JOE GRACE is fast rising towards his ninth decade on this planet - he will hit it next year. For a man of such years he is quite an amazing individual as his memory of events, local and national, is quite astonishing.
He is a Kilkennyman to the tips of his small fingers, even though he has been domiciled for a long number of years in Carrick-on-Suir. Billy Norris would have you know that he is a member of the famed Grace clan from fame Tullaroan, and Billy Norris is seldom, if ever, wrong.
Joe was born in Piltown, a village where the stories abounded about the hurling feats of Jack Anthony (1904, 1905 and 1907), John T. Power, the famed goalkeeper of 1907 when Kilkenny (Mooncoin) put Cork’s finest, Dungourney (Jamesy Kelleher et al) to the sword.
But life was much more about living and existing in Joe Grace’s Piltown. Of course hurling was prominent, but at the time, it certainly didn’t enjoy the kind of awareness or the social status that it holds in the public mind of present day Ireland.
Transport was minimal, with the occasional motorcar lifting the dust off the main street, often interrupting the final five minutes of an All Ireland final being played between goals marked by a couple of jumpers or stones. It was a time when every village in the country had a barber shop, a tailor, a cobbler, a harness maker, a blacksmith, at least two bakers, a bicycle repair shop, a ladies millinery, maybe a sawmill, and as some English people might say, a woman what does.
But Joe Grace remembered much of the times as he cavorted around his beloved Piltown, swinging his makeshift hurl, or fishing in the Carrigeen (a disused quarry), or swimming in the Suir. He would also do the seasonal job of picking apples for the many orchards in Piltown for the Waterford apple market. On Friday mornings, around 4am, every available horse and cart would make their way from the many family-owned orchards to Waterford, laden with apples. Piltown was known as the orchard of Kilkenny.
Joe has a vivid memory of the 1932 All-Ireland final in which Kilkenny beat Clare by 3-3 to 2-3. In honesty, the affable Joe remembers more of the ancillary activities around Piltown on the day of the final because he wasn’t in Croke Park, but through the availability of modern technology (and that expression is certainly one of relativity) a 10-year-old Joe Grace listened to every puck, as the game swung from Canal to Hill 16 and back again.
“A local man by the name of Mr Kerr (note the respect for elders) was the proud owner of the only radio for miles around Piltown,” Joe recalled. “There was more excitement in Piltown radiating around the probability of Mr Kerr making his radio available to the Piltown people generally than to an invitational guest list, than there was in the Kilkenny team going to do battle with Clare in Croke Park.
“You have got to remember that we were a very young nation, where politics were more prominent than anything else. The standard of living for the vast majority of our citizens was poor. History will tell you that we had inherited an enormous debt from the British and the Trade Wars were costing our country a fortune.
“As well as that newspapers as you know them now were very political as well,” he said. “Coverage was not anything close to what we have nowadays. Most of the publicity pertaining to a match was by way of information passed from one to another.
“Every Sunday evening, lads would gather at the cross to hear an account of a game in Waterford or Nowlan Park or Thurles. As youngsters we would only have heard about lads like Lory Meagher, Paddy Larkin, the Byrnes (Podge and Eddie) and Jimmy Kelly from Carrickshock, the Doyles from up the road in Mooncoin, Paddy Phelan and Peter O’Reilly.
Wet battery radio
“The day was roasting, with the sun burning down on top of us,” he said of the day of the big final of ’32. “Mr Kerr put his wet battery radio out on the windowsill of his shop where the entire village gathered, with pride of place going to the more senior members of the community. But I got close enough, as I remember crawling through the legs of some of the older lads and sitting on the road not too far away from the window.
“I remember the Kilkenny names as I’ve told you, but I also remember the commentator talking about Fowler McInerney, Tull Considine, ‘Goggles’ Doyle and the great Clare goalie, Tommy Daly, who was also a medical doctor,” said Joe. “It was said at the time that he got a point from a puck-out in a match in Croke Park.”
Kilkenny won four All Ireland titles in the 1930s (’32,’33, ’35 and 1939). While the likes of Joe Grace became more familiar with the names, most of his adulation for the men of that time was cultivated by stories and reports from people fortunate enough to have seen them play in all of their majesty and athleticism.
“I remember the youngest All-Ireland captain, Jimmy Walsh from Carrickshock,” he said. “He was a wonderful hurler, but at times Kilkenny supporters were afraid that his youth might be exposed, and that some of the rougher elements in the opposition might have singled him out for special treatment.
“But we needn’t have worried,” he said. “Carrickshock played Mount Sion in a tournament in the pitch on the Rathmore Road. The cream of hurling played that day - I remember them going over to the ditch at the side of the pitch, taking off their Sunday best, and putting them under a bush, or maybe covering them wit a bit of a bag.
“We all wanted to just look at this Jimmy Walsh, who had established such a great reputation for himself. And even now as I talk I remark on the changes that have taken place over the years. They have closets with hangers now in dressing-rooms with warm-up areas, superb showering areas with ice baths as well. I think that the GAA has done a great job for the country; we should all be proud of the contribution that they have made over the years.”
Pre-empting my questions, Joe piped up with one of his own.
“I know you are going to ask me who was the greatest hurler I ever saw playing,” he said.
Having said that the question was on my list, but probably later, he just said, “ Well I’ll tell you. Without doubt, the greatest player I ever saw on a pitch was a Tipperary man.”
Cutting him short, I suggested that his opinion was clouded by two elements. Firstly, he was living and working in Carrick-on-Suir. Secondly - and more importantly - he was married to a Tipp woman.
“That has nothing to do with it,” he suggested. “I am a Kilkenny man through and through. But the sweetest, most stylish hurler I ever laid an eye on was Mick Roche from Carrick. Whenever they sat down to pick the greatest teams of this or that, Mick Roche always figured.
“I never remember seeing him being reprimanded by any referee,” he said of Roche. “He never had his name taken and I never saw him involved in any ugliness on the field. Irrespective of the intentions of many who tried to do him down, Mick Roche just sidestepped, and got on with his game. He was a marvel in my opinion.
“I saw plenty of other greats, but Roche was the best of them all,” he said. “Even last year, before the All Ireland, I saw an interview that you did with him, Pat Henderson and Pa Dillon in the Kilkenny People,” said Joe. “Mick warned the Tipp lads, but they didn’t heed the warning. He was a very smart intelligent hurler.”
We spoke at length about the rivalry between clubs and counties. We spoke too about the great men who donned the black and amber.
“I had a cousin, Jimmy Brophy, on the sideline for the 1937 All-Ireland final against Tipperary, a game which was played in Killarney. He was a great hurler. He played on the Leinster Railway Cup team before he played for Kilkenny.
“There were heaps (a Windgap/Piltown colloquialism) of lads travelled to Killarney, it being the first time the All-Ireland final was played outside of Croke Park. Some of them went on bikes, leaving on Friday evening. They didn’t come home ’til Tuesday or Wednesday - a sad sorry bunch after we were bet to bits by 3-11 to 0-3.
“Another great friend of mine, John Tobin, was on the Kilkenny senior panel as sub to Ramie Dowling from 1949 until 1951,” Joe added. “You wrote a grand story about him last year; he was so proud of it. He passed away a few months ago. I miss him dearly.”
Joe recalled a story about club rivalry with a memory of a tournament game between Carrick Swan and Mooncoin played in Davin Park during the 1930s.
“Mooncoin, with their great men - the Doyles, Dunphys, Jack Duggan and others - won by a point, I think. It was a very rough match. As soon as the match was over, the Mooncoin lads had to make a quick exit, as there was a threatening gathering outside the pitch.
“One of the Mooncoin taxis picked up his load and made a smart getaway, but some of the people, mainly women, jumped on the running board of the car to hurl abuse at the Mooncoin lads. ‘Twas said afterwards by the Mooncoin lads that the shawlie women of Carrick nearly murdered them. It was more of a laugh than anything else.”
Talk moved on to national legends. How many would know of the Boy Wonder I pondered?
Joe Grace did, because he was in Fraher Park, Dungarvan on the day that Kerry played Laois in the All-Ireland football semi-final of 1937.
“Tommy Murphy was a 16-year-old schoolboy in Knockbeg College when he lined out against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final,” said Joe. “I remember that he was slim, with great football ability and he was so accurate. But the Kerry lads, notably Miko Doyle didn’t spare him. Some of the treatment he got was uncalled for, but he was brilliant.”
Joe was apprenticed to Bower’s bakery in Fiddown and then into Carrick, where he worked for all four bakeries in the town at the time. He married Maura, a Tipperary woman, and over the years would tell you that Carrick was a lava-hot town for the rivalry between Tipp, Kilkenny and Waterford.
Remember the rivalry
“The Kilkenny lads would come into town from places like Piltown and up the country like Windgap, the Slatequarries, Tullahought, Owning and Templeorum,” he said. “I remember the rivalry in 1948 when Waterford won the All-Ireland by beating Dublin. I well remember the rivalry in ’57, ’59 and ’63, when we won two out of the three titles. But that rivalry paled when we faced Tipp in ’64, ’67, and ’71. And then, of course we had the games in this century. It was horse power, and it was nearly dangerous to be out as the fella says,” he smiled.
We rock-hopped from era to era.
“Christy Ring was a great hurler, but nobody got the crowd roaring like Mick Mackey,” he said. “Mackey was a incredibly powerful hurler - his brother, John, was fairly good too. Limerick had a great midfielder too at the time in Timmy Ryan. But the brilliant Tipp midfielder Phil Shanahan (now departed) told me one time that the greatest midfielder of them all was Galway’s Joe Salmon, who did all of his hurling with the Glen Rovers club in Cork. I saw Salmon hurling, and he never let a dropping ball hit the ground. He never missed an overhead pull.”
On the present Kilkenny set-up, he had this observation.
“It is very difficult to compare players and teams from different eras, but I have never seen a better team of men than this present Kilkenny team,” he said. “They also have a great manager in young Cody. I feel his strengths are in the fact that he is able to get them all pulling on the same rope together - and that they all seem to be enjoying it. That’s the value of the man.”
While Joe loved hurling with Piltown in the early days, short sight proved a handicap that Joe couldn’t overcome.
“There were no such things as laser treatment, or contact lenses in those days,” he said. “There wasn’t even a guard available that one could put over your glasses. In fact it was difficult to get glasses, due to their costs, and you daren’t leave them on to play hurling, so I had to abandon any ideas I had about making progress in the game.”
After he moved to Carrick, he became very interested in wildlife and shooting.
“Every Sunday, for years longer than I care to remember, I went shooting with my nephews and sons. We would walk 10 to 15 miles with the dogs all over the country. That time farmers had no objection to gunmen walking the land. It was, and still is, a tremendous way of spending a day”.
Joe and his wife Maura (nee Dwyer) have seen many changes during their long married lives. They have seen at least five episodes of mass emigration due to recesssionary times. They have seen ration books during World War II and they have seen so many alterations to the Irish lifestyle.
“Our lives, though very difficult at times, were less complicated,” he said of bygone years. “People had great nature and although we all had very little, what we had we shared. We could go out of our homes and leave the doors open and nobody would dare take advantage. Even during the night we could go to bed, leaving the key in the door. We were safe in the knowledge that nobody would cause you any difficulty,”
Joe took over the taxi license vacated by his father-in-law when he left the bakery business. He continued in that profession until retiring some years ago, when he passed it on to his son Noel.
Joe and Maura are still very much hale and hearty, enjoying their autumnal years. They have four sons (John, Noel, Maurice and Joseph) and two daughters (Patricia O’Connor and Ursula Landy). Patricia is married to a man who was manager of the Gulf Oil depot on Whiddy Island, but who very fortunately was visiting in Carrick on the night the Betelgeuse exploded as it offloaded its cargo of crude oil, killing 50 unfortunate workers. Ursula is married to a Piltown man, a Dr Landy, and they live in Toronto.
I love talking to men of the calibre, age and recollective abilities of Joe Grace. He has great tales and vivid experiences.
He still goes back to his own place every week for a walk down Tybroughney. Old habits die hard, or as the Bard of Piltown, Billy Norris might say: “you can take the man out of Tybroughney, but you cannot take Tybroughney out of the man”.