Ever-proud of its great status as a Gaelic Football stronghold, TOM CURLEY has observed, with fascination, his old school’s embracing of what was once a ‘foreign game’…
When we were going to the CBS in Roscommon, at a time when the world was a safer place than now – before school kids took to the streets with placards – like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids and their music – Gaelic Football, between often strained learning, was all we did. Rugby was not on our course.
Known to us then as a ‘foreign game’ – it still carries the brand in places – rugby was only played by wealthy sportsmen…for Ireland and the provinces. Men in big houses who wore professional labels, or those who worked in banks and other financial institutions. Many too bore the title of commercial traveller with leather briefcases and dear suits. They sold spirits, beers, cigarettes, tea, sugar, oatmeal and, often, drapery and cutlery to the shops and villages as they drove around the country in expensive cars that their companies owned. Their sporting badge was their travelling trademark. We would see the names of these sporting legends in the one daily paper we would read. Willie John McBride, Tony O’Reilly, Jack Kyle, Mike Gibson. While the names would stay with us, we wouldn’t read further down the lines. We didn’t understand the game. It was their game – played with a differently shaped ball than ours. These icons of the sport have sown the seeds from which rugby has sprouted. The ticking of the time clock rewinds their greatness.
In the CBS, the Wednesday half-day bell was our Gaelic football wake-up call. Silently, we offered up the morning class prayers that the evening would be dry. If the rain fell and we were deprived of the evening freedom, we temporarily lost the faith. Released from the tribulations of the Merchant of Venice, the perplexities of Euclid, the weight of European history and the deep fear of the science room where a Dublin Christian Brother who had little constraint with the meter stick on the hands of those of us who would never rise from the bottom step of the stairway to scientific discovery – we togged out in the classrooms and trotted up the road over the railway bridge and into the Brothers’ field on the right. Our Wednesday trainer was Irish teacher, Dingle native, Eamon Stritch – known to us as Ned. His repeated field instructions to us ‘eirigh libh’ le do laphéen, le do laphéen – rise and catch the ball. Rough play was harshly punished. Very often, school principal, Brother Creed would make an unexpected appearance to ensure that everyone was playing his part.
The major part of the sports programme was the school league, comprising of four teams drawn from the areas where pupils came from. The competition – often over-heated – was played on a rotation basis, with points allotted to the winners. The two teams with highest points played off in the final. The CBS League final, often played on a Saturday, was a big occasion for the school, when parents and relations came to watch their boys in action. After the final whistle, the cup and medals – donated by Casey’s Garage – were presented by the Principal to the captain and players of the winning team in the centre of the field. Celebrations followed down through the town and continued in a restaurant in The Square. Take-aways and street vans, not too visual at the time, if at all. Fanta, Coca Cola, and sweet confectionery were the victory menu ingredients. From the school league the CBS senior football team originated and progressed – becoming a dominant force in Connacht Colleges Gaelic Football, with many names from the school becoming prominent on the provincial calendar and county.
The CBS jersey colours were of dark red, devoid of commercial blitz. Our white togs, washed by our mothers, and leather boots with cogs and long laces, were self-supplied. I was privileged to wear the CBS jersey for a season, content for the most part, to sit on the subs’ bench – with the occasional call to the grass when victory or defeat was imminent. The school bus which daily brought the long distance boys to school carried the teams to play the away games in other towns. As the visiting school, we were well entertained and welcomed with tea and after-match lunch in the school canteen. Match analysis, exchange of views and our hopes of achievement in the outside world when the classroom door was permanently closed behind us. Uncertain schoolboy gossip. Rugby didn’t enter our thoughts.
Since rugby was first organised by Trinity College in Dublin in 1854, emanating from English colleges, the sport became popular and gained wide momentum. Other clubs followed in Dublin in the early years. Carlow in 1872, is said to be the first club established in the provinces, followed by Dungannon in 1873, and Ballinasloe in 1875. Connacht rugby was founded in 1886. Creggs Rugby Club, established in 1974, is now a stronghold in Connacht rugby. This club was key to the sport being introduced and developed in Roscommon CBS in recent years. The encouragement and backing of parents – a number of whom are involved with the club – and of management and teachers, has taken the landmark Gaelic football school to top level college rugby, reaching the Senior Cup Final for the first time earlier this year.
An excited gathering of students, as if a rock concert was being staged, had assembled at the entrance gates of Galway Sportsground in high spirits for their schools in the Connacht Colleges Final (three in numbers on the evening). Roscommon CBS was against the aristocrats of Connacht School Football – Garbally College, Ballinasloe – first-time winners of the cup at stake over 100 years ago. We made a two-bus trip from where we live in the city to the Sportsground to watch the old school – Roscommon CBS – in rugby format. ‘Rookies’ the school was labelled in a newspaper here in Galway. The old brigade treaded through the unsteady youthful sway could be counted on the teeth of a wooden hay rake. Earplugs and smartphones were as plentiful as transistors in a different age. A fast food van was at high speed.
A friendly lady in a yellow coat, collecting tickets, welcomed arrivals as if a house party was being fulfilled. The second lady with similar charm took our right hand with the swift touch of a pickpocket, and like parcel post, stamped the back. Not the Saturday or Sunday turnstile merry-go-round we are accustomed to. From the dark military-like press box on the harsh late spring evening we looked out across at the empty stands and terraces decorated by signboards. A closed showhouse without viewers. Beneath us, from the hard bench on which we sat, the blizzard of college students regaled in their respective college colours. This was their one-day licence for adventure. Close by, the Roscommon school followers, in full voice, supporting their red and white coat of arms, were in high chant…“Come on ye boys in Red” their sonorous anthem. The emission of crimson smoke or vapour fuelled their flame, quickly suppressed by a roving steward, who spotted the young lamplighter.
At first watch, the Connacht Senior Colleges’ Final between the two town schools did not reach expected heights. For long periods we saw a physical centrefield scramble with poor forward movement to the open spaces. The second half raised the tempo to a degree. We saw a game played with youthful passion, determination, commitment and pride of college by schoolboys, many of whom showed promise in the sport beyond the classroom gates. The progress of rugby and the guidance of devoted people through clubs and the traditional colleges have gripped second-level schools; Roscommon CBS is caught in the scrum. The crimson smoke will rise again.
Creative writer, Tom Curley, occasionally contributes to a small number of provincial weekly newspapers, including the Roscommon People. A native of Kilteevan, he is a a past pupil of Roscommon CBS.