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Eamon O'Shea: "All enduring love affairs must capture the heart, the soul and the imagination"

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Hurling, by Eamon O’Shea

I never chose hurling, it chose me and many others like me, and it has never let go.

Back in the 1960s, when growing up in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary, I played hurling – not sometimes, not often, but continuously. Alone against the gable end, one-against-one in the garden, two-versus-two on the road, at lunch break, in the school yard playing full-blooded matches on small-scale pitches without a helmet or Health and Safety Officer in sight. Townies versus country lads – it was hard to know the difference – , just throw in the ball, every day.

Back then, though the world may have been opening up to revolution, where I lived, we were more concerned with exploring the hurling hands we had been given. In my parish, all young hurler came with question marks: is he any good? Is he strong enough? Brave enough? Skilful enough? Made of the right stuff? As good as his father? Would he ever make the club team? The answers ultimately determining your position in the local hurling pantheon.

What about me? Well, the genetics were promising: my older brother Liam was so good that he set scoring records for the juvenile team. Even at age 10, I knew it must mean something for siblings coming behind, but will I ever be a hurler, a real hurler? Somebody once said that I did look like a young Jimmy Kennedy, who played for Tipperary in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. I took that comparison as possibly relevant, albeit noting only decades later that nobody ever said that I played like the great Jimmy Kennedy.

As irregular relationships became more permissible in 1960s Ireland, so hurling gradually became me and I became hurling, and a love affair had begun, one that was readily sanctioned by family and community. The excitement of waiting for my father, Ned, to come home from working the land so he could travel to see my older brother playing in county finals in the nearby, faraway fields of Thurles, Holy Cross or Cashel. My mother had his dinner ready, good clothes laid out, and shoes at the door so that there would be no delays, even if time was always more of a friend to all of us in those days. The procession of cars to and from these matches, hope on the outward journey, sometimes disappointment on the return, but never so much as extinguish hope for the next time. Endless talk of chances taken, and chances missed, of heroes and villains, of maybes and maybe nots.

Image: Eamon O'Shea.

Onto vocational school in Borrisokane, and the curiosity of the early morning assembly. Every morning, we marched into class listening to the school principal preparing us for the day, that some of us might walk behind the Artane Boys Band in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. He called out the names: “Hogan, Ryan, Bourke, O'Neill – surely one of you will play in Croke Park.” The straining of the years for the sound of O’Shea in that list; the sound of silence still felt four decades on.

Pilgrimages to the Munster championship now allowed, I always watched the parade behind the band as carefully as the match itself, just in case... The game impacted on everyone in the parish, directly or indirectly. As hurlers, we played our scripted roles on different teams at different times, and waited for chance to make its mark. For others, the game provided a narrative for everyday life, the canvas where connections could be made – in the shops, the post office, the creamery, and, of course, the public house.

My uncle Willy preferred the sanctuary of the latter whenever we played. Hearing the reports of the match later from an endless list of confidants, and almost always letting me know “you were good today,” or “you will have to improve, you know.” He didn't really need to see the game, the second-hand accounts were always better than the real thing; third hand, and after a few pints, they became even better.

All enduring love affairs must ultimately capture the heart, the soul and the imagination. For me, hurling does that better than any other sport; mainly through the ties that bind us to people, places and local communities. Looking back now with a life lived under its spell, the game seemed so interwoven into the fabric of that life that they are but one in the same. Does any other game bind and set you free to same time? Allow you to look forward and back in equal measure? Surely not.


Transcription from RTÉ's "Sunday Miscellany."

Friday, 20 November 2020, 12.30

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