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Lovely enigma that is Offaly by Tom Humphries was published in the Irish Times on Monday the 12th of July 1999
This is a funny business. In theory, there is no cheering in the press box, but things colour
your prose some colour other than purple. Some teams you detest. Some teams you
respect. Some teams you develop such a big soft spot for that it makes your
keyboard go mushy if you aren't careful.
Every journalist I know likes
the Offaly hurlers. If you've a romantic bone in your body you'd have to. Take
yesterday. Fed up to the gills with Babs Keating pulling across their shins with
his accusation that they have nothing filling their jerseys number eight to 15,
they go out and make an ape of Babs by demonstrating they'd nothing from numbers
one to eight. Only Offaly would have the sense of humour to do it.
was an Offaly hurler, indeed, who told me in response to a question once that,
yes indeed, he had come from a GAA-orientated family: he had an uncle who played
for Galway. And what was his name, I asked. Pen poised. Uncle Frank he said.
I think it's because things in Offaly are so dishevelled that we like
them. We've had All-Ireland press nights down there where the players have
wandered out onto the field like 15 black sheep, taken a look around and ambled
back in again. There's never a press ban or a shortage of good talkers; it's
just a question of finding the lads in the right mood.
In the era when
the fitness Nazis run hurling, Offaly is the only county where an exasperated
player will grab you by the lapel and say, listen, we've been training two
nights a week for this and some of the lads are off the drink since Tuesday.
It was a strange experience watching them be dismantled by a Kilkenny
team which seemed to grow an inch taller with every ball that hit the net
yesterday. Offaly are a team with no medium setting. They either run full
throttle or they don't run at all. Yesterday they didn't really run at all, but
their crowd in the sun-kissed stand were hoping till well into the second half
that somebody somewhere would flick a switch.
Nobody did, and in the
last five minutes the Offaly people got the message and decided to make the best
of it and leave early to beat the traffic. The old hatreds that consume other
teams wash over this Offaly side. Most teams are at their best when it's payback
time. Offaly are at their best when they feel like it.
second half had little spells of listlessness which allowed the mind to wander.
Looking across at Hill 16 it scarcely seemed 19 years since I stood there with
my best friend watching Offaly win their first Leinster title in a mostly empty
We had just done the Leaving Cert and were waiting for the
results to detonate our lives. My mate had captained the school hurling team to
a Dublin championship not many weeks previously, and I remember him looking
across as Offaly got the cup and wondering what it must be like to end a famine
That was the end of schooldays and pretty much the end of
going to matches together. The hurling world changed pretty much as drastically
as our own after that. I can remember myself and same mate blagging our way into
the Cork dressingroom after the 1977 All-Ireland and executing a pincer movement
on Jimmy Barry-Murphy in order to beg, steal or borrow one of his hurls from
I'm not sure how much dumb gall it took to climb through the barbed
wire which fenced off the terraces and get into the Cork dressing-room, but on
my part at least the charm offensive on JBM was slightly hypocritical. He was a
superstar whose eminence raised him above the business of county affiliations,
which was lucky because I had come to Croke Park as an ardent Wexford fan that
day. If JBM had just yielded his hurl or his jersey I would have gone home happy
in the knowledge that I had the souvenir of an icon and that Wexford would be
It was that sort of perspicacity which cut me out for my present
After Offaly shook the world three years later or the
9,500 or so of its population who bothered to turn up my mate and I went home
like satisfied young men who had seen something freaky at the circus and never
expected to see such a thing again. But Offaly never stopped coming back, and
the eight Leinster championships they have filched since that day put an end to
the notion of there being a big two in Leinster.
You could have taken us
for a fair few shillings that afternoon if you told us that Offaly and Kilkenny
would be meeting in the last Leinster final of the millennium, as All-Ireland
champions playing Leinster champions, and we wouldn't see Wexford win another
Leinster title until 1996.
By then I'd come to respect the unlikely
sophistication of Offaly civilisation. I lived two years in Ranelagh in a flat
below three Offaly men, and I remember the night of the 1985 All-Ireland final
as being full of brutal reminders about how highly evolved society was in Offaly
and how Neanderthal we Dubs were. The point was amplified by the means of a
drunken puc about on the middle of Beechwood Avenue. Great men.
fitting if baffling for Darwinians that out of the hard-working, mullocking
team of the 1980s that Offaly should have bred the lithe wonders who populate
the present team. On the days when they feel like playing there is no team in
the country like them. Picking those days is like winning money against a
Last summer I found myself in Johnny Pilkington's
office just outside Birr listening to him yarning on about hurling and its
Offaly hinterland. Pilkington should have his own radio programme; he's one of
those characters you could listen to all day.
Anyway, I had it in my
head to explore the issue of the Offaly team's cordial relationship with the
demon drink. In the era of fitness fanaticism, Offaly have a nuanced standpoint
on this business. Johnny has thoughts on this matter which should give
dieticians bad hangovers. In short, he feels that he plays an amateur game and
there are some things he'll sacrifice for that and sometimes a couple of pints
might be one of those things and sometimes not.
Ain't nobody's business
but Johnny's, of course, but that doesn't make good copy, so I pressed him until
eventually he asked, not unreasonably, if the piece was going to be more about
my attitude to drink than his. And I apologised and said sure the theme on
fitness etc had gone off the rails and Johnny sat back, waved his hand and said
no, not at all, don't worry. And with a little grin he lit up a fag in the
Yesterday was a little jolt for Offaly, but the dressing
room was open for callers as usual and the chit chat was about what was further
down the road.
Maybe they'd ride their luck and get Antrim in the
quarter-final. And lo, it came to pass.
Jaysus, you'd have to like the
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