By John Scally
2014 will mark the 130th anniversary of the GAA. A new book, Breaking Balls: The Wit and Wisdom of the GAA, by Roscommon author John Scally celebrates the humour of the GAA and its many great characters.
From the beginning the GAA has had a history of abrasive characters, with the gift of rubbing people up the wrong way. Michael Cusack will always be remembered for his role in founding the GAA in 1884. Yet, having given birth to the Association, Cusack almost strangled it in its infancy, because of his abrasive personality.
People often miss out on the historical significance of the ‘Athletic’ in the title of the GAA. In the early years it was envisaged that athletics would play a much greater role in the life of the GAA. One of the people trying to ensure this was John L. Dunbar. He wrote to Cusack in December 1885 suggesting that the GAA and the athletics organisation should meet “with a view to a possible merger.” Cusack did not mince or waste his words in his response. The letter read as follows:
4 Gardiners Place
I received your letter this morning and burned it.
One of Ireland’s greatest poets of the twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh, was another abrasive character. In the early thirties he played for his local team, Inniskeen Grattans, succeeding Tom ‘The Collier’ Callan, who in the words of his brother Peter was “so stiff from farm work that he could only stop a ball that hit him.” His most famous constribution was to wander off to buy either an ice-cream or a drink, depending on whose version of events you listen to, while the opposition scored a goal between the deserted posts. The final ignominy came when he conceded the match-losing goal in the county final by letting the ball roll between his legs. His own supporters shouted, “Go home and put an apron on you.”
In 1955 the late Michael Cleary was in line for a place on the Dublin team to play Kerry in the All-Ireland football final. The problem was that he was also attending the diocesan seminary in Clonliffe at the time. Under college regulations there was no way he would be freed to play the match. It was a straight-forward choice: which was the more important to him, to play in the final or to become a priest? He chose to become a priest, but as the final was being played he could practically see the ball down the road in the college.
Known as ‘the singing priest,’ Fr. Mick at one stage recorded an album. Given his many activities he also gained a reputation for his fast driving. Once, his car broke down on the way to a wedding ceremony and he was an hour late on arrival. The wedding party was beginning to panic when he arrived, and he was so embarrassed he never forgot the incident. Twenty years later, he met the husband, a prominent former footballer, at a function and said, “I’m so sorry about that horrible fright I gave you on your wedding day.” “So am I,” said the GAA star, “I’ve still got her!”
Dermot Early was a high-ranking army officer, but for 20 years he was the undisputed star of Roscommon football. Traditionally the army had a mission every Lent. In 1979 the mission was given by Fr. Cleary. In one of his talks he spoke about determination and compared determinations with Dermot Early going through with the ball for the goal, much to the amusement of the rest of the congregation. On that Ash Wednesday, Early was going up to receive the ashes when Fr. Cleary revised his blessing somewhat. Instead of “Remember, man, thou art but dust and into dust thou shalt return,” his blessing was “Up the Dubs.”
In 1995 Ger Loughnane managed Clare to their first All-Ireland hurling title in 81 years. His team won a second All-Ireland in 1997.
Despite Loughnane’s happy capacity for weathering hostility, the strains that had been mounting mercilessly over the year as manager, strains whose ravages the obsessive in him deflected, took their toll. The biggest casualty was his hairline. At the peak of the Clare team’s success, there was a table quiz in Shannon. For one of the rounds, they showed pictures of well-known people when they were young. A photo of Loughnane was included from back in the days when he had really long hair. When one of the teams was asked to identify his photo, the team answered, “Princess Diana!”
John Scally’s book, “Breaking Balls: The Wit and Wisdom of the GAA,” published by the Currach Press, is available in all good bookshops now.