How Tony Doran, the Boys of Wexford, and me, Won the 1968 All-Ireland.
New York has Broadway; London has Shaftesbury Avenue.
But for real theatre of human emotion, passion, heroism, triumph, and heartbreak, nowhere compares to Dublin’s Croke Park on an All-Ireland Hurling Final Day.
This was revealed to me in 1968, on a warm, September Sunday.
Walking back to my flat in Catford, South-East London, from an open window, came the strident, unmistakable voice of Miceal O’Heihir.
He was announcing the halftime score of the hurling final. “Tipperary one goal and 11 points”, said Miceal, “Wexford one goal and three points.”
Wexford, my county, in the all-Ireland, and I hadn’t even known it.
I stood, stunned, breathless.
The Wexford men were traipsing off, eight points down. It sounded bleak.
A face appeared in the open window.
“Where’re ye from?” It asked.
“Wexford” I replied.
“We’re batin’ the lard outa ye. Yiz are in for murder in the second half.”
There was a hint of sympathy in his tone.
He invited me in to listen. I politely declined, sat on the wall, facing a green of grass in the South part of the city. But I was seeing the green of my home county, the patchwork fields stretching off behind the village, the high hedgerows, the looping Hawthorne, and the winding lanes.
I was hearing the wash of the waves on the back strand, and the crash and hiss of the Atlantic as it thundered on to the Burrow.
I was hearing the rattle of the billycan as I cycled to Grants farm for the milk. I was passing Murphy’s gate, standing up on the pedals, pumping and accelerating away from their barking dog. I was seeing the blue skies, puff clouds, green fields with lazy cows, darting rabbits.
And my reverie was interrupted.
Second half. Dan Quigley caught a highball, pumped it up field to Tony Doran. Tony took it, passed to a running Paul Lynch, who looked, lifted, and fired it over for a second Wexford point.
Miceal’s Voice was changing, his speech quickening. The roar was louder. The game was getting faster.
Miceal was now calling them “the Boys of Wexford”, with warmth, admiration, in his tone.
This was a different Wexford team from the first half.
Flashes, scenes of my home county, were exploding into my mind
The game hurled on
Ned Colfer flicked one over to Dan Quigley. Dan boomed it up the field to his brother John.
John to Paul Lynch. Paul to Jack Berry. Jack turns, fires, straight between the posts. The game was changing.
There was a rhythm, a pace, a momentum, in Croke Park. It was growing into me in Catford, Southeast London. The Boys of Wexford were roaring back into my life.
Up goes Big Dan again. A mighty catch! He bursts out and passes inch-perfect to running Phil Wilson. Phil runs and jinks, deep into the Tipperary half. Over it flies to Tony Doran. Tony turns, twists, falls, bounds up, and with a mighty surge, bursts through… and buries it!!
I was off the wall, on the pathway! Scything with my imaginary hurl, scoring, pointing, hooking, blocking, with the Boys of Wexford in Croke Park.
The game raged on
Jack Berry catches a high one, tears past TJ Ryan, and far out, lets fly. Up it goes, soaring high, high, high, sixty-three thousand pairs of eyes on it in Croke Park Dublin, mine on it in Catford, South-East London. By sheer force of will, we floated it, majestically, between the Tipperary uprights.
We were inspired!
Another long one deep into the Tipperary half. Paul Lynch rises, catches, passing to the running Jack Berry. Jack’s in full flight. Darts left, dodges to the right, and fires. The net billows! Another Wexford goal!
Croke Park erupted in Dublin!
I erupted in Catford, south-east London!
Out it came again, a long ball aimed down the field for Tipperary’s Jimmy Doyle. But Jimmy was hurting, off his game. Running on to it was Wexford’s Nick O’Donnell, booming it up the field to Phil Wilson, a flick to John Quigley, and then to the mighty Tony.
And to me in South East London.
Tony and me! Up we went, going high and hard, snatching it from Tipp defenders, and before we’d even hit the ground, palmed it, swivelled, and fired, rattling and billowing the Tipperary net to the roar of the worldwide Wexford voice!
We were ahead. On we hurled.
Tony and the team in Croke Park.
Me in Catford, South East London.
We hurled, tackled, blocked, and hooked. We were men possessed.
Our lungs burned, our legs screamed, our shoulders ached. And on we hurled. The pitch got bigger. The ball got smaller. Moving was like pushing through thick mud.
The Boys of Wexford in Croke Park. Me in Catford, South East London.
The scores were building. The points were mounting. Two more times we smashed the Tipperary net. We inspired ourselves. Committing sublime, murderous strokes like relentless assassins.
And then it went; the shrill, thin, merciful blast of the final whistle.
Wexford 5-8, Tipperary 3-12.
We, Wexford, were the All Ireland Champions.
Sitting on the wall, relief, elation, pride, the sense of identity, all in an exquisite sadness, flooded through me in body-shocking sobs.
“Why’re you bawlin’?” asked Tipperary. He was at the windowsill, sucking on a Gold Flake. “Ye’ve just won the All-Ireland!”
I took a breath. The sobs subsided. The cheering and the noise faded. I turned to that kindly Tipperary man.
The change that had swept over Croke Park in Dublin, and into my life in Catford, Southeast London, in that thirty-five minutes of hurling history, expressed everything I felt. “I’m going home.”, I said.
But not to that flat around the corner, where I ate, slept, existed.
But to the fields and the ditches, the laneways, the high hedges, the cottages on winding roads, the chance meetings on crossroads, the rabbits, and the fields at evening, lit by slanting suns, where shadows drifted by...