If there is one element in the metabolism of the human species most respected by most, it surely has to be the virtue of loyalty, writes Barrie Henriques.
Loyalty comes in all forms. It embraces all instincts, creeds, movements, ambitions, successes and failures. It is omnipresent wherever we care to search.
I had the unbridled pleasure of meeting a great friend of mine recently - time and circumstances have sadly taken him from the limelight once enjoyed - but if I was to assess the virtues of Sean Tyrrell in a chronological order of value I would place loyalty atop the list.
In the delightful company of two of his sons, Seanie and Noel, we gathered in the sitting room of Sean’s home on O’Loughlin Road. Sadly that home was vacated by its iconic Matriarch and Sean’s soulmate Mai some two years ago, but more anon about that.
We spoke at will, discussing a wide raft of subject matter. Some was personal between Sean and I about times past, where we both recalled instances within the corridors of GAA power at Co Board meetings under the old stand, but which we both agreed should remain confined to the historical darkness of times past.
We went down the lanes (no motorways then!) of Sean’s youthful exuberance, where he recounted, with astonishing powers of recall, his early school days in St John’s De la Salle Primary school on the Dublin Road, having been born in Barrack Street on October 31, 1931.
“I went to the Lakes School as an infant before going up to St Patrick’s De la Salle. Mrs McGowan was my first teacher.
Under Br James and Br Cyprian in the De la Salle he learned the fundamental rudiments of the three Rs.
Away from school the children hurled for almost every moment of their available time on traffic-free roads, in Gaffney’s field, and in the field where the present car park for Nowlan Park is now situated. The school won the schools under-14 championship in 1943. Amazingly, he brought back to memory some of the lads who played on that team.
“Billy ‘Busty’ Sullivan was on it as were Timmy Coleman, Joe Millar, Danny Mulcahy (Jackie’s brother) and the great Paddy Johnson,” he recalled..
Sean had great memories of going out to Shipton to play Kilmanagh school.
“Some of us were brought out on bicycles, while more were brought out in ponies and traps. Mickie Mack used bring a load of us in the trap. When the match was over, Mrs Teehan would bring us all in for tea and a cut of bread and jam after the match. Great people, great memories,” he mused.
A throwaway question saw us find out about his first cigarette.
“Myself and my great friend, Danny Mul, bought a Woodbine - a lung-breaker of a fag - in Moll Power’s little shop opposite the Railway Station,” he recalled. “That was a time when Woodbines came in fives in a paper packet, which was open at the top.
“You were a man if you smoked that time - we were 12. Danny and myself wanted to be men earlier than anybody else. I remember an advert that time that read, Smoke Sweet Afton for a lovely brown lung.”
Even though he was only ten or eleven years old, his memories of World War I were youthfully exciting in interpretation.
“We would often hear aeroplanes passing overhead, and we got great enjoyment out of identifying them as German or British or the louder ones would be American. We wouldn’t have a clue really,” he said.
“I remember there was a terrible shortage of tyres and tubes for cars and bicycles. Lads improvised by patching tyres with another lump of an old tyre, and the same with a tube. None of the wives or mothers were too pleased with all the bent spoons or forks in the drawers (they were used to take tyres off wheels rims) when they needed them at mealtime. They were precious commodities too.”
Sean left school in 1945 and procured gainful employment in the Kilkenny Journal as a general operative, hoping to be an apprentice printer. The fact that his dad was a non-union member meant his chances of getting the apprenticeship were minimal. In time he was to become Chairman of the Painters Union.
Sean Tyrrell, in the realisation that an apprenticeship would not be forthcoming in the Journal, moved on to the Green Vale Woollen Mills on the Bleach Road. His workmates included Fr Willie Purcell’s father and a lad by the name of ‘Smiler’ Kealy. ‘Smiler’ was one of the great characters of the time, being very much an O’Loughlin Gaels man. Sean Tyrrell was approached by his first cousin Mick ‘Weeks’ Tyrrell (there are so many of that blood-line around) to take up an apprenticeship with himself and his brother as a painter.
As a consequence, Sean’s monetary disposition changed dramatically as a result.
“I was earning 36 shillings in the Woollen Mills but, as an apprentice, ‘Weeks’ was giving me ten shillings. The first week, the ten shilling note fell out of my pocket”, he smiled.
A less than auspicious start of a young apprentice’s journey!
Back to hurling. St John’s won very little after the under-14 success.
“Our under-16 team was beaten, and as there was no Parish Rule then minor players were all over the place,” he said. “Padraig Lennon, for instance, hurled with Graigue. I had great battles with a lad by the name of Billy Ronan through minor and later at junior levels. He was a terrific player, God rest him”.
The demise of St John’s led to Sean casting his lot in with the James Stephens club in 1951, with whom he won a county junior title in 1955. He was joined by his brother Paddy. They were joined by another brother, Billy, three years later.
Lads like ‘Phleep’ Larkin, ‘Big’ Jack Leahy, ‘Weeks, Billy Leahy, Peter Fennelly, Jimmy Coyne, ‘Fess’ Brennan and Florrie McCarthy were playing when Sean and his brothers joined the Village. Sean captained the Kilkenny junior team in the All-Ireland final in 1956, which they won. Junior hurling, in those times, was the second most important level of inter-county competition at the time, there being no intermediate or under-21 grades.
“It was used as a provider, or testing ground for the county senior team,” said Sean.
Kilkenny beat London in the 1956 final, which was played in New Eltham, London. For the Kilkenny party who travelled to London on the Mail Boat from Dun Laoghaire on the Friday night, it was some culture shock.
“We travelled by train to Dun Laoghaire, and we got on an old cattle boat called the Princess Maud,” said he, warming to the tale. “None of us had been outside Leinster, and now we were on our way to the greatest city in the world. The train from Holyhead took ten hours to get to Euston.
“It was the first time I ever stayed in a hotel room, and it was the same for the rest of the lads. Myself and Jimmy Coyne went off on the Underground and went all over the city on our own.
“We won by three points, but we left all of our hurls with the London lads after the match,” he said. “They found it hard to get hurls over, and depended on lads coming over to bring them a few.
“It was a tremendous trip,” he said. “We were lucky to win, really. Only for the brilliance of Jack ‘Da’ Dunne from Graignamanagh, I don’t think we might have made it.”
I asked Sean about standards, and to make comparisons between his time and the recent past. In unapologetic simplicity, he gave his answer.
“Hurling in our time was not a patch on what the lads are playing nowadays. In fact I have never seen hurling like our lads have been playing under Brian (Cody). It is absolutely wonderful,” he told us.
“Lads were not as fit as they are today. That time at half-time, where you would not have dressing-rooms, lads would be gathered in a circle on the pitch and there would be a fog of smoke rising from among them. You would not be comparing like with like, but the lads in my time wouldn’t keep it pucked out to the present day lads. Not at all.”
The county junior title win in 1955 meant that the Village entered the senior ranks for the first time in 1956. Sean Tyrrell and his brothers were to figure.
“The three of us played on the same line against Glenmore one day,” Sean recalled. “Billy was centre-back, Paddy was left half-back and I was on the right. I didn’t play in senior too long afterwards.”
There were different needs on the horizon for the emerging James Stephens club: different ambitions, different goals. Sean Tyrrell was going to be very much involved at the coalface of the embryonic Village effort.
We had great craic when we got to talking about equipment used by players.
The tracksuits you got from the County Board travelling to London?
“Ah Jaysus Barrie, we didn’t have underpants never mind tracksuits!”
Free boots, socks and nicks?
“We had to bring our own hurl with the boots and socks tied to the bas,” he said.
But what about money for loss of wages?
“We didn’t get a bob,” he said. “Sure the County Board was broke that time. Anyway, we would have paid to go to London and stay in that big Hotel in Russell Square.”
What about the sprays, powders, and other cosmetics used nowadays?
“There were no such things as showers,” he smiled. “Even if there were, nobody would have had a towel, and the closest thing we ever got to sprays and powders was a lump of carbolic soap that a lad working in a shop might have and we would all get a rub of it. I thing now you are taking the p***!”
If Sean was to nominate a particular moment in the historical evolution of the James Stephens Club what would it be?
“I would have to say that the winning of the championship in 1969 after a gap of 32 years would be the one,” he said. “We were a struggling club for a good few years after we won the junior, but a rich vein of talent came through from schools and club under-age developments level, and we got a team together that brought home the county championship. Nothing was more important to us at the time.
“That was a defining moment in our history and, as subsequently evolved, we have had a tremendously inspirational time since. Anything worth winning we did so with tremendous dedication.
“Out of respect I would not identify any single player as my idea of our greatest ambassador, suffice to say that every James Stephens player that wore the green and red was an absolute credit to our club,” he said. “Every one of them added something to the reputation and lustre of our great club. I couldn’t pick a greatest - I have too much respect for them all.”
And as an addendum to that observation, it was very poignant that when the Liam MacCarthy Cup came back to Nowlan Park a few weeks ago that before taken to the baying hordes in the Park, the entire James Stephens involvement on the team brought it into Sean’s home at the back of the stand on O’Loughlin Road.
What a nice touch of style!
In 1976 James Stephens decided to build their own clubhouse in Stallard’s Field in Larchfield. They procured a prefabricated building from the De la Salle school.
It was all hands to the pumps from there on, with fund-raising (remember the Monster car draws?) and hard graft. An army of qualified workmen - there was no requirement that could not be serviced by a club man - took hold of the construction requirements. Men like Bill Brennan, Florrie McCarthy, Mick Neary, the Larkin clan, the multi-talented Tyrrell clan and Niall Morrissey augmented admin gurus like Mick Moore, Liam Tyrrell, Georgie Leahy, Val Malone, Br Anthony, Fr Liam Barron and all under the umbrella of the Bill Cody school of chairmanship.
Sean, you truly have a home worth the name in Larchfield. You must be a very proud Village man whenever you perchance to take visitors up there?
“I couldn’t be more proud,” he said. “Have you seen the book Tommy Lanigan, our chairman, has written? It is absolutely superb. He did a fine job, and didn’t forget anybody.
“Have you been out to the Kells Road? The men of today have great courage and tremendous abilities in true James Stephens vision,” he beamed.
“But do you know what else we had - still have - in our club?” he said. “We have a terrific Ladies Committee, who do super work for the club whenever they are called upon. We are all a big family up there, and the same colours cover us all.”
Sean Tyrrell represented the club at Northern Board from 1954 and County Board from 1972 until he retired in 2008.
He established a great rapport with his fellow delegates as he promoted and defended his beloved Village. Valued as a man of great integrity, common sense and a source of solid advice, he was a man who valued loyalty above any other credential. If you had him as a friend you were indeed very fortunate.
He served on many Board Committees and as a county selector in 1970, responsibilities for which he imparted with great honesty and fair play. He mentioned great characters like Michael Meally, Johnny Ivory, Johnsie Harte, Ned Curran at North Board.
Names at County Board came flooding back at the prompting too. He spoke with great friendship and fond memories of people like Paddy Grace, Mick O’Neill, Jim Rice, Kevin Fennelly snr, Tommy Murphy, Ted Carroll, John Hunt, Tom Ryan and others.
We couldn’t let the story finish without a passing reference to Sean’s soulmate Mai, who went to her eternal reward some two years ago. I felt Sean was not too comfortable discussing Mai with me. I had a feeling that his thoughts and his opinions about the girl he married in 1957 (they were married for 55 years) were very private, personal, and not for the public knowledge arena.
Sean and Mai with their family have made such unselfish, valuable and very positive contributions to many important organisations within their city and county, which did not go unnoticed. Not so long ago, Sean was summoned by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese to Aras an Úachtaráin to honour citizens whose contribution to the developing GAA has been more than remarkable.
It was a tremendous occasion, and there is no doubt that Mai was a blushingly proud partner of the James Stephens husband to be so honoured. It was a singularly poignant and historical occasion for the GAA and the Kilkenny brand - no better ambassador for the Kilkenny GAA could have been selected.
Whilst Mai would have been an ardent O’Loughlin’s supporter, nevertheless her nature could not prevent her from rendering assistance to the other city clubs with which her boys have thrown in their lot. After all she had Noel and Brian with the ‘Boro, Seanie, Denis, Gerry, and Mossy up the road with the boys in green and white, while Mickie and Eamonn joined Dad with the red and green brigade.
How fitting then it was that the guard of honour at her funeral obsequies included members of the under-14 squads from all three clubs. I do not exclude Madeline or Veronica or Mary from my observations. I could fill more pages than permitted talking to one of the most genuine GAA people that I have ever had the good fortune to befriend. I have known him a very long time-from 1975, and I have never had cause to be even mildly disturbed by anything he has said or done in my company.
Generous to a fault, I value him, his friendship, and above all other, his loyalty. If the world was full of people like Sean Tyrrell, it really would be a terrific place to live.