I haven’t seen a pitch and toss school for many years. How or why the gathering of men and youth pitching and tossing coins was dubbed a school I cannot say. Nothing could be more removed from the organised seats of learning of our young days than the mix an gathering of working men, long term unemployed and just out of school boys who came together on Sunday mornings at various points throughout the town. I last recall such a gathering in the late 1950’ or early 1960’s when the corner of the park joining the I.V.I. Foundry was the meeting place for those skilled, some more than others, in the art of pitch and toss. And it was an art, one developed and nurtured in the days before T.V, to fill the time between morning mass and the pub opening hours. At least that’s when I recall pitch and toss was at it’s height - mid Sunday morning when the pennies and sometimes the odd ten shilling notes were bet on the toss of the coins.
Apart from the park, pitch and toss schools were also to be found in Shrewleen Lane, near to Doyle’s pub and at the ball alley off Barrack Lane. Another school but not as popular because it was too visible to passing traffic, was the corner of Kirwan’s Lane and Mount Hawkins. In the days when the local Gardai spent much of their time ensuring that only bone fide drinkers were imbibing in the local public houses of Athy, they had time to close any Pitch and Toss schools they encountered on their perambulations. I gather however that by in large the local Gardai left the locals to their Sunday morning gambling pleasures, only moving to act if a distraught house wife complained of her man losing his weeks wages at Pitch and Toss. Then the local Sergeant issued instructions to his men to close down the Pitch and Toss schools, making it more important for the locals to have a good lookout as the Pitch and Toss games progressed. For that reason the Pitch and Toss sites were carefully chosen to allow the participants to scatter in at least three different directions should a Gardai make an appearance.
For those brought up in the flickering shadow of computer games the very idea of a Pitch and Toss school might seem some what archaic and simplistic. Indeed it was the epitome of simplicity allowing men to pit themselves against each other in a game which required accuracy and some skill coupled with the heightened uncertainty of the straight forward gamble. Each of the men involved stood eight or nine yards away from the “Mottie” which was invariably a medium sized stone placed on the ground. All took turns in “pitching” a penny coin to the “Mottie” with the object, as in Meggars, of being nearest to the target. Accuracy brought with it the right to toss the coins upon which those in attendance could bet heads or harps. The coins tossed straight up in the air to land on the ground were almost always half pennies referred to in the language of the Pitch and Toss school as “Gilleens”. On the balance of probability coins tossed in this way had a fifty fifty chance of turning up heads or harps, but it was the uncertainty which fed the feverish gambling instincts of the men who watched with mesmeric gaze the coins tossing and turning on the way up and then down finally to rest near their feet.
Everyone felt he had the knack of tossing the “Gilleens” so that they ended up heads or harps as desired but in truth there was no skill on earth which could bestow this gift on anyone. Most men balanced the half pennies on their straightened fore fingers before flicking the lucky coins in the air - everyone had his lucky half pennies always kept as an act of blind faith which rational experience could never hope to dispel.
Some did not leave matters to chance but attempted “sweat” their “Gilleens” a procedure which was extremely difficult to achieve and highly dangerous to ones well being if found out. “Sweating” a coin involved removing the “Head” by some means or other allowing the “head” of another coin to be soldered back in it’s place. The result was a coin which was heavier on one side and which would invariably turn up heads, when used. Others trusted what they referred to as a “Fecker” - a simple small narrow piece of stick on which the “Gilleens” were placed rather than on the fingers before being tossed. Years of use had given the “Feckers” a patina of polished sweat and dirt which ennobled the simple piece of timber and raised it to the ranks of a venerable antique. Did it ever make a bit of difference as to whether the half pennies turned up heads or harps? - not a blind bit of difference but those who used the “Feckers” needed the comfort of the little home made gadgetry as they laid down their bets in six pences or shillings.
The bets were won or lost depending on whether the two coins turned up heads or harps. Another toss was required if the coins at rest showed a head and a harp. Bets were placed on the ground, each bet being covered by someone else and there could be up to twenty or thirty men betting at anyone time on the next toss. The school tended to break up, when the pubs opened or because there was a football match to go to in the afternoon. Then the men would each give a small coin to the “Boxer” - the unemployed man or the youth who’s job it was to pick up the tossed coins or “Gilleens” each time and to hand them on to the next tosser.
So there you have an idea of the Pitch and Toss schools of almost forty years ago, where the “Fecker” the “Boxer” the “Gilleen” the “Mottie” were words in common usage and understood by everyone.
In Eye On the Past No. 66 I wrote of my mass serving days and of James McNally Sacristan of St. Michaels Church for decades up to the 1950’s. I noted that he was buried in the local graveyard in an unmarked grave, and wondered how we had forgotten a man who had made such a life long commitment to the church in Athy. I am delighted to report that his grave is now marked with a fine head stone and arrangements are in hand to have a dedication ceremony at his grave side on Sunday the 22nd August at 3 p.m. If you remember James McNally why not come along and pay your respects.