lege in the 1970s. Some of them had been there 40, 50 years and then they had gone. It was only the start of it. They could probably see what we could see later. . . the whole impact of the institutional and control mentality. But, yeah, with the Pope visiting it was very affirming that this was a good place to be and a good way of life to be in.”
And Connolly’s echoing of the Pope’s salute and the people chanting his name and the feeling of being surrounded by thousands of people in Croke Park must have deepened that.
Clarke stayed at the elite level of the game until the 1984 season ended, and it was only then, when the game was no longer calling him, that he understood.
“Hurling kept me grounded and close to people, and guarded me, in a strange way, of the reality of being celibate and living in a house on your own. Before that I had been used to living and working with three other priests in a house. And I think I began to work probably too hard to try and cope with that.”
Time zig-zags. Like all Galway hurling people, Clarke has followed the team this summer and he sees parallels. You can hear in his voice that he is smitten by them regardless of how Sunday goes. He knows they are worth their salt.
It is tempting to believe that the group of Galway men in the steps of the Hogan stand in 1980 bestrode through the land unstoppable. In fact, they had been stopped again and again.
It was a slow climb. In 1975 they started out in Division Two and beat Tipperary in a league final. More significantly, they beat Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time ever. Yes, they lost the final – no prizes for guessing who to – but it felt like they were moving. In fact, Clarke remembers the reception for that league win more vividly than anything else.
“We were going down Bohermore into Eyre Square. And all these people outside their houses. And people crying. That team was a fusion of slightly older players like John Connolly and PJ Qualter and Pauric Fahy and Ted Murphy. We were the young greyhounds of the time – although you wouldn’t compare us to what’s there now. But we fused with them and gave them energy and people really got behind that team. They were very loyal to us.
“And that night. It was a real . . . release. Galway had great hurlers, like Inky Flaherty and Joe Sammon, who went for years with no success. In those years it felt like we were breaking barriers. People followed us to Cork and Wexford for league games. No bother. It was like a resurgence of Galway hurling that had been asleep for decades.”
School started back across Galway this week. Inevitably, the sun came out. It has been a strange few days for Iggy Clarke: his first as a retiree. In the 20 years since he left the priesthood he studied psychology and counselling, and took up a teaching position in New Inn.
For two months after returning from Spokane he tried to convince himself that he could continue. That November he told parishioners in Loughrea that he was leaving from the altar after Mass. “People were great. They were fantastic. My father was 97 then and you know he was a typical farmer in that you take what comes. He just said to me ‘whatever you think yourself’.”
After that he was no longer Fr Iggy Clarke or Iggy Clarke the hurler. “Those were like an aspect of me or an expression of me. But me the individual is not that. And I remember saying to myself that one of the important thing is to keep my friends that I knew through the game and through hurling. Those friendships are more important than the hurling.”
For a few years he didn’t watch much hurling but became involved with the GAA’s mental wellbeing programmes. He counsels, as does his wife Mariel, whose spiritual teaching transformed his understanding of religion.
Clarke watched in a mixture of anger and sadness through the decade of scandal which erased the position of power the church had held for centuries. Even now he has conflicted feelings. He feels certain that there was and is a lot of quiet important work done by priests and bishops. And he understands that people would be sceptical that he couldn’t have been unaware of the abuses perpetrated by members of the clergy in the decades when he served. He began, through reading his wife’s books, to develop a new concept of spirituality. “A whole new understanding of incarnation and reincarnation. And it made a lot of sense to me. It was based on a more loving God and none of the fear or control. It made a lot of sense to me.
“The old thing of going to Mass and you are saved . . . I wouldn’t be staunchly religious now. I believe that if I’m a decent person and am able to do a bit of good for others that I’m in the right place. So we now do workshops together on the soul journey, which is about the transition from this life to the next life.”
Sometimes when he talks to schoolchildren about technology and social media, he describes what life was like in the 1970s. The reaction is always amusing in its horror. He knows how limited it sounds – and was. Being a Galway hurler then meant appearing on television every so often. At that stage television was such a strange exotic phenomenon that it transferred a kind of otherness onto the hurlers. It set them apart and made them known.
“That was a shock to the system. It was as though you were becoming something else.”
They all were. Any time Galway reaches an All-Ireland final the footage of 1980 invariably makes an appearance and the ‘87/88 teams are the chief reference point.
And it all swirls. Because he lives in Oranmore the tragic sudden death of Tony Keady is still on his mind, and every so often he summons a vision of the former centre back striding into a room, beaming and filling it with energy. “Delighted to be there, with life, to be meeting everyone. Such a presence. He could do anything and walk away laughing.”
And his friend Joe McDonagh is also on his mind because he knows how much he would enjoy this All-Ireland.“I do feel that this team is on a similar journey to ourselves. There is a bit of character and a greater connection with people, and a feeling among ordinary people, I feel, that this term deserves or needs an All-Ireland win.
“Players like Joe Canning, his uniqueness, needs that moment in the sunshine. And, please God, that is Sunday. Who knows? But there is a real sense that this team and management are solid and have their feet on the ground, and that we can really get behind them.
“You could say all the positions are strong. You couldn’t say that about our team, not as much. We probably had pockets. Winning . . . I think it would mean an awful lot to Galway people because this team, there is something different about them.”
He will be in the stands. And if Galway win the crowd will chant for other names, and 1980 may suddenly seem very far away. That’s fine. Call it a soul journey.