past, it thins out in a savage burst that you can never quite get used to and, before you know it, it is endgame time all over again.

Hurling: The Revolution Years hammers home the relentless, unsentimental nature of the championship. Denis Walsh's wonderful account of the metamorphosis of hurling through the 1990s draws you in and casts a spell as a great book should. Reading his vivid accounts of games that carried weight and meaning far beyond the traditional hurling counties has the effect of bringing you back to those epic Sunday afternoons.

I remember stopping in a pub outside Donegal town on the way home from a local championship football match in Fintra to see Clare playing Limerick in the 1996 Munster championship. Not only was the place packed, there were local people wearing Clare shirts and people were glued to the television as if it were a football game in Clones. And Ciarán Carey's brave and unforgettable strike at the death caused as much of a sensation and thrill in the far northwest as it did in the southern counties.

Somehow the orations of Ger Loughnane and the proletariat streak that governed Anthony Daly's plain, provocative statements seemed directed at the outside counties. Watching revolution sweep Clare and then Wexford from the perspective of a county and province where hurling seems to exist in spite rather than because of the GAA, people somehow felt part of those new wave successes. All-Ireland finals between the holy trinity always held a strong interest in Donegal. They would be watched and enjoyed and admired. But they were private affairs. What happened in the 1990s was inclusive and impossibly exciting and shared. After Wexford's 1996 triumph, Martin Storey brought the Liam McCarthy Cup up to Donegal whenever he was visiting in-laws. One day around Christmas he brought it to the opening of a new premises outside Mountcharles. And people turned up to see it and hold it and be photographed with it. And, if only through the rites of marriage, Storey felt like one of our own.

Storey is just one of the many bold and imaginative characters who strode through the hurling landscape in the last decade. As with all popular movements, hurling needed ideologues and dreamers and stubborn characters to provide the spark and there seemed to be no shortage of those at the time. The chief players in Hurling: The Revolution Years are, naturally, Loughnane and Liam Griffin of Wexford. But reliving their deeds and words and the thoughts of men like Eamon Cregan or Michael Bond or Len Gaynor brings together a collection of genuine eccentrics - in the best sense.

There is real humour in the way Bond treated the carousing troubadours from Offaly with the brisk, affectionate tones of a no-nonsense schoolmaster and transformed them from a state of hopelessness to All-Ireland champions in just 10 weeks.

And it if fascinating to relive the slow build up of poison and hysteria that characterised Clare's 1998 campaign, a season when Loughnane pulled no punches and when his team were probably more sinned against than sinners.

A poignant and wrenchingly honest portrayal of DJ Carey makes you wonder if the Gowran man might have been happier had he just been an average club hurler instead of the most sensationalised player of his or any generation. As well as becoming, as Walsh puts it, "the GAA's first superstar", Carey managed to build up a thriving business in his own name. That financial success seemed the source of much of the resentment and gossip that plagued the Kilkenny man for many years. It also serves as a metaphor for the economic and social changes that mirrored the radical power shift in hurling. The 1990s was a strange and messy decade when the country made an inelegant lurch to wherever it is today.

You get the impression from Walsh's book that hurling reacted to that turmoil, that the traditional powers of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary were briefly made dizzy by it all while others counties flourished in the moment. The seasons of explicit upheaval can be narrowed down to those between 1994 to 1998 but the build-up and the slow return to tradition are part of the story. It was such a rich period. Hurling had players and teams and extremists that only come along once in a lifetime. It had its laureate critic in the great Cork hurling writer, Kevin Cashman. It had a brilliantly imaginative sponsor in Guinness and it benefited from the GAA's newly-liberal attitude towards live broadcasts.

The strange thing is that, 10 years after Clare's dramatic All-Ireland triumph, the energy and excitement has disappeared. The state of hurling seems in retreat in many counties and it is hard to imagine a return to a period of such profound belief and joy any time soon. The great thing about Hurling: The Revolution Years is that sufficient time has passed for the heroes of those days to be honest and mellow in their perspective. With their thoughts bound together in one book, maybe they knew they were participating in a collective movement, a succession of incredible hurling seasons that came and went like a dream.