His step has slowed. His gait is somewhat stooped and his hands are knarled from hard work and age. Simon Cleere is still alert, compelling company, and a seriously interesting subject, writes Barrie Henriques.
He has a grand story of his times to tell.
Embarrassingly shy, Simon Cleere was reticent talking about Simon Cleere. A man of the soil, Simon is one of 12 brothers (Paddy, Jim, Tom, Nicky, Philly, Bill, Joe, Frank, Dick, Simon and Anthony) and six sisters who were born into a typical rural family in Killeen in the parish of Ballycallan.
Family values were hugely important, and a sense of one’s own place was paramount. Only Frank, Dick, Anthony and Simon are still living. Ann and Josie of his six sisters are still alive and well.
The name Cleere is synonymous with a varied field of acclaim, and achievement, but when people reflect they will unequivocally make the connection between the Cleere name in Kilkenny and hurling. They were not all related, but they were all enormous hurling people who made a considerable contribution to the Kilkenny game.
And many of their children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren continue to add a certain lustre to the family name even as I write. Back in the days - 30s and 40s - life for the hard-working people of rural Ireland was no bed of roses. Not so for the middle and upper classes.
The landed gentry and high powered Civil Servants bathed in the pools of full and plenty. Pheasant, venison and the egg of the quail adorned their dining room tables. The finest brandy, vintage Port and Cuban cigars their after dinner nectar.
Working people, and I include myself, and small holding farming stock were living on the edge. Families were large, and supplies were basic, and scarce.
Much of the fruits of the labour were diverted towards paying bills. It was no different in the Cleere household of of 18 children. They worked their own holding, with Paddy doing the ploughing with horses, and the rest, girls included, carrying, hauling, foddering, cutting, tearing, fixing and harvesting.
When available the lads worked with other bigger farmers from as early as Simon could remember. Education at the time was a matter of expediency, and subscribing to the laws of the land. Such were the basic demands of survival; children became bread-winners at the earliest possible opportunity.
Once the minimum age was reached, many children joined whatever workforce they could to enhance the family subsistence. Where did they all go to school we wondered?
“Some of us went to Kilmanagh, while a couple (Paddy, Jim and myself) went to Farranrory,” Simon informed.
Can you remember the teachers of the day?
“Davy Maher was there, and his wife was also there. I cannot think if there were others.”
Davy had a tremendous reputation as a hurling man?
“Be God he did,” he said with absolute certainty. “He’d have crowds of us out playing for ages. He was the first coach we had ever met. Later on we would meet him again as minors and seniors. He was a great man, so he was.”
Simon left school at the minimum legal age.
“I went working for farmers around the parish,” he explained. “It was tough going, as most of the work was done by hand. Very few farmers had tractors, so it was all done with implements – spades, shovels, sprongs, billicks (bill hooks I think) bushman saws and the like.”
Did you stay with the farmers?
“No be God,” he insisted. “There was a huge land reclamation move going on that saw a lot of people doing reclamation work. It consisted of draining huge acres of boggy and wet land, and turning them into good farming lands. That was going on all over the country at the time through the 50s and 60s.
“I got a job with Walsh and O’Connell driving a drag line. I gave nearly 30 years in the cab of that machine. That was tough work, but to be fair, it wasn’t as tough for me as it was for the lads down cleaning and shaping the drains. It got tough for my side of the job when we had to swing big sledgehammers to fix the machine. The lads down in the drains got the rough end of it.”
It was not about draglines, shovels, or billicks we came to talk to Simon Cleere.
Simon Cleere was a very good hurler who really never got the rub of the green. He was one of the many Kilkenny hurlers who were plying their trade at a time when great Tipperary, Wexford and Cork teams were hoovering up provincial and All-Ireland titles.
Even when lining out for Davy Maher’s Kilmanagh school team, fate played the lads of Simon Cleere’s era a bad hand.
“We would have had a great school team if we were allowed to play all of the players in the parish, but the lads going to Farrenrory were not allowed to play because that school was just inside the Tipperary border, on the wrong side of the Munster river,” he told us.
But I’m sure you chanced a few?
“We didn’t,” he insisted. “Joe, Dick and myself played in 1946 and Bennettsbridge objected, so that finished that,” he mused.
Does he remember some of the lads who played on the Kilmanagh school team?
“I get it hard to remember some of them,” he said. “The Halleys’ were certainly playing that time. Pat Lennon (later to win a senior championship with John Lockes) played at that time too. He was the first Kilkenny man to bring the Irish Press Cup back to the county when Kilkenny won the 1950 All-Ireland minor final. Nick Teehan too could have been playing.”
What they used to play
Back then Simon, did everybody have a hurley or did they improvise?
“Some lads would have them, while other lads would do with a butt of a stick,” he explained. “There were a lot of us in it, and there would be plenty of arguments about the hurleys. If I didn’t have a hurley I would use a hazel rod with a turn on the bottom.
“It was deadly for cutting the ball off the ground. My brother Tom made hurleys too. The tools were not great, but most lads would make them with a hatchet, and other lads would do a lot of the smoothing with broken glass. Sandpaper as we know it now was non- existent,” he smiled”
Simon Cleere was marked out as “one for the future” at an early age. He did not disappoint when he lined out with Graigue in the 1948 minor county final against St Columba’s (Piltown), helping his team to a 4-6 to 4-1 win. Graigue did the double in 1949 when they hammered Eoghan Ruadh (Callan) by 5-1 to 2-1.
In 1950 the Callan lads got sweet revenge when stopping Graigue doing the three-in-a-row, winning by 3-3 to 2-3. Simon Cleere was on the minor team again in 1951, beaten in the semi-final by the Callan lads. Four years playing minor championship, and winning two medals—a fair vindication of the early opinions that Simon Cleere was “one-for-the-future”.
Local rivalry was fairly volatile in those days, in particular with the Callan lads?
“It wasn’t too pleasant at all,” he smiled a knowing smile. “There was always skin and hair flying when we played Callan. They had good teams too with the likes of Golly Sullivan, Patsy Hogan, Milo Carey, Johnny Wall, Liam Egan, Ted O’Brien and even Lennon, who went in to play with them later on after getting married.”
There weren’t too many cars around in those days, so transport to games was not easy?
“Lads had bikes,” he smiled, “and other lads would walk a good deal, while the better connected lads would get a lift in a trap and pony.”
While we spoke of good hurlers, one of the real additions to any locality in Simon Cleere’s young times would be a spring car (trap) and a good pony. Who had the good traps and ponies, though?
“Be gor, Mick Caldbeck up in Killeen had a great pony and a spring car (trap),” he recalled. “The lads would get to find out that Mick would be going to Thomastown, or Kilkenny, or even into Callan, and they would gather of a Sunday. Mick would throw in a bag of hay and off we’d go to Thomastown.”
The hay would be for the pony during the match, it was suggested.
“The hay was for the lads to sit on travelling on the bad roads,” Simon corrected. “I don’t know but the pony got nothing except what he could pick around where he was standing.”
How many would be in the car we wondered?
“There’d be a good half dozen at least, but he wouldn’t load up fat chaps,” he laughed.
‘Twas a fair pull on any pony to Thomastown and back?
“‘Twas indeed,” Simon conceded. “He earned his goal of oats that evening when he got back to Killeen. He brought a few of the lads (players) to Thomastown when we beat Eire Og.
“Our lads went on to win their only county senior final against Tullaroan, and he brought a few in to the Nowlan Park when we won.
“I was still only a chap, but they say that it was one of the greatest county final ever played. We won by a point (3-12 to 2-14),” smiled Simon.
Who were the great men of Graigue that time?
“Billy Daly was handy and Jim Walton got a great goal against the ‘Diamond’ in the semi-final in Thomastown. We had Kenny (Mick) - a great hurler - Nicky Purcell, me brothers Dick and Bill, Mick Coonan, ‘Butt’ Woodgate, Holohan (Dinny), James Fennelly, Phil Cahill, Paddy Burke, Henry Giles, Keane (John), Marty Mc (Evoy),” he listed.
And the Tullaroan men?
The Tullaroan giants
“They had Shem Downey, Paddy Malone, Dick Walsh, Tom Teehan, Tom Walton, the Marnells’ (Stephen, Mark), Tom and Jim Hogan. They had a good team all right, but not good enough on the day.”
Simon played with the county minors in 1951, and progressed to the senior team in 1953. That was a big jump Simon?
“It was, but I probably was the most unfortunate man that ever put on a Kilkenny jersey, what with injury and politics. Kilkenny had a good team during the early 50s, but too many of the aging stars stayed on too long,” Simon offered. “Younger lads got frustrated, and that didn’t help the situation.”
Simon broke into the Graigue senior team in 1952, playing as a forward/midfielder. Tournaments were the order of the day in those days, and Graigue were welcome visitors to participate. Teams like Holycross, Rathnure, St Aiden’s (Enniscorthy) and more crossed their radar prongs.
Simon Cleere battled as a centre-forward with the likes of Billy and Bobby Rackard, Ned Wheeler, John Doyle, Nick O’Donnell to mention but a few such luminaries. In 1956 he played a Leinster championship game against Westmeath in Tullamore where he faced one of the best midfielders of the day, the Jobber McGrath.
Jobber did most of his hurling with one hand, and he was such an expert at it. Jobber played many times with Leinster. People of that era certainly would remember Jobber Mc Grath.
He played against Dublin in Nowlan Park, a game Kilkenny won by 3-8 to 1-8. An inappropriate decision by Simon, abetted by a local hackney car driver, led to Simon having a poor opening 10 minutes against Dublin. He was replaced, and subsequently lost his place.
Simon was injured for the entire 1957 season, so again his luck ran out as Kilkenny won their first All-Ireland title since 1947. In 1958 he played against Holycross in a tournament, where he faced John Doyle. He suffered an eye injury which led to a serious facial blood poisoning in his face ailment, and finished the season for the great Graigue man. Simon Cleere is a private man, who keeps his council to himself. He is a kind, decent man who would be first in line if hardship or trouble visited a neighbour or friend’s door.
His opinions why he didn’t figure on Kilkenny teams are best left unrevealed. Simon certainly, out of respect, cares not to revisit those files. As a hurler, he was an intimidating opponent, but he never stepped over the line on wanton indiscipline.
Allow one of the princes of Kilkenny hurling mark Simon Cleere’s hurling CV.
Johnny McGovern had this to say about the Graigue man.
“He was a great sticksman, with a brilliant delivery off his left or right side,” Johnny insisted.
“He was courageous and brave, and he never opted for the long road when the straight line was available. I never saw him deliver a foul or bad stroke, and I would think that he was one of the unluckiest hurlers ever to play for Kilkenny, in that lady luck did not favour him as often as others.
“He should have been on the 1957 team. I for one was very surprised that he wasn’t. A gentleman whenever I met with him, and I always appreciate the times when we chance to meet. A nice man, and a gentle man as well.”
Simon Cleere never had an easy passage. His lovely wife, Joan, died when still a young mother to their young seven daughters. His young daughter, Patricia was stricken with cancer as well, and he lost another daughter, Angela tragically.
Hard to imagine how any man could survive such sad times, but Simon Cleere did for the sake of his family.
McGovern was right in his summation; Simon Cleere is truly a remarkable human being. You don’t find too many in the trip through life.