The literal grassroots of the GAA are minded by some of its most treasured and fiercest volunteers.
“The field is mine” – Bull McCabe.
For over half a century Pat McOscar has been turning the key on Shamrock Park.
Sunday week – the formal start of the Derry club season – will see Declan Lindsay and Hugh Boyle do likewise fifty miles up the road in Steelstown. For these are the groundsmen, the most powerful people in the GAA.
Festooned with overweight bunches of keys which contain the power to make or break any day, the good groundsperson treats the pitch and its environs as his or her own. In many cases, maybe better than his or her own!
They are the people who arrive before all others, and leave long after the last stray sock has been stuffed into a clabber-scented kit bag. Yes, the GAA gatekeeper is an institution worthy of celebration.
The recent spell of summer-like weather in March saw some clubs do just that.
John J McKenna, the King of Watty Park in Glen, was pictured recently on the club’s Twitter account. ‘Some man for one man’ read the tribute to a man who obsesses over the immaculate condition of his sod. Winner of the best grounds in Derry in 2015, the club largely attributed the honour to the work of McKenna, a lifelong servant across many areas of GAA life.
The sentiment spread.
Just a few miles up the road in Lavey, thoughts of winter were banished as attention turned to the new season just around the corner. Pitches were cut and lined, nets hung and flags unfurled. These events, like most other jobs done around the club, are seldom without the presence of five-year-old Micheál McNally, possibly Derry’s youngest unofficial groundsman.
The meticulous attention to detail visited on St Colm’s Park in Drum by its own hero, Jim Farren, is only matched his scorekeeping. Celebrating his eightieth birthday in 2016, Farren helped the club celebrate their own ‘oak’ anniversary earlier this year by starring in a movie for the occasion. Jim’s kith and kin recalled stories of by-gone days like when local farm land was used to host matches prior to 1989, and when a savage wind which gusted through Altmover Glen toppled Jim’s scoreboard. Briefly flirting with the idea of installing an electronic number, the club took the pragmatic decision to instead rebuild the structure which housed its own scorekeeper – a welcome and rare victory for man over the advances of technology.
“We’d have had nowhere to put Jim,” laughed one club man recalling the decision.
The design and maintenance of GAA pitches has become an industry of its own with technology playing a key role. Modern design means modern upkeep is required to maintain the standards now being set. It’s a costly and growing concern for many clubs with the rise in popularity of Gaelic games over the past few generations putting extra pressure both on pitches and pitch time itself. In a sign of the times, many now outsource the responsibility.
Consider Celtic Park, for example. Probably the county’s most robust surface, when games are called off the length of Ireland, the Lone Moor road site remains open for business. The sod has a famed ability to swallow a monsoon and spit it to groundwater far away from the playing surface within minutes. Its secret is down to design and a leap of faith which Doire Colmcille’s Seamus Mullan – the heartbeat of the Celtic Park redevelopment – took back in 2006.
“Joe Pat Prunty came to me with a proposal,” reveals Mullan. “They had pioneered a new system whereby polystyrene beads were mixed with sand in the sub-surface. He promised me it would mean a dry pitch twelve months of the year. It had been untested on a full scale pitch but he convinced me and we went for it. It has certainly proved to be the correct decision when I look back now.”
Recognition of the trade has improved in recent years. Glenullin’s Martin Mullan has been honoured many times for his overwhelming devotion to, and pride in, his club. His attention to detail in tending to the grounds is the stuff of legend, even whilst holding the position of club chair, a demanding task in itself.
He’s not alone.
In a tribute piece of a few years ago, Slaughtneil’s Kevin Kelly recalled the devotion of his friend and former Emmet’s chairman, the late Bernard Kearney, to the task, saying: “He was a wild man for inspecting the pitch. He never left it.”
Examples like these are plentiful and obvious. You only have to look around your own club to recognise these people. Whilst duties are numerous and wide ranging, none arise such passions as those about ‘the pitch’.
“An occasional forward visiting Shamrock Park may have had a legitimate point waved wide by him,” laughs Stephen McGeehan, former chairman of the Ballinderry Shamrocks club. “But always with a sympathetic smile,” he adds.
McGeehan is referring to Pat McOscar, devoted volunteer and part-time umpire, now into his ninth decade of life.
“Pat McOscar epitomises the beating heart of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael,” continues McGeehan. “His home is virtually a shrine to the Shamrocks with pictures and memories adorning the walls and mantelpiece. His outstanding commitment and dedication to pitches at Shamrock Park would be the envy of any club on the island of Ireland.”
For these are the groundsmen. And if you really want to understand them – to see the world as they see it – consider John B Keane’s words, spoken through the Bull McCabe:
“My only want is that green grass, that lovely green grass, and you want to take it away from me, and in the sight of God I can’t let you do that!”
Good luck to all clubs for the 2017 season.