“Don’t come until the racing is over, ’cause I won’t have time to talk to you.”
My guest this week is the ebullient, decent, Galmoy raconteur and former club Godfather for years longer than he would have a mind to recall, John Harte.
Time was when John Harte was a fixture at more club games within the county than any other individual. Time was when John Harte was as well-known in Semple Stadium than Tommy Barrett, or the ‘Rattler’ Byrne. Time was when John Harte devoted every waking moment of his time to the business of Galmoy GAA.
Well I remember when on Monday mornings calling into the great conversation pit of the late Mick Neary’s hurley supply line on James Street, where every game would be dissected with enlightened thought, insight and know how, as a brain surgeon would manipulate a scalpel. John would be there.
‘Twas there I first encountered the Galmoy man, as they bounced opinions off each other and others in the company. John was never bombastic, or self-opinionated. He was more the suggestive conversationalist, hoping that his opinion would meet with general approval, but would not cause offence or worse.
Never did I hear him cast aspersion on anyone’s abilities or good name.
“Nobody ever gave me the right to do that,” he would say.
I was often times enthralled by the debates about hurling in that Hurling Academy not a pullet’s pick from St Mary’s Cathedral.
In later years, after the great man Mick Neary had passed on to pastures green, I would often hear John Harte quote Mick about a whole raft of hurling observations and opinions.
John would say things like: “Mick Neary often told me so and so,” and all would be enthralled by what the reported Neary observation might have been.
One I can repeat, because the same remark was made to myself.
We were gathered somewhere in the company of a few others when the talk about the quality of ash and the making of hurleys came up.
John said: “ I remember Mick telling me once that Eddie Keher would always have at least six hurleys in his car, and that if God Almighty came down from heaven and asked him for one, he would refuse him. He told me that Eddie would often bring in a hurley to rub it on the sander for a couple of seconds to lighten it, and he would then go out onto the Fair Green to test it, and could bring it back three or four more times to stay sanding it until it was exactly what he needed.”
“But sure that is why Keher was one of the greatest of all time,” he would conclude.
I met with John at his home in the centre of Galmoy, and after the fáilte, he opined with: “ Didn’t AP give Synchronised a great ride. I thought he had no interest in racing out in the country, but he fairly powered up the hill. McCoy had to work hard to earn his money there anyway.
Marching towards eighty
“I was delighted for Johnjo (O’Neill) as well. He had his setbacks too,” reminded John. (Johnjo had successfully battled cancer).
I was well aware that John Harte was drawing parallels with his own life. I was well aware that John, and his wife Sheila, had lost one of his lovely daughters to the dreaded diseaase whilst still a young married mother.
I was well aware that the greater Harte family were utterly distraught, and shattered after young Mary Harte was taken away while still in her early forties.
John Harte now marching forward through his eight decade on God’s earth, went to Galmoy national school, where Mr (Danny) Dunne did his level best to teach him the three rudiments of education, including the three Rs - reading, riting and rithmatric. His people were of the land, and there was ittle else around the place to render sustenance to the small population.
One has to remember that during John’s formative years, life was no barrel of laughs. But for the farming community, it is extremely doubtful if our little country could stay alive as it were.
The trade war was crucifying us. Our politicians had the begging bowls out to any who might wish to give us a dig out (sound familiar?). Emigration was the greatest export commodity we had.
Ever hear of Rural Electrification?
“Sure we had no electricity here in Galmoy, or any other Galmoy until the early 40s, when Ardnacrusha Power Station was opened on the Shannon,” reminded John. “ I remember well lads playing pitch and toss on the street there (indicating with his thumb) until one o’clock in the morning.”
You’re pulling my leg, John?
“Seriously, I’m not kidding you. They would have a stump of a candle in a jam jar, and they played until well into the night, until the candle burned out,” he smiled.
“People nowadays have no concept of what hardship was about. There was no water supply in any of the towns in those early days of my youth. There was no sewage system either, with most houses having dry toilets out in the back yards.
“There were some systems in the big towns and cities, but in the smaller towns, there were no such services. I remember a young lad visiting down the street there. He was from Dublin, and we all wanted to talk to him to hear the Dublin accent.
“The people he was staying with had no toilet on their bit of a farm, and when he asked where the toiled was, the man of the house said opening the back door there is acres of it out there, pointing to the fields at the back of the house. But that was how it was then,” he told me.
There was no organised hurling in the schools at the time John Harte was being put through his educational training.
“We played in the fields at the back of the house, or on the road,” he told us. “We went to matches on bikes to places like Thurles, Kilkenny, Portlaoise, and I remember we went to Birr for the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway in 1947. Thurles was our favourite spot really.
“The road would be black with bicycles of every shape and condition. Every yard of the road you would see a lad with his bike turned up trying to mend a puncture. It was great fun really. Simple things suited simple people. There was a lot of blackguarding going on too.
“Lads would be robbin’ pumps off other lads bikes, and anything else that would not be tied down. I even heard of lads changing good tyres for bad ones when the match would be on. We could garage the bike for a tanner (6p - six cent) in yards close to the ground.
“There would be thousands of bikes there. We would always get back to a dance on the night of the match in some platform or dancehall along the road.”
Plenty of tea rooms
How did you feed yourselves?
“There were plenty of tea rooms set up for the day in every town where a match was played,” he enlightened. “You could get a mate tay (meat tea) for 1/6 (seven and a half cent) - cooked ham, lettuce, and tomato would be the menu. It certainly wouldn’t be a la carte menus. Tomatoes were rare commodities then I can assure you.
“We’d tear on to the dance, and then cycle home in the early hours of the morning, often times not getting in until 7 or 8 o’clock. There would be lads lying asleep in the ditches. Some of them would be so drunk that when they would fall off the bikes. They would sleep where they fell. They were the worst of times and the best of times, because everyone had much the same, and there were no jealousies.”
He went to his first All-Ireland in 1939.
“We went by pony and trap to Ballybrophy Station, and picked up the Cork train,” he smiled with the warmth of the memory. “A lot of lads would tell you that they remember every puck of the ball, but you couldn’t believe them. I saw little or nothing. The rain was terrible, and the lightening would rip the divil out of hell.
“I knew we won, but in honesty, I can’t remember seeing anyone hitting a ball. I was too small. The All-Ireland I do remember was the 1947 final against Cork. They say that it was the greatest final of them all. A load of nonsense. I saw plenty better than that.
“It was so close, people thought that it was great. I know Ring and Lynch, Lotty and Murphy were playing for Cork, and they were household names. We had the Diamond, Pender, Langton, Mul, Shem and Jimmy Kelly from Carrickshock, but the Kilkenny team of the 60s was a far better team. And then we have the present lads!
“Where do they stand in the order of greatness? The hurling nowadays is fantastic. I love it. Back in my time it was pure brutal, and the few great stylish hurlers we had were hammered at every turn of the road. The likes of Keher, Purcell and Delaney were marvellous men.
Second to nobody
“I give second to nobody in my opinion that Pat Henderson was the greatest centre-back that ever played. I feel that the best hurler I ever saw was Paddy Phelan.”
Better than Lory Meagher, Jimmy Kelly, or Henderson, or Keher, or Carey, or Shefflin or Ring?
“Yeh. The most complete hurler I feel was Phelan,” he insisted.
John did not confine his interest to hurling either. He never missed a football All-Ireland during the same period.
“ I can remember great footballers from Kerry, Cork, your own county Galway, Laois-the boy wonder, Tommy Murphy-, Wexford and plenty more,” he mentioned in passing.
John took over the running of the Galmoy club when the Parish Rule came into play in 1953.
“We had a right good team in those days, because it was run properly,” he said.
Galmoy won the county junior hurling title on three occasion, and in their only appearance in a senior final, they ran headlong into a star-studded Village in 1975.
John bemoans the standards of human behaviour pervading out present existence.
“There is no thought given to the cost of life now,” he said when the thrust of the conversation changed. “In our time I cannot remember a murder, but now they are an every day occurrence. That is one of the reasons why I feel Governments should do a lot more to help the sporting organisations of the land.
Fills spare time
“Sport fills in spare time for a lot of young people, and it keeps them from the occasion of blackguarding,” he said.
What is his opinion of the present systems of management, and management teams?
“It is great really, and so professional,” he said. “I remember in my time travelling up to Thurles to get a bottle of some embrocation to rub on the Galmoy lads who might have a stiffness in a muscle. Gerry Doyle, the Tipp manager would give me something he made up himself.
“I often wondered afterwards if I was wasting my time. But now you have professional people, and they can get lads right in a few days. Its great.”
Would he pay players?
“No, no, no, definitely not,” John insisted. “It always was and should not change its ethos. It has been an amateur organisation among the players and clubs and I can see no justification for changing that status. The likes of Mick Neary would turn in his grave if he thought that the players were being paid to play hurling.”
He has made many friends over the years in the game?
“So, so many,” he thought with a frown, ”but now so many of them have gone on, and sure I won’t be too far behind them myself. I get into town not as regularly as I used, but we would have great sport drinking tea in a little restaurant opposite the Court House with great friends like Eddie McDermott, Jim Fitzgerald from Gowran, Mick Moore the Village man, and a few more who would know the craic was on.
“That is one element that the GAA has above all others - its friendship and trust. Eddie and Jim have come out to visit me a couple of times, because they realise that I cannot travel as well as I used. That is what the GAA is all about. Money couldn’t buy that.”.
Hard to argue with that!