By the age of seven, my brother, Jimmy had discovered a whole new world: Gaelic football. For this occupation, ‘kit’ was required and it fell to my mother to ‘kit him out’ in knicks, socks, jersey and boots. A neighbour, whom we all knew as ‘The Granny’ was a ‘handy woman with a sewing machine’, and only too delighted to assemble a pair of knicks for ‘the little lad’. A couple of days after measurements were taken, we were told to stop off at The Granny’s house on our way home from school and collect them. Up beside the open fire, we were plied with lemonade and biscuits, ‘Granny’ tending to simmering pots over the fire, crooked grin and twinkling eyes an invitation to her heart, invited Jimmy to ‘grab that handle and give that wheel a turn’. He duly took hold of the handle on the giant iron wheel alongside the hearth and, with both hands and all his might, pushed it clockwise. On the second cycle, flames rose and a cloud of turf-ash spewed out, falling in a light dust around the flagged floor, over ‘Granny’, over me, over Jimmy, the black kettle and pots hanging from the crane, and into our lemonade. “Oh, Lord, that’s enough, Son! Too much air outta the bellows and the fire’ll go out,” she said, with a chuckle. At length, she disappeared, on soft, silent, ankle-length boots, ‘down to the room’, re-emerging seconds later, bearing the much-anticipated garment, unfolding it and holding it out for the budding GAA All-Star’s inspection. He was speechless. “That used to be an ould flour-bag,” she informed me, with a wink. “Son, I’ll put it in a bit of paper for you.” Together, we ran the half-mile home. Reaching to just below his knees, the knicks immediately replaced the school clothes and the former flour-bag did several laps of the yard until dinner time.
“It’d fit Finn McCool,” my mother observed. My father’s response: “He’ll be bet up with that football.” But Jimmy was now ‘one of the lads’, initiated into a world of ‘togging out’, ‘tactics’ and ‘tackles’. My mother dutifully stood, hail rain and shine, on the side-line of ‘The Round Park’, on the outskirts of the village, to watch and worry, while Jimmy and his team-mates had the time of their lives. At home, we endured the smell of Wintergreen, used in copious amounts to treat sprains and strains. On wet days, the kitchen became a workshop with the clatter and clutter of bicycle-tube repair accoutrements, to mend endless punctures in the inflatable pig’s bladder that was the inside of the leather football, the latest addition to the ‘kit’. Another player cycled from the next village to assist with the repairs, probably having raided his grandmother’s shed for spanners or bicycle-tube patches. And a new player had come on board who proved to be a most enthusiastic and innovative ally. ‘Coolrush Field’ was practically beside his house. It belonged to a family who lived in ‘the big house’, nestled on a tree-clad hillside, less than half a mile away. Acres of open grassland beckoned. I am not sure if permission was ever obtained for the use of their field. At any rate, it was decided that ‘they wouldn’t mind’. Nor do I know if my father was asked to donate two long lengths of timber – precious firewood – which were denuded of their bark and carried on three pairs of shoulders to Coolrush, and erected as goal-posts. By this time, my services as Protector-in-Chief of my young brother were no longer required.
I took refuge at a neighbour’s house, where bread and jam, soup and whatever else was ‘on the go’ tasted infinitely more palatable than at home. In an open, child-friendly kitchen, I could tune in to ‘The Archers’, aired on BBC Radio 4, trade stories of the adventures of the characters in my weekly ‘Bunty’ and ‘Judy’ – ‘English trash’ – that my mother strongly disapproved of – with the two daughters of the household and earwig in what was the hub of riveting adult news from around the locality.
At primary school, the arrival of two younger teachers had aroused our interest in cultural activities and we were introduced to another facet of the performing arts: acting. Fifth and Sixth Classes had already produced a box-office hit with ‘The Story of Bernadette’. Now, as Christmas approached, it was the turn of Third and Fourth Class. Each audience, many of whom were in attendance for a second or third time, erupted into rapturous applause. The world-wise smart-alecs who had already left school provided the cat-calls and whistles.
Later, at boarding school, extra-curricular activities included Games: hockey, netball and tennis, the lesser of these evils being tennis, in which I reluctantly participated whenever a gap arose in a doubles game. Physical Education (PE) was anathema. Averse to the smell of sweat that hung in the concert hall after a PE class, I took refuge in the library or in a music ‘cell’, ostensibly to practice violin. Free from vaulting bodies, and thumping plimsolls on ancient oak floorboards, the concert hall was my favourite haunt. The grand piano stood gracefully in front of the stage, holding the promise of exaltation at the sound of the first note. In quiet moments, I hugged a gurgling radiator, absorbed the smell of the heavy velvet drapes, and my imagination soared. A year later, I took to the stage, as Gwendolyn in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, and was thereafter assigned to the school public speaking and debating team.
Jimmy landed a summer job, by virtue of the fact that a few engineers and surveyors had come to work on a new hydro-electric power station and were co-opted onto the local football team. Jimmy found himself rambling about the mountain with a theodolite and measuring tape and pocketing a sizeable wage, disappearing to football training in the evenings and matches on Sundays. My seven-year-old younger brother, Eugene was now togged out and practicing in Coolrush field. There was no respite from the football on the radio at weekends and the football paraphernalia still dominating the house. I learned to knit Aran sweaters.
On this All-Ireland Hurling Final Day, I am again transported back to another time and yet, in the world of Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), little has changed. Last night, I babysat for my niece and her sister who wanted to join their brothers to celebrate a club victory at a local hostelry and I settled in by the fire with a glass of wine and my memories, and marvelled at the power of an organisation to draw and hold the fervour and enthusiasm of yet another generation.
My eldest son shone, for a time, as a midfielder for a local club and later for a club in Dublin, before heading off to work in the United Kingdom and hanging up the studded boots. But my nephews, following in my brothers’ footsteps, have played with gusto both at home and in matches from the east coast to the west coast of the United States to the length and breadth of Australia and England.
Being the only girl, with two brothers firmly entrenched in all things GAA, I had two choices: traipse to every game, in hail, rain or shine, or amuse myself in some other fashion. Having endured the cold, the rain and being squeezed into a car filled with the steam from wet ‘gear’, and with nostrils stinging from the smell of ‘Wintergreen’, I chose, just as soon as I was old enough, to stay at home and in so doing, chose to be left out. I must admit that there are times when I envy the camaraderie, the ‘craic’ and the celebratory occasions, as the might of the GAA grows with each passing year, as anyone with a whiff of an Irish connection, especially in America, gets caught up in this unifying phenomenon. And as I watched my two little charges sleeping soundly last night, I had no doubt that they are destined to be ‘togged out’ for many a turn.