The name of Larkin is indelibly inscribed in the history of the James Stephens club.
Presently you have the multiple All-Ireland medal winning Eoin flying the flag from Croker to Cork, from Thurles to Tullogher.
Then you had the trilogy of Larkins who re-wrote the believe-it-or-not book. I chanced - not really. I purposely went into Larkin’s shop on Patrick Street in Kilkenny City recently.
It was on the pretext that I needed a packet of Cheese and Onion Tayto - not unlike Eva Longoria - but I was on a mission. I needed to meet Philly Larkin, endearingly known as ‘Phleep’.
Unlike the cousin/uncle legends, his father merited little script. Using Tommy Lanigan’s recently published ‘From the Arch to the Pump, James Stephens GAA Club’ I found a mine of information about Mick Larkin, otherwise referred to as ‘Phleep’, a nickname that is used by most to address his son Phil, proprietor of Larkins of Patrick Street.
Not always a giant
The beauty of Lanigan’s book, of course, is its detailed attention to the beginning of the club, its revelations that the now famed Village was not always as iconic in the annals of Kilkenny hurling, as it soared to the heights it achieved in the past 50 odd years.
Long before the walls of their clubhouse were decorated with memorabilia and photographs of greats (thanks to the likes of Val Malone and friends), James Stephens didn’t even have a clubhouse.
Lanigan’s book is precise, factual and poignant, but one element that stands out pertaining to the hard days, was the efforts of the likes of Mick Larkin, Billy Leahy and Bill Cody to mention but a few.
But back to my visit to a man, whom I had never met, which rendered me rather reticent at the prospect of meeting and talking to him about his father.
Mick Larkin was an All-Ireland medal winner, a club championship winner in difficult times for the James Stephens club. He was one of four brothers to line out with Kilkenny.
His first adult medal was won when he was selected on the panel for the county junior final against Thomastown in 1924. It necessitated two games to finalise the issue, The Village coming good in the replay by 5-5 to 1-0.
As a consequence, there being no intermediate grade at the time, he played on the senior team from 1925. At the time there was no conception of single, double or treble parish rules.
Who you knew
It generally was dependant on familiarity with other players, or which team came calling. Many of the senior teams in both codes around the country were very much a reflection of what players on county teams were friendly with each other, or which players were mercenary in the sense of going to a team they perceived had a good chance of winning a championship.
In a city like Kilkenny teams were identified with players from a particular street, or with players who went to Mass in a particular church.
Often you would have teams where brother played against brother. There were occasions when on-field hostilities would carry over to the house they shared.
It was pure chaos. For instance, it is a well-known secret that the famed Eire Og had no official pitch of their own. Known as a United Nations team by the begrudgers, they played wherever they could find a pitch.
Training was not that serious at the times. It generally consisted of a couple of laps of a field, a few nights of pucking around, and that was it.
I met with the redoubtable ‘Phleep’, and I hope he does not take exception to my using his father’s nickname. But in honesty, the Larkins to me are rather like the 62 tribes of Israel.
I have used many informants as my sources for this piece, because every second question I poked at my shopkeeper friend, he would intone, like a broken-down record: “now I hope you are not putting this in the paper.”
However, I was optimistic of getting plenty of information from ‘Phleep’.
As my old English teacher said to me one time: “Young man, optimism is an opportunity, not a difficulty.”
I asked him straight up about the ‘Phleep’ name and its origins.
“He served his time in Tierney’s Garage as a mechanic,” he opened. “Then he moved out on his own and opened his own bicycle shop. As far as I know there was a bike on the market called a Phlip, and I’m pretty sure that a derivative of that came down to ‘Phleep’. Now that is all I know.”
I didn’t believe every word he uttered, but the tale was still plausible.
From my friend Ber Scott I was aware that ‘Phleep’ (Mick) Larkin had a bicycle shop a hen’s stride away from the present site of Larkin’s shop on Patrick’s Street. I was also aware that my subject had helped run the same bicycle shop with his father for years.
Back to ‘Phleep’.
Your father was a James Stephens man all his life, we asked?
“To the marrow of his bones,” answered his son.
“Listen, I don’t like talking about my father really and the things he did.”
Different to today
But surely you are not embarrassed?
“No, but he was a lot of things to all men, and he would have given his life blood for The Village. In his time, there was no comparison between the James Stephens club then and what is there now.
“Around the time there was the famed Eire Og team. Then you had Bennettsbridge, probably the greatest team in the country in their time. We were competing at junior levels until we won the 1955 junior final, and we went up into senior ranks in 1956.
“We certainly didn’t have the numbers that we have now. It was tough to keep the club going, but as in many other clubs a few men, invariably former players, kept the thing turning over and they would have put their hands into their pockets to keep the club afloat.
“My father loved hurling. He would go over to Nowlan Park and there might be four matches on, and Jaysus he’d make you stay until they were all over. There were often times when I’d be cursing him.”
Mick Larkin had four brothers who hurled with James Stephens, and all four got a gallop with the county team.
“My father was the oldest and Paddy (Fan’s father) was next,” we were told. “Then there was Moscow and Ned. Another brother, John didn’t hurl.
“He immigrated to America, but returned after a number of years to work for Lowry’s, the builder’s merchants in Barrack Street before Chadwicks.”
According to the ‘young lad’, Mick Larkin served his time with Tierney’s Garage on Patrick Street. When it closed, he opened his own bicycle shop.
At 15 years of age young Philly joined his dad in the business, and worked there until it closed.
Philly graduated in hurling parlance from the De La Salle School to James Stephens. Success was rare, but like with all clubs, pride in their own place drove them.
“Billy Leahy and my father worked every hour that God sent to keep the place going,” Philly told us. “Sean Tyrrell was a terrific Village man, as was Bill Cody, an outstanding chairman after he came into us. But junior clubs were not fashionable when you had the likes of Eire Og and Bennettsbridge on the scene.
“I mean Bennettsbridge would claim that they built more churches than any priest playing matches all over the place, and that was true. But we trundled on, and while invitations were scarce coming through the letter box, we still had great mentors in Tom Walsh, chairman of the County Board, and Martin Egan, chairman of the Northern Board.”
In 1955 James Stephens won the junior title, contested the senior championship, and not until 1969 did they come good in that competition. They won their first senior title in that era against the Fenians.
Their full-back line was listed as Philly Larkin, Phil Larkin and Paddy Larkin. In hurling speak, that line read, the three Larkins, ‘Phleep’, ‘Fan’ and ‘Quack’.
Mick Larkin had great pride in his club. If, and it happened on a regular basis, they were knocked out in the first round, they would turn to football.
Philly would maintain that if ‘Fan’ was with the Village in a county final against the Railyard in 1966 they could have won.
“We got six 14-yard frees, and the best we got from the lot of them was we hit the post once,” he smiled.
Mick Larkin was taken ill at a match in Nowlan Park. James Stephens were playing Erin’s Own in the first round of the 1969 championship. Philly vividly remembers the entire episode as if it were yesterday.
“He took a turn and he was brought into the shed (dressing room),” he said when he took up the story. “I was talking to him and an ambulance was called. He was taken to St Luke’s and he told me to finish the match and come out after him.
“After visiting he told me to go home and tell me mother that he was all right, which I did, but before I left, he warned me to be back out in the morning to drive him home.
“I was no sooner home in Patrick Street than Fr Nugent came in to tell my mother that he had passed away. It still beats me up to this day that I left him to go home.”
Philly played on for a while more with The Village, but his longest regret is that after all his work, his father never lived to see The Village win in that era.
For the record (thanks to the Tommy Lanigan history) Mick Larkin won his All-Ireland medal in 1935; three Leinster, one National League, two Railway Cups and four Kilkenny championship medals, two with Tullaroan.
He was a staunch Republican, with the James Stephens DNA in his blood.
They don’t come any better.