It is not just in the Model County that the famous Yellow Belly Wexford jersey is spoken of with reverence and respect. It is surprising how a few short words or a generous action from a famous hurler can fire the spirit of a young player.
The year was 1985 and it was a group of intrepid hurlers from the North headed almost as far south as they could go to compete in the Féile na nGael in Wexford.
The manager, a scholar of the game, who would refer to players and feats in training sessions that had his young players looking at him mystified and confused, decided if they were going to Wexford they had to learn about Wexford. And so each player was given obair bhaile – homework on top of their weekly skills to do on a spare gable wall. They approached it with relish.
The mere mention of the county's name had the lads talking in hushed tones of the famous Wexford jersey, worn by Tony Doran in the seventies. One lad asked his grandad what he knew of the Yellow Belllies and his reply was two words. Nicky Rackard. And two numbers 7-7.
What pops? I was there he said, working in Dublin when Nicky Rackard scored 7-7 in a Leinster semi final. Never saw anything like it. That formed the basis of that young chap’s obair bhaile. He went to Wexford 100% sure he would meet the great man himself.
Another discovered the fact that 50,000 ash trees were planted on forty five acres within County Wexford as part of the GAA centenary programme in 1984. The ash was planted at Ramsfort Park, Gorey; Culleton's Gap, Curracloe and Bolgerstown, Glynn with the fervent hope that one day it would be used to arm with camans the next generation of Wexford hurlers.
The Féile was spoke of in hushed terms by the lads as they set off. The craic was ninety as they headed for the promised land. One lad dreamt of meeting Nicky Rackard himself, another cajoled the bus driver to stop at every copse of trees to see if they were ash. They hadn’t passed Dublin yet.
But when they reached Wexford itself the long suffering manager stopped the bus and got the lads to step off. 24 of them there were. We’re going in to Wexford now he said, and we’ve worked that hard and long to get here were going to savour the moment. We’re going to walk up this road into the County of Wexford in silence, and as you do promise to each other you’ll try your hardest and do your best this weekend. This is Féile. It was an emotional moment, punctuated only by our friend:
‘Will we see Nicky Rackard?’
It broke the silence but not the spell. A hundred yards later, back on the bus and on to their host families and a weekend of hurling like they never had before.
That evening as they prepared for the opening game, panic set in. The jerseys had been left at home in the club. Everyone thought everyone else had packed them when in fact no-one had and it was too late for a car to bring them down. No M50 in those days.
The host club barely batted an eyelid, we have a set you can use they said. A brown army duffel bag was deposited on the dressing room door. When the lads pulled at the drawstrings, their eyes widened and jaws hit the floor. It was a set of Wexford jerseys, the Yellow Bellies. The O’Neills name stitched into the inside collar, the fabric soft and inviting. The real thing.
The important thing about Féile is the people you meet and what you learn, but that weekend these lads gained something more about life and hurling. When it was time to go they went to return the duffel bag of Wexford jerseys to the club, but were told, no you keep them. The way you played this weekend lads, you were like the sons of Cuchullain himself. Bring them home and wear them Wexford jerseys in your won club matches with pride. It was an emotional moment. Punctuated only by a small voice
’Did Nicky Rackard wear these?”
The Wexford man smiled and stopped a minute.
“He did son, yes he did.”
The 2017 Wexford GAA jersey is now available in-stores and online.