Iggy Clarke cherishes the friendships he made while playing for Galway
Hustle of hurling hid the former Galway hurler from the solitariness of the priesthood
Iggy Clarke with a hurley from his playing days at his home in Oranmore. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The moment has long been canonised: the fierce musicality of Joe Connolly’s Connemara-Irish, the beseeching lilt of Joe McDonagh’s rendition of The West’s Asleep, Cyril Farrell with the wild-eyed look of a physics genius and the velvet richness of the gathered maroon shirts against the communist grey of the Hogan stand.
“People of Galway, we lof you.”
It’s September 1980 and Galway are hurling champions and Ashes to Ashes is on the radio and all of Ireland is still basking in the afterglow of the previous autumn’s visit of Pope John Paul II when it seemed as if every man had an automatic pass to heaven by dint of being Irish.
The genius of Connolly’s throwaway closing line caught the entire era; the lightness and the heaviness of it all locked into those six words. What’s forgotten, though, is that the captain’s speech was interrupted by the Galwegians who had swarmed the pitch as they made a loudening plea for one man to make an appearance.
Finally he did; Iggy Clarke, in his black priest’s shirt. Two steel pins in his collarbone denied him his place in Galway’s half-back line for the final, but the crowd had watched Clarke grow up in parallel with the maroon game through the 1970s and they demanded he make an appearance.
Connolly hands him the MacCarthy, and he lifts it, a bit bashful but delighted too.
“I always envisioned myself holding it up with two hands,” he laughs 37 years on. “But to me that moment was very beautiful, yeah, in that people remembered me.”
The shoulder might well have been made of china that day. He knew there would be a stampede if Galway won, and he was advised to leave the dug-out in the closing few minutes and get up the steps. He walked around the sideline of the pitch to the steps of the Hogan, where Pat Guthrie was waiting to take him up the Ard Comhairle. He urged the players close to the sideline to see it out.
“I remember saying ‘Just stay going. We have it.’ It could have been very embarrassing if we had lost. Here was I above in the stand...stranded and all the Limerick lads coming up. But, thankfully, it worked out.”
It worked out. Clarke is no longer a priest. He lasted until 1995 after a year out in Spokane in Washington spent in retreat – or more accurately hitting the open road in a battered Oldsmobile – convinced him that he had taken it as far as he could.
Maybe he had premonitions all along. His brother Joe had been ordained the year before him, and he visited one day after Joe was assigned a place in the curate’s house in Gurteen. It was one of those big forbidding parish houses that are still found all over Ireland, staunch and shudderingly isolated. Even now Clarke shakes his head at the memory.
“I was thinking: ‘Is this what’s ahead of me?’ It was an early insight for me.”
He didn’t know what was ahead of him. How could he?
An announcement today that an inter-county hurler was joining the priesthood would be a sensation. But it was a common life choice in the mid-1970s in Ireland.
Clarke’s year in Maynooth was full: 120 studying for the priesthood. Every year was full then. Clarkes’ vocation drew attention because he was an established Galway player: captain of the U-21 team that won the All-Ireland in 1972 and an easy loquacious figure. There were local fears that his religious commitment would put an end to his hurling, but beyond that joining the priesthood was not unusual.
“Father Jack Solon had to change his name in order to stay hurling. I was one of the lucky ones. The church frowned on it and felt it was giving you notoriety or fame or whatever.”
Clarke was fortunate in that his superiors, including Tomás Ó Fiaich, were GAA men. He had to get permission to “get out” for league games every weekend. Still, there was palpable disapproval in the corridors when he was granted leave to attend the All-Star trip in 1975. “Some of the professors thought this was...heresy.”
What he understands now is that the hurling – the demands and the camaraderie and the games – helped to almost inoculate him from the solitariness of his chosen life.
He was newly ordained for the papal visit to Ireland in 1979. The groundswell of national emotion – the state of rapture – helped to reassure him that he had made the right decision.
“Well, a number of professors left the college in the 1970s. Some of them had been there 40, 50 years and then they had gone. It was only the start of it. They could probably see what we could see later...the whole impact of the institutional and control mentality. But, yeah, with the Pope visiting it was very affirming that this was a good place to be and a good way of life to be in.”
And Connolly’s echoing of the Pope’s salute and the people chanting his name and the feeling of being surrounded by thousands of people in Croke Park must have deepened that.
Kept me grounded
Clarke stayed at the elite level of the game until the 1984 season ended, and it was only then, when the game was no longer calling him, that he understood.
“Hurling kept me grounded and close to people, and guarded me, in a strange way, of the reality of being celibate and living in a house on your own. Before that I had been used to living and working with three other priests in a house. And I think I began to work probably too hard to try and cope with that.”
Time zig-zags. Like all Galway hurling people, Clarke has followed the team this summer and he sees parallels. You can hear in his voice that he is smitten by them regardless of how Sunday goes. He knows they are worth their salt.
It is tempting to believe that the group of Galway men in the steps of the Hogan stand in 1980 bestrode through the land unstoppably. In fact, they had been stopped again and again.
It was a slow climb. In 1975 they started out in Division Two and beat Tipperary in a league final. More significantly, they beat Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time ever. Yes, they lost the final – no prizes for guessing who to – but it felt like they were moving. In fact Clarke remembers the reception for that league win more vividly than anything else.
“We were going down Bohermore into Eyre Square. And all these people outside their houses. And people crying. That team was a fusion of slightly older players like John Connolly and PJ Qualter and Pauric Fahy and Ted Murphy. We were the young greyhounds of the time – although you wouldn’t compare us to what’s there now. But we fused with them and gave them energy and people really got behind that team. They were very loyal to us.
“And that night. It was a real...release. Galway had great hurlers like Inky Flaherty and Joe Sammon who went for years with no success. In those years it felt like we were breaking barriers. People followed us to Cork and Wexford for league games. No bother. It was like a resurgence of Galway hurling that had been asleep for decades.”
School started back across Galway this week. Inevitably, the sun came out. It has been a strange few days for Iggy Clarke: his first as a retiree. In the 20 years since he left the priesthood he studied psychology and counselling, and took up a teaching position in New Inn.
For two months after returning from Spokane he tried to convince himself that he could continue. That November he told parishioners in Loughrea that he was leaving from the altar after Mass.
“People were great. They were fantastic. My father was 97 then and you know he was a typical farmer in that you take what comes. He just said to me ‘whatever you think yourself’.”
After that he was no longer Fr Iggy Clarke or Iggy Clarke the hurler.
“Those were like an aspect of me or an expression of me. But me the individual is not that. And I remember saying to myself that one of the important thing is to keep my friends that I knew through the game and through hurling. Those friendships are more important than the hurling.”
For a few years he didn’t watch much hurling but became involved with the GAA’s mental wellbeing programmes. He counsels, as does his wife Mariel, whose spiritual teaching transformed his understanding of religion.
Clarke watched in a mixture of anger and sadness through the decade of scandal which erased the position of power the church had held for centuries. Even now he has conflicted feelings. He feels certain that there was and is a lot of quiet important work done by priests and bishops. And he understands that people would be sceptical that he couldn’t have been unaware of the abuses perpetrated by members of the clergy in the decades when he served.
“I can understand why someone would think that, yeah. But I wasn’t. It wasn’t on the agenda. And I wasn’t the exception: a lot of people in Ireland hadn’t comprehended the term ‘abuse’ as a topic. I would feel disillusioned that it was happening in all strands of society and it wasn’t being addressed. The institution of the church was more important than the individual. Transfer the priest involved. And then forget about it. That is inverted Christian living. It was all about protecting the institution and having control.”
He began, through reading his wife’s books, to develop a new concept of spirituality. “A whole new understanding of incarnation and reincarnation. And it made a lot of sense to me. It was based on a more loving God and none of the fear or control. It made a lot of sense to me.
“The old thing of going to Mass and you are saved...I wouldn’t be staunchly religious now. I believe that if I’m a decent person and am able to do a bit of good for others that I’m in the right place. So we now do workshops together on the soul journey, which is about the transition from this life to the next life.”
Sometimes when he talks to schoolchildren about technology and social media, he describes what life was like in the 1970s. The reaction is always amusing in its horror. He knows how limited it sounds – and was. Being a Galway hurler then meant appearing on television every so often. At that stage television was such a strange exotic phenomenon that it transferred a kind of otherness onto the hurlers. It set them apart and made them known.
“That was a shock to the system. It was as though you were becoming something else.”
They all were. Any time Galway reaches an All-Ireland final the footage of 1980 invariably makes an appearance and the ‘87/88 teams are the chief reference point.
And it all swirls. Because he lives in Oranmore the tragic sudden death of Tony Keady is still on his mind, and every so often he summons a vision of the former centre-back striding into a room, beaming and filling it with energy. “Delighted to be there, with life, to be meeting everyone. Such a presence. He could do anything and walk away laughing.”
And his friend Joe McDonagh is also on his mind because he knows how much he would enjoy this All-Ireland.
“I do feel that this team is on a similar journey to ourselves. There is a bit of character and a greater connection with people, and a feeling among ordinary people, I feel, that this term deserves or needs an All-Ireland win.
“Players like Joe Canning, his uniqueness, needs that moment in the sunshine. And, please God, that is Sunday. Who knows? But there is a real sense that this team and management are solid and have their feet on the ground, and that we can really get behind them.
“You could say all the positions are strong. You couldn’t say that about our team, not as much. We probably had pockets. Winning…I think it would mean an awful lot to Galway people because this team, there is something different about them.”
He will be in the stands. And if Galway win the crowd will chant for other names, and 1980 may suddenly seem very far away. That’s fine. Call it a soul journey.