Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien
Place of birth: Assumption Place, Kilkenny.
First adult competition: Won the McCalmont Cup in 1967 with Evergreen. “We beat Dean Rovers. We had a great team with lads like ‘Galtee’ (J.D. Murphy), ‘Rusty’ Scanlon, Larry Drennan, Lukey Connery, Jimmy McEvoy, Peadar Malone, Tommy Jordan and Jim Treacy.”
Favourite sporting memory (not your own):
“I remember the lads (Kilkenny hurlers) coming down High Street on the Smithwicks lorry in 1963. I remember ‘Fan’ (Larkin) catching me by the arm and pulling me up on to the truck. There were guards there trying to stop lads getting on the lorry, but ‘Fan’ said something and then he sat me on top of the bonnet of the lorry, telling me to stay quiet and sit down. I felt like the ‘King of Kilkenny’.
Sporting hero of your youth: “I lived in Nowlan Park, and I never missed the opportunity to watch the lads. My hero was a team of heroes, the team of the sixties, many of whom I hurled with later on. I remembered asking my mother to send a Postal Order to the Irish Independent for a picture of Ollie Walsh. She could have found a better use for the money, but she sent for it anyway. A few short years later I was travelling to matches with my hero when I was brought onto the panel in 1969.”
Your own favourite sporting memory:
“Winning my first All-Ireland final against Cork in 1972. I was marking Justin (McCarthy). We became great friends. In Charlie McCarthy’s book there is a story where a Cork supporter going into the All-Ireland final in Croke Park asked a Kilkenny lad who was this O’Brien lad, to which the Kilkenny supporter replied: “Ye’ll know who he is at a quarter to five this evening.”
Sporting hero now:
“I don’t want to get into trouble with my hurling friends, so I’ll sidestep (‘Chunky’ always had a majestic sidestep) hurlers. Some of my heroes would be the likes of Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh, Lionel Messi, Brian O’Driscoll, Padraig Harrington and Willie Mullins.
Sporting interests now:
“I play a bit of golf with a few friends. I have an interest in all sports.”
Your favourite sport, and give it a rating:
“Hurling, of course, is number one for me. This Kilkenny team is phenomenal, and my old sparring partner, Brian Cody has done a wonderful job with them, but they are all great hurlers. I would rate hurling out of ten at a 10, plus a lot.
Did you like training:
“Sure I was training every day, even though I didn’t think it at the time.”
What opponent caused you the most trouble:
“Johnny Callinan from Clare. He was a hard man to beat, very fair and a great hurler.”
For one so slight in every respect, ‘Chunky’ made up the little and large of the greatest hurling midfield partnership with Frank Cummins this land has known. In five simple words: “ He was a great hurler”. This fact has been attested to by a huge number of top class hurlers who played beside, with and against him.
One of the signs of greatness, of course, is the fact that his surname is seldom used in conversation whenever hurling men gather to talk the game. His christian name is even less uttered, and in fact it could be argued that many might not even still know it. He is simply identified as ‘Chunky’.
As a young impressionable lad, he dabbled in every sporting discipline he could manage, and pretty well managed to tame most of them. His prowess at soccer is well documented.
He played a bit of basketball, and a bit of everything else. As an under-age hurler he played with Na Piarsaig and Newpark Sarsfields. As a juvenile he lined out with St John’s. In 1970 he was with the James Stephens under-21 players that defeated Ballyhale Shamrocks in the county final.
With Eamon Morrissey he lined out at midfield. The Village won by a very wide margin. So his career really took root, blossomed and zoomed to the stars. He won All-Ireland senior gongs in 1972 (versus Cork, 3-24 to 5-11), 1974 (versus Limerick, 3-19 to 1-13), 1975 (versus Galway, 2-22 to 2-10) and 1979 (versus Galway, 2-12 to 1-8).
Three senior county titles were added to the booty in 1975/’76/’81. Two All-Ireland club titles were also nailed down in 1976, and 1982. He stood alone as Ireland’s greatest hurler in 1975 when he was voted the Caltex Hurler of the Year.
‘Chunky’ has met and faced travesty and dreadful setback too. It was not a merry-go-round of final wins, medals, awards, success. His wife Judy was taken from him and his family a short few years ago with an aneurysm in the brain. He fought a personal battle too, and as he would now say: “I take it one day at a time.”
He works as a barman in the John Street hostelry of Breathnachs, and loves it. Many of his hurling friends are regular callers, just to talk about old times, and more. They threw away the mould that made ‘Chunky’.
He truly was a great hurler.