Rackards will always be sacred to hurling

 

On Gaelic Games:The death of the last of the famous Wexford brothers sunders another link with that golden age of hurling half a century ago, writes Seán Moran

'ICON" IS one of those words that needs to be carefully filtered if it is not to be rendered meaningless. Nonetheless, if ever a sportsperson counted as iconic - individuals whose image represents something so important, essential and sacred that they themselves are venerated - Billy Rackard, who was laid to rest last Friday in the graveyard in Killinick, did.

The last of the famous brothers, after Nickey and Bobby, who in the 1950s came to symbolise what would in time be known as a golden age for hurling, his death sunders another link with that great era of half a century ago.

Young people and children often see the past as a drab place, where everyday images look passé and contemporary notions of modernity can appear gauche or foolish.

Even the technology of public memory plays a part. Monochrome film gives everything a preserved, historical ambience, whereas the gaudy, hand-tinting of old negatives, rather than contemporising, creates a mildly psychedelic effect suggesting displacement and age.

We also distrust the past. Fine childhood weather is quickly attributed to selective recall and bad old days resonate more vibrantly than good old days. As GAA writer and broadcaster Liam Horan puts it, an accomplished player having an off day is less likely to be met with the sympathy of the crowd than a collective shrug: "Was he ever any good?"

So genuine icons have quite a task to break through contemporary scepticism, at least until they pass away, when suddenly they are back on the field in Croke Park performing the feats that defined success and failure on glorious afternoons.

This is a process with which Billy Rackard would have been uncomfortable. At the end of his charming and acute memoir, No Hurling at the Dairy Door, he makes up his mind to retire from the game, and concludes: "My world would never be the same again. This chapter of my life had ended and I felt whatever was to come could never be as totally satisfying. How wrong I was."

In other words, he believed in life after hurling.

Having met him several times, particularly in and around the time of the memorable All-Ireland success for his heirs in the purple and gold jersey, I remember how discursive he was on the social history of the 1950s when he and his brothers were on the team that would create a hurling tradition for Wexford, a county whose footballers 40 years previously had set the benchmark of All-Ireland success by winning four titles in succession.

Yet, hurling continued to exercise a strange hold on the county, and when success came in the 1950s Wexford was enraptured. So was the rest of the country, and the finals against Cork in 1954 and '56 attracted the biggest crowds to watch All-Ireland hurling finals.

In a decade that bears comparison with any for economic despair, the GAA became an escape for a country beset by unemployment and emigration. And Wexford were new, vital and charismatic. Big and strong, they disrupted traditional patterns by sticking their hands into the propeller-whirl of sticks and plucking high ball from the sky.

Are the claims made for the Rackards exaggerated? Nickey was selected in the GAA's Centenary Team and then omitted from the Team of the Millennium in favour of Ray Cummins. Those who viewed both playing at full forward are entitled to their opinions, but in terms of Hall of Fame credentials, Nickey Rackard merits inclusion.

Delivering his fine eulogy at Billy's funeral, Wexford's 1996 manager, Liam Griffin, told the story of how in the early 1940s the younger Rackards were brought in to see their brother's picture in the newspaper and read of his role in the latest success of St Kieran's College in Kilkenny.

As an athlete and hurler, he led the way for Wexford in the 1940s at a time when the county had no realistic ambitions. Billy said that, whereas the transformation into a hefty full forward was effective, it also reflected the reality of his brother's struggle with alcohol, which he won on two occasions, the first in the mid-1950s.

"Nickey sensed that Wexford could win an All-Ireland," said Billy, "and realised that he could be the catalyst. So he quit drinking. He took that very seriously, just as he drank to excess and just as when he eventually joined AA he took that so seriously that he was heading off in the middle of the night to counsel people up and down the country. It was like the close-in frees. All or nothing. Everything with Nickey was a close-in free, he couldn't go at medium speed."

With the 1956 final on the line after Wexford had lost a comfortable lead, Nickey Rackard delivered 1-3 in the closing minutes to deliver what remains the county's last championship win over Cork.

Bobby's epic tussle with Christy Ring in the 1954 final is enshrined in a famous photograph that is rendered as a mural in the clubhouse of Páirc Uí­ Rinn in Cork.

Billy's playing reputation was understated, yet he won more All-Ireland medals than his brothers, and in the breakthrough year of 1955 he was voted overall sportsman of the year for his contribution to the All-Ireland success.

A thoughtful man, he also innovated some interesting developments in the gear and equipment of the time by organising special, lightweight boots for the team, which were to act as a relief after training in heavier, normal boots - a technique used in other sports - to prepare for the 1955 All-Ireland semi-final against the Mackey's Greyhounds of Limerick, a team that relied on devastating speed. The tweaking obviously worked.

Utilising his background in the drapery business, Billy also commissioned cotton jerseys in an era when heavy, woollen gear was the norm. He remained an amusing, modest individual more interested in the dynamics of challenge than misty-eyed reminiscence.

His daughter Sue once told me she and her sisters were scarcely aware their father had hurled at all until they found his scrapbooks.

Family friend Griffin announced during his eulogy that Tom Williams had written a final verse for his ballad - also the title of a biography of Nickey - Cuchulainn's Son.

I see them still on meadows green where hurlers come together,

With hands held high 'midst clashing ash to grasp the spinning leather.

Cork had Ring and Tipp had Doyle and the Cats and Clare had others,

But we held our heads up proud and straight, for we had the Rackard brothers.

Even in this sad time, Wexford and hurling in general still have them.

smoran@irishtimes.com