One of my first sporting memories is tears. I cried like a baby in 1982. I was eight years old and I knew two things for certain; Kerry did not lose and the five-in-a-row was our destiny. Eight years old and I was already marked as one of those people who is emotionally involved with the actions of men in shorts, playing with balls. It is a sad life, caring so much about events over which one has no control. We can shout and roar, and wear our lucky underwear, but which way the ball flies, remains something over which we really have no control.
And when it comes to following a GAA side, we don’t even get a choice of which side to support. Worse, we don’t always even get to decide which sport. I’m from Lixnaw, County Kerry. My first love is hurling. My teams are Lixnaw and Kerry. There are less than ten senior hurling sides in Kerry and yet, in over a century, Lixnaw has won only seven County Championships. Kerry itself, hasn’t won the All Ireland in hurling, since 1891. And don’t think for a second we still don’t talk about that.
We don’t even have a football side in Lixnaw. We send our footballers to Finuge. And when I say our footballers, I mean our hurlers who like to play soccer, football and any sport that’s going i.e. normal young fellas. The difference of course, is that some of our hurlers, who go to play with Finuge, come back with All Ireland Medals. The be all and end all, of GAA competition, a Senior All Ireland Medal. We have gone so far as to give the Kerry footballers a manager, Eamon FitzMaurice. A hurler from Lixnaw.
The strange thing now, is that I support Lixnaw, Kerry and hurling. And as I get older, it is hurling, more than Kerry and Lixnaw that holds my loyalty. When the draw for the Munster Championship is held, my attention is to the hurling side. Before the boom ended, I would join my Old Man and his posse, in Munster wide journeys, the Gaelic Grounds, Semple and Páirc Uí Chaoimh were regularly visited. Circuitous, traffic avoiding routes chosen, sandwiches eaten and the last minute remembered pens, for the keeping track of who scored what, for the post-mortems.
Without computer graphic, without computational egg-head, the game and it’s statistics were parsed in ways I have yet to see matched on any TV. Just on the strength of ticks against names and a few centuries of experienced witness. It was analysis I could never hope to emulate. I was content to sit and listen, keeping my usually loose lips shut and my ears open.
And I learned that these neutrals, loved hurling above all else. No team, no player, no era, mattered more, than the hurling itself, than its long term future. It took me a while to realise that. I have invested a great deal of my affection for hurling in Kilkenny. I am near blinded by their greatness. I have even made the pilgrimage to Nowlan Park to watch them rehearse their battle plans. I count it a great privilege to live in this era, this Kilkenny Age.
It is an enthusiasm not shared by my Father and his friends. In fact, their joy in hurling is dimmed. Where I love Kilkenny’s dominance, they merely respect their prowess. For in their hearts they nurse a fear. A fear that the narrow base upon which hurling rests, will be further eroded by this Kilkenny tide.
I’m not sure I share their worry, but then I am not old enough to remember a time when the Kerry hurlers could beat Galway. Could compete in Munster without humiliation. I’m not old enough to remember someone, who’s father won that one Hurling All-Ireland over a century ago. Now Kerry, nor its clubs, play in any senior competitions in Munster, while our footballers bring back an All-Ireland every three years or so.
Does the brilliance of Kilkenny risk putting hurling in the shade? Is the culture of hurling, too shallow, to long endure a single dominant force? I don’t know. Dublin and Clare have come to the fore at underage level in the recent past. Galway and Tipperary have interrupted Kilkenny’s winning streak. And a county like Cork, does not take many years to build an All-Ireland winning side, even if from scratch.
I cannot however, dismiss concerns about hurling’s long-term future as paranoia. Hurling is just too damned important and peculiarly Irish, not to warrant constant concern and nurturing. But I’m still going to shout for Kilkenny next year and in twenty years from now, I hope to the gods, that I get to bore the arse off of some young fella, about the greatest team that ever played, the greatest game that ever was.