Speech: D.J. Carey and the ‘craic’

This is an edited version of a speech given by Paul Daffey to Melbourne’s Irish History Circle at the Celtic Club in February 2010.

I stand before you in the GAA jersey of Kilkenny, one of the combined 32 counties of the Republic and the North, all of whom contest the annual All-Ireland Championship in hurling and Gaelic football. I’m wearing the black and amber of the Kilkenny Cats, with the No.12 of D.J. Carey on my back. The jersey was a present from colleagues at the Irish Times in 1998, but more of that later.

In Ireland there are many boys and men called P.J.; every Patrick Joseph in the land is known by his initials. But there’s only one D.J. His name is Denis Joseph, and he was the most famous hurler of his generation. Christy Ring played for Cork for 24 years, from 1939 to ’63, and he’s considered the Don Bradman of hurling. D.J. played for Kilkenny for 15 years, from 1990 to 2005. He’s behind Christy Ring in the pantheon of hurling, but only just.

D.J. was quick, skilful and capable of turning a game quicker than Brendan Behan downed a pint. I saw him play twice, in the Leinster final in August 1998 and the All-Ireland final in September 1998. His All-Ireland final was one of the quietest games of his life. I admit to watching him and wondering what all the fuss was about. And yet he did have a presence. It wasn’t his stature; he was skinny, even scrawny. But he showed enough to make me realise that he could move like lightning when the sliotar (the hurling ball) was nearby. He always threatened to snap out of his amble and belt the sliotar past the goalkeeper. Two goals are generally enough to win a hurling match. Carey often decided games within a minute.

I’ll aver to Tom Humphries of the Irish Times to give more of a sense of Carey from a piece he write in 2003:

When they were younger, Jack Carey and Denis Joseph Carey would head out to the farms and woodlands of south Kilkenny or Laois and look for ash trees. Down near the root, in an area just a couple of metres long, the ash tree yields a harvest of hurleys. The boys knew what they wanted. Something with a nice sun-ripened grain, not a tree that’s been gnarled by frost. No knots. As little sap as possible.

They would take the ash home to Kilkenny, dry it for nine months or so until they knew its personality to be reliable, and then Jack would carve D.J.’s hurleys, implements of magic thirty five and a half inches long …

As a child, when Carey wasn’t in the field, he was pounding his ball up against a wall of his home in Gowran, County Kilkenny. The gable end of the Carey house, the scene of this decade long shellacking, has become something of a hurling landmark, a sacred spot photographed and worshipped at.

And when it got dark he came in and played hurling games in the bedroom with his brothers. Once Mrs Carey needed the bedroom window fixed. The glazier was surprised to discover through rudimentary forensics that the ball had passed through the glass from the inside out, more surprised perhaps that this was considered normal …

For 13 years at senior level, D.J. Carey has been the centre of the hurling universe. He is a Kilkenny man, which in the lottery of hurling life means that certain advantages were conferred at birth. He went to Ireland’s top hurling academy, St Kieran’s of Kilkenny, where he was discovered to be the sweetest of hurlers. So good, in fact, that the school took the precaution of employing his mother just to make sure that he always had a lift home after training.

Since his arrival, back in the late 1980s, Carey has played in eight All Ireland finals, the Superbowls of the game, winning five and living through an extraordinary period of change in the game.

You may not know him, yet the video of his life is the bestselling sports video of all time in Ireland. He has socialised with Tiger Woods and golfed with Harrington, Montgomerie, Woosnam, McGinley and others. He travels quietly with aid agencies to the bleakest corners of the world. He has been recognised on the street in Calcutta, demonstrated hurling in villages in Africa. He trains five or six times a week and, for sustenance, does a job that requires him to drive 75,000 miles a year.

A few years ago an arts festival in Kilkenny sought to honour Carey by parading a 20 foot-tall effigy of him through the old streets. D.J. Carey fancied he’d bring his young kids into town to surprise them. But he couldn’t find a parking space and just drove home again …

The enigmatic nature of Carey, and his status as the most talented player of his generation, reminded me of Gary Ablett (or Gary Ablett senior, as we now call him). Both players were once-in-a-lifetime talents, gifts from the sporting gods, but there was a large difference. Ablett was powerful, as likely to lower his shoulder and knock an opponent into next week as he was to kick a miraculous goal. Carey relied on guile. To some, the difference between Gary Ablett and D.J. Carey typifies a difference between the sports of Australian football and hurling.

In early 1998 I worked as a sub-editor at the Cork Examiner, or Da Paper, as the rest of Ireland called it in deference to the Cork accent. Almost every night after work, a fellow sub, Conor O’Donnell, would join me for a drink at the lock-in around the corner in Patrick Street or in my kitchen in Barrack Street, on the south side of the River Lee. Conor and I talked about music, writing, politics and sport. Conor was qualified to talk about sport because he’d played a few games as a corner forward for Kerry, the most famous football county in Ireland. He was a whippet, with arms and legs like stringbeans. As a player he relied on speed and nous. In his mind, Australian football was “a brutal game”. “There’s no subtlety at all,” he said.

I’d always seen our footy as a game of immense possibilities because it requires traits across the physical gamut: strength, endurance and speed. The smartest players often are the best, able to think their way through a game, but brains are not generally trumpeted as the difference on the footy field. It’s about brawn, and toughness. In Gaelic football, corner forwards like Conor had no space to work in. They had to think about how to create more space. They had to come up with all sort of permutations in their attempts to slot the ball past the goalkeeper and into the net, or above the crossbar for an over.

I was fascinated with the way Conor described his growing up in Dingle in county Kerry. As a young journalist, he worked at The Kerryman in Tralee. After work, he and a mate read a book for an hour before heading to one of the 50 pubs in their town of 1500. The pubs were a riot of characters: old men with impossible yarns, young men with wits as sharp as the rocks off the Blaskets. I once went to Dingle with Conor for a few days. We proceeded from one pub to the next, with everyone talking but no one saying anything substantial, with any weight. The chat sparkled. There were no full stops. Village life in Ireland seemed so rich. Australian chatter seemed so leaden. I could see why Conor found Australian football a brutal game.

Tom Humphries once wrote that soccer is about where you’re going, the GAA is about where you’re from. In the GAA, you just play for the club and county to which you were born. The number of top players who’ve crossed from one county to another could be counted on one hand. Part of this is to do with the fact that the GAA is amateur; there’s no monetary incentive to go anywhere. But it’s also hugely to do with loyalty and the culture of the code. The GAA was formed at a meeting in the Hayes Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary, in 1884 for the purposes of reviving Irish games and repelling the tide of British imperialism. Hurling and football had been played for two thousand years; the first written evidence of hurling was gleaned from Brehon law in the fifth century. In the 17th century, teams from neighbouring villages competed against each for days on end. D.J. Carey was born in the village of Gowran. He remained there throughout his sporting life, and he still lives there.

I well remember the day that the life of the village that underpins the GAA hit home to me. It was the day I met Sean Og (Og means young, or junior) O’hAilpin, the older brother of Setanta O’hAilpin, the AFL footballer with Carlton. Sean Og is the oldest of the six O’hAilpin kids, born to a father from County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and a Fijian mother. Sean’s father worked for a time on building sites in Sydney, where he met his wife. Sean Og spent his early years in Sydney following rugby league but he also had an AFL team. He followed Hawthorn because they were on the television most often.

When Sean Og was 11, his father decided to make good his desire for his children to have an Irish education. By Irish education, Sean senior meant that he wanted his children to do their schooling in the Irish language, an opportunity that had been denied to him as a boy in the North. There’s a school in Cork City that teaches the curriculum in Irish and so the O’hAilpin family moved to Cork.

When I met Sean Og, he was a 20-year-old commerce student who was home from Dublin City University (where he was studying his degree in Irish) to do a placement at a bank in Cork City. Sean was wearing grey slacks that were fraying around the pockets and black shoes with holes around the toes. It was at that moment I realised the true dedication of GAA players, who play as amateurs whether they’re representing the local parish or the red and white (the Blood and the Bandages!) of County Cork.

Sean had a strong sense that his family had moved to Ireland for the purpose of celebrating Irishness. To him, it was an honour to have the chance to play Irish games at the top level. Even during a quiet lunchtime counter meal, his eyes widened when he spoke of what it meant to play hurling and football for Cork.

“You’re playing for the Blood and the Bandages,” he said. “You’re playing for your county.”

A few weeks later, Jo and I went to the county championship hurling match between Limerick and Cork at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick City. Before the match, Jo and I joined the thousands who spilt in and out of the pubs along the road that leads to the stadium. In Ireland it’s a tradition before every championship match to meet friends in the pub and enjoy the craic. We in Melbourne meet friends in the pub before an AFL match, but it’s just not on the scale of the Irish experience. Ireland’s county championship is a knockout competition. The build-up to games is like the lead-in to the Geelong and Collingwood Preliminary Final in 2007. You get to the pub early and you revel in every minute because a county championship match is a rare and glorious occasion.

As Jo and I cradled our pints, we watched as the Cork players’ bus inched its way through the crowd towards the stadium. Sean Og was in a window seat, eyes agog, looking terrified as he watched men and women hurl abuse (witty rather than coarse) or encouragement at the bus. Having spoken to Sean Og, I imagined he was thinking of this match as one of the most important events of his young life.

Just before the game, every man and women at the ground stood and faced the tricolour Irish flag that hung from a flagpole behind one set of uprights. Then every single person sang the Soldier’s Song with emotion, with real meaning, to the extent that I found the experience to be among the most moving of my life. Jo, standing next to me, had goosebumps. Everyone in the stadium seemed to have an understanding that every GAA game is a fortification of their being as an Irishman or an Irishwoman. Then everyone shouted, “Go Limerick!”, or “Go Cork!”, or “Corcoran, you blaggard!”, and the game began.

My main memory of that game is Sean Og O’hAilpin hurtling forward while balancing the sliotar on his hurley and then giving it a mighty whack to send Cork forward. Of course, he did himself, his family and his county proud. Cork beat Limerick in a canter.

While the Irish treat their national games with great respect, they also revel in life’s absurdities and they know that sport is as absurd as anything, perhaps more so. This was brought home to me during an All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Offaly and Clare at Croke Park in Dublin.

GAA referees, like the players, are amateur. The players give them little or no grief because they respect the fact that referees give their time to make the games possible. The players and referees are united in the GAA family. They’re united by a sense of Irishness.

In the GAA (as in soccer), referees keep the time. When the referee for the Leinster final between Offaly and Clare blew the final whistle a few minutes early, with Clare in front, there was general befuddlement. Spectators on the terraces around me creased their brows.

“That can’t be right…”

“What time do you have?…”

“What the feck?”

After a prolonged period of confusion, where everyone waited for the referee to emerge from the beneath the grandstand, blow his whistle and say, “We’ll be getting on with it now”, it became apparent that the match would not recommence. A handful of Offaly fans hopped the fence and sat on the pitch. Thousands followed. Teenagers walked among the seated fans waving the green, white and yellow flag of the Banner County, as Offaly is known. Some fans sang. Most fans laughed. It was a sit-in protest of distinctly high spirits.

On the terraces, confusion gave way to merriment. The fans loved the fact that one of the county’s biggest sporting occasions had descended into the equivalent of a parish picnic gone awry.

“This is great craic.”

“Oh, great craic.”

“Poor ref … the silly fecker!”

While I imagined the outrage that would surround a simple, honest mistake like this in the AFL (remember the goal after the siren in Launceston?), spectators around me were hunched over in laughter. The GAA is amateur and GAA people accept all that this entails. The fans delighted in this unexpected twist.

The referee, a Galway man, later admitted his mistake and the game was rescheduled to be played again the next week. Offaly turned the tables on Clare and sealed their passage to the All-Ireland final.

In the lead-up to the final, the Irish Times featured a profile of Johnny Pilkington, one of Offaly’s best players, who admitted to drinking up to 17 pints and smoking a packet of gaspers on the day before a match. The entire Offaly team was drawn from a handful of clubs around the town of Birr. The players were all friends for whom hurling was great craic. There was something about the false-finish shambles against Clare that agreed with the Offaly players. Their eventual victory in the All-Ireland final, over D.J. Carey and the mighty Kilkenny, was a win for the ages.

Around this time, I wrote a piece for the “Why I love …” series in the sports pages in The Guardian in London about D.J. Carey. The article was rubbish, but it was effusive. Liam Ryan, a friend and colleague from the Irish Times, was a GAA man who regularly went home to Nenagh in County Tipperary to watch his club, Eire Og (Young Ireland). Liam didn’t comment on the content of my article, but he did mention the feel. “I liked the tone,” he said. I’d never had anyone weigh up an article in terms of tone. This seemed to me to be an Irish thing, to overlook the words if the mood and texture were right, to enjoy the craic.

In December, after my last shift on the Irish Times sports desk, my workmates took me to the pub and presented me with a Kilkenny jersey, in reference to my D.J. Carey article. They gave me a hurley and sliotar as well. I took the gifts to mean that I had “got it”, that I had gleaned the essence of the Irish games. It was a proud moment for me. Slainte, we said, and enjoyed our final pints together.

The next year, back in Melbourne, Jo and I went to the Clifton Hill Hotel to watch the All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Cork. We enjoyed the night, but the craic wasn’t right. I stopped following the hurling and Gaelic football and once again became subsumed by Australian football. Only now, it was with a wider reference base. I love the way the GAA touches on every aspect of social and political life in Ireland. When I consider footy in Australia, I consider it in this way.

Comments

  1. Daff – great piece of work. You talk of a wonderfully rich culture centred around the idea of a meeting place (the pub) which provokes conversation and a sense of community.

    I long for such a thing here in Melbourne, unfortunately we have not achieved it nearly as well as the Irish. Instead we have too many beer barns and drinking halls. Add to that we also have a government that is more interested in banning things than coming up with solutions to problems, and hence the small “locals” are getting caught up in this media and political frenzy (and nonsense)called “alcohol fueled violence”, and will be crushed under the weight of regulation.

    Dingle is one of the most beautiful and friendly places in the world.

  2. Peter Flynn says:

    Ripper speech Daff. Agree with Dips.

    A proud punter drove me to see the Christy Ring statue one breezy afternoon. Very impressive.

    I caught a local hurling game in Cork. Hail, Guinness and the sound of clashing hurleys.

    Fond memories also of Dingle (52ish pubs). Even the Cobblers shop was a pub. “Are you havin’ one then?”

    Saw a National League Gaelic Football Final b/n Cork and Kerry. I was in Dingle at the time and I was told to ring this bloke and he’d get me on the Kerry supporter’s bus. He did. The great Maurice Fitzgerald (Kerry) didn’t play all that well from memory. Colin Corkery (may have trained with Carlton) interrupted his honeymoon to play and shouldn’t have. The locals gave him some stick.

    It took a long time to get back from Cork.

  3. Peter Lenaghan says:

    Yerra, that’s a lovely bit of oratory, Daff.

    Henry Shefflin seems to be DJ Carey’s successor as hurling’s greatest player. He’s also a Kilkenny man and has won seven All-Ireland medals, including the last four years in a row.

    On St Patrick’s day (Wednesday), Shefflin was part of the Ballyhale Shamrocks team that won the All-Ireland Club championship, beating Portumna from Galway. There’s some brilliant footage of Shefflin at http://www.rte.ie where he weaves between two opponents with the sliotar, before flicking a no-look pass with the heel of his hand to a teammate – magnificent skill!

    My favourite example of GAA people power was the refusal of fans to follow a directive to stay off the pitch at the end of last year’s All-Ireland finals. A few Kilkenny fans had to fight their way past security guards, but eventually the way was cleared and they flooded out on to the pitch to celebrate with the players.

  4. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says:

    I mentioned the name DJ Carey to some of the parents at Gaelic football training here in Abu Dhabi yesterday afternoon. There was immediate recognition and acknowledgment of his place in the GAA Parthenon – behind Christy Ring.

    Daff – I reckon you captured the essence of GAA sports in the statement it is where you are from. Other than the fact that Gaelic footy is a fun game to play, I think the parents or at least one of which is Irish are keen for their kids to play a GAA sport for this reason. The football in the schools is either soccer or rugby so this is the chance for their children to play the Irish game – most turn out in their respective county shirt.

  5. pauldaffey says:

    Thanks all for the comments. Fond memories of DJ, Dingle and even Portumna. I stayed there once. It’s in East Galway, on the lake. Charming little place. I have no idea how a town that size could have reached an All-Ireland club final, but that seems to be the way in the GAA.

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