Once or twice a year when the stars are in their correct alignment and the muse comes to call I find myself moved to write a poem. I present one below that came unbidden one Sunday afternoon some years ago just after I had listened to a commentary on an Irish hurling match between arch county rivals Tipperary and Kilkenny.
Sundays in summer my father took me with him to hear the Gaelic Games
Hurling, of course, a Tipperary Man’s birthright and delight.
Since radio reception of RTE – which on the old valve box still read, ‘Athlone’
Was poor and filled with a blizzard of wordless static we’d take the car (a Hillman Imp)
Up the vertiginous slope of Harrow on the Hill and park next to a telegraph pole –
In search of a perfect signal
As if by magic through the air came the alternating anguished and ecstatic tones of
Michael O’Hehir – his voice slicing through the miles like the Sliothair splitting the posts
For a marvellous point
Listening, rapt, willing victory, the match would pass in what seemed minutes
After, we’d sit in easeful silence as the evening became itself
And we were simply ourselves : a father and a son at one
Listening on a clear channel.
Though I firmly believe that a poem should always retain some mystery many of you deeply versed in the lore of music may find some of the references above baffling. Here’s a key that may help!
Gaelic Games: The principal Gaelic games of Ireland are Gaelic Football and Hurling. They are played throughout the island of Ireland. The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) was instrumental in the revival of these games in the late nineteenth century. The GAA was very important then in Irish society and culture in fostering a sense of distinct Irish national consciousness. The GAA, now that the Catholic Church, has largely lost its grip on Irish society, is probably the most interwoven institution within that society. The GAA’s strength is that it is an intensely local organisation calling on and winning loyalty from the family, the town land, the parish and finally the County. GAA rivalries at every geographic level are staggeringly intense. Reputations made playing these games last a lifetime and more.
Hurling: A wonderful field sport played by teams of 15 a side. Players use sticks, called Hurleys. The Sliothair (a ball near in size to a baseball) can be hand passed and hit through the ground or the air. A point is scored by sending the Sliothair above the bar and between the posts of the opponent’s goal.
Hurling calls for bravery, speed of thought and action and enormous technical skill. Played well it is absolutely thrilling to watch.
RTE: Radio Telefis Eireann – the national broadcasting station of Ireland.
Harrow on the Hill: A leafy suburb some ten miles from central London. Chiefly known for the fee paying public school attended by such luminaries as Lord Byron and Winston Churchill. I grew up there.
Michael O’Hehir: A much beloved commentator on all Irish sports from the mid 1930s to the mid 1980s but particularly associated with Gaelic games. For exiles from Ireland listening to him was an extraordinarily powerful emotional experience. He was deeply knowledgeable and had the gift of coining a memorable phrase in the moment an event took place. His voice could climb dizzily through the registers from marching band flute to ear splitting soprano saxophone squaks!
This post dedicated to the memory of my father, Wally Hickey (1926 – 1989).