Like a good accountant, it is often times better to start at the finishing line figure than traipse through the labours of getting to that point from the gun, writes Barrie Henriques.
“So Joe,” I fired, “ when your God sends by registered post your one-way ticket to your richly deserved golden throne in the Firmament, after your life of servitude to your fellow Christians, what would you like to have inscribed on your headstone?”
It is the kind of question that brings a lad, bolt upright in his comfy armchair.
The Joe in question, under the spotlight, is the much admired and acclaimed Múinteoir, Gaelgóir, raconteur, fisherman, hurling coach and adviser of many - Joe Dunphy from Dangan Terrace in Thomastown.
“Maybe later Barrie, but we will park that for further consideration,” he smiled back.
Joe Dunphy, a Thomastown man through and through, is an interviewee of great character, of excellent memory and he has a most engaging use of language.
Born, bred, reared and domiciled in Thomastown for the vast majority of his years on earth, I felt abjectly embarrassed when I asked my next question: “The Thomastown you grew up in Joe is a far different place to what it today?”
The volleyed back was instant: “Undoubtedly, and I published a book just before Christmas called When I grow Up (a delightful read, incidentally) which incorporated numerous memories of a childhood of life during the 40s and 50s.”
So many changes
Joe passed off my discomfort with graciousness, as I pleaded that I had not known about his book.
“I was sitting beside Tom (1967) Walsh at mass last Sunday and he leaned over and whispered that times have really changed,” he continued. “Altar boys are a dying breed Joe, six to one today - six girls to one boy. Strange that he should
say that, given that we would be well aware of that particular scenario for many a long Sunday.
“But yes, there have been so many changes all over the place, but such changes are not specifically the domain of Thomastown. Ireland has changed, and whilst many of us older generation might bemoan the loss of times past, the wheels of
progress and improvement (that’s a relative term too) must not and cannot be stymied.”
He would emphasise that things, many things had changed for the better, but that there were other facets of times fadó that one could bemoan their passing.
“I was a child of the 40s and 50s and lived for the first five years of my life through a World War situation. Survival, or as most mothers would say that it was an art form, was a teak tough exercise in most households.
“There was no Social Services like unemployment benefits, nor was there an availability of any kind of help from societies like the St Vincent de Paul. Many existed on their wits and their own ingenuities of succeeding in keeping the wolf from the door.
“Many families depended on seasonal work to keep food on tables, while others were dependant on money being sent back from America or England. They were hungry times, and life was no bed of roses for parents, and consequently siblings.”
Young lads thinned turnips, sugar beet, fished legitimately, or otherwise poached, shot game or hunted rabbits - any which way to turn a bob.
“But there was a greater sense of collective good nature around the place,” said the retired Múinteoir. “Simple things kept people happy, and even though there were scarcities, people were more generous, and certainly more Christian in their attitudes towards each other.”
Joe did his primary school education under the watchful, dedicated baton of Peadar Laffin.
“Peadar was a wonderful teacher, if at times forceful and very pragmatic,” he recalled. “I would never have advanced to where I eventually arrived but for the interest shown and encouragement given by Peadar. He performed heroics for
many young lads in Thomastown, enabling many to win scholarships to secondary schools and thus affording them opportunities that were but pipe dreams for many of us.
“A remarkable man, to whom many of us owed an unpayable debt of gratitude,” was his summary on the issue.
Joe attended secondary college as a boarder in De La Salle in Waterford, exploded through the requisite examinations, and earned the right to go for teacher training in St Patrick’s in Drumcondra. Hurling and football were king in De La Salle.
Harty Cups were frequent visitors, and it was not surprising that so many Kilkenny lads were billeted there. Joe Dunphy can remember lads like Mick Lanigan (Senator), John Hartley, Ted O’Neill from Ballyhale, Paul Fitzgerald (later PP Thomastown) Martin Carrigan, Jim Sammon and Nicky Knox from Kilmacow, Paddy and Brian Flynn from Ferrybank (Brian is PP in Kilmacow) and more.
His road was charted; his ambition of being a teacher was on the horizon.
During his last brace of years in Waterford, Joe Dunphy was also a learning acolyte at the altar of life’s prerequisites. On the social merry go round, one had to meet girls. To do so, one had to frequent places where girls congregated.
One needed to know the foibles and foll di rolls of making social contact. One needed to learn how to dance, because the dance floor was the golden promenade of opportunity, the only one at the time, where the fairer sex could be charmed into the realms of keeping company.
I know, I know you are saying give me a break, but such were the times of Joe Dunphy’s youthful adolescence. Morals were of Tibetan stricture, and ladies were very conscious of their public image, and members of the Children of Mary Confraternity to boot.
The key was being a good dancer. Joe Dunphy learned that quite early.
There were plenty of outdoor dance platforms around the place, and like many others he travelled to Kilmacow, Barronsland, Ballyhale, Skeaughvosteen, Knocktopher, Waterford and more. He grew up fast.
Bonus was a teacher’s residence
After qualification, during which time he had befriended Pim, the girl that would be his life’s partner, the mother of his five children (Carol, Rosemarie, John, Dermot and Aoibhlinn), Joe was offered a post in Byrnesgrove in the parish of Ballyraggett.
It was a two-teacher school. As a bonus, a teacher’s residence was part of the posting.
“That was terrific for the likes of me, and it certainly propelled the permanency of the relationship between myself and Pim,” Joe explained. “We married almost immediately, which was rather unusual, given that I was in my early twenties, and Pim was just approaching the second decade.”
Joe really exploded on to the hurling highway with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, its history, its statistic, its folklore, its genus in a sense. He revisited names like Jack Phelan, Jimmy Langton, Ollie (Walsh) of course, Jimmy Kelly, Nick O’Donnell, Jack Gargan and the ‘Diamond’ Hayden.
He spoke with tremendous reverence and awe of those former icons, and he is still thrilled that one of his former Ballyhale students, was the so unsung but brilliantly gifted, Wattie Phelan, who won every club honour available to mortal man with the Shamrocks.
Joe switched from fast forward to total reverse. He would speak of ‘Cha’ and Michael, and then revert to Tom ‘Blondie’ whenever the nucleus of an anecdote would flit across his radar.
He remembered earning his first and only GAA money when still a spalpeen. Quite simply he ran his own livery stable for bicycle users who frequented Grennan, Thomastown on match days. He earned more on a Sunday (in excess of £3) than his dad might earn in a week.
He was not alone in the industry.
“Fannings, Roaches, O’Neills, Eddie Kelly - they all had bicycle stores for the day,” he smiled at a thought that obviously delighted.
“Everybody came on bikes to matches in those days, and we all made a shilling-tax free.”
When you consider that the cream of Kilkenny’s, and by extension, Ireland’s hurlers played in Thomastown, one could visualise the hordes spewing down the hill and struggling back up.
“We had the great Eire Og, Carrickshock, Bennettsbridge, St Aiden’s from Enniscorthy and others playing on OUR field.
Happy days indeed,” he mused.
Remembered stars of yore
Like most of his age, Joe remembered with mountain spring water clarity the teams of his youth, the stars of yore.
He certainly remembers the Thomastown men who defeated, against all the odds, the legendary Carrickshock, who had contested every county final from1938 to 1946, winning five.
“Was it ever contemplated then that Thomastown would still be awaiting another county final win? Even through the clouding mists of time Joe has great clarity of thought when glowing about the Penders (Joe and Peter), Luke Donnelly, Podge Dack, Jack Galway, Ned Ryan, Jim Challenor and the rest, and not forgetting the marvellous Kennedy.
He had stories to tell of them all, and as a young man, his story encompassed playing with some of them in the twilight of their hurling years.