One of the most important GAA books ever written will be launched next week – and its subject is one of the most important figures in the history of Kilkenny hurling.
The Godfather of Modern Hurling is the biography of Monsignor Tommy Maher, who helped the county to win seven All-Ireland senior titles during his 21 years (1957-78) as coach.
The book, which weighs in at a hefty 100,000-plus words, was written by Kilkenny’s award-winning sportswriter Enda McEvoy, the former hurling correspondent of the Sunday Tribune and now a columnist with the Irish Examiner.
It begins with the 1957 Leinster final, which Mr McEvoy describes as “the most significant hurling match in the second half of the 20th century”. The game pitted the famous Wexford team of the era, the All-Ireland champions of the previous two years, against Kilkenny, who hadn’t won an All-Ireland since 1947.
But the challengers, coached by a little-known young priest, scored a sensational 6-9 to 1-5 victory and went on to beat Waterford in the All-Ireland final the following month.
New brand of hurling
In claiming the MacCarthy Cup in 1957 Kilkenny played a new and modern brand of hurling - fast, imaginative, skills-based. Its creator was Fr Tommy Maher, a visionary coach who believed that the basics of the game were more important than size or strength and who preached the gospel of constant practice.
Such an approach is taken for granted now. That wasn’t the case in 1957.
The book then goes back to focus on Fr Maher’s childhood in Whitepark, Gowran, and to his secondary school education in St Kieran’s College, where he formed an enduring friendship with Nicky Rackard.
It deals with his spell as a young curate in Dublin before tracing the highs – and a few lows – of his association with Kilkenny. He turned 90 last April and is a resident at Archersrath nursing home outside the city.
The book includes a chapter on the seminal Gormanston coaching courses of the 1960s, which Fr Maher, Donie Nealon of Tipperary and Dublin’s Snitchy Ferguson pioneered and which spread the hurling gospel. Eddie Keher gets a chapter to himself, as does Paddy Grace, the immensely colourful and long-serving former Kilkenny County Board secretary.
Offaly’s breakthrough in the early 1980s under Diarmuid Healy, one of Fr Maher’s disciples, is given due prominence, as is Mullinavat’s victory in the 1984 Kilkenny junior championship – their first county title since 1939 - under the man who was now their parish priest.
The Cody era
There’s also a long chapter on the success of the Cody era, which Mr McEvoy argues is Tommy Maher’s real legacy to his native county.
Some less well known episodes are also relived, including Tommy O’Connell’s hat trick in the drawn 1959 All-Ireland final, the controversial National League final of 1968 and the subsequent victimisation of goalie Ollie Walsh, who was unjustly suspended for six months, and the Leinster final disaster of 1976.
“What made the book a pleasure to research and write was the fact that so many people had such good things to say about Monsignor Maher,” Mr McEvoy reveals. “One phrase recurred. ‘A man before his time.’ He was, simply, a genius, yet at the same time a very humble person.”
Among the former Kilkenny stars quoted in the book are Paddy Buggy, Sean Clohosey, Johnny McGovern, Dick Rockett, Seamus Cleere, Pa Dillon, Tom Walsh, Pat Henderson, Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien, Mick Crotty, Kieran Purcell and Noel Skehan.
The Godfather of Modern Hurling is published by Ballpoint Press, who have published a number of successful sports books in recent years including Rebel Rebel, the autobiography of Billy Morgan, and the controversial This Is Our Year, which led to Donegal football manager Jim McGuinness dropping one of his players from the panel.
But according to P.J. Cunningham of Ballpoint Press, this is their best book yet.
“What’s different about The Godfather of Modern Hurling is the depth of the research and the sheer quality of the writing. You only have to look at the acknowledgements section at the back of the book to see how many people Enda spoke to and the detail he went into.
Launch in Langton’s
“And anyone who knows his writing won’t be surprised at how superbly the book reads. He brings to life the games and players of the past brilliantly.”
Everyone interested in Kilkenny hurling is encouraged to attend the launch in Langton’s Hotel, John Street, Kilkenny, on Thursday week (June 28) if possible. In its own way, the publication of The Godfather of Modern Hurling is as significant an event as Kilkenny’s Leinster semi-final clash with Dublin.
A milestone book about a milestone man.