Baize of glory - Larry looks back on a life of sporting memories

SNOOKER fanatics in Kilkenny need no introduction when it comes to the outstanding abilities of Larry Drennan on the green baize.

SNOOKER fanatics in Kilkenny need no introduction when it comes to the outstanding abilities of Larry Drennan on the green baize.

Larry has been Kilkenny’s finest player on a billiards/snooker table for a very long time. People will talk about other former greats, in particular at a time when the game was the sole property of gentlemen who wore waistcoats, smoked cigars and played poker in a dimly lit room; where the only noise was the crack of ivory on ivory. Names like Toddy Quinn, Joe Hogan, P.J. ‘Flukey’ O’Neill, Pat O’Sullivan and Jackie Parle pop into the memory but Larry Drennan, the Kilkenny postman, has raised the bar by a distance.

His recent win against former Irish professional Eugene Hughes was his sixth National Billiards triumph.

That was an achievement of sporting greatness - but then Larry Drennan has never been far removed from sporting prowess.

He was a darts player, a basketballer, a boxer, a table tennis player, and a soccer star. He had a near photographic memory of racehorses and greyhounds.

Of course, like all Kilkenny people, he rejoices in the achievement of all Kilkenny hurlers.

“At the tracks in Enniscorthy, Clonmel, Cork, Thurles and even in Dublin, I loved winding up the locals about the hurling,” he said. “I’ve had ten great years with this magnificent team - they have given us all a great time.”

For a man with such an inherent interest in the game, I felt that he should have played the game with distinction, given his abilities in other sporting disciplines.

“I loved the game really as a young lad, but I had an experience one day in school - that finished my hurling career,” he laughed.

Larry’s earliest interest in sport was when he was 11 years old.

Equipment was scarce

“I went down to the St Patrick’s club to learn boxing,” he recalled. “We played table tennis there too, but the equipment was scarce. Boxing gloves were scarce, and we only had the one tennis table. Often we would play a game called Drop the Bat, which brought a semblance of order to the table.”

Many would say that Larry Drennan was a most natural sportsman, with a tremendous instinct. He could play any sport with distinction.

“I loved sport,” he said. “I was a handy size, and it was difficult to put me off my feet. I suppose too that I had more than my fair share of luck, but soccer was my first love. I loved the game - I still do,” he told us.

We are to return to the subject.

“You were a boxer?

“I boxed with the St Patrick’s boxing club, where we had tremendous trainers,” he said. “Seanie Bateman was over the club at the time, but there were other great boxers there too. Seanie’s brother Jim was great.

“Then we had the Coynes - Tony Coyne was a brilliant boxer. Boxing was very strong around Kilkenny then. I remember a Great Britain team coming to fight in the Mayfair. The place was packed. The Batemans, Coynes, Redmonds (Wexford), and a Donovan from Callan were on the bill. Kilkenny had a big reputation for great boxers.”

Larry bemoaned the demise of the sport, particularly within the city.

“There were good clubs here,” he recalled. “At the minute Paulstown are going great guns. The O’Neills are great sports people, and I would love to see Darren bring home a medal from the Olympics in London next year.”

You had an interlude in basketball?, I asked.

“I won a county junior title with Castle Engineering, and a county senior with Celts,” he said. “I loved the game. There was a blitz down in the Water Barracks every Sunday, which went on all day as long as the daylight shone.

“There were some terrific players around at the time,” he added. “Luke Connery was an Irish international, while Noel Scanlon, Philly Brennan, Joe McKee, “Bomb” Ryan were fabulous players. The greatest rugby Number Eight in the world, Willie Duggan, played plenty of it too. He was so much bigger and stronger than any of us, and he was great around the basket. If he didn’t net it the first time, you could always rely on him to get the rebound and eventually get it in for us.”

Sport was a tremendous conduit in those times for people of a like mind as Larry Drennan. It was all embracing for such people. It soaked up every spare moment the likes of Larry Drennan had available. There was not much time for anything else.

Integral part

“It’s true really,” he said. “We didn’t have much spare time, and we didn’t have an abundance of riches either, so sport was a necessary integral part of our existence. We could be playing basketball in the morning, soccer in the afternoon, and maybe snooker or billiards, or even handball in the evenings, so our lives were full. I’ve always maintained that any lad who has an interest in sport will not be involved in the kind of blackguarding that’s out there at the present time.”

Larry’s love affair with soccer has stood the test of many times. In an instant, he could recall who got him interested in the game.

“We were always playing street soccer, and even though the game, and I’m talking the English game, barely merited a mention on the Irish papers, you would still hear lads talking about Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse and of course the Manchester United, particularly after the Munich Air disaster.

“Although before Manchester United or Glasgow Celtic became as popular as they subsequently became, the English team that I remember lads talking about was Everton,” he said. “They had Irish lads playing like the Farrells (Tommy and Frank), and Tommy Eglington, and lads could pick up the BBC commentaries on the Radio every Saturday.

“As to who got me interested? You would be playing on the street, and someone might ask you would you be interested in playing with Evergreen, or Freebooters or Celtic,” he said. “I was asked would I play with the Freebooters Youths team. Joe Doyle was very much involved then. A great football man, Mock Lawlor was also a giant of the game too with Freebooters, God rest him. I won a Youth Cup with the Booters around 1957/58.”

And who were the lads that you remember from those times?

“Well Ber Scott, a very talented footballer, was on that team as was ‘Tack’ Teehan,” he said. “Then we had an Army man, John Doyle.

“There was also a lad in goal called Brendan Moore - he was brilliant. He played with the Kilkenny Youths in Ringsend one time, and the Manchester United Scout, Billy Behan asked him to go to Old Trafford, but he refused. His people insisted that he finish his education. He became a surgeon, emigrated to Canada, and I think he died recently out there. We had another lad, Peter McEneany (from the Chemists on High Street), who became a priest. He died when he was a very young man, but he was a great player too.”

Was the game popular then?

“We only had one adult level division, now the Premier Division. There was a Youths Division and that was that. Many of the youths players were to play with other adult teams around the place. That was an element of the game that time, that lads played with different teams for different reasons over many years. I played with ’Booters (Jimmy Sanders, John Roberts, Joe Doyle, Tom Kavanagh, Mickie Dunne), but then went to Evergreen (to play with the likes of Tosh Conners, Tommy Jordan, Bob Shortall, Sid Jordan and ‘Chunky’ O’Brien).

Big team in the city

I stayed for another few years and then I played with Continentals for a while, but the big team in the city at the time was St Mary’s. Celtic too was a big city team with ‘Bogey’ Hogan, while Bohemians were worthy opponents any time we would meet them. The late Algie Lannigan was a tremendous competitor for them, who was hard, fit, fast, and never yielding an inch.

“I went back to Evergreen towards the end of the ’60s, and I captained them in 1970, when we won everything that was to be won,” he added. “That was a great Evergreen outfit”.

How good were standards?

“While the quality of the pitches wasn’t great, the standards were very good,” he said. “The control was exceptional, and when you would see the likes of “Chunky” travel with the ball at his feet, you would stand and applaud.

“When he played with us, we were thrilled because he was such a natural player. For a lad that didn’t play half as much of the game as some of us, he was brilliant. He had such a brain, and he had the ability to second guess what others were trying to do.

“The quality of the game was quite good too, but the fitness levels left a lot to be desired. We played social football. The minute the game was over, straight into the nearest pub, but we enjoyed every second of it. The lads today may be more skilful, but I see them tearing down the line before getting to a spot, and they don’t know what to do then. They seem to engage their feet before they consult their brain.”

We spoke about the emigration of young lads to English football, and of course the name of his talented grandnephew, Mikey Drennan came up on the screen. Larry was pleased to see him doing well.

“He is settling in well, and getting on very well. He had a few problems at the outset, probably perpetrated by home sickness; sure that was only natural for a chap of 16. But, thank God, he has settled down and he is loving it. He’s a lovely, level-headed chap and I sincerely hope he makes the grade.”

Larry has also been known to invest in a few horses and greyhounds. Has it been a fruitful exercise?

“I have always been a punter really - a very small punter,” he said. “I had a few greyhounds in my time, and we made a few shillings (spoken like a true greyhound owner). I go to the dogs four times a week - twice to Kilkenny, and twice to Enniscorthy. I love the camaraderie and the craic with the Wexford lads, particularly around the hurling times.”

The greyhound has brought esteem and fame to Kilkenny, giving Larry the chance to chat about some of the county’s great Kilkenny dogs and greyhound men.

“Ah sure there were great dogs like the great Lax Law, an absolute machine, which was owned and trained by the Lennons of Freshford. The Kidds from Sliguff (Carlow) had brilliant bitches (Clonmoney Grand and Clonmoney Bess), and they always raced their dogs in Kilkenny back in the 1960s. Then I used hear the ould lads talking about how Spanish Battleship won all around him in Kilkenny in the 1950s.

“The Lennons turned out one great dog after another, and then there was the ’Comer Maestro, Paddy Dunphy, who was renowned the world over. We have Paul Hennessy down the road in Gowran, and what riches he put on the table for his patrons.”

Sport of kings

We spoke of his love for the Sport of Kings, and the Kilkenny contribution to horse-racing. He spoke of Paddy Mullins, the King of Duninga, and the influence now being exerted by his siblings. He spoke of the Byrne family from Freshford and their contribution to the breeding of top-class racing horses.

He mentioned too some of the new Kilkenny kids on the block like Eoin Griffin in Slieverue, Eoin Doyle in Mooncoin, J.J. ‘Shark’ O’Hanlon in Paulstown, Kieran Purcell in Windgap and John O’Shea out in Killamery.

Oh yes, Larry Drennan knows much about many sports. He has had an insatiable interest in them all his life.

“The first real star I remember was Sean Clohessy,” he said when quizzed on hurling. “He had such silken skills with the hurl. He was my idol as a young lad. Of course the red hair made him stand out, but he was such an elegant stickman. He was a tremendous hurler.

“Then we had the Dwyers here locally,” he continued. “When Billy got the ball, nobody would take it off him. He gave the Wexford lads plenty of hardship. We had the great team of the 1960s and 1970s with the great Eddie Keher, the Hendersons and our own lads like Mick Crotty and Fan Larkin.

“They were great men every one of them,” he added. “And now sure, where could you leave the present team. They have to be the greatest team of them all. It’s great to be alive to see these lads.”

Finally we come to the real purpose of our interview - to talk to the six-times All Ireland billiards champion.

“In the St Patrick’s Club they had a billiards table which was pretty exclusive,” he said. “Old Jimmy Coyne was the caretaker but only certain people were allowed to play. I remember going into the room, and asking could I have a game. I was told in most emphatic manner that I could sit down quietly, and watch only.

“I remember the likes of John Roberts, P.J. O’Neill and Dr John Mitchell - it took me about a year to even get the opportunity of catching a cue in my hands.

“I progressed from St Patrick’s to the Morgue in Pennyfeather Lane. It was practically outlawed by the clergy at the time as a place of ill-repute. Snooker was the prominent game there, and I won some tournaments there.

“Eventually I joined the CYMS, where again I came into contact with some tremendous billiards players who helped me no end,” he said. “The likes of Toddy Quinn was exceptionally helpful to me and showed me every angle, every move, every shot in the book. I learned a lot from that great gentleman. Dr Mitchell, ‘Flukey’ Neill, Joe Hogan from the ’Comer Road, Pat O’Sullivan, Noel O’Sullivan, John Roberts and Jackie Parle.

“After that I started Diocesan Billiards, which brought us all over the country. Tom Cantwell was central to much of the activity in the CY then. He became President; it was a tremendous club, with a huge reputation.

“There was a very strict code of ethics enforced,” Larry added. “Silence of course was top of the list, because of the concentration involved in the playing of the game. You stepped out of line at your peril.”

Larry also looked back on the time when he got to the national stage.

“Pat O’Sullivan and myself said the we would chance our arm at the Irish snooker Championship,” he recalled. It was held in Dublin, and we both won our first games, but we were drawn against each other in round two. It was played in the CYMS in Kilkenny, the first ever Irish Snooker Championship game played outside of Dublin. He beat me fair and square with three black balls.”

Larry played his first billiards championship match in the Ierne Club, Mountjoy Square in 1969. He was beaten by a 75-year-old Dub by the name of Jim Forrest. He never forgot the experience, or the lesson he was taught.

Larry won his first Irish title in 1970 against another Dub, Tommy Doyle. He annihilated him by 750 to 380 - a magnificent achievement. Larry continued to thrill local and not so local audiences with his skills on the baize, but another Irish title didn’t arrive for another nine years.

The next surfaced in 1983. The Kilkenny genius was carving a reputation on the National stage. A winner again in ’86, Larry won again in ’91. He played in nine National Finals, winning six, his last was against the delightful Hughes, who incidentally played in the Callan snooker hall about 15 years ago.

Larry Drennan is a proud Kilkenny man, who carries his Kilkenny ethos, and colours emblazoned across his chest. He had - still has - a talent, but one of his greatest talents has been his abilities to meet and greet his fellow opponents across the green baize and treat them all as equals.

His achievements have brought an iconic credit to his native place, much the same as our hurlers, handballers, camogie players, horse racing and greyhound racing people, rugby players, footballers, and many other sporting heroes.

He was a joy to engage in sporting conversation.