The Squinting Eye - A side-angled look at our beloved sports V


These pieces were first published by An Fear Rua website.

But he scored the winning goal.

He had a joyful, broad grin which revealed upper gums where teeth were once rooted. He never got a set of dentures fitted. The gaping smile became a characteristic. It was a spatial badge of honour. His front teeth had been knocked out when he was playing at full forward for St Lachtain’s of Freshford in the junior county final.

'Time was nearly up and we were two points behind. I got the ball twenty yards out and made for the goal. Some fella lashed at me. It was a terrible blow but I kept going and scored a goal. The fellow that hit me said he was sorry and offered to pay the cost of dentures but I never bothered to take him up on it.”

This man was part of a tradition that when a player lost his teeth to a blow of a hurl in the heat of a game he was very slow to replace them with dentures. Giving a broad smile to reveal toothless gums was a way of declaring one’s fortitude and devotion to the ancient game. Not having front teeth was a sign that one had given one’s all for club or county. It was like war veterans proudly wearing their campaign medals on chests swelling with pride in the commemorative parade.

There was more to it than that. The front-toothless player gave out a signal that he would stop at nothing to get the ball or to stop an opponent getting it. He seemed tough and intimidating, as it he might reduce the eating capability of his marker by knocking out his front teeth.

Christy Ring lost most of his front teeth over the years. He wore dentures going about his job but removed them for matches; his mouth was a grim, sunken slot that somehow epitomized his grit and determination. Pat Henderson of Kilkenny was another hardy battler who had his teeth knocked out in a crucial game but who kept going as if nothing has happened. There was a legend about Donie Nealon, former Tipperary and Burgess player, now the Munster secretary, getting a belt of a hurley which dislodged some of his teeth; he spat them out, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and then took the free that had been awarded against his opponent for dangerous play.

One of the smallest but bravest and indomitable men ever to play senior hurling was Ger Coughlan of Offaly. It was said of him that his toothless grimace sometimes made bigger opponents uneasy, distracted their attention; before they knew what had happened, he had whipped the ball away with a perfect stroke.

One of the members of the great Clare team of the 1950’s treasured his dentures and was careful to remove them before games in case of damage. But one on occasion the team was late arriving for a game and in all the rush he found himself on the field of play, with the referee about to start the game, and his dentures in place. Resourceful man that he was, he gouged out a hole in the pitch with the heel of his boot on the 70 yard line, removed the dentures, buried them, then tamped down the sod over them. When the game was over, like the squirrel returning to his horde of buried nuts, the Clareman returned to the spot and retrieved his false teeth.

The use of protective helmets has increased the survival rate of front teeth and reduced the numbers of toothless ones. Perhaps there should be a special association for those who lost front teeth while playing the ancient game. Every club and many counties has players and former players who could apply for membership of the Front Toothless Club. They would, of course, insert their dentures when they sat down to the annual commemorative dinner.

Someone asked the St Lactain’s man if not having teeth was a source of bother to him. The questioner was thinking about the process of eating or facial attractiveness to women. But the stalwart from north Kilkenny said “ I was well known for giving a sharp whistle through my teeth to let my team-mates know I had got away from my marker and was waiting for a pass. So having no teeth put an end to that; it was a bit of a disadvantage.”

Let’s hope that all those hurlers who lost their front teeth during their playing days don’t decide to sue the GAA in retrospect, like some of those army fellows suing the state for impaired hearing due to the sound of gunfire. If that happened then the GAA might have to sell Croke Park to property developers to turn into a luxury flat complex.