BY: Dr Joe Kearney
The hearthstone on which our fireplace sits is made from Kilkenny marble; this is no cultural contrivance on my part, just a chance inheritance from the previous house owner. It is the place where I rest my feet and indulge in dreams during evenings of reverie
When you consider the fossil-shells trapped inside the black polished stone you can’t help thinking of the sands of time; the finely grained, carboniferous limestone a testament to the age of our planet. It is this prized paving stone that gives the City of Kilkenny its nickname, ‘The Marble City’. Transported along the Nore from the famous Black Quarry and in use since the 17th century. It is believed that it was here, on the top of that same Black Quarry, Oliver Cromwell positioned the cannons he trained and aimed at the city. Today, other sights are focused on Kilkenny. Their intentions may not be so bloody but, nonetheless, are as passionately ambitious.
I didn’t always love hurling. Reflecting on it now, what I remember about those early All-Ireland Sundays is intense boredom. It’s amazing what can change with the passage of time. When I consider those afternoons of ennui, they seem as strange to me as the fossilised seashells trapped in Kilkenny marble.
I have clear recall of one September afternoon at my uncle Jimmy’s house in Ballykeefe, located a few miles outside Callan, right in the shadow of another black-stone quarry. It would have been in the late-50s. The men were gathered around the Pye set. Uncle Jimmy manhandled the big clumsy contraption up onto the window ledge—as far as the electric flex would allow–so that those gathered outside might hear the ebbing and flowing of the game in Croke Park. The fossilised stones testimony that once upon an ancient time the spot where the men stood was governed by its own tides.
I sat inside the window watching a spider wrestle a wasp into the depths of its complex lair, little knowing that I was being slowly reeled into my own, life-long, love affair with hurling. Golden light filled the window opening, reflecting the resplendence of stubble in the adjacent fields. The wasp was trapped in the amber gleam as securely as if it were encased in precious resinous stone.
Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia recorded the presence of insects in amber. The ancient Greeks called amber electron. Possibly its first historical mention was in 4th century BC, when it was discussed by Theophrastus. Certainly the light and the atmosphere was charged with electricity that afternoon in Uncle Jimmy’s. It was a serious gathering. I was not encouraged to make any distractions, hence my attention on the misfortunate fly, with whom I believed I had so much in common. The audience was still dressed as they had been for Mass. Some opened their collar studs in deference to the sunshine. But when they cocked their ears to the radio, their eyes were elsewhere. They never saw the spider or the wasp or even the amber light. All concentration was on the game played inside their heads. I can recall the grunts of encouragement from the men. The roars of “G’wan Mickey” startling my daydreams. Mickey Kelly, captain of the Kilkenny side. I imagine them holding their collective breaths, as I will do on Sunday. I will hold it until I almost collapse and it is in the dying that I will know I am alive.70 minutes of exquisite pain and yet we would not wish one second of it away.
In folk medicine, Amber crystal is believed to possess healing powers. It is reputed to have a calmative effect. The healing ingredient in the stone is attributed to the presence of succinic acid, an agent used in anti-aging creams. We will maybe need amber on Sunday. Time will be relative, a lifetime lived in minutes
If it is rubbed against fur (perhaps a cat’s fur) it produces a static electrical field that acts as a magnet for light objects. In Uncle Jimmy’s, that golden Sunday, the air was charged; hair standing on end right up to the final whistle, Kilkenny scraping through by just the whisker of one solitary point.
Over time, through a form of osmosis, the love of the game leaked into my being. The black limestone quarry and the amber light fusing into something timeless and irresistible. I am as helplessly captive to the game, as that wasp trapped in the amber lambency of my memory or the fossilised maritime husks encased in the marble of my hearthstone.
You can’t fight your nature, or as the old saying goes: Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait
Nature will always break out in the eyes of a ‘cat’.
Joe Kearney is originally from Callan and his work has appeared in various publications over the years as well as work on Sunday Miscellany on RTE. He also contributed a piece to the newly launched GAA collection ‘Grassroots’, which is currently in bookshops.