A hurling story from An Fearr Rua
Michael Walsh captained The Rower - Inistioge to their only Kilkenny county senior hurling title. He died on 10th January. RIP
There was no shelter from the unseasonal heavy misty rain on that mild January morning when we turned onto Friar’s Hill. The hearse belching fumes five yards in front of us afforded no cover and we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The dark suits, white shirts and black ties of the men were soaked in an instant. The careful preparations of the womenfolk to hair and clothes were drowned in a spiteful but comforting grey mist.
Rain is for funerals. It provides a cloak of darkness for the pain of the bereaved and it allows the sympathisers to somehow share the hurt if only fleetingly. Sunshine is for weddings and heroic summer hurling.
Hurling bubbles in our family’s blood, so for the life of me I couldn’t fathom how I had never seen this book before. On the table stacked high in the bookshop was ‘Kilkenny Senior Hurling Champions 1887 – 2003’ by Dermot Kavanagh. Staring out at me from the pages detailing the 1968 final was my father’s picture with the note identifying him as captain. Tears filled my eyes in the bookshop. That was his Christmas present sorted for what we all knew would probably be his last.
From the middle of November it was obvious that he would never leave the house again. One of his last big days out was to the funeral of a former Kilkenny All Ireland winning captain who was married to his sister. Afterwards, he shared pints and stories over a long afternoon with men he hurled against long ago.
The great bundle of energy that is Sam Carroll said to him ‘It will be your turn next year’ referring to the Kilkenny County Board’s policy of honouring the county champions of the past. Without missing a beat he smiled and said he was looking forward to it but both of us knew his deteriorating health would have taken him from us long before then.
These days his limited eyesight was saved for the donation to the bookmakers’ benevolent fund that was his daily trawl through the racing pages. Sitting at his bedside I offered to read to him the pages covering the 1968 final from Dermot Kavanagh’s book. He would never have asked. That was his way.
Before we reached Mill Street we could see them. Lining both sides of the street opposite the Ollie Walsh Memorial were the men of ’68 whom he had led into battle on an April Sunday in ’69 to claim his parish’s one and only Kilkenny Senior Hurling Championship title. Over their shoulders was slung the club jersey which was their battledress on that Sunday nearly forty three years ago. I still think the lid of the coffin lifted as his chest swelled with pride at the sight of these great men gathered to give him a guard of honour along the streets of the neighbouring town he had made his home for over forty years.
A few days after Christmas my mother rang and said he wants to see you urgently but he won’t say what it’s about. I sat on the bed and heard him ask me through shortening breath, to write to Dermot Kavanagh, the author of the book who had also played on the team, to thank him for the acknowledgement of the separate picture identifying him as captain. He had missed the celebratory dinner in New Ross due to illness and his centre-place as captain in the picture of this event, which was also in the book, had been filled by the great Eddie Keher.
He seemed to be opening up so I decided to test the water. With the simple words, ‘What position did you play in against Éire Óg’, an ever increasing torrent of memories flooded his head. He became frustrated as their delivery was slowed by the damming effect of his shortness of breath. I heard for the first time his recollections of the 1968 championship. He was picked out of position, centre back to mark Tommy O’Connell, the Kilkenny star forward, against Éire Óg in the first round.
The quarter final versus Thomastown was postponed until the Spring of ’69 to allow Ollie Walsh to return from an unfair suspension imposed following a Kilkenny v Tipperary brawl in the National Hurling League. Again, he was picked to do a job. Cha Whelan had to be marked, so he started full forward.
Freshford were the opposition for the semi - final and he was picked full forward to stop Pa Dillon, the great but fearsome Kilkenny full back of the 1960’s. In his bed he told me, in slightly less than parliamentary language, that he feared for his life and that if Pa was to walk into the bedroom there and then, he’d still be afraid. I’m too young to remember Pa hurling but I’ve met him at numerous hurling dinners etc and have found him to be one of the most softly spoken, obliging Kilkenny heroes of the past. I’m sure the truth of Pa’s legend is somewhere in between.
Dermot Kavanagh’s touching handwritten letter arrived within two days. After the funeral, he told me that on reading our letter of thanks he just sat down and wrote his reply in one draft.
That night at his bedside I read him Dermot’s reply ....’Believe me it was no problem giving your Dad due acknowledgement. He was a brilliant hurler and sincere servant of the club’.... He ‘was always picked to play on other such greats as Paddy Moran, Martin Coogan and Sean Buckley when the occasion demanded’....’ I can safely say that all the senior statesmen of that team were great men, none more so than him’...’Probably his greatest outing for the club was last September when at very short notice, and clearly unwell, he led the guard of honour for Pudsey Murphy’s funeral. A tough task but admirably undertaken’.
When I finished reading a smile took over his face and his eyes filled up as he reached out to grip the back of my hand. Nothing was said because nothing needed to be said. That was his way.
The rain relented. It’s possible the sporting gods saw it as a sop to the amount of hurling men that had gathered to bid farewell. The ‘Men of 68’ guard of honour led the cortege to the church and his three sons and three grandsons carried him shoulder high to the altar where the Tom Walsh Cup, which he had received nearly forty three years previously, was waiting for him. We have no picture of him being presented with the cup on county final day or of him being carried shoulder high with it from the field so it’s a sight that will be branded on our memories forever.
At the graveside a face we all knew approached my mother. Before he could offer his condolences she smiled and said ‘They tell me he hurled the socks of you’. Seamus Cleere, the prince of Kilkenny centre backs laughed and hugged her. He had been picked centre forward in the county final against Bennettsbridge to stop the great Seamus Cleere. In the ‘Irish Independent’ report of the match neither of them got a mention.
Job done. He never said anything to us about it. That was his way.