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My father threw weights and he liked to say that was because he came from the Golden Vale, a country that bred strong men. He grew up in rural west Limerick between the wars, where on Sundays and on fine evenings after work, men and boys would gather for athletic pursuits.
The strong men would gather in a corner away from the cyclists, the hurlers and the long-distance runners. They putted the shot, threw the discus and the half-hundred weight. They fired the hammer through the summer air and they pulled the tug of war like men in battle.
Sometimes the younger lads wrestled. And then they talked. Dad and the other boys listened to their stories about local legends Dr Pat O’Callaghan and Matt McGrath, who had won Olympic Gold medals by throwing the hammer. They discussed Irish professional wrestlers like the mighty Dan O’Mahony, a world champion from Cork. They only knew of these wrestlers, who were based in America, from newspaper reports and they might have known some of their relations, but they never saw a real wrestling match. These big, solemn men with mighty muscles talked about their heroes with gravity and dignity as the flighty runners sped by. My father grew to be a notable weight-thrower himself and although he was not a big man he was strong, and he was among the best in Munster at throwing the 56lb weight in his prime.
He did not see a real wrestling match until the late seventies, when Big Daddy’s travelling wrestling extravaganza came to town.
By this stage he had retired and he was living in a small town in Tipperary; a place where one television station ruled the land and that station did not show wrestling. Over on British TV, wrestlers were household names and Big Daddy was one of the best-known wrestlers of all. He had a bald head, massive shoulders and a huge stomach. Travelling with Big Daddy was Giant Haystacks, a seven-foot monster with long hair and a fearsome beard; they were supposed to hate each other.
So my father went, in a tweed suit and hat, to the scouts’ hall to see the show. He was appalled. He could not believe how artificial, how raucous and how false it was. Row upon row of screaming schoolboys were driven to a frenzy as wrestlers, clad in lurid spandex, cavorted and preened and pretended to hit each other with chairs. Even Giant Haystacks, though undoubtedly an impressive figure, was hamming it up with the rest of them. It could not have been more different from the green fields of his memory, where fair play and good nature prevailed. My dad left early, wondering what the world had come to. The worst thing was the realisation that Dan O’Mahony probably worked in the same con-job in his time.
The next day, dad was filling his car in a petrol station when he saw Big Daddy pull up in a van. My dad looked at him for a moment and decided to stroll over and have a chat about the travesty he had endured the night before. They got on famously. Big Daddy proved very knowledgeable about Dan O’Mahony and he had even seen some of the great Irish wrestlers in action. He said wrestling was a better living than working down a mine and the real skill was not to hurt the other fellow. He even showed dad how to fake a forearm smash. Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy were really great friends and Haystacks was an Irishman from Mayo and surely a worthy successor to the Irish giants of long ago.
Big Daddy, asserted my father, was a gentleman and he cheered up no end. Big Daddy, Pat Harrold and Giant Haystacks have all passed on, but there is a strong Viking tradition in west Limerick and maybe there is a Valhalla somewhere, where warriors gather and chat and throw weights about in sunlit, heavenly pastures. And maybe if Big Daddy ever wanders over to where the Munster strong-men gather, my dad and Dan O’Mahony will introduce him round and he will be given a warm welcome. I’d like to think so, anyway.