How Me, Tony Doran, the Wexford Hurling Team, and the Whole County, won the 1968 All-Ireland Hurling Final...
The afternoon stretched out before me.
It was 1968. We’d just finished a Sunday lunch gig in the “Green Man“ pub, Blackheath Common, South London. The instruments had been loaded into the van. Our work was done for the day.
I said my goodbyes to the boys of the band. There are times when the only way to be is solitary. A vague anxiety hovered somewhere in the back of my mind. I couldn't fix a name or a cause. It wasn't even that there was anything wrong. It just didn't feel right.
I felt without direction, unsettled, aimless.
And that was how my mind responded, aimlessly. Moving from the Common, I found myself wandering into Lewisham High Street.
In those days most shops were shut on Sundays. The street was a canyon of glass and concrete, with people meandering, strolling, up and down, window-shopping, chatting, looking, buying tea at the tea stalls, all moving slowly in the warm September sun.
Behind a tea stall at which I had stopped, was a barrow full of books, all hardbacks, with their spines turned up. Picking up what turned out to be an old English reader, with essays by the likes of Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Dickens, a page dropped open on “The Wayfarer”, the poem by Padraic Pearse.
There, amid the roar of traffic, the walls of hot sun-reflecting glass, the chug of buses and the crowd on the sun-brightened city concrete, my eye fell on the words,
“… To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red ladybird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun, on some green hill,
Where shadows drifted by…“
And they took my breath away.
I paid the 6p for the tea, three pennies for the book, and moved on. Turning down an alleyway which wound down to the green square in Catford where I lived, I was now surrounded by tall chestnuts and beeches, with the sun dappling through the leaves and branches in shadowed patterns on the short, manicured grass of the square.
I was heading for a wooden bench in the sunny gap between two trees when I was brought to a standstill by a strident high and familiar voice.
From an open window on the far side of the green, Miceál O’Héihir was sounding the halftime score of the All Ireland Hurling Final.
Like filings to a magnet, I was drawn across the green. “And the Wexford men are traipsing off” intoned Miceál .
A face appeared in the open window. “Where are you from?” Asked the face.
“Wexford” I answered.
“A Jaysus! We’re batin’ the shite out o' yiz”, he exclaimed. “Come on in! Hear in the second half!”
“Thanks”, I said “leave the window open, I’ll sit here on the wall.”
On the wall, with my back to the window, I sat looking over the small green. But I wasn’t seeing that green patch of grass in a square in South East London.
I was seeing the green fields and the rolling hills of south county Wexford, the back roads and the winding lanes, the high hedges and the looping Hawthorne. I was hearing the rattle of the empty billycan on the handlebars of the bike on the old dusty road, the chirrup of birds in the hedgerow, that early evening birdsong, the bark of a dog as I passed a gate, the greeting, 'grand day' from a passing farmer, as I made my way to Grant’s farm to to collect the milk for the following day.
But then a Croke Park roar interrupted my reverie.
The second-half was starting. Miceál was announcing the throw -in. The cheering and the roaring filled the air.
“Nine points down!… A wide for Tipperary!“, Shouted Miceál “…pucks it out… Phil Wilson catches….bursts past Babs Keating…runs through Jimmy Doyle. …flicks it over to Jack Berry! Here come the Boys of Wexford!” Roared Miceál, voice rising, excitement mounting….”a pass back to Paul Lynch…Paul looks up, steadies and strikes…and it’s over the bar! A point for Wexford!! This looks like a different Wexford team from the first half…”. The rest of his words were lost in the voice of the entire Wexford county as it roared the team on.
“…a long puck out…a bobbing ball…Dan Quigley gathers.”
Some of his words were getting lost in bursting roars from the crowd in Croke Park.
Amid the background din came names and words that meant that the Wexford men were fighting back. The name Dan Quigley came up again,… “What a catch! Flips it over to Ned Colfer!
Colfer to Willie Murphy!
Murphy to Phil Wilson!
Phil turns and fires it up the field! It’s coming down!.
Tony Doran is in there!! So is Christy Jacob! So is Seamus Whelan!
"Up goes Tony! He catches! Holds, and swivels.!
He palms the ball!
He shortens the grip and with a mighty twist of the shoulders buries it in the back of the Tipperary net!”
“The game has changed!, ”shouted Miceál into the microphone and out to the world. “The Boys of Wexford are hurling back! This is a different team from the first half!”
A roar drowned his commentary as Tony Doran pumped another one over the bar.
The noise from the crowd and the speed of commentary melded into a continuous stream of sound as the Wexford men hurled their way into the game…”Wexford 2 goals and six points, Tipperary, one goal and twelve points!" shouted Miceál. "Only three points in it! Who’d have thought it at half time!?!
Wexford had been trailing by 8 points. They looked beaten, bedraggled, done! It must be the spirit of 1798,” continued Miceál,
“….the Boys of Wexford! Fighting with heart and hand!”
The game roared on.
Down the field it came. Wexford were hurling like men possessed. Purple and gold were bursting up the field again. Down came the ball.
Up went the hands!
The roar of the crowd filled the square in Catford.
The two teams hurled it out in Croke Park.
And I was hurling it out in Catford, Southeast London!
Off the wall, seeing the green of Croke park in my mind’s eye, the jerseys of the Blue and Gold of Tipperary, and my own countymen in the Purple and Gold of the Model County, my heart and mind and spirit were hurling the air, swinging the arms, screaming and shouting as I heard it on the radio and saw the spectacle in my head.
‘…another one for Wexford’ shouted Miceál. Tipperary one goal and twelve points, Wexford three goals and six points…..the teams are level!!”
Hysteria throttled up my throat and roared the Wexford men on! Out come Tony Doran again! The square was a frenzied maelstrom of Blues and Purple and the flashes of Purple and Gold as hands and heads and scything hurls flashed in the air. Then a mighty roar lifted Jimmy O'Brien's Hurley and smite it against the tiny white sphere once more to the Tipperary net !!!
Wexford four goals and six points! Tipperary one goal and twelve points.
On they hurled! The men in Croke Park, battling every ball, hunting every chance, hooking, blocking, tackling through the game!
And there was I, in Catford, swinging, dodging, palming, so that when Jack Berry belted in Goal number five, London, in the United Kingdom, just like Tipperary, in the Republic of Ireland, was at the mercy of anything Wexford.
To seal the game, our Tony pumped over another point, just before a desperate but willing Tipperary punched the Wexford net with their second goal of the game.
On we hurled, Tony and the boys in Croke Park, Me in South London. We hurled and we tackled and we blocked and we hooked and we pointed and we ran and we played till our legs and our lungs and our shoulders screamed for relief.
The pitch was getting bigger and the ball was getting smaller, the lifting of the stick was like hauling it through thick mud. Heart and Soul, I was there with them on that green patch of grass across the breadth of England and over the Irish Sea, hauling aching limbs and indomitable minds through those last few minutes of physical hell.
And then it went; that shrill, thin, lung-long blast of the game-end whistle.
And we, Tony and the boys in Croke Park, and me, in a distant corner of South East London, and the men and the women and the boys and the girls of the county of Wexford, had won!
We had won the All Ireland Hurling Final!
Sitting on that wall , back to the window, a kaleidoscope of visions and sights running through the hungry eyes of my turbulent mind, the relief, the elation, the welling pride, the rediscovery, the sense of place, of identity, the exquisite sadness, erupted through my system in mighty body- shocking sobs.
“What’re ye bawlin’ about?”, demanded Tipperary. He was leaning on the wall a foot or two away from me. He held a packet of Gold Flake in one hand, a lighter in the other.
“Yah”, he continued” It’s hard to be here when that’s goin’ on over there. It’ll be a lonely day for many a one of yere county.”
To the background of speeches, declarations, supposed commiserations coming from the radio, I moved from the wall, feeling my feet firmly on the concrete of the pathway, and turning to that kindly Tipperary Man, heard my own voice uttering the words “I’m going home.”
It was a simply stated declaration. And it wasn’t talking about the small apartment around the corner; what I had casually called my home, the place where I currently lay my head, where I slept, where I ate.
It was to green fields and the high ditches, the winding lane ways and the hidden farmhouses, the birds in a clear sky, the warm quiet greetings on the roads, and chance meetings at the crossroads, rabbits in the fields at evenings, lit by slanting suns on green hills, where shadows drifted by…..
That was the home to which I was going.