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Memories of a Golden Age in Gaelic Games

Sport

Henry Wymbs

REMINISCING is good for the soul. That is the conclusion I have drawn after researching and writing a new book called ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, which features many of the interviews I have done over the years with legendary Gaelic footballers and hurlers who played and starred for their respective county teams from the 1940s to the 1970s.
The idea of this book came to me earlier this year when I sat at my desk at home in Oxfordshire and reflected back on my life. It had certainly been one of good fortune as, through my work as a BBC broadcaster, I met, interviewed and got to know personally many of the Gaelic footballers and hurling legends that I had idolised throughout my childhood. In that moment I excitedly decided that the time had come to compile a selection of the many interviews I had completed within a single book. This publication would focus on players from different counties and feature their childhood memories, anecdotes from playing days and stories of epic encounters between rival counties. This book was however not that straightforward as some of the interview transcripts had been sitting gathering dust in the bottom drawer of my desk for a number of years. I also wanted to include new names which meant tracing and meeting popular players from yesteryear. Putting it all together was quite a daunting task, but with the support of my family to help an ageing brain, I was determined to give it a go and by September 2022 I am pleased to say that all interviews (old and new) were complete and ready for publication.
Reflecting and recollecting on our earliest memories can stir up all sorts of emotion; sadness, happiness, amusement, joy, surprise, frustration, anger. For some of us the whole process of looking back can be a therapeutic one, reminding us of a simpler and more innocent time of life when the days seemed slower and our priorities as younger people were quite different from the modern frenetic landscape we live in today.
‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ has in its own way been a kind of therapeutic reminiscence taking me back to my own childhood and reminding me of the excitement I felt as a young pup listening to matches on the wireless, watching as a supporter from the side-lines and playing football myself in the hustle and bustle of local Gaelic football in the small village of Cliffoney in North Sligo during the early to late sixties.
For me, Gaelic football and hurling are more that just sports. They are indelibly linked to the social fabric of Irish society, and the players that have graced our green fields throughout the years, have enriched our lives in so many ways. Certain players’ names immediately make me nostalgic, taking me back to a particular time or place. For me personally, the name Jimmy Smyth of Clare brings back clear memories of my childhood growing up in the mid-to-late 50s. Jimmy’s name was often heard echoing around the fields on our farm in Sligo. A crowd of us would gather together with lumps of wood and a ball made of newspaper tied up with string, trying to strike every ball the way Jimmy did for Clare on the major hurling fields around Ireland. Occasionally one of us would scream out his name as wood hit paper (or should it be ash hit leather!) Similarly, the name Frankie Walsh of Waterford immediately transports me back to my early teens when I would stand outside our farmhouse with hurl in hand, striking every pebble over the large trees into the nearby field, much to my mother’s annoyance.
The selection of interviews I have chosen for this book are not just individual stories from Gaelic sports stars about playing the game they loved. That on its own would be an interesting read. No, they are more than that. The memories provide an historical, cultural and social record of the times in which these players lived, such as growing up during and just after World War Two when food and petrol rationing was in full force, of restricted travel, which for some folk meant 50-mile walks to games, borrowing old bicycles, with football boots and togs strapped over handlebars, or thumbing lifts from town to town.
Ever-increasing emigration made it difficult to keep great sides together and sometimes even made it difficult to get fifteen players lined up on the pitch!
Of course, memories of famous football matches and many funny incidents do feature prominently throughout this book. Dermot O’Brien of Louth recalls as a young lad having an intimating first senior encounter with the giant Kerry player, Jaz Murphy, who shook his hand, gripped it tightly and in a strong Kerry accent asked, “How are ye, you poor cratur?” O’Brien reminisces on being captain of the Louth team and being locked out of Croke Park stadium an hour before the start of the 1957 All-Ireland final! Billy Rackard reflects on that brilliant 1950s Wexford hurling team and his talented siblings, Nickey and Bobby. Kieran Carey talks frankly about being part of the formidable Tipperary back-line known as, ‘Hell’s Kitchen’.
In summary the stories within this book prove a telescopic lens into a period of a time long since gone, but not completely forgotten, when electricity was not yet in the rural family home, turf was the main source of fuel and water was collected from the local well, a time before the advent of the internet and social media.
It had been a real privilege for me to interview over twenty heroes from this special era and it has given me great joy to finally be able to put all of these interviews together into one book, with many anecdotes told from the greats of the post-war Gaelic era, including the likes of Jimmy Murray, Roscommon, Pauric McShea, Donegal, Mickey Kearins, Sligo, Ray Carolan, Cavan, Sean Meade, Galway, Packie McGarty, leitrim, John McAndrew, Mayo and the Cuddy’s of Laois who illustrate the power of the little village of Camross. There are many, many others I interviewed who are not included.  Hopefully, the second edition will follow in the near future!
Another fun part of these interviews has been getting players to give their verdict on the greatest players from their generation, including reflections on the iconic figures of Christy Ring in hurling and Sean Purcell in football.
Anyway, the book is now written and I hope that readers of all ages will get the same sense of joy and wonder that I have felt when listening to and writing down their fascinating tales.
Reminiscence can be good for the soul!

Henry Wymbs worked as a senior detective with Thames Valley Police for over thirty years and for the BBC for a further twenty-five. He has already published his autobiography, A Wymbsical Journey (2016), and co-written Fifty Years of Gaelic Games in Oxfordshire (2009)
On the Shoulders of Giants is published by Hero books, founded by Liam Hayes, a former Meath Gaelic footballer and winner of All-Ireland titles in 1987 and 1988.
This intriguing and rare collection of interviews are available to buy on Amazon as an e-book for €9.99, paperback for €20 and hardback for €25.

 

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