Of Sports and Games
"Though heads that now are black and brown must meanwhile gather grey,
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.
New faces rise by every hearth, and old ones drop away--"
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
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
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
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
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
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,
It was great to be alive in those days of glory, Goan to Slevin to Red Jack, to goal!
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!
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
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
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
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.
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