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Revolution that brought hurling back full circle

by Dermot Crowe was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday the 23rd of October 2005

IT was a revolution all right, but a short-lived one, that inspired Denis Walsh's book Hurling: The Revolution Years. Well within ten years of Clare's cataclysmic All-Ireland win and Offaly's Leinster final splendour that summer, the old order had been restored as irrepressibly as before. This year we almost had the same opponents competing in three consecutive All-Ireland finals for the first time. Those teams were Cork and Kilkenny, the two most successful in the game of hurling; that's the measure of novelty nowadays.

So, is the revolution dead? Clare continue to fight time and tide but for how much longer given their abysmal record at underage level since winning the 1997 All-Ireland minor title? Offaly have been getting canings from Kilkenny as far back as 1999. This summer, though, they mined new depths when they finished a championship match 31 points adrift. Ten years after they played in an All-Ireland final that gripped the nation's imagination and transcended hurling sufficiently to have Ger Loughnane and his team win the People of the Year award, Clare and Offaly met in a qualifier at Portlaoise before a small crowd, way off Broadway.

The irony that comes through in Walsh's highly recommended book is that the breakthroughs of Clare and others like Wexford, and Waterford to a degree, merely goaded the fat oligarchy into action. They copied their methods and then let history reassert itself as if it were inevitable. Munster is still as competitive as it has ever been, but Leinster is shambolic, Ulster depressingly adrift and the current store of optimism rests in Galway. Beyond that hurling becomes a by-word for exotica.

But let's not get too depressed. Walsh's book is a celebration of that age and let us raise a glass rather than mourn its passing.

Two of the more enjoyable revelations in his book, a matter of taste admittedly, emanate from within the storied chambers of the Offaly hurling panel. In a game often exceedingly po-faced, humour is a welcome antidote, a relief from the more earnest postulations. And Offaly remained stubbornly unreconstructed, revolution or no revolution.

Loose instructions such as 'go have a few pints if ye like' could be interpreted as a lifting of all sanctions known to man

Both yarns were related by Michael Duignan, who in the greater scheme of Offaly characters one might place midstream, existing somewhere between the colourful Babylonian excesses of Johnny Pilkington and his cohorts and the more serious position occupied by Brian Whelahan. But not too serious, of course.

Duignan recalls a trip to Ennis in 2000, arranged by manager Pat Fleury, who decided that they should make a weekend of it. On Saturday they were hurling Clare in a challenge match, while the league final was on in Ennis the day after. They would stay the night, then put their heads down for the championship which was only six weeks away.

Duignan appreciated the importance of clear terms of reference on these trips, free of euphemism. Loose instructions such as 'go have a few pints if ye like' could be interpreted as a lifting of all sanctions known to man. Clare trained before the match and still hammered Offaly in the challenge. Offaly dusted themselves down and went drinking. When he awoke the following day in his room, Duignan says he felt 'bollixed'. Joe Dooley in the bed next to him was bollixed as well.

They gathered their belongings and headed downstairs to find a few Offaly hurlers at the bar with the party in full swing. In the middle of them Johnny Pilkington was singing 'Sweet Caroline'. That year they reached the All-Ireland, defeating the reigning All-Ireland champions Cork en route. Clare lost in the first round by eight points.

The other story is about John Troy, widely acknowledged as the most gifted of their wrist men. Troy struggled with discipline and with fitness too, but was quintessential Offaly. Duignan tells of the time John McIntyre, in his first spell in charge in 1997, brought sports psychologist Betty Cody to training one night as a surprise. Cody began appealing to their minds and imagination, opening new frontiers. There was a picture of two horses in a field on the wall and she asked Troy to focus on it.

Duignan adds that Troy was a diffident individual who would usually look down at the ground during conversations except maybe to raise his head when he was talking to you. Cody had chosen an unsuitable candidate for mind expansion techniques. She asked him to look at the picture on the wall. She asked him what he saw. Troy looked up and said, "two horses in a field."

Offaly's deciduous approach to the league is well documented; the championship was all that mattered. I remember traveling to see them host Galway in a league fixture at Birr a few years ago, my companion and I shortening the journey by speculating how many times Johnny Pilkington would touch the ball. I think I volunteered eight contacts, aiming high; my friend lost the run of himself and opted for 12. He came closest. Pilkington was economical and therefore deceptive, especially economical while on league duty.

Galway won, of course, without too much strain and the girth of Daithi Regan, Johnny Pilkington and John Troy bore all the evidence that they'd wintered well. And then, in an instant and without warning, they reminded us of what lay ahead when the ground would harden and the pounds had vanished.

Regan, largely anonymous until then, suddenly advanced two yards to the ball in a display of uncommon urgency, moved it first time on towards Pilkington who met it first time in turn and within seconds on a heavy field Troy was also acquainted with the ball, possibly for the first time in the match. He flicked it up, shimmied, and put it over the bar with a flash of comical contempt.

The revelry sucked you in. Drinks were bought as indemnity against your departure. It became a massacre

Tales of their socialising were legion, shocking only when applied to the increasingly strict dictates of the modern hurling age. After they won the 1998 All-Ireland I was dispatched to the midlands on the Tuesday to catch up with their victory celebrations. I had no clear plan, deciding to see what was available when I got to Banagher, home of St Rynagh's, where the team were due to arrive that night with the cup.

I parked the car in the square and decided not to check in anywhere right away. The team was predictably delayed. Just before midnight they arrived, made a few speeches, milked the applause and then poured into the local bars. We ended up in Simon Lyons' watering hole much too late to carry out interviews so I resolved to write off the night and make some arrangements for Wednesday. The revelry sucked you in. Drinks were bought as indemnity against your departure. It became a massacre.

Time began to melt. Around four in the morning I realised I was homeless and it was too late to go knocking on doors. A farmer from Kilcormac told me not to worry. Hang tough and he'd give me a bed for the night. Going soon.

Around eight in the morning some local students dropped in on their way to school, entering a side door to pick up some autographs from those hurlers still standing and with enough wrist-brain function to write their names. Sometime after that the farmer said it was time to go. Praise the Lord! Well, it was bright. And I was gimped. He went to the counter and picked up a large package containing black pudding, sausages and rashers for the breakfast. Johnny Pilkington - explanations weren't necessary - came too so there we were heading out the country roads of Offaly towards Kilcormac, home of that year's goalkeeping hero Stephen Byrne. Johnny sat in the back behind plumes of Carroll's smoke.

Eventually we arrived at this large farmhouse to a chorus of cattle roaring for hay and the all too bright morning light of a new day none of us were prepared for. The farmer got the frying pan out - showing tremendous hospitality and pride in his work - and threw on a breakfast fit for a king. No one protested when our host announced it was time to get a few hours sleep. I grabbed a couch and passed out.

Some kids woke us up after what felt like 10 seconds, drawing back curtains to let in the light far too soon and badger Johnny for his autograph. We called into a pub near Kilcormac, then moved on to Ferbane. Johnny Dooley called in and after a few hours there, his wife drove us back to Banagher, Johnny messing with the Teletubbies in the back seat of the Dooleys' car. Banagher came into view not a moment too soon. I checked into a hotel to get some sleep. Johnny and the rest headed off to play the Goal match.

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