Carlow hurling historian Leo McGough’s love affair with Carlow hurling began many years ago, and in a somewhat quaint fashion, but it engendered in him a love of the greatest game on earth. Since those early days Leo has travelled the length and breadth of the country, following the game at all levels, and in all counties, but the love of his native county outweighs them all. With strong Clare connections he is an avid fan of the Munster championship and the path between his Carlow home and Semple Stadium in Thurles is well trodden. On the eve of the Christy Ring Cup final he tells us about his early love of reading, and writing and about following the ‘Scallion Eaters’ through the good days and the bad. Many Antrim supporters will know just how he feels.
It started in the attic by Leo McGough
IT started with improvised attic insulation! My love affair with Carlow hurling and writing! Improvised attic insulation?! Yes, that’s how it all began and like many a love story it started without any warning! You see the father built a house in Brownes Hill in the early 60’s and used old newspapers as attic insulation, full copies of the ‘Irish Independent’ ‘Evening Press’ and ‘Sunday Independent’ layered between the beams along the ceiling-roof, some stuffed down into the gaps around the edges. I often remember as a small boy watching Daddy going up into the loft to fix something or other and he would bring down with him an old newspaper or two. As I got older and my interest in sport increased, I would ask for an old Monday newspaper to be thrown down! Monday’s papers had the match reports and having been reared on the hard-luck stories of Clare hurlers I would search the papers for mention of their games. Never found any but read with fascination about the exploits of the Irish rugby team, Shamrock Rovers in soccer, about International boxing, the Kuttner Shield, Ireland v. England or Ireland v. Wales. Came the time when I was old enough to take torch in hand and climb up the ladder into the loft myself. Dust, cobwebs and aching knees from balancing on rafters in confined space were small impediments in pursuit of the ‘truth in the news!’ Then, one Sunday morning, it happened. I was up in the loft browsing through the old newspapers when I came across a ‘Nationalist’ dated May 1962 and I’ll never forget the big heading on the sports page “The Boys are back in town” The sub-heading was ‘Carlow hurlers are ready to go places’ and underneath the opening paragraphs in bold read ‘Carlow’s Intermediate hurling team, the junior championship giants of 1960, the team that only fell to mighty London, and then only at London’s second attempt, are back in form.
‘With a twirl of ash and a twinkle in their eye they cut down the men from Westmeath in their youth in Dr. Cullen Park on Sunday. In the pink of condition and playing with all the dash and confidence of born champions the Carlow men had little of the staleness they showed last year when beaten by Wexford in the second round of the 1961 series. ‘Their performance was a great fillip for the few hundred spectators. Here was a team that looked like something and played like something. A team that could go far and surely will go far. The spirit of 1960 is back again and Carlow’s hurlers are on the highroad to hurling honours’.
I was hooked! The report had introduced me to, among others, ‘Red’ Willie Walsh, ‘Black’ Willie, Walsh, four-goal Pat Brophy and Willie Hogan. I wanted to know how these hurlers got on? Did they go places? What was it happened them against London two years previously? From that moment on I was a Carlow hurling follower! That was early 1972 and the ten year old Nationalist not only sparked a keen interest in Carlow hurling but those bouncy paragraphs – written by Seamus O’Rourke – also inspired me to put pen to paper myself. The internal hurling league in Carlow CBS Primary School was recorded in a spare copy-book, match reports attempting to ape Jack Mahon’s ‘Twelve Glorious Years’ and his personal account of an eventful era in Galway football. The same Jack Mahon had started a very popular column called ‘Junior Desk’ in the now defunct ‘Gaelic Sport’ magazine in which he invited readers letters and I had been one of his most faithful correspondents, listing my favourite Clare hurlers and giving news of the school league! Now, though, I had a new interest, Carlow hurling and if the fascination with the Carlow hurlers of the 1960s wasn’t sufficient, along came a marvellous 1972 county senior championship and again the power of words was brought home to me. The small previews and after-match reports in the ‘Nationalist’ whetted my appetite further, previews and reports which carried a tempo and passion that I like to think I emulate to this day. Most of those words of ’72 were penned by the late Jim O’Brien and many years later I took it as a huge compliment when Ollie O’Boyle, a strong Carlow GAA man, compared my writings to those of the former County Secretary. Jim, football manager Turlough’s father, was also to play a big role in solving the problem of what happened that Carlow team of ‘The Boys are back in town’ heading as he had in his possession all the back issues of the Nationalist! Those bound, hard-covered files were perused with avid interest and it was there was born the idea of publishing a book about Carlow hurling, tracing the game from it’s early origins in the county to the present day. Having had the idea passed at a meeting of Carlow Hurling Club, the work got underway in earnest and apart from consulting the old newspaper files we set about interviewing many of the most important people involved with the small ball code by Barrowside. Thus, with P.L. Curran in the role of Chief Research Officer, acting as chauffeur and in charge of tape recording, I got to meet and chat with the aforementioned ‘Red’ Willie Walsh and Willie Hogan as well as Pat Somers, the captain of the Carlow ’62 team, Jimmy Phelan, the man who trained that historic winning team, a man who had scored 2-1 for Kilkenny in the 1939 ‘Thunder and Lightning’ All-Ireland final. Seeking information on hurling further back in time it was a privilege to interview such gentlemen as Mick Jones and Mick Gaynor of Bagenalstown, a doyen of Carlow hurling, a star of the Carlow team who beat Wexford in Enniscorthy in 1935. The final product was a publication called ‘Carlow Hurling Memories’ a book that has become a real collectors’ item. Printed by the Nationalist, the 128 page A-4 sized pages were packed with tales of Carlow hurling, club and county, the centre-piece of which was ‘Carlow’s Glory Years 1957-1962’ in which all the questions posed by that newspaper find in the loft were answered! Memorable days, famous outings in New Ross (the 1960 Leinster Junior final, the county’s first title win since 1907), Kilkenny (‘the wet September day on which Cork, the home of Munster hurling were beaten in the 1960 home final), New Eltham (a mud-lark on the outskirts of London, caught by late Phil Wilson scores), Birr (Galway, then Munster champions, outscored in the ’62 ‘Home’ Intermediate final) and Croke Park (sweet revenge against London) were recalled, the story ending with Carlow’s first ever All-Ireland title in either code, the Intermediate championship of 1962 and their subsequent NHL victory over Cork and Christy Ring and all in their first outing as seniors. 1962 will always hold a special place in Carlow hurling folklore for, as the Roscrea chapter on their Tipperary SHC breakthrough declared, ‘There will never be another first’
Yes, the Nationalist reporter Seamus O’Rourke who declared, long before Thin Lizzy, that ‘the boys were back in town’ had been proved right in his assertion that Carlow were ‘on the highroad to hurling honours’. London cabbie calls the shots It was to be fully 30 years before Carlow again enjoyed All-Ireland success, the ‘B’ SHC success of 1992. In between Carlow had come close on a few occasions, reaching the Leinster IHC decider in 1968 and winning the All-Ireland ‘B’ SHC ‘Home’ crown in 1987 only to lose the final proper to London in Dr. Cullen Park. In ’91, Westmeath toppled Carlow in the All-Ireland ‘B’ SHC ‘home’ final in Croke Park, a game played as a curtain-raiser to one of the famous Meath v Dublin football draws, but Carlow were to gain sweet revenge again the following year when beating Westmeath in a ‘Home’ final replay in Tullamore. The final was in London and with a bus organized from Kelly’s of Centaur Street this scribe was destined for his first journey outside the country. It was a great trip, a real test of fitness!, and, of course, the result made it all worthwhile, John Byrne leading Carlow to their second All-Ireland title, thus lifting the exact same Cup as Pat Somers did for the Intermediate championship three decades before. A different cup now but it is, effectively, the same competition as Carlow won in 1962 and 1992. The night before the ’92 final a group of us were traveling in a London taxi from Sheppard’s Bush to Ger Foley’s Windmill pub in Acton which had become a haven for all ‘scallion-eaters’ that week-end. We were in good spirits, literally!, and got a great laugh out of one of our party asking the coloured taxi driver as to “what he made of the Carlow hurlers?” Without any hesitancy and with a deadpan expression our taxi-driver friend quickly replied “they not as good a team as they were last year”!
The Antrim hurling horizon Early 1992, just three years after Antrim had contested the All-Ireland senior hurling final, just a year after the Saffrons had rattled Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final, I sat high up in the Casement Park stand, an old-fashioned fixed-phone in hand, sending a live after-match report to the old KCR Radio on a vital Antrim v Carlow National Hurling League match. We had travelled with high hopes of promotion, the home side’s greater big-time experience proved our downfall. I can vividly remember looking out over the Belfast horizon and telling listeners that though we are disappointed right now, I would love to see our conquerors bring the Liam MacCarthy Cup to Belfast, to the hurling mad Glens and, you know, at that time, it was not a complete pipe-dream, Antim were not coming from as far back as, say, Offaly were on their rise to the top. That gap between us and Antrim was there in 1976 in a virtually deserted Croke Park when Antrim hit us for six (six goals!) in an All-Ireland ‘B’ semi-final, my first time to cheer on my beloved red, yellow and green in headquarters. In ’76 and ’92, we were, truth to tell, significantly behind Antrim in hurling’s pecking order. The gap remained when we were well beaten in the 2006 Christy Ring Cup final. Fast forward to 2010, an All-Ireland qualifier, we on a high after beating Laois and sweeping into an early lead of something like 2-3 to 0-1, Carlow cheers echoed round Casement Park. We were beaten in the end, the Antrim celebrations were a testament to our improvement, but we have yet to beat the Northern stickmen in a major hurling confrontation …
Maybe on Saturday…….the gap is closing!