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Johnny P…

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Johnny Pilkington is a friend of mine from way back in my college days. I was also very privileged that he was my ticket source for the Offaly hurling glory years in the 1990s. It all started when I went to one of his Leinster Championship matches after we finished college to educate a Wicklowman about hurling. It was a rollercoaster for the next few years with the highs of All-Ireland wins, the madness of 1998 and also the lows like the 1995 final loss when he was captain. Johnny always reminded me that the tickets were for the camera and not for me!

He was elusive enough for photos in college but I got a few more as the years went by. This one from 1998 captures his mischievous grin. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a book on him to date with all the legendary stories, rumours and quotes over the years. Most of them of course have been wildly exaggerated and completely untrue but that’s what adds to a great character…

Irish Times article on Johnny Pilkington was published on September 11th 2008 before the 1998 All-Ireland Final. 

April 1998 – Guinness Press Release for Psyche-Up Ad Campaign: The hurling hero is psyching himself up . . . camera moves back to reveal another figure . . . new character brings with him a sense of foreboding, of dark forces . . . back to the hero, who takes a step further, swings his hurley across his torso and gazes down the corridor unflinching . . . the other figure mirrors these actions . . . close-up reveals he is the same person . . . the first hurler’s alter ego . . . the demon within . . . the demon cracks the base of his hurley off the floor . . . a fracture appears and travels down the length of the tunnel . . . it is white hot and molten, spitting and bubbling . . . with a fluid movement the demon takes up a scorching ball of molten material — a sliotar from hell! . . . with a sudden tremendous burst of speed the demon hurler knocks up the ball and fires it down with awesome power and pace to the hero facing him . . . our hero holds his ground . . . he tenses himself in anticipation and . . .
Johnny Pilkington leans back in his seat and runs his hand through his hair. Looks at the ceiling. Yawns. All the good things and all the bad things in Johnny’s life are stored up in his brown eyes. He is considering hurling just now. Good and bad.
“The whole idea of it actually is ridiculous,” he says. Johnny never saw a bush he wanted to beat around. “Training in muck and dirt. A big chunk of life gone fora little chunk of metal while an organisation is making millions. It’s a socalled amateur game with a professional way of preparing and nothing but a clap on the back or a knife in the back at the end. ‘Why bother?,’ I’d think to myself sometimes.”
And he grins, showing a wrecking yard of imperfect teeth. On the table is the round plastic ashtray, a mass grave for the cigarettes Johnny has sucked the life out of this morning. Johnny drums his fingers. No fags left. Forgot to buy a pack at lunchtime. The tension of a looming All-Ireland final can’t be found anywhere on his face. The fiancee says he’s a little snappy in the week before a big game, but he hasn’t noticed it himself. The way he’s been for the last year or so, well, it’s not molten lava or sliotars from hell stuff. Forgot the fags. Tut.
Take this summer and the game with Meath. A done deal after 10 minutes. Game over. Johnny found himself just standing in Croke Park in the middle of the field. Wondering and wandering. What’s the point in beating these by 25 points? Could have done with a fag.
Even when he has been with the programme it’s not been his best season. His detachment from the game and it’s molten passions has become more distinct. Sometimes he listens to the table banging speeches and the boys who are going to do or die and his ironic mind is leading him away from it.
“In the dressing room every game is the important game, you know. Win this one and ye’ll be alright lads. The All-Ireland, we’ll go out and play that and it’s the biggest thing ever. Two weeks later it’s the club championship. We have to win that and get into the semi. Then we have to win that to get into the county final. We’ve never put one back to back or something, so that’s the most important thing and so on.
“Sometimes in the dressing room I think, ‘wouldn’t it be more important if one of us lost his job. Then we’d be in trouble’.”
He bodyswerves. “Then again though, you wouldn’t be without the hurling.”
He wouldn’t be without it, but there are times when just being a hurling man in a hurling town closes in on him, days when the world seems a small place. If he didn’t have hurling, what would he be?
He works for Minch Norton, the agricultural supply people. Apart from farming, every customer has one thing to talk about. Hurling. All hurling. All the time. Goodfellas and blowhards and bad debtors. Hurling.
Listen, Johnny might say, you owe us money, you’ve owed it this long time. Johnny, there’ll be some hurling done to beat Kilkenny on Sunday, some hurling done.
Once, not long liberated from the ag block in UCD, Johnny and another ag graduate went out on a professional mission to see a farmer, a former Tipperary hurler actually. For half an hour Tipp asked Johnny’s colleague about farming. Then, business done, he turned to Johnny for the hurling chat at the end of it, as if Johnny was some sort of hurling bimbo included as part of a special offer. “You have to get away,” he says. “You need to escape it sometimes. There’s not much point in stopping hurling and staying around Birr. You’d have to go away altogether. Go somewhere where nobody knows you and nobody knows hurling . . . Kildare maybe.
He got away for a bit last winter and fled to the sanctuary of the local rugby club, where he hid out for the duration of the Towns cup campaign. The town buzzed with rumours that the rugby was eating Johnny Pilkington away like the ebola virus. Little to be talking about.
“My rugby career wasn’t exactly what it was made up to be,” he grins. “I was playing in the worst division in the worst league in the worst rugby country in Europe. Didn’t exactly have my head turned.”
Yet he appreciated it greatly. The lads on the rugby field with him two nights a week and on Saturday afternoons put the work in and pulled out less reward than hurlers are accustomed to. The GAA is the hub of life in Birr. The rugby boys go about their toil facing every problem except acclaim.
Babs gave him the call of course, summoning him back to the fold. Johnny told him he’d a couple of weeks left with the rugby lads and if Babs didn’t mind he’d like to see it out. Glad he did it. No idea what was down the line with Babs.
That’s life though. He shrugs in a way that’s part of him.
IT’S 20 minutes after the All-Ireland seim-final in Thurles has finally finished up. Offaly aren’t yet done with their whooping and hollering. The dressing room door opens. He stands in the dustmoted light, drained, drawn and a cigarette in his mouth. Lets his mouth crinkle into a smile. He-eeeere’s Johnny!
People sit Johnny Pilkington down for these sketches every year or so. They fiddle away while he sits there. Shade here, light there. And when they hand him back the portrait he’s king pogue, the Shane McGowan of his game, burping his way through the seasons, indifferent to hurling and stone mad for the drink.
He doesn’t recognise himself.
It started maybe in 1994, before the All-Ireland. Ger Canning asked him what an All-Ireland would mean to Offaly. Johnny said it would mean a lot of drink. Looking back now it was a stupid thing to say . . .
“But I was 24 and young and fresh out of college, no clue about tax or PRSI or those things. My reputation would be very exaggerated from then on.”
If there are then rumours out there, he reckons six of them are wrong and he hasn’t heard the other four yet. His fiancee’s family own a pub. Brian Whelehan owns a pub. His car is parked outside one or the other most nights. Quick tongues do their work about the place. Johnny Pilkington had six gallons of porter and went home in the bat mobile.
Johnny? He’s not a soak. He’s not telling you he’s at home listening to his Jane Fonda workout tapes either, but he’s not a soak. He has a life is all, and if he sits drinking minerals till his woman finishes work at two in the morning, he’s no need to reckon it with you in the morning.
“Look. Probably I drink a little more than I should, too much for inter county hurling maybe. Maybe 16, 17 pints a week, but there is a limit. I know the rumours, but where I’d be, the people who’d talk about me don’t be.”
He has the face and the character for it, the mixture of humour and sadness, the attitude and the walk. It all provokes gossip. In a town consumed by hurling he cradles his genius for the game with such nonchalance that he must infuriate the right-thinking fundamentalists.
“What damages me is being the lad with the one liner, the smart answer, I’m the messer. And sometimes I feel that, because of that, people don’t take me seriously. The people that matter know me.”
Some guy bellied up to him the night before a wedding once. Johnny’s fiancee’s sister was getting hitched and the do was held the Friday before an All-Ireland. The wedding was at two o’clock in the afternoon, and back in the hotel Johnny set into drinking minerals, tipping along nicely, enjoying himself despite the parade of people coming up to him all night with wagging fingers and soppy stern faces and drink taken.
“You’re not to be drinking too much tonight.” So this guy bellies up once and says his piece. Fine. Then up the second time. Bit more strident this time. Not long later he’s along for the third speech from the pulpit. “I can look after myself,” said Johnny. “Look, I’m standing here drinking minerals.”
But this guy is in Johnny Pilkington’s face, all froth and fervour pushing him around like he is a piece of public property. So what happened?
“I says, well fuck you anyway, I’m tired of you coming up telling me what to do. I went off and had a few quiet pints. Came back and had two more. I drunk five or six pints at the wedding from two o’clock in the day.”
And everyone of them counted threefold by the time they got spilled into the rumour machine the next day. He knows how the machine works, multiplying his consumption exponentially.
Take the year they won the Fitzgibbon cup in UCD. As it happened, the semi-final was on the same Saturday as another wedding which he had promised his fiancee he would attend. No matter what. Hell or high water.
Then a month later he realised it was Fitzgibbon cup weekend in Waterford. So he went and played the semi-final, hopped back into the car, drove home to Birr and was at the wedding before anyone was any the wiser. He had three pints, went to bed and drove to Waterford the next day. He played out of his skin and UCD won the Fitzgibbon.
Fast forward to a couple of months ago. Johnny meets a young fella still yomping through the groves of academe in Belfield. Said scholar pipes up to Johnny that in Belfield his legend still lives, preserved in alcohol as it were.
“How do you mean?”
“The Fitzgibbon,” says he and nods and winks.
“Eh?”
“The Fizgibbon. The lads were saying when you turned up for the final they had to pump coffee into you and put you under a cold shower, just to get you onto the pitch.”
“Never happened.”
That’s life when you have a big name in a small world. Part of you is hurling property. The bits of life you might call your own are sequestered. “I know what I’m doing,” says Johnny. “I’ll always go where I normally go. I’ll do the same thing and if somebody wants to say that Johnny was in the pub and he had 10 pints and he fell out the door and next day he raised the hurl, well it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Press him on the subject though and, rightly, he gets irritated. The business of players and their own lives blurs the borders in this amateur game. “It’s made out to be the wrong thing,” he says. “I enjoy a pint. I’ll have a couple the night before the All-Ireland. That’s me. I’m easy going, relaxed. Other fellas will miss a night’s sleep with the tension. No big deal.”
He’s baffled by the curiosity, but it’s been a baffling year. Why hasn’t he been dropped, for instance? “Seven games,” he laughs. “About seven different partners in midfield. It’s some kind of punishment.” Strange times. Not too long ago he came into training and there was a new fella sitting in the corner. Shiny top, red face, nothing to say. Johnny whispered an inquiry. “He’s the new physical trainer.”
“Hmmm.”
Next thing, the imposter was on his feet.
“I’m Michael Bond. I’m from Loughrea. I trained the 1983 Galway u-21 team. I love Offaly hurling. I don’t want to change Offaly hurling. I expect respect and I respect commitment. I give respect and I give commitment. Let’s go train.”
Johnny was loping out the door thinking to himself that the lack of bullshit was a commendable change when he heard the other. Jesus what was that?
Another turn in a convoluted season, that’s what. He’s hogged headlines without hurling well at all. “Did the Leinster championship exist at all?” he asks. “Must have been the dullest ever.”
It would have been if he and Babs hadn’t added the strange coda to it after the Leinster final. There were few words said in the dressing room that day they lost the Leinster final. Babs Keating said something or other. One of the players stood up and said there were too many lads acting the mick on the team. Nobody in Offaly was playing well and Johnny felt that they were hinting at me a couple of others. That stuck in his head.
He can’t really remember what Babs said. He’d tuned out, but in the car later he heard the sports news coming on, heard this business with Babs, washing his hands, telling the world that Offaly just weren’t listening to him. It got in under his skin, and next morning the phone rang. Liam Horan from The Irish Independent. Johnny cut loose.
“I thought afterwards that maybe there’s probably be holy war at training. We’d either knuckle down or, if he wasn’t happy, well me or him would have to go. Then just before it came on the news I heard he had resigned.”
Sorry it happened?
“Well, he was wrong to say what he did say. I was wrong to have a go back in the media. He was wrong in a lot of things he wrote about me after that too. I don’t know him as a man, but he doesn’t know me as a person.”
Seen Babs since?
“Babs isn’t from Birr. He doesn’t be where I be.”
Glad he’s gone?
“Am I glad he’s gone?” Pause.
“Well, to be honest, I don’t miss him.”
Johnny Pilkington grins again. Easy come, easy go. The words sound harder than he is. He’s not a fella for confrontation. Not a fella to hide from it either. Just not driven.
You pick away at him, talking about DJ Carey and Brian Lohan and those sessions they talk about, alone in the handball alleys battering a sliotar against the wall. Ever do that Johnny? He smiles at the mischief of it.
“Hmm. Did it once or twice maybe. When we were kids we’d be at home bating a ball off a wall alright. I’d never go off on my own though. Horses for courses really. DJ Carey and Brian Lohan, they’re the top hurlers in the country. I’m in the top 50 on a good day.”
When he’s warmed up and talking hurling his erudition on the topic is clear. This is his life after all, even if he tires of every dog and divil looking for a word.
“Sure I like to hang around. When I was working in Kilkenny, I knew a fella in Piltown, and if he went into a pub and he couldn’t see anyone there to talk to about farming or hurling he’d just leave. I could talk farming and GAA and sport and beyond that, well, what is beyond that? I don’t know. The salt of the earth, the hairy bacon and bit of cabbage kind of thing. That’s what I grew up with.”
He grew up with perhaps the most gifted bunch of hurlers playing the game today. Grew up with them and learned to take them for granted.
“We’re just a group of friends. Nothing special. We play hurling. We train. I remember in national school, I was 11 and Brian was 10. I got a phone call to come out and play an u-14 match in Banagher. I’m not too big now, but I was very small then and Brian was worse. The two of us got sent in as corner forwards. He’s been there on teams with me ever since.”
Joe Errity was in his class. Always exceptional, and Johnny reckons that, bar serious knee injuries, Joe might have become the best hurler in the country, or one of them.
“We grew up together. We went to places. Feile. The community games in Mosney. The crack in the chalet. All that.
“Daithi Regan was around, he was a year or two older, but we’d be on the same teams. Daithi would have been a mad hoor but he’s settled down now. I remember he was so big he’d solo up to me in training and handpass the ball over me and solo around the other side. Thanks Daithi, making me look good here.” They never fell out. Johnny can’t remember ever having a bad word. They’d have their arguments when they were out having a few pints, but nobody ever got wound up and walked out. There was always a third lad as referee. Anyway, it was more of a jeering thing, if you made an eejit of yourself at some stage it would be coming up forever. “If you couldn’t take it you wouldn’t really be in the group.”
That’s what keeps him ticking over really. No lava or flaming sliotars or burning passions. Just that feeling in the dressing room. The comfort of friends. “It’s 3.15 on Sunday and everything else is forgotten about. I like that. All that matters is the 20 lads togging out, plus the management. The lads who have put in the effort. You don’t want to let them down. Everything is forgotten about, all the troubles, all the worry. You have a job to do. It starts then and you tune off the other things. You’d be worried about missing the first ball, what’ll you do if you win it. “Everybody is focused in on the one thing. Some of the lads would go through a steel door. I’d be more inclined to open it first, but we’re all going the one way. You know the sounds. fellas chatting, balls banging, lads getting rubs, all the talk, fellas a bit nervous. It’s a nice place to be actually. Gets you away from everywhere, no trouble, no bitterness, no anything else. Just some lads out to do a job.”
Three-fifteen on a Sunday with the lads. That’s it, the heart of it, the Johnny Pilkington psyche-up.
“I know the rumours, but where I’d be the people who talk about me don’t be.”
“It’s 3.15 on Sunday and everything else is forgotten about. I like that.”

Dermot Crowe’s article on Johnny was published in the Irish Independent on June 17th 2001. 

Johnny Pilkington took hurling seriously, but never too seriously. He was a rebellious figure and a successful promoter of the Offaly ethos.
AH, the memories. Johnny Pilkington is sifting through a medley of them two days after announcing his retirement from inter-county hurling. They emerge at random: landmark matches jostling with frivolous renditions of Rock the Boat in Whelahan’s. A career which began against Laois 12 years ago, crowned by a man-of-the-match performance, has ended in another mauling from Kilkenny.
Oscar Wilde would have told him the one thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. He had no problems on that score and while Brian Whelahan was lauded for his wrist action, people were more interested in what Johnny did off the field. He took hurling seriously but never too seriously.
In that respect he was a rebellious figure and a successful promoter of the Offaly ethos. His irreverence provided a refreshing antidote to the stuffy pontifications of ‘hurling men’, and the grandiloquent bull that assails the game like no other. Offaly’s tribe was at odds with this. They chorused: what’s the big deal?
A thousand claps on Johnny’s back for that. Offaly became the country’s most venerated stress-free zone and he was their local Shaman waxing lyrical on how to relax and enjoy, yet still win a few All-Ireland medals along the way. He made you laugh and not feel bad about it.
So when you venture that maybe, with greater application, he might have achieved even more from his career the expression changes to a quizzical one, perhaps like George Best’s when the intruder asked how someone spoiled by lots of cash, booze and a crack blonde had got it all wrong.
Alas, we find Johnny Pilkington not being pampered by some friendly blonde in a posh hotel room but instead sitting at the bar of the Cherry Tree in Birr in the company of Joe Errity and former Birr chairman Sean Doorley. The popular image of Johnny Pilkington delves, of course, into the realm of caricature and partly misleads. At times the laid-back propaganda has conned opponents into false states of security.
Within that happy-go-lucky shell there is a serious core, as there had to be for him to survive so long at inter-county level. During the mid-’90s he formed an effective midfield partnership with Daithí Regan that helped topple Kilkenny. The team’s apotheosis was the dramatic 1995 Leinster final. He was All-Star material but had to settle for the sole award granted in 1990.
Since the 1998 All-Ireland win, and perhaps even a year before it, he believes his game had been on the wane. This was going to be the final year and it might have ended last summer but for the championship draw, as he explains.
“I was talking to (selector) Pat McLoughney after Michael Bond had been ratified as trainer and he says, ‘are you going to hurl next year?’ and I said, ‘the only way I’ll hurl is if we get Kilkenny in the first round.’ I felt if we were bet by Kilkenny then the hurling was finished. I said if we could beat Kilkenny we have a chance of an All-Ireland.”
For the first time ever in his career he approached last Sunday’s match confident Kilkenny would be beaten. In all previous encounters there was trepidation. “I felt that their backline was there for the taking,” he confides. “But you have to hand it to them; their backs were absolutely brilliant. When you get bet by that much, and three years in-a-row, what’s the point in going on?”
Not even the talismanic Michael Bond could work the magic this time. “He had this great confidence in Offaly,” acknowledges Pilkington. “And I think he brought it to training this year. He got an awful lot out of John Troy whereas a couple of trainers haven’t. He got an awful lot out of me, Joe Errity, Kevin Martin and Brian Whelahan.
“There was no difference in the margins (of defeat) over the last three or four occasions. And it’s a pity, too, looking at the team. I was just looking at the video there. You have Kinahan, Brian Whelahan, Kevin Martin, Johnny Dooley, Troy, Errity … to see a team like that getting bet by so much, it’s demoralising.”
How a manager like Eamonn Cregan coped with Pilkington’s idiosyncrasies is difficult to fathom and it was often a bumpy ride. Three times he was dropped for league games, once for failing to attend training two nights after winning the 1995 All-Ireland club title. He was Offaly captain at the time.
Cregan phoned the day after their win and insisted the Birr contingent be there. Pilkington relayed the news to an unenthused Birr party who made the travel arrangements for the next evening. When the day arrived Pilkington and Regan decided to go for a drink. “It ended up an all night kind of thing,” he explains.
The rest of the Birr players, waiting for the lift, noticed the absentees and “put two and two together and got four.” Soon they had joined them in the pub. All were dropped for the forthcoming league quarter-final against Cork. On another occasion Pilkington missed a league match against Kerry. “I tried his patience, there was no doubt about it. I think Eamonn was totally the opposite of myself. The way I prepared for a game was totally different to his but we worked on it.
“I remember talking to himself and Paudge Mulhare after we had a falling out as such in 1995 over a league match. They said, ‘listen, hurling is 24 hours a day.’ I can’t relate to 24 hours a day and I think a lot of the Offaly lads can’t relate to it either. There’s a couple … Brian Whelahan, maybe Johnny Dooley.
“So, I’d say it probably drove Eamonn mad. I remember one training session in ’93 where we trained in the ‘tech. Twelve of us trained and by the end there were only four left and that was four to six weeks before the Kilkenny game in the championship. So Eamonn would probably have found it very difficult to relate to us.
“I think in ’94 that things weren’t going well. But it just took one game to kick-start it, the Kilkenny game. Everything went exceptionally well for us that day. We’d a great start. And after that the whole thing just gelled. We went on from there.”
Despite their differences, Pilkington regards Cregan as the best manager that Offaly had during his career. His spell in charge also encompassed Pilkington’s greatest disappointment losing the 1995 All-Ireland final to Clare as captain. It is not something he has really talked about until now.
He had the victory speech half-composed. The punchline went: ‘Offaly may have won this All-Ireland but it’s been Clare’s summer.’ Maybe they peaked in the Leinster final but they let chances slip: one ball he gave to Troy was an exact replica of the final 12 months previously except the shot went a few inches outside the post this time. Maybe, he says, they weren’t ruthless enough.
It hurt more than many appreciated at the time, not least because the moment was completely submerged by Clare’s remarkable victory. And it still hurts. “Every time you see a lad lifting the McCarthy Cup your mind goes back to it. What would it be like? It’s not devastating but it’s just there at the same time and it’ll always be there.
“And I will see it time after time because it was Clare. If it was Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork you wouldn’t see it as often. But you can ask the question: how often have you seen Anthony Daly lift the McCarthy Cup? Thousands of times.”
Managers have tried to give the Offaly lads a good old fashioned boot up the arse but this therapy has not had much success. Appeasement has always been the smart approach. In 1991 Padraig Horan, hewn from the breakthrough team of the ’80s, entered the ring with a regime in mind that contained little appeal for his audience.
He held a meeting at the start of the season and outlined his plans. Pilkington recalls: “He said, ‘right, no drink this year, no smoking,’ and two or three of the lads went up to him after the meeting and said, ‘listen, we’re not sacrificing our Saturday nights for anyone.”‘ By the time Horan was in charge of Birr in ’95 he had mellowed significantly.
On the eve of the All-Ireland finals of ’94, ’95, ’98 and last year’s, Pilkington treated himself to three or four pints because it helped him prepare. Before the sensational win over Cork he had a “small bottle of red wine.” To him it is no big deal and he doesn’t try to hide the routine. Sometimes, he admits, he missed training because of drink but “90 per cent” of the time he behaved himself impeccably.
Last year be pushed it to the limits, however, before the championship game against Wexford. He had a wedding on the preceding Friday, and the boozing carried over into the next day. He finally turned in, he reckons, at around two o’clock on the morning of the match. “I was alright but I knew that Adrian Fenlon could hurl me up a stick. We won easily and I was taken off with about 10 minutes to go.”
Did he not feel this was excessive behaviour? “Looking back I should have been more responsible,” he accepts. Two days before the 1994 All-Ireland he attended another wedding and was off alcohol but a guest kept reminding him to stay sober and he couldn’t stick him any longer. “I got tired of him and people like that telling me (what to do), so I had seven or eight pints. I think I played fairly well in ’94.”
League matches, of course, were much more relaxed affairs where you could have a few pints and no one would think anything much of it. The Offaly players were on first name terms with the bouncers in a nightclub near Newry where they stayed before matches against Antrim. They won the league only once, with Horan in ’91, but it wasn’t a prized possession.
The most bristly episode in his career came in 1998 with the fall-out over Babs Keating’s Leinster final comments on the team’s performance. “I would absolutely give him no credit at all for the 1998 All-Ireland,” states Pilkington firmly. Is he bitter? “No, and I am tired of the jibes, the jibes at Offaly. It seems to be a constant barrage whenever Offaly are playing.”
Pilkington’s retaliatory strike in the press led to Keating’s departure and the arrival of Bond. “I was disgusted because he put the full blame on the players. It was their fault, they did this, they did that. There’s no manager in the world that would do that, or should do that.”
The players he came up against included the sort of men you needed to be in the whole of your health facing: Pat Malone, Michael Phelan, Bill Hennessy, Ollie Baker, Mike Houlihan and Ciaran Carey. But Adrian Fenlon was his pick of the crop and he recounts their ’90s rivalry with obvious fondness.
“I think my greatest battles would have been with Adrian Fenlon. A fabulous hurler. Whenever he played well Wexford lost and whenever I played well Offaly lost. But he was the one I’d admire the most because he had the hurling and he produced a great ball into Wexford.”
The withdrawal of his brother Declan from the Offaly panel almost led to his own boycott in 1997 but he stayed put after talking to his brother about the affair. Declan Pilkington had been substituted and put back on the field against Wexford in 1995 which caused serious grievance with the player, while there was also a resistance by the county board to meet the cost of his farm relief expenses.
“Here we had a young farmer, married, two kids at the time, playing with Offaly. They wouldn’t pay the farm relief while he was off on a Sunday. It can be expensive but the county board made no effort to pay that. He was the lad that should have all this, the media, the things that I got because he lived for hurling. Still does,” Johnny recalls.
“And another thing that Eamonn Cregan did and it’s an awful thing to do to any man was that he started him, took him off and put him back on again. That shattered his confidence. He wasn’t the greatest scoring forward but he did the donkey work and you don’t get credit for the donkey work.”
IN tandem with Offaly there was Birr’s emergence which many people overlook while wagging the finger at Offaly’s disregard for the league. Several were involved in both camps when Birr won county titles in 1992, ’95, ’98 and 2000, stretching the season all-year round. The 1998 title win over Sarsfields is his most treasured memory.
“I’ve been very, very lucky. I had a very simple job to do in the ’90s, a workmanlike job,” he says with a hefty degree of modesty. “Pop up now and then for a score. I never hurled the shite out of anybody, I don’t think anybody outhurled me. They done well.
“But you come to a stage too where the lads … they’re beginning to think about work. You have those responsibilities, marriage, the kids … and they have their All-Ireland medals. And their legs go simple as that.”
He will be 31 next month, hardly ancient but too old for the running and grafting role which he feels he did best. Many of the social set have faded into marriages and family commitments, so that people like him had increasingly begun to feel like relics of the past. It was a good time to say goodbye.
So, will the real Johnny please stand up? “That’s where ye get it wrong,” he offers, alluding to the clownish image. “Ye have me down as happy-go-lucky. I would like to think that my performances in my best years were ones of determination and that I never gave up that’s where I excelled. I never gave up, I tried all the time, no matter how badly things were.”
Goodbye Johnny. It was fun.

More info:

Who fears to speak of ’98?
A radio documentary that relives a dramatic year in the life of Irish Hurling, where the summers’ games became our national soap opera.

Newstalk Off the Ball Podcast
Anthony Daly and Michael Duignan share memories of 1998’s Clare v Offaly controversy on Off The Ball

A lifetime’s passion…

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I took this photo back in April 2011 after a Wicklow NFL match in Aughrim.  Peter Keogh was waiting to be collected on the road outside the main gates. He obviously decided that standing up waiting was wasted time and sat down on his bag to start work on his match report. I spotted him sitting in the corner of my eye in a ‘No Parking’ zone. 

Peter is a legend in Wicklow GAA. The article below also really gives you a vivid picture of his passion and energy for GAA. 

Daragh Ó Conchúir‘s article on Peter Keogh was published in the Irish Examiner on June 13th 2015. 

“They always say here, the best place to find me is somewhere near the teapot.”

Peter Keogh isn’t unusual as a local GAA reporter for The Wicklow People, The Nationalist and KCLR 96FM in that no game is too insignificant to cover. Club or county, male or female, U12 or senior, he is likely to be there.
It is a safe bet though that there aren’t too many working journalists in any sphere that are so active, despite having just turned 86. Is he the oldest? He can’t be far off it.
On May 23, he celebrated his most recent birthday in Mullingar as Wicklow hurlers secured their Christy Ring Cup status by defeating Mayo.
As much as this delighted him, with hurling being his favourite sport, getting down to Blessington for a junior A football championship game was his priority.
It has become an infatuation. He attended the recent Leinster Championship tie between Dublin and Longford at Croke Park on a rare Sunday off and still found himself pulling the notebook out to take notes that he would more than likely never peruse.
The level of energy is remarkable. On his 80th birthday, Keogh walked to the top of Lugnaquilla, the highest peak of the Wicklow Mountains, to raise funds for the Michael Dwyer’s underage club.
His contribution to Gaelic games extends far beyond writing. Indeed his reportage only materialised as a result of taking on an administrative role in the now-defunct Western board. He brought hurling to Kiltegan, was Wicklow’s first PRO and is a former county chairman too. Having filled almost every role, he is now president.
People wonder how he keeps going and why but he is fit, healthy and has nothing else to do. Seeing as he was immersed in the GAA until he retired from the County Council 21 years ago, with so much time on his hands, in his eyes, there’s no excuse for stopping.
His late wife Mary didn’t possess the same passion for the GAA but she was a Cork native, from Carrigaline, so she knew the time of day and understood her husband’s dedication, not just to club and county, but to publicising the games on a wider level.
So tomorrow, Peter Keogh will be in Páirc Tailteann with his notebook and phone. And a mug of tea.
The son of a blacksmith was born in Talbotstown in 1929, the year the local club Kiltegan was formed. It dissolved and reformed a few times before being established in its current guise in 1966.
Since then, they have won two county senior football championships, doing a senior, junior A and junior C treble in 2008. They won eight senior hurling titles in 15 seasons too, including the 1993-95 and 1997-99 three-in-a-rows.
“We had no radio. We had no daily papers — 1936 was the first time to really start being aware of it, as everyone was talking about Wicklow being in an All-Ireland final. It was the year they won their first ever junior football final.”
Tom Keogh brought people to the game in his lorries but a heartbroken Peter had to stay at home. The seven-year-old anxiously waited and wondered all day until late in the evening, he heard two men cycling up the town shouting at the top of their voices that Wicklow had been victorious. It was the first hit that triggered the addiction.
“We were very late starters in the GAA in Kiltegan. We’re a little village right on the border of Carlow. As well as that, it was an Anglo-Irish village, you could say. There were three or four fairly big estates owned by Protestant families.”
They collected coupons from Fry’s Cocoa jars to buy a football, having to raid the bin of a local man with a particular enjoyment of the product to accumulate the required number. As there was no team in the village, Peter and his comrades played underage with Baltinglass and at adult level with Rathdangan.
If the GAA wasn’t flavour of the month around Kiltegan, hurling was from outer space. It made a brief appearance during World War II because leather was in short supply and so nobody had a football. There was a plentiful supply of ash around the Humewood estate though.
The Gillespie family had a sawmill and they made a few hurleys, while Peter and his friends made sliotars by getting corks from the pub and tying them together with tea-twine. They wrapped a makeshift cover around it and the game was on.
“Knowing nothing about the game of hurling, the inevitable was going to happen. Somebody was going to get hit by a hurley. And didn’t it turn out to be Tom Gillespie, the son of the man who was making the hurleys.
“It might be a slight exaggeration that there was a bonfire to burn the hurleys in the middle of the town, but hurling was done away with.”
Until a group of people including Keogh got it going in the 1970s. The football team was struggling badly and the consensus was that they might as well try something else. It proved a wise move and the two codes are working well in tandem, although it can be a strain on tight resources at times.
Peter’s love affair with hurling goes back almost 70 years.
“I started to work at St Patrick’s College around the end of the War, initially to be a gardener’s apprentice but I was really a general dogsbody. I didn’t care as I was getting a few bob and I wanted my first bicycle. In that time you had to order them and wait. My name was down a couple of years but it finally arrived in the summer of 1947. My brother Jack got one at the same time.
“We had cousins in Dublin who we used to visit and then go to the odd All-Ireland football final. So when we got the bicycles, we said we’d book the All-Ireland straight away. It was to show the new bicycles to the city cousins as much as anything. Everything was set until somebody told us there was no All-Ireland. We couldn’t believe that but Canon Hamilton, the Clareman, had taken the All-Ireland final away to New York. The brother came up with the idea of going to the hurling final.
“Says I: ‘We know nothing about hurling.’ “‘Who’ll know that only ourselves?’ says he, ‘and we’ll get to show off the bicycles anyway.’”
Off they went, trekking up to Dublin to flash the bikes. The match was an afterthought. They barely knew that it was Cork and Kilkenny, or that Jack Lynch was in pursuit of a seventh All-Ireland victory in a row. What they stumbled upon is still considered one of the best hurling All-Irelands ever, with the Cats denying Lynch and Cork by a single point.
“I could not believe what I was looking at. I could see nothing at the beginning until I stopped looking for the ball and looked at the direction lads were running in. And I got into it. I’d never seen anything like it in my life and I was a hurling fanatic from that day until this. I still believe that there is no game like hurling.”
His first county convention was in 1954, which he attended as a club delegate. He didn’t become involved seriously in administration for another 16 years. At that juncture, the county was divided into four districts. The clubs persuaded Jack Boothman to become chairman of the Western board but the future GAA president was unable to find someone to become secretary.
“I said to myself, after about the third meeting where no-one would take it, ‘Aren’t we a right shower of so-and-sos? We get the man in, he’s elected, we cheer to high heaven. Then when he wants somebody to do something we won’t do it.’ So I took the secretary’s job at that stage and from that day to this, the GAA has been my life.”
He held the position for the best part of a decade until the dissolution of the district boards. He later became chairman of the county board and has filled most other roles, including becoming the first PRO.
That was a natural fit because he had begun writing by that stage, sending in “bits and pieces” to The Wicklow People from the time he became secretary of the Western board. Then, in 1972, he began providing regular notes from his region. His predecessor had died suddenly and a meeting was organised with the paper’s editor.
“He said to me ‘Would you ever send us in something for a couple of weeks until we get ourselves sorted?’ So as far as I’m concerned they haven’t gotten themselves sorted yet because I’m still sending in the stuff!”
Initially, he became the West Wicklow reporter for Gaelic games. Eventually, just as happened at St Patrick’s, he was called upon to do whatever was needed. Reports, news and the weekly column, Keogh’s Corner. Boothman always joked about him tapping away on his mobile typewriter during the many spells of inactivity he had as a steamroller driver.
Through his service to the county, Peter is known everywhere. His media presence has given him an even greater profile.
“Some would be looking for you maybe to say something good but there’d be a hell of a lot looking for me to say something bad. ‘You wrote something about my son last week and I want to see ya about it’ and a lady waving an umbrella over my head. It’s not all sunshine!”
Wicklow are big-priced underdogs against Meath. A dreadful league campaign in which they won only one game in Division 4 has left optimism amongst supporters at a premium. But it’s a good opportunity to bring up the 1954 clash at Croke Park, if nothing else.
It was ‘The Day of the Long Count’, when Wicklow led by two points at the end of regulation time. Referee Bill Delaney — the Laois legend after whom the Leinster trophy is now named — felt that there was much more time to be played. Just how much is debated to this day.
“In Wicklow, they tell you that he played 13, 14 and even 15 minutes extra-time but he didn’t. The daily papers recorded that he played nine minutes. Because Meath went on and won the All-Ireland, we would always have said we should have won that All-Ireland. Of course that’s not the way it works.”
Wicklow earned their revenge three years later thanks to a late goal from John Timmins, while it is often forgotten now that they brought Meath to a replay in 1991, after the Royals had survived that four-game battle with Dublin.
Two years ago, Wicklow only lost by five points in Aughrim. The game hinged on “a most extraordinary turnabout” about 10 minutes before half time. The hosts played into a gale and were trailing by just two points when they were awarded a penalty.
Seanie Furlong’s kick was saved by Paddy O’Rourke, who was fouled. The ball was transferred quickly to Kevin Reilly and his kick from just outside his own 65 flew a prodigious distance, taking one massive bounce over John Flynn’s head into the net.
“That was a turnaround of six points in a matter of seconds and we didn’t recover from it.”
They’ve had a few setbacks this year already.
“One of them was losing Seanie Furlong, who’s gone to America. Leighton Glynn dropped off the panel to concentrate on hurling. They’re big losses.
“James Stafford is still there and will give it all he has as he always does. Kevin Murphy and John McGrath are good footballers. Young Conor McGraynor is one they’ll be looking to big time for scores. Of course he’s likely to be full-forward and Meath are well known for producing great full-backs.”
He knows Mick O’Dowd through a mutual acquaintance and has even had dinner in the Meath manager’s home. He enjoyed his company.
“That doesn’t mean he’s going to do us any favours on the day.”
It is another Micko that stirred the emotions in Wicklow like no other however. Both a journalist’s dream and nightmare, what he stirred was a pride in the county once more.
“From my point of view, it was the greatest time in Wicklow football. We didn’t win that much but there was a whole new approach to the team. I think if he had gone another year or two it would have been good but he had already done five.
“There was always a great crowd of journalists after every match. A whole lot of new fellas found out where Aughrim was at that time. Micko was a great man to give you plenty of chat and still tell you nothing.
“No matter how badly they played and they did at times, he never let them down. He stood by them and was able to turn the conversation away from that part of it.”
There are so many memories. The pride in having Gerry O’Reilly, Jim Rogers and Joe Fitzpatrick on the Leinster team that won four Railway Cups in a row in the ‘50s. Baltinglass garnering an All-Ireland club title. Kevin O’Brien and Pat O’Byrne winning All-Stars and representing the country. Boothman becoming GAA president. Wicklow winning the special All-Ireland minor hurling championship and Keogh being selector when they won their division of the league.
There are many more to come he hopes. Certainly, the vigour seems boundless. How, you wonder, does he do it?
“There’s no secret really. I just enjoy the damn thing.”

More info:

The Legend of Peter Keogh

Every man for himself…

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A photo in my archives from a family wedding in 2004 at Durrow Castle brought back memories! I scanned these photos because it was back in my film days before digital.

I was off-duty at the wedding but did however have the camera with me (there’s a surprise!). There was an increasingly dark cloud overhead. The photographer was outside in the gardens working his magic with the bride and groom. He had his tripod set up and was in full flow taking shots of the couple when the first drops of rain fell. Within minutes it was lashing, bucketing or whatever you’d like to call that rain that can soak you to the bone.

The photographer and the groom weren’t going to get saturated in their suits so they ran like Usain Bolt back to the Castle. It was ‘every man for himself’ as the men failed to notice the poor bride was yards behind struggling to keep up in her wedding dress…

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The elusive medal…

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Mick Murtagh played club football for his club Dunlavin and was a great servant to his local club and county. He first played senior football for Dunlavin in a Senior League match at the young age of 14 but amazingly played the next 28 years without any championship medal of any description to show for his devotion.
The barren spell however finally came to an end in 2009 when he played at full-back throughout Dunlavin’s successful run in the Intermediate Football Championship.
He finally collected that elusive medal a few months later at the Dunlavin Dinner Dance. The occasion turned out to be a double celebration as it was also his birthday. It was worth the wait?!

*Update – Mick Murtagh returned to Intermediate Football Championship action in 2015 at the age of 48… To be continued…*

 

Hollywood Moovies…

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I was commissioned to take photos for the Irish Examiner’s 2011 feature on The Hollywood Fair. The Committee had organised a Hollywood, USA style sign in a field high above the village so it was important to include this.

I used a 300mm lens and spotted some cattle in the foreground with sheep and the sign behind them. There was a frustrating wall in front of me so I couldn’t get down any lower to close the gap between the cattle and sign. It would just about work but the cattle continued to graze and wouldn’t look up regardless of my lunatic-like clapping or mooing. I was just about to give up and accept they were camera shy when my quick-thinking daughter reminded me that her Grandad had taught her a very important lesson on how to ‘blow grass’. She positioned a wide blade of grass between her thumbs, blew and the bizarre squeaky noise made all the cattle look up in my direction. Job done.

Useless information:
How to Whistle with a Blade of Grass

 

Hell and back…

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In February 2011 I was covering a Wicklow NFL match against London. Wicklow forward John McGrath was struggling early on and after 20 minutes asked to come off. Little did anybody in the Aughrim crowd know the brave battle he was going to face over the next few months…

Daragh Ó Conchúir‘s interview with John was published in the Irish Examiner on March 3rd 2012. Daragh received the 2012 National Media Award at the GAA McNamee Awards for “his vivid portrayal of the emotional turmoil for John and his family and the ultimate triumph of life” in the article.

Wasn’t always so rosy

Wicklow footballer John McGrath’s life was turned upside down 12 months ago when he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

He went to hell and back through a torturous recovery process and though he has since returned to the field with his beloved Baltinglass, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

It is only a couple of weeks more than 12 months ago to the day — February 20 to be exact — that Rosaleen McGrath went to watch John play football, just as she had done all his life.

She was a little concerned about her 24-year-old son because he had been complaining about a toothache for a fortnight. The dentist insisted the tooth didn’t need to be extracted but John was in agony and couldn’t play in DIT’s Sigerson Cup loss three days previously.

This was Wicklow though, and having had a stop-start career at senior level since making his debut four years earlier, he wanted to build on a promising couple of games.

Trips to Carlow and Leitrim had yielded eight points for John (six from play) and three to the team in their bid to get out of Division 4 of the Allianz League. With London visiting, there was no way he was going to let someone else impress manager Mick O’Dwyer.

He scored a point early on but there was no hiding the struggle. He couldn’t track his man and seemed unsteady on his feet. Fortunately, Rosaleen and her daughter, Áine didn’t hear the clowns speculating he must have gone on the lash after DIT’s defeat.

When John beckoned to the sideline that he could not continue, Rosaleen started crying. Áine was taken aback. Why cry, just because he was being substituted? “When have you ever seen John asking to be taken off before?” came the knowing response.

From there, things moved very rapidly. Within days he was hooked up to a drip undergoing chemotherapy, a three-pronged tube pumping different medicines into his heart.

John McGrath would miss yet another championship with Wicklow, but that was the least of his worries right now.

When hindsight kicked into overdrive during endless hours of lying in bed with nothing to do but think and wonder, he pinpointed something that happened at a friend’s 21st less than three weeks earlier as the first sign that all was not well.

He was only going in for an hour, as the Carlow game was on the following day. During a bit of messing, one of the lads hit him a dig in the chest. The pain was much more severe than it should have been. His shoulders were sore as well. His bones were sensitive.

He soldiered through the discomfort, scoring three points before being harshly sent off — a decision later overturned.

Five points against Leitrim the following Sunday seemed to confirm his rude health but nothing could have been further from the truth. Midway through the first half against London, as he struggled to breathe, he finally read the signal his body was giving.

After taking a blood test on Tuesday morning, he went to bed and was still there when the call came from his GP at 3.30pm, telling him he needed to go to St James’s Hospital. Immediately.

“They’ve a feeling it’s leukaemia,” the caller said.

Reeling from the shock and not even sure what it all meant, he rallied the support crew. Within the hour, his girlfriend Carol and his family were with him at James’s. He had a room in the Burkitt Ward by 7pm. By Thursday, chemotherapy had begun.

Everything was moving very quickly, an indication of the situation’s gravity. There is no garden-variety cancer and Burkitt’s lymphoma isn’t amongst the rarest. But it needed instant attention. McGrath’s mind was melting with thoughts of the worst case scenario.

“Yeah, definitely” he admits now. “It was a major shock. When I went in, I was under pressure. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

“The first nurse I met acted as if nothing was wrong. My mother and my girlfriend were also calm. My dad [Paddy] wasn’t so good. He got a bit faint and we had to get the nurses in to give him a little check!”

Paddy was fine, but not his son. Not even fit, strong, inter-county footballers are immune to debilitating illness, the various indignities that go with it or the spectre of death.

There were many low points. The first arrived within 24 hours of being admitted, when he had to go to the Rotunda to have some sperm frozen because of the chance he would become infertile if a bone-marrow transplant were needed.

It never came to that, but he wasn’t to know it at the time. It made him feel useless. Helpless.

Then came the chemotherapy.

“I got sick the first three or four days. You couldn’t hold anything in. I’d eat and it would come straight back up. It was very tough. After that it was okay but when you were thinking in those first few days that you had 16 days in each cycle and four cycles, it was so tough to think you could do it.

“They had a tube coming into my chest, with three prongs, leading all the drugs into my heart. Once it gets to the heart it pumps quicker to the entire bloodstream. Two-hour bags. And you’re just lying there, getting sick.”

He was confined to his room because of the risk of infection. Chemotherapy kills the good as well as the bad and so McGrath’s immune system was shot.

Once, he chanced a little trek into the outside world. Within minutes he began sweating and got a headache. A dash to the nearest public toilet and the vomiting resumed. So from then on, he never left his isolation chamber apart from when a cycle was finished and he could go home.

One of the drugs removed the lining of his mouth and throat. He was riddled with mouth ulcers and couldn’t eat, causing his weight to plummet from 12 stone to 10 and a half.

The closest McGrath came to dismantling was listening to a woman talking on the Ray D’Arcy Show about her son, who had died of leukaemia.

“I was on my own listening to it. I got the link and sent it to Carol. Everything he had gone through was like I had gone through. I just broke down.”

Carol came to the rescue. She is a remarkable woman. The couple had met the previous summer and knew pretty quickly it would be more than a fling. They had just moved in together in January and this wasn’t how they’d dreamt it.

“It was tough for her, going into an empty house when it was supposed to be an exciting time, the two of us moving in. But over three months in hospital, she never missed a day. She is a rock.”

So Carol reminded him his consultant had said the first cycle of treatment had got rid of the tormentor in his blood completely. His story was not that child’s story.

It still shook him though. He pictured the leukaemia returning. It was one of the few times he truly despaired. Carol sent D’Arcy an email, passing on her commiserations to his guest, but also telling him “you’re after scaring the shit out of my boyfriend”.

The last scare arrived as he swotted his way through the summer in a remarkably successful bid to pass his construction management exams in August. His blood levels were low and so another test was required to see if it was a reaction to medication or if the leukaemia had returned.

He was in the library when the phone rang.

“They don’t ring you when it’s good. When I go for my check-ups, they say, ‘go home and we’ll ring you if there’s a problem’. So I was in the library and they said ‘John, how’s things?’ I said ‘Look, I’m in the library, I’ll walk out, just give me two seconds’.

“The walk out of the library was the longest walk.”

They only had initial results but they were positive and they wanted him to know. He was taken off one of the tablets and everything returned to normal.

Which is how it has been since. McGrath is very anxious to emphasise the fact that more recover from leukaemia than don’t. You only hear the bad news. Just like that poor mother and her son on the radio.

“I met one girl. She was remarkable. She got leukaemia two years previous but was pregnant so she couldn’t start the treatment until she had the baby. She was perfect, recovered and everything was good.

“She was told she might be infertile but had another baby that year. She was so perfect. When I was in there she was diagnosed again but she was always smiling. She’s good now, out again and I’m friends with her on Facebook. She’s 100% and it’s great.”

She was the only fellow sufferer he got to know and that only happened because they were the only two in the waiting room when he went for a chest X-ray. Generally, he found something to read or just kept staring at the floor.

That was his way of dealing. He’s afraid it sounds rude but the fact is he couldn’t afford to get too close to other patients. He didn’t want to know their stories, especially those that were back a second or a third time. He needed to remain positive.

“When cancer is mentioned, people talk about chances, percentages but there’s no point. Everyone’s different. From day one, I didn’t want to know about leukaemia.

“It was something I didn’t want to get into. Even the full medical name of what I had I just didn’t want to know. I’m still not sure. You’d have the lists of your drugs for your whole cycle. They’d be telling you what each one does and I’d be just, ‘yeah, yeah’. I didn’t want to know.”

It was made clear from the very start that he needed to be upbeat. If you’re low emotionally, you’re more susceptible to being low physically. That increases the likelihood of picking up an infection.

The message was delivered regularly by the staff, his family and through other avenues. Baltinglass manager Tommy Murphy said something in particular that altered his mindset.

“He said, ‘every day’s treatment is a day closer to recovery’. It got me through the first month.”

That positive affirmation came into play when the doctors told him that he could begin his second cycle quicker than normal, because his recovery had been so good. He jumped at the opportunity. A day closer to recovery.

Where once his room was a jail mired in misery, it was now an oasis of laughter, slagging and card-playing. It was this environment that enabled the chief concern about his hair loss to be that it might grow back curly and ginger.

“I was in the shower one day and it started coming out in my hands so I shaved it tight then. Carol had a few nice hats bought for me in preparation.

“I was actually a bit worried because I was told it might grow back different. It could be curly or a different colour. So I was looking in the mirror every day, anxious to see what would happen. Thankfully it came back normal. A little darker maybe but I’ll take that.”

Communities rally around in troubled times and the GAA is one large community. Baltinglass, Wicklow, Ireland. He had cards covering an entire wall in his room. Good wishes arrived via email and text, many from people he didn’t know. Others he had just heard of. Tyrone All Star Seán Cavanagh was amongst the hundreds who got in touch.

Peter Canavan is his hero, his favourite footballer of all time. So Carol got in touch and the Errigal Ciarán legend called in. That was a real fillip.

So too was getting in contact with Jarlath Corrigan, whose son Cian died six weeks short of his 12th birthday from a spinal cord tumour. Born and reared in Dublin, Cian became immersed in Dungannon Clarkes when the Corrigans moved to Tyrone.

After their brave son’s death, Jarlath and his wife Rachael designed a jersey in his memory, celebrating his three loves — Dublin, Tyrone and Dungannon Clarkes — and boasting his favourite number, seven. All proceeds go towards the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice and McGrath was inspired.

“I spoke with John a few times on the phone last year while he was receiving treatment” recalls Corrigan.

“He is an absolute gentleman and we are delighted to hear he is recovering well and back playing the game he loves so much.”

Not alone is he back playing with Baltinglass and DIT, McGrath is also manager of the college team that booked a place in the All-Ireland JFC final on Wednesday. Most remarkable of all though, is that he has now returned to the Wicklow fold, targeting a championship return.

As a former minor and U21 captain, he was always tipped for stardom. Yet, despite playing league football on an annual basis, he has only managed limited championship action.

This year though, he won’t see much of the league as he builds himself up to the required standard again, dealing with niggling back and hamstring injuries, as well as a wrist problem incurred while snow-boarding in January. Maybe on this occasion, his timing will be better.

He is in no doubt that football saved him. And not just because he had the fitness and strength to fight.

“I was feeling tired playing football. I couldn’t sprint properly. You can imagine how bad people are when they’re feeling it walking. I was feeling it a little quicker.”

So he wanted to get back. Especially as Baltinglass had been drawn in the same group of the senior championship as deadly rivals Kiltegan. The target was set. Without telling his mother of course.

It started on a treadmill in June before he dipped his toe into training with the lads at the end of July, trying to sneak past Rosaleen on the way out the door. He recounts the first real hit he took with relish. He was able for it, and what’s more, it was a sign that he wasn’t being pitied.

For the same reason, he loved the slagging over his fertility, even though he never had to have the bone-marrow transplant. Best of all though, was that heavenly first 10 minutes of game time.

“That was the nicest feeling I’ve ever had. I was like a kid running around. I wanted to get on everything. I wanted the ball. Running here, running there, mad to get on it. The greatest feeling ever.

“I got the ball at one stage, 30 yards out and popped it over the bar. First time back. It was some feeling.”

It became serious from then on. With 20 minutes remaining against Kiltegan, Baltinglass were four points down. McGrath was sprung and announced his return with a point in a nail-biting win.

It isn’t the win that is remembered though. It is how local jousting was suspended for one brief moment, as supporters from both sides united in applause to greet McGrath’s score. Rosaleen was there, as usual.

This time her tears were ones of joy.

*John McGrath would like readers to buy a Team Cian Jersey by contacting Jarlath Corrigan (00447905529918) or Rachael Corrigan (00447840296122) or visiting the Facebook page, Cian Corrigan’s Weekend. All proceeds go to the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.

Granny Mulhall…

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Most teams accept a cup after a final, pose for the team photo, get a few photos taken with family/friends and head straight back to the dressing-room.

Tinahely were victorious in the Wicklow Ladies Senior Football Final at Aughrim in 2013. They collected the cup and then surprisingly all the Tinahely players and subs just raced off the pitch and out the gate. Nobody was sure what was happening until they saw the team up on the terrace surrounding a car.

92 year old ‘Granny Mulhall’ is an honorary member of the Tinahely Ladies team and is locally famous for making holy medals and praying for the team before matches. She had however never seen the team playing before. Her first match was viewed from a car up on the terrace and the team gave her the honour of being the first Tinahely fan to get her hands on the cup!

Last throw of the dice…

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Mick O’Dwyer is a household name as a GAA manager in Ireland. He has 8 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship wins with his native Kerry and Leinster Senior Football Championship wins with Kildare and Laois.

Micko was manager of Wicklow from 2007 to 2011. He was known for his conservative use of substitutes but what happened in Dr. Cullen Park in April 2009 shocked Garden County fans.

Wicklow were having a serious off-day and trailing Carlow in an important League match. Things went from bad to worse when full-forward Seanie Furlong got injured with 15 minutes to go. Micko scanned the bench for a substitute for one last throw of the dice. Outfield players prepared mentally to come on but Micko had made his decision. No back, midfielder or forward would be required. Substitute goalkeeper Billy Norman from Greystones was sent on as full-forward complete with goalkeeper gloves.

 

On the map…

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Ever noticed that most of Wicklow’s international sportstars are ladies? Katie Taylor and Fionnuala Britton are the most recent obvious examples. In 2012 there was another name added to that list when Helen Kearney came home from the London 2012 Paralympic Games with three medals. Helen’s victory was particularly exciting because Helen is from my home town of Dunlavin in West Wicklow and the daughter of our local doctor. The media highlight for Dunlavin is generally a few lines in the local papers but we were suddenly on the map when the town was mentioned on national and international news.
Everybody locally was aware of the progressive nature of Helen’s disability Friedreich’s Ataxia and really proud of her achievement. Helen’s horse Mister Cool looks calm in all the footage of the dressage events at the Paralympic Games. I however saw Mister Cool in an event a few weeks before the Paralympic Games. I was amazed that the 16.2hh gelding was so highly strung and he needed a long walk to calm him down even before the event. Helen deserves additional credit for her skills and calming influence!

More links and information:

Helen Kearney Website
Helen Kearney – London 2012 Paralympic Games
Living with a rare disease
Going for gold – From rare condition to champion

Agony of injury…

 

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We often forget an injured player.

Had to feel sorry for Sean O’Brien when I spotted him at a GAA league match in March. Sean had probably been Ireland’s most consistent rugby player in recent years but a dislocated shoulder playing for Leinster in a December RadoDirect Pro12 game ruined his season. He couldn’t play a part for Ireland in the 2014 RBS 6 Nations Championship. Ireland went on to top the table and Sean had to watch on TV as his teammates beat France in Paris on a memorable day for Irish sport.

The photo of Sean at the Carlow v Wicklow League match in Dr. Cullen Park was taken at the same time the Irish team (he should have been playing with) was making a triumphant return to Dublin Airport. Carlow were also well beaten that day. The agony of injury.