Murphy's law means boom at home is detrimental

 

The youngsters at the pool table won't get to finish their game. It is little after midday and in the Emerald ground function room, the stout taps are in steady, creamy song. Roast dinners are beginning to move. A plain board is placed across the table and it soon gathers pint glasses and ashtrays.

This is no ordinary Irish Sunday in South Ruislip, the sedate north London suburb that is at the heart of metropolitan GAA life. Today, the hurlers of Sixmilebridge are in town and some of the summer deities, the boys of the big screen and sparkling crowds, will line out against Fr Murphy's.

The Murphy's are a Kilburn club and this All-Ireland quarter-final, daunting as it may be, is the reward for capturing their first city championship. "It is the biggest day in the history of the Murphy's," said Tommy Harrell, who served as secretary of the club for 29 consecutive years.

Harrell did the Leaving Cert in New Ross in 1960 and that summer gravitated across to London, just for a look. Kilburn was a natural base; Fr Murphy's was set up in November 1958 by Frank Sheehan of Enniscorthy and Tommy Ryan of Rathnure as a refuge for Wexford folk.

The city was teeming with Irish then and useful hurlers were plentiful; there were more than enough county men to maintain a club. Harrell remembers good nights in the Red Lion on Kilburn's High Street after knuckle-hard afternoons on the pitch.

"The first London final I saw, there were 14 players suspended for life. Each of the players was gradually given a reprieve, but God, it was a brutal game.

"Brother's Pearse were in it, they had won a number of titles and Sean McDermott's were up against them. And the players all came from fine hurling stock, men like Des Dillon and John Kiely of Waterford. There was just a toughness, a real physical element that didn't exist so much at home."

The London game has retained a residue of that granite characteristic, an obduracy that perhaps underlines its very survival. Fr Murphy's is no longer the preserve of Wexford men. Dipping numbers in the mid 1970s led to a hasty redrafting of the constitution and on this afternoon, lads from Armagh, Galway, Limerick and Kilkenny will line out against the Clare parish. This is the leanest time Tommy Harrell can remember in terms of numbers.

Emigration, quite simply, isn't what it used to be. Irish folk travel in flux now and, while clubs like Fr Murphy's still command a permanent hold on the local imagination, the community is less readily identifiable.

"Go back 20 years ago, people had a Christmas and summer holiday and travel back was essentially restricted to that. Back then, with almost all the lads, the fundamental aim was summed up in the words, `I'm going back'. But realistically, that didn't happen.

"People may have travelled back to Ireland regularly, but many did settle here, as there was very little to go back home to.

"And then you'd meet men who totally lost touch with the notion of going home for a variety of reasons. I found it sad, personally, to hear someone say, `God, I haven't seen my mother in 15 years'. And it wasn't a matter of money, it was just . . .the nature of the beast.

"But GAA clubs like Murphy's were of tremendous importance for those people, in particular. It was their one remaining link. Of course, those days are gone. Travel . . . people can travel every weekend if they want and interests are more diverse.

So maybe, after 40 years of hoary battles that are now the stuff of myth in the Irish bars of Kilburn, clubs like the Murphy's are destined for the scrapheap. Perhaps the Irish in London no longer needs the cradle of the Gaelic club.

"I don't know, I think it's still a very important part of the community here. Today, we'll have three London-born hurlers on the field (including Tommy's son, Martin Harrell). It is a unique thing that we have and, if we are to survive, particularly with the Irish economy being so strong, we are going to have to develop second-generation hurlers."

And they have already made inroads. The London board sends Irish kids from St Mary's teaching college in Twickenham to 12 designated schools to give hurling and football lessons. To see West Indian youngsters and Africans and Asian kids learn the sports along with young Irish, all with the same city accents, is one of the most positive developments Harrell has overseen in all his years.

"We have a great product, basically, and people find it attractive. To be honest, we should have cottoned on to it years ago. I read somewhere that there are eight million pupils in England. If we could ever manage to get one per cent of those, well, there are huge possibilities."

This afternoon, though, is one to be savoured. The pitch at Ruislip is similar to many club grounds at home. The turf, sapped by the relentless November rain, is heavy and cut up. Niall Gilligan, John Reddan and company keep the wand-work simple.

For the first 20 minutes, the Murphy's lads, spearheaded by the dead-ball shooting of Galway's Ian Rocks, hang in there. Then Brian Culbert squeezes home a goal and it remains 1-5 to 0-3 at the break.

"Look, we know that the chances of us getting a result in here are extremely unlikely," admits Harrell. "But it is nonetheless a unique opportunity for these lads to be playing against Gilligan and Davy Fitzgerald, hurlers of that status.

"And if Sixmilebridge go on to win the All-Ireland club title, well, we will be watching them and we can say, hey, we played against those lads. It makes you feel part of the bigger picture."

In a rosier world, we would stand on the balcony of the function room and drain our glass as an astonishing second half unfolded.

We would lean fast against the wire as the London boys, gallant and fearless, ran ribbons through the storied Sixmilebridge defence. Under grey skies, a day of fantastic, unforgettable colour would present itself and we would swoon.

But London GAA has nothing to do with fantasy. With 10 minutes to go, the home team are down 2-10 to 0-6 and are just dogging through the last minutes. Surviving, horsing through the mud after a cause that was only notional to begin with.

But small things make it worth while. A sweetly struck Darren Howlin point breaks the Sixmilebridge traffic. Goalkeeper John Ryan smothers two shots he has no right to. And, at the death, with the score at 211 to 0-6, the great Davy Fitzgerald is asked to face down a Murphy's penalty. Ian Rocks shot is low and accurate, but Christy Chaplain parries it. And then it's over.

"This is just a way of life here," said Martin Harrell. "And it will stay. But this is the first time a team has won the championship with four second-generation Ireland players. And I think that's the way it will be in the future."

But in this small pocket, brimful with tradition and values, the future is a murky business. And, at final whistle, no one seems to be worried by it. Clare and London are playing the McGrath Cup football final.

The pints are flowing upstairs, every half-measure and stout going towards the £750,000 debt that hangs over the London board. Outside the dressing-room, someone asks Davy Fitz to stop for a photo. The flash brings a small cheer. It will warm hearts like a good whiskey, that photo, in the years to come.

Fr Murphy's: J Ryan; B McCarthy, P Greene, J Murphy; M Reilly, D O'Hanlon, R Devlin; J Howlin, J Murphy; E Kinlon, D Howlin (0-1), M Harrell; E Roche, B O'Leary; I Rocks (0-5, four frees).

Sixmilebridge: D Fitzgerald; J McInerney, J O'Connell, W Kennedy; A Mulready, P Hayes, A Chaplin; S Fitzpatrick, C Chaplin; M Conlon, J Reddan (0-1), R Conlon; B Culbert (2-3), N Gilligan (0-6, four frees), J O'Meara (0-1). Subs: C Walshe for S Fitzpatrick (55 mins), N Flannery for M Conlon, D Chaplin for J O'Meara (58 mins).