ballyshannon, donegal, irish newspapers online, ireland, irish history, irish literature, irish famine - Linking Canada and Ireland - Linking Canada and Ireland

Page 8 of 15
Of Sports and Games
"Though heads that now are black and brown must meanwhile gather grey,
New faces rise by every hearth, and old ones drop away--"
Not all entertainment was provided to us by others, by circuses, concerts and cinema. As children we had our own sports and pleasures that changed with the rhythm of the seasons.

Who knew when one season ended and another began was always a mystery. Without forethought or planning, one day everybody would appear at school with a bag full of marbles, and the marble playing season had begun. Some months later chestnuts on a string, conkers they were called, would burst on the scene.

Less mysterious was the appearance of sleighs of every type and description during particularly bad winters when it actually snowed and the ground was frozen for weeks at a stretch. Snow did not fall every year, but when it did the sleighs were pulled out from long forgotten storage places and iron runners were scraped free of rust, ready to race down snow or ice covered streets and hills.

Sleighing was a sport in which adults took great delight. The sleighs themselves were great brutes of things, made of solid hard wood, boasting six-inch raised runners, with iron strips bolted to their bottoms, and steered by turntable front runners operated by ropes, pulled by the driver who sat at the rear of the sleigh. There were six, eight, and ten-men sleighs, and happy was the youngster who was allowed to sit jammed in the middle between big brothers or uncles, or with an adventurous aunt, or even a friendly neighbour. The sleighs were much too heavy to be guided by children, and getting a run on one was the ambition of every schoolboy. They were deemed too dangerous for young schoolgirls. Indeed, not every boy had the courage to beg a seat on one.

Courage was needed. The big sleighs only made their appearance after supper. Because of petrol rationing during "the Emergency", the streets were free of all other traffic, and the sleigh drivers were lords of the universe. The most spectacular run was from the top of Main Street, down past the National Bank, with a slight bend below the Northern Bank, a steady pull right to face the Sixteen Arches, over the bridge, with a hard pull around Rogan's, and as far into the East Port as the laws of locomotion and gravity allowed, everybody laughing and screaming the whole way with delight and alarm.

When a sleigh had ended its run, the riders got off. The men would turn it around and trudge all the way back, over the bridge and up to the top of the town, hauling the sleigh behind them. And repeat the process, over and over again.

The only real hazard was presented by the nightly bus from Sligo. It was the last bus of the day, and as the town clock atop the Northern Bank chimed eight o'clock a shout would go up all along the route, "Look out for the bus. Look out for the bus!" There was no way that a heavy sleigh, once committed to a run, reaching speeds of forty and more miles an hour on icy Main Street, could stop in time to avoid a bus coming across the Sixteen Arches. The prudent waited for the bus to appear, even if it might be a quarter or a half hour late. The daring tried to squeeze in a last run before the bus was scheduled, and the excitement, in consequence, was all the greater.

There were other sleigh runs outside town, down Finner Hill, or the rise past Cassidy's of Erne View, but neither could compare to the whiz and wahoo, the thrill and the terror of Main Street to the Purt, over, and over, and over again. Chilblains, frozen fingers and toes, frost-bitten ears and noses were the price we paid, and paid joyously.

Schoolboys on their way to school, and on their way home again, made do without sleighs. They didn't need them. Most country boys wore hob-nailed boots, good, tough, leather boots that had studs all over the soles, and iron hasps on the heels. The more effete among the townies had plain leather shoes, but the soles were liberally sprinkled with spadgets, half and quarter-moon slices of metal, and the heels had iron tips. During icy weather these were great for the creation of slides on sidewalks.

Making a sidewalk slide was an art form. First the surplus snow had to be trodden aside. Then came a trial run-up to the chosen starting point. With one foot thrust out and hind foot reversed at a 180 degree angle, a forward jump brought boots streaking over frozen snow and bare icy cement, with maybe three feet gained until snow-clogged hobnails prevented further progress.

The process was repeated and repeated, and the slide would grow, foot by foot, until a twenty, twenty-five, or in exceptional cases a thirty-foot length of sidewalk was turned into a glistening surface of black ice, a thrill to run up to, jump on, go skimming over, and try not to fall at its end.

There was, of course, an easier way to make a slide, by pouring a bucket of water over the chosen patch late at night, but that was looked upon as artificial, something resorted to by artful dodgers and codgers who had no respect for tradition. Sidewalk slides gave hours of fun to us, but were a bane to the elderly who were afraid of falling and breaking bones. "Get out of here, ye young rapscallions. I'll have the law on yiz all!" Such threats carried as much weight as the frozen breath with which they were uttered, that turned into vapour and disappeared into thin air.

But, while threats could not prevail, the wisdom and experience of age often won the day, and the unwary youngster who didn't first check, came a cropper, turning ass over tea kettle when his boots rammed into a lump of cinders that some exasperated old maid or crotchety old bachelor, intent on spoiling the fun, had tossed, red hot, onto the slide, where they became imbedded in the ice, waiting to upend the unwary.

Winter was a busy season for James Dundas, the plumber, who lived down the Purt just opposite Frank Morgan's. Whoever first installed running water in most of the houses must have done it in summertime, with never a thought for winter. As a result, water mains and pipes lacked adequate insulation, and with the onslaught of frosty weather burst pipes were a common occurrence. Outdoor water pipes and taps suffered the worst damage and had to be painstakingly coaxed back into working condition by the judicious application of Mr. Dundas's blowpipe, a delicate undertaking that had to maintain a perfect balance between melting the frozen water in the pipes without melting the pipes at the same time.

I remember one winter day when we woke to find the back of the house, from kitchen window down to the gateway below, sheathed in ice, courtesy of a foot-long split in an outdoor lead pipe. Yes, lead pipe. Copper and brass came later. The house itself, now no more, was almost, but not quite, 200 years old at the time.

James Dundas was another quiet man, reserved and respected. His wife taught in one of the few remaining Protestant schools in the area and had a great love of good English. His son, John, succeeded him in the business.

Once winter passed and spring crept in, came marble time.

The playing of marbles, like the naming of cats, "is a serious matter. It isn't just one of your holiday games." I remember watching old men, shipyard pensioners, playing marbles in Ormeau Park in Belfast. The park even had professional marble pitches, with holes set in concrete, the stipulated length apart, and in more than fifty years of watching and sometimes playing marbles I have never seen their match in dexterity and keenness of eye. Their's was the recognized method of pitching, hand held close to the ground, marble nestled between thumb and crooked index finger, from whence it was projected with a flick of the thumb, to reach the hole or blast an opponent's marble away from it.

I could watch them forever, or until Dad drew me away and diverted my attention to something else, usually the middle-aged men sailing their model yachts on the artificial pond and running from one side to the other, wielding long wands with which to turn their vessels before they struck the cement walls. A properly set sail could keep a boat going in circles without danger of striking the cement, in which case the wand was only called into play to hook it and draw it close to the side, for hauling out and bringing home at then end of the day.

What is it with marbles? Homer, who could have been Irish but wasn't, having been born too soon, tells us that when Odysseus was off gallivanting in Troy, his ever-loving, ever-faithful wife, Penelope, she of the warp one, woof two, was courted by various suitors who had convinced themselves your man Odysseus would never return. To add spice to the courtship they decided to hold a marble-playing contest with winner-take-all rules, the "all" being Penelope.

To cut a long story short, something Homer could have done himself if he didn't have the gift of the gab, Odysseus sacked Troy, returned home, bagged all the marbles, and he and Penelope went off to the seaside a la Melina Mercouri in "Never on a Sunday".

In Ballyshannon men didn't play marbles, but boys did, and with an all-out passion that sowed the seeds of gambling, avarice, lust, envy, and other deadly sins of adult years.

The basest coin was the original, humble, clay-fired marble, the smallest of all marbles, brownish-ochre in colour, and fragile to an extreme. Next came glassies, plain glass or multi-hued, the more colourful commanding a greater value. Then came taws, the emperor of marbles, bigger than all the rest, of a creamy colour, with strength to smash and chip all the others.

Only one thing could vanquish a taw and that was a steel ball-bearing, not strictly a marble, outlawed by purists, but sometimes tolerated, depending on the size and temperament of one's opponent. A big boy, with big fists, and a big ball-bearing, could go a long way, until a bigger boy, with bigger fists and a bigger ball-bearing put an end to his reign. Eventually someone would turn up with a ball-bearing so heavy it was useless for distance and accuracy, and by common consent, and after much argument, ball-bearings would be outlawed for the rest of the season.

Our favourite playing place for marbles was across the road from the De La Salle Brothers' school, in the grounds leading from the Rock Hospital to St. Joseph's Church. There, on a pathway behind a high wall on one side, and flanked by a row of trees on the other, we would spend many an hour after school, until teatime, or until all the marbles had been lost, or won. "He lost all his marbles" was a literal expression of truth without the lunatic connotation of another age.

Autumn brought the season for conkers. Every chestnut tree within the limits of three townlands and baronies was scouted by roving bands of boys on the hunt for that one, singular, unique, special chestnut destined to become a champion conker that would win fame and glory for its proud possessor as it smashed, without mercy, opponent after opponent that dared enter the lists and offered challenge to the death.

The newly fallen chestnut had first to be peeled, and many a finger was pierced by the protective spikes on the green rind cover. Some swore that the length of the spikes related to the strength of the nut lying within. When first peeled, the nut itself was soft and slippery, still covered with moisture from the rind. To be turned into a worthy conker it required seasoning, drying in the sun for days on end, until the outer shell hardened and the inner core dried up while, it was hoped, still clinging to the shell. But first the shell and core had to be pierced by a nail driven all the way through. This was elementary. If the attempt was made after the seasoning, the nail could smash an otherwise perfectly good chestnut into bits.

The length of seasoning was all important. When the time was judged ripe, a piece of string was passed through the nail-driven hole and knotted three, four or five times to provide a base upon which the chestnut, now a conker, rested. The string could be as long as thirty inches, and the unknotted end was wrapped around the fingers of the hand, the right hand for most of us, the left hand for the "ciotogs", Irish for lefties.

Every contest was between two boys. In turn, each held his hand out from his body, conker falling perpendicular at the end of its string, while his opponent, whirling his conker in an arc, brought it crashing down on its waiting, motionless foe.

If a conker was rushed into battle too soon without enough seasoning, and had a soft spot in it, one blow was generally sufficient to despatch it to chestnut Valhalla. But if the seasoning had been done properly it could withstand the opening blow, earn the right to retaliate in kind, and, with luck, not to mention the skill of its young general, emerge victorious. Like a gladiator of old, it would go on to further conquests amid the cheers and jeers of an authoritative audience made up of boys who knew their chestnuts.

As the days passed, fable and myth attached themselves to the lessening ranks of the survivors, and it required a valiant heart to enter a new and untested challenger against a veteran with more victories than could be counted on the fingers of two hands, with a toe or two thrown in for good measure.

It must be chronicled that the steel ball-bearing, the outlaw of marbledom, had its counterpart in conkers, the chestnut stuffed up a chimney and baked harder and harder until it became virtually unbreakable except by hammer or rock. Anyone suspected of smuggling such "a ringer" into play was deemed guilty of unfair conduct, and treated appropriately.

Fifty years and more later, I found a chestnut tree in a long-closed cemetery, St. Michael's, at the top of Yonge Street in Toronto. It was in the fall, and chestnuts lay all about on the ground beneath its branches, many of them with great spikes, worthy candidates to become conkers capable of fighting any of their kind anywhere in the world. Alas, no children in Toronto played conkers, and the fallen chestnuts lay undisturbed, awaiting decay in their own private graveyard, in the middle of a city of more than three and a half million people.

Pat McGettigan, Jim "the Natch" Gallagher, Martin Keegan, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Dolan and younger brother Joe, the Shortt brothers, Jimmy Gavigan, Teddy McShea, Johnny McIntyre, Malachy McMahon, Phil O'Donnell, Seamus Tiernan and many, many more, go marching off in memory, chestnuts swinging, with whole worlds to challenge and, God willing, conquer.

A town of 2,000, at a remove of fifty years, demands at least a trilogy, for "every face in all the place" had its own story. One group of faces, however, commands its own commemoration. They were a bunch of lads who, for a while, moved, worked, and played as one unit.

A prized black and white photograph shows young men in the prime of manhood. A few are of serious mien, but most are smiling. And they all are wearing football jerseys, togs, stockings, and boots. They are the members of the Ballyshannon Gaelic Athletic Association football team, Donegal county champions in the early 1940s. With luck, one or two, now in their seventies, may be alive to read these words and bask once more in recollected glory.

Big deal! G.A.A. county champions! But wait, this was no ordinary football team, and neither was the championship. The story is simple. Let present and future generations match it if they will.

"The Emergency", as the war years were known in Ireland, probably reached its nadir in petrol rationing and shortages in 1943. Not a bus, not even two taxis, could be hired to transport the team all the way to Ardara, (subject to verification--it may have been Glenties) over thirty-one winding, tortuous miles of hilly road, hilly enough to qualify for a mountain leg of the Tour de France. The county final between Ballyshannon and long-time rivals, Gweedore, was scheduled to be played on a Sunday as was the custom for all important matches. Bicycles, however, were available. Those players who didn't own a bicycle borrowed one, and off they set, with overcoats and raincoats to fend off the rain, boots and togs and jerseys wrapped in bundles and carried on handlebars, crossbars, or lashed to back carriers, and a couple of sandwiches stuffed into pockets to keep up their strength and stave off hunger.

Luckily one or two had bicycle pumps to keep pumping air into worn-out tyres, and others had rubber patches and gum to mend the worst inner-tube holes as they developed. The pumps took care of slow leaks, but putting on a patch brought the entire caravansarie to a halt and a bit of a rest.

Could anything beat that determination? Not Gweedore, not that day anyway. The Ballyshannon team played their hearts out to bring the cherished cup back to "the Winding Banks", and bring it they did, hopping on their bikes when the match was over and they had dressed, and cycling all the way back, as happy a group of athletes as could be found anywhere in the whole Thirty-Two Counties of Ireland.

Somehow a couple or three got diverted on the return journey and didn't show up for two days. You should have heard the stories of their adventures, but "fágamuid siud mar a tá siad".

Dad, who was a bit of a shutter bug, photographed them on their bikes as they set off from the Commons at the top of the town, next stop Ballintra, Laghey, Donegal Town, hills, moors, glens, cliffs, rivers, lakes, bogs, scenery galore when it wasn't raining, water by the bucketful when it was, and a week later he photographed them back in Erne Park, beneath the crossbar of a goalmouth, a stone fence behind, and the cup, for which they had so mightily striven, clasped in the right hand of their captain, Mick Slevin, heroes one and all.

Fifty years ago there wasn't a three-quarter line to match P. J. Goan, Red Jack Gallagher, and the same Mick Slevin, and all three were later to play on their county team, the pick of the forwards in the whole of Donegal.

Let all their names live on, the fifteen players and three subs, captured in that old photograph, to the best of memory's recall: "The Dodger", John McDermott; Mick Slevin, Red Jack Gallagher, "Frosty" Kane, Sean Slevin, P. J. Goan, M. Doherty, Paddy O'Neill (Frank's nephew), Sean McGettigan, the brother of Pat and Dan; John McGarrigle, Liam Slevin, -----, Mick Melly, fullback and anchor of the defence, -----, "Big Bob" Gallagher, - Murray, Johnny McGuinness and -----.

The thud of the ball,
the pounding of feet,
the great gasping of breath.

The pivoting foot,
the slamming of shoulder;
The leap in the air,
the pass with the fist.

The ball to the foot,
back up to the hand.
The twisting, the turning,
the dodging, the slipping.

The ball in the net,
And the ROAR of the crowd!

It was great to be alive in those days of glory, Goan to Slevin to Red Jack, to goal!

Fast forward fifty years to September 28, 1992, when Canadian columnist Allan Fotheringham dutifully recorded for posterity in that day's issue of "The Financial Post", a newspaper dealing mainly with financial and economic matters, the momentous news that Donegal, for the first time ever, won the All-Ireland football final against "arrogant Dublin" by a score of 18-14, and for good measure included the names of the Donegal players. Whether any of them were from Ballyshannon he did not note. Given a second opportunity to list such a group of heroes, without trusting to memory's recall, herewith are the team names as reported by the good "Dr. Foth": G. Walsh, B. McGowan, M. Gallagher, N. Hegarty, D. Reid, M. Gavigan, M. Shovelin, A. Molloy, B. Murray, J. McHugh, M. McHugh, J. McMullan, D. Bonner, T. Boyle, M. Boyle. May their exploit remain as fresh in remembrance fifty years hence as that of the their predecessors in Ballyshannon fifty years ago.

Readers who wish to view it may access here the photograph referred to above of the Ballyshannon G.A.A. team which won the famous "cycling championship", as it was then dubbed. Downloading may take some time.

Erne Park and its football matches are forever associated in memory with one weird and wacky Sunday, a date easily remembered, May 10, 1941. There we were in our hundreds--well, a couple at least--rooting for the home team, when a warplane buzzed the crowd.

Had Churchill gone daft and were paratroopers about to invade? Would the whole army have to dash out to Belleek in two lorries to defend the Border? Then we spotted the markings, the Swastika. This was the German air force, but what the hell was it doing up in Ballyshannon?

As it turned out, that was the day Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy leader, took it upon himself to commandeer a plane and fly to Scotland, there to present a plan for a quick end to the Second World War. It involved recognition of German supremacy in Europe, and retention by England of its pre-war status as the world's leading colonial power. When his disappearance was discovered, Hitler ordered an all-out search for his missing deputy and his plane. In such circumstances, any large crowd was bound to engage the curiosity of the searchers, hence the first and only time any of us saw a German aircraft invade the neutral skies of Donegal.

As a footnote, Hess had made a gigantic miscalculation, was kept a prisoner of war for the duration of hostilities, was convicted during the Nürnberg war crime trials, and spent 48 years as a prisoner until his mysterious death in Spandau gaol, at the age of 89, in 1988.

The only other sport that attracted any following in those years was handball.

Handball is a game much like jai lai, or squash, without the raquets, played in a large open-air court known as an alley. It is three-sided, the fourth usually consisting of tiers of cement seating. The face of the court, the sidewalls and the playing surface, are made of concrete, and the whole presents an austere face when plunked down in isolation from other buildings. This was the case with our alley. It lay just off the Mall where a loop of the estuary entered a rocky bay. The starkness of the alley contrasted hugely with its scenic setting, and the slap of the handball against the hard cement echoed like a rifle shot across the tidal waters.

The ball itself has nothing soft about it. Small, it easily fits into the palm of the hand, and is made of the hardest rubber. It has tremendous elasticity, and when struck with force against cement walls rebounds with doubled speed.

Quickness of foot and a keen eye are essential in order to play the game well. So too is a hand whose skin has been toughened to the texture of leather, and, until it is, each crack of the ball against fingers or palm will cause smarting or pain. Those with really toughened hands can clench a fist and hit the ball with closed knuckles, thereby giving it added impetus and making an opponent's return shot all the more difficult.

The game is played in single or double matches, between two individuals or two couples in partnerships, and is fast and furious.

For some reason a professional handball was known as an "elephant", maybe because of the hardness of its cover, and for years the best ones were sold at Elvery's "The Elephant House", a sporting goods shop in the middle of O'Connell Street in Dublin.

Unless memory deceives me, Jack Downey and Jimmy Coughlin were two of the best of our local handballers. To play handball was to play hardball, and to cock your hand to return a hard shot, knowing it would hurt, made a man of many a lad.

Another game played at the handball alley required no athletic prowess. This was pitch-and-toss, and the alley was the arena selected by most of its devotees.

In pitch-and-toss players imply tossed a coin in the air, the old Irish penny with the hen and the chicken on it, design courtesy of W. B. Yeats who was instrumental in determining the animal motif for all coinage following the establishment of the Irish Free State. When the coin was in the air, a player called "heads" or "harp", guessing which side would land face upwards, "heads" being the hen, and "harp" being the harp which was on the reverse side of all coins, three-penny bits, sixpences, shillings, florins, and half-crowns.

As an aside, I remember the use of farthings, particularly associated with the price of loaves of bread, and five shilling pieces, although the latter were rare.

Side bets were called on the anticipated result as onlookers also wagered on the outcome. If betting fever ran high, the stakes climbed proportionately. Some losses could mean a week's hardship for a wage earner's family, and the upshot, when it got out of hand, was usually a Sunday sermon on the evils of gambling. Playing pitch-and-toss on a Sunday was thought to be depravity of the worst kind and drew the loudest condemnation. Somehow, however, the game survived and ran its season, just like football, marbles, and conkers.

The Kindly Spot Navigation
First Page | Previous Page | Next Page | Last Page


Home | About | Canadian Vindicator | Literature | Gallery | History