HE would be regarded as a charismatic, colourful, engaging sports person, the sort of guy who would entertain you on a day’s walk, and then some, writes Barrie Henriques.
Noel Scanlon, generally regarded as one of the finest Kilkenny basketball players ever, who represented his club, Robert Emmets; his province, Leinster and his native country with distinction during a 48-year playing career.
Born: “I was born in Clara, Co. Offaly,” he said with a warm glow in his voice. “My father died when I was four, the result of a blow to the head of a hurley in a game in Tullamore. My mother re-located to Kilkenny, where she married a very kind, decent man, Sonny Maher, and so started a long association with the Marble County for over 63 years. I have lived in Larchfield for over 40 years.”
Sport was the kernel of your young life living in Kilkenny?
“No doubt about that,” Noel agreed. “This is a sports-mad county, with an enormous number of sporting disciplines available. I tried a lot of them from hurling to basketball, handball, boxing, snooker, billiards, whatever but I was useless at most of them (gales of the same). I also played all the indoor sports as well, like darts, rings, girls.”
Why do Kilkenny people “do” the sports thing as well as they do, we wondered aloud?
“I feel that they are being set such standards by such very successful sporting role models,” Noel offered in replay. “A simple example would be my sporting hero, Henry Shefflin. Now what a model he is for any youngster. I presume if you were talking to someone else in a similar vein, he would say the same.
Henry is special
“But when you have an international sporting icon like Brian O’Driscoll nominating Henry Shefflin as his sports hero/model, then you just know that we are talking about something special. Something similar can be said about our Olympians, our athletes going back to Fiona Norwood, Geraldine Nolan, the Cuddihys etc. You mention the Mullins clan down in Doninga; and we had Willie Duggan in rugby, or where would you leave our Ducksie (Michael Walsh the handballer)?
“The county is full of role models of the highest denomination. That is why I feel that we have such a terrific sporting excellence in the county, and one that most of our kids can identify with, and try to emulate.”
So then, who were the sporting heroes of your youth?
“My hero was the great Eddie Keher. Most of the heroes of my time were hurlers. Besides Eddie, I revered the likes of Seamus Cleere, Martin Coogan, Jim Treacy, Pat Henderson, Mick Crotty, Pat Lalor. Pat Lalor was a magnificent hurler, very underestimated in the sense that I felt he was always great, outstandingly consistent, but never grabbed the headlines.
“I remember Sean Clohossey too. But I had great time for ‘Chunky’ (Liam O’Brien).”
Schooling: “I went to St Canice’s before my mam and step-father were forced to emigrate like thousands of others. We returned home to Kilkenny after three years.”
First job: “I gave up my schooling shortly after returning, and I got gainful employment with one of the kindest, most loyal and dependable men in Ireland, Paddy Henderson. I shared my time between the Henderson pub/grocery shop and the Harp Bar. Times were tough, but people were very courteous and helpful to each other.
The old ‘Book’
“The Book (ask your mother) was king at the time. There was no technology. You weighed the biscuits, the sugar, the spuds, tea. You weighed everything in stones and pounds. You weighed up your options as well, depending on the appearances (laughing). I well remember people on the book owing £5-14-6d, and they would clear off £4 off the bill.
“But Paddy trusted people and that trust was reciprocated. The bill was rising every week, but people kept coming in with money every week to keep the bill from becoming unmanageable. Eventually when the children in those families grew up and went to work those bills were eventually paid in full. People were very honourable. People at that time never got something like furniture until they could pay for it. ”
And so Noel, to your sport, basketball. How did you get involved?
Basketball was huge
“When I returned from England, basketball was huge in the City. I would be watching St Thomass Square and Dynamos play. Fr McGrath – a great man, God Rest him - had a team called Don Boscos. I joined Boscos. I took to the game like a ferret going down a hole after a rabbit. I trained morning, noon and night. All games and training happened in the Waterbarricks.”
Who were your colleagues?
“ Mick Fitzpatrick (RIP) was one. He was the only Kilkenny lad ever capped for Ireland under-18. (Story) In a quadrangular tournament in St Canice’s hospital, Fitz was picked on the Irish team. The team was managed by a Dub called Pat O’Hara. You would imagine that a local lad would see a bit of the action, but it was not to be for Fitzy.
“After the tournament Fitz took off his Ireland shirt, threw the towel to O’Hara and said, here, give me a rub down I’m drowned. Timmy Clifford was on our team as were Anthony Green, Benny Pratt, Tommy Barry. I remember Fr McGrath brought an under-14 Kilkenny team (the Mighty Midgets) to play in a curtain-raiser game in Tolka Park as support to the great Harlem Globetrotters in Dublin during their World tour.
“The team was Timmy Clifford, Tommy Barry, Major Phelan, Benny Pratt and Dinny Kelly. What a claim to fame that was,” he smiled.
You joined Robert Emmetts?
“Paddy Ryan brought me over. I played with them from 1961 until 1992. That was a roller-coaster ride of enjoyment, craic, winning, losing, friendships and pure enjoyment.
Noel lost his beloved Teresa when she was a young 51 years of age. Pain, pain, pain.
“That was a tough time for us all. I was devastated. I became so introverted and silent that my family felt for my well-being. But my family, God Bless them, rallied round me and pulled me back from the throes of total depression. They are the greatest family that any man could ever wish to have around him.
“I have a lot to be grateful to them. Tony, Mark, Sandra, Caroline and Mischelle, I owe my life to them. I have 14 grandchildren too.”
First adult game: “Against the American navy in the Waterbarricks. I remember Scooper Reilly throwing me the ball a few times when I came on just to give me confidence. I was three stone nothing against these giant Yanks.”
Hurling the greatest
Noel rates hurling as the greatest game of all. He takes a big interest in most sport, but certainly in the sporting progress of his grandsons Luke Scanlon (Kilkenny county minor), Noel Keogh (boxing), Dylan Smithwick (golf).
Sporting memory: (not in his own career) “Kilkenny’s win over Tipperary in 1967. Super. It would bring you back from the dead if you weren’t gone too far.”
His own sporting memory: “Winning the All-Ireland club title in 1962. We had a great team in Luke Connery, Joe McKee, Seamus Ryan and Peadar Blanchfield, God be good to him. We beat Dublin Celtic in the final, and hot shots Corinthians in the semi-final.”
His greatest player: Lukey Connery, without doubt.
His greatest opponent: Socks Dunne
What age are you?
“I’m 61, going 14.” Again, laughter rules!