Mick Lawlor (standing) and Joe McCabe,
at the McCabe home near Abbeyleix.
Photograph: James Fennell.
Mick Lalor is anxious to set the record straight. His daughter is married to Joe McCabe's son. And Joe's father was Mick's schoolteacher in Clonad. And yes, okay, Joe's father did have a wee romance with Micky's mother. But that was a long time ago, before anyone was married. Above all, he and Joe are neighbours - and always have been.
It is clear that Joe and Mick regard the ongoing link between their two families as a happy coincidence. They are great pals. Joe swears Mick is 'one of the best water diviners in Ireland - bar none'. And Mick says Joe's record as a hurler speaks for itself. The two were taking afternoon tea and cream buns when we called in to the McCabe house in Ballyroan outside Abbeyleix on a wet spring afternoon.
The two men sit in opposing armchairs chuckling at the old times, at stories they've heard a hundred times before yet which still carry an essential lightness of being. There is the story of the kindly fool who accidentally donated the entrance fee for a vital hurling match to the parish priest. Or the scoundrel who had the monopoly on bicycle tyres and wireless batteries during the war. Or the hurler who kept all his money in a matchbox but accidentally lost the box while making haycocks 'so he had to unravel all his cocks with a pitchfork and start over again'. Then there was Jack Lyons, a massive lad who had to get a bypass. 'Doctor, a bypass is no good to me - I need a roundabout.' Sometimes it is hard to grasp why stories are funny. It's like trying to make sense of long gone currencies. And, as such, it is inevitable that older men look down in brief dismay that such wonderful memories can possibly lose their sheen over time.
But much of storytelling is about the way it is told and, eighty-seven years on, Joe McCabe's endearing tales are as hypnotic as they ever were. Joe is the first of his McCabe line for four generations to not become a teacher. 'I have sisters who were teachers. I have a daughter teaching - and a grandchild teaching too! But I was too thick for teaching!'
Instead, he evolved a passion for hurling. As a child, his native county still echoed with the roars of those who had carried Laois to victory in the 1915 All-Ireland Hurling Championship. The weather had been so wet that day the two teams played the second half in overcoats. One of his many colourful tales involves a midnight raid on a prosperous farm to pinch a lump of ash to make some new hurls. Luckily, even at the age of twelve, Joe could clearly run.
In the GAA's Jubilee Year of 1934, the fifteen-year-old Joe McCabe, clad in short trousers, played for the Laois Minors in a match that saw them become Leinster Champions. Next up was Tipperary in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. What an astonishing prospect for any fifteen-year-old.
'None of us knew Dublin,' he says of the team's arrival in the city. 'We had nothing only our boots, tied together and thrown across our backs. And we carried our hurls in our hand. We had no cases, no pyjamas or anything at all. We walked along the quays and then up to Barry's Hotel. We went to the pictures that night. The Plaza! I remember it was four old pence. We came out of it after and there was a chipper. We never had chips before but by jaysuz we got a tray of them and tucked in. I only had half a crown when I came to Dublin to play in an All-Ireland final. That's all I had and there were lads who hadn't even that! We ate the chips and went back to the hotel and we went to bed. We got up the next morning and went to mass and went on to Croke Park.'
Laois lost by a point after a second half that lasted forty-five minutes and Tipperary brought on nine substitutes. With teacher blood thick in his veins, Joe swears he took the train home straight after the match so that he could finish off his homework for the Christian Brothers in Portlaoise by the Monday morning. 'We had a great big clock on the wall. I remember it was twenty-five to nine when I got home for dinner. My mother said, 'You didn't win today?' - the hurling was on the radio or something - I said, 'No.' My father gave me a note for the Brothers in the morning.'
Joe is the only player to have been on the Laois minor team for five years in a row - 1933 to 1937. He continued to hurl until 1960 and says he got a welt from a hurl every time he went out. 'We didn't mind welts. We were working hard. That time we'd walk twenty mile and we'd work and walk home. We got so hardened. People were much tougher. There was nothing to eat only bread and butter and the bacon that hung above you. We'd eat anything, carrots or turnips or cabbage.'
After he left school, Joe's father paid a welder to employ his son as an apprentice. Joe went without pay for the next three months - 'to see was I any good!' He got a salary of five shillings a week afterwards and 'got up to fifteen shillings by the time I finished!' His career path was set. 'I welded all my life - the whole life I'm welding.' He claims to have invented a crank shaft that cannot be broken - not even by a steam engine - but vows that he will take his secret recipe to the grave. In the end, he had a business of his own outside Abbeyleix, lately sold to make way for a residential estate.
Mick is a quieter man, one of six children born into a farming family from Portlaoise. At seventy-six, he has survived a bypass, a hernia and the complete loss of sight in his right eye. His gift for water-divining was revealed in his boyhood when his teacher - Joe's father - asked everyone to give it a try. Mick was the solitary success, although his anxious father insisted someone was 'codding' him. After school, he tried it again while checking on the cattle one evening and sure enough the magic sticks crackled over a source of water. 'I don't know is it a gift or not. It just works and that's all. I've seen hundreds of people who say they can do it but I've only met two or three who actually can.' He has four daughters and two sons but says none of them can divine. 'It just doesn't work that way.' When Mick married, he gave up farming and bought a machine for well-drilling. 'Every new house built around the country has to get water - and Mick is the man to find it,' asserts Joe.