The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - HURLING ALL-IRELAND FINAL SPECIAL -

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.

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