I well remember talking the business through the small hours with the few reliable and honourable friends I had in my long years toiling for the GAA at every level.
We arrived at a topic that cloaked our lives in a multitude of ways, Gaelic football. Not the hottest of topics in Kilkenny at any time, but to the late Kieran Meally, my dear friend, the game as we both knew it was the embodiment of every element of true Irish manhood.
We would always have compared selections and justified their selections. Whether it was a county selection away from Kilkenny, an All Star selection, a Railway Cup selection, it really didn’t matter. We would not be stonewalled when expressing a personal opinion.
Kieran was a rarity in the GAA in the sense that with him as a friend, you could not have been better endowed. I never knew him to tell me a lie. I never knew him to break a confidence. He was his own man, and what you saw or heard from his lips is what he was.
He would not bullshit you, or talk except straight into your eyes. The eyes tell much there is to know about a man. The eyes are a window to the soul.
As another friend of solid standing, Pat ‘Diamond’ Hayden once said to me: “If a man can’t look you in the eye, he’s a ‘rale go-be-the-wall’. Kieran Meally was no go-be-the-wall.
Where is all this leading, you would be entitled to know? I’ll tell you, dear reader.
I remember Kieran making a bold statement about Kilkenny footballers one time. He reeled off the names of players like John Nash, Kieran’s brother Martin, Tom ‘Cloney’ Brennan, Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin, Mick Egan, Podge Butler, Kieran Purcell, Dick O’Hara, Joe Hennessy, the Morrisseys’ of Muckalee, the Murphys’ of Tullogher, the Fitzgeralds’ from Glenmore and more, insisting they were all excellent footballers.
But he went on to name another he felt was out on his own.......Timmy Wilson.
“If Wilson was in a football county like Kerry or Dublin or Galway he would be an automatic on any of their All-Ireland winning teams,” Kieran Meally offered.
That, in any man’s lingo, was a big statement, a very big statement indeed.
I needed to talk to this Timmy Wilson. I would have had a ships-in-the-night passing acquaintance with Timmy Wilson, but I never really engaged in serious conversation with the man that Kieran Meally said was one of the greatest footballers he ever saw coming from Kilkenny.
We visited with Timmy in Clogh, where he farms, and his wife runs a local grocery shop. Timmy breeds show jumping horses. In their cosy sitting room - in Timmie’s time it would have been the parlour, where nobody but the parish priest held court as he drank his dry sherry and probably conducted the business of expounding on matters of Canonical importance to a frightened congregation of one or two - we sat and reminisced of times long ago.
Now the room is decorated in many cabinets and display shelves with memorabilia of every denomination.
On one wall proudly displayed is a case with many of Timmy Wilson’s medals, including 14 county senior football championships. There are cups, plaques, family portraits, equine creations of excellence and much more.
There isn’t the sign of a dry sherry either. Timmy Wilson has never touched the demon drink or a cigarette in his life. He is 75 years on God’s earth and looking exceptionally healthy.
He is enthralling company, and still carries a great grá in his heart for football, hurling and sport in general. A blue-blood Kilkenny man.
We are in the heart of mining country. On our way we pass the poignantly placed shrine to the Virgin Mary, identified with a public sign ‘Deerpark Shrine’. Not a hen’s kick from the shrine is the Deerpark coal works, now standing in all its skeletal horror, a reminder of dreadful hardship, shocking remorse and mournful aftershock.
Even as you pass the place one senses that the wails of times past are eerily wafting on the Autumnal breezes.
‘Twas a man from Armagh, who would cycle from Crossmaglen to Cloneen after his summer holidays as a teacher that really cultivated the love of football in the young Railyard spalpeens initially. Don’t take my word for it. Let Timmy Wilson tell the story.
“We had a school master called Mr Francis McCann from Crossmaglen in Moneenroe where I went to school,” he openedc. “I have no doubt but that he was directly responsible for cultivating the love of football among all us chaps, and from that was developed the great Railyard team that won buckets of championships.
“He would come upon a bicycle all the way back from Crossmaglen to Moneenroe after the summer holidays. It would take him two days, but he always brought back a new football and a new pair of boots for himself. Football boots were a scarce commodity at the time. Lads improvised with converted miners boots and other kinds of boots.
“They would nail a few narrow strips of leather on top of each other across the boot. There would be two strips on the main part of the boot, and one strip of three across the heel end of the boot instead of the leather hammer-in cogs. But if strips of leather football boots were scarce, a new football was like winning the Sweep (long ago Lotto).”
Did he have a football pedigree?
“He played minor football with Armagh, and given the geographic location of his employment, it would have been very difficult for him to advance on the Armagh team,” Timmy replied. “Anyway, every day, and I mean every day, he would have us out in the field behind the school, pick two teams and play a game.
“He would be in one goal, and our other teacher, Michael O’Dwyer, a Cork man, would be in the other goal. If the game was good, he would let it run for a good while. Then when we would go back to the class, he would analyse every players faults and strengths.
“He would say, Timmy Wilson, you are holding on too long to the ball let the ball go, or he might advise Martin Meally that he was favouring one leg more than the other. He would always give good advice. The analysis might go on for an hour, but we didn’t care. He was talking our game. He was a tremendous man.”
Where else did you play?
“Where every chap in the country played no matter what game he played - upon the road. We’d make two goals with four rocks. We would get an ould tam (a beret, or a berry in other dialects) and stuff it with hay or straw or paper. It would be stitched up and we’d have some sport kicking it from goal to goal.
“The competition was fierce, and there were plenty of cut knees, black eyes and sore bodies going home. Many is the All-Ireland that was won upan the road. There was little or no traffic, and we didn’t have to worry about cars or trucks.”
What about lessons?
“We didn’t care about lessons or learning once Mr McCann was talking about football,” he laughed.
This is mining country Timmy, where historically miners were tough men, doing a tough job in tough conditions. Were there many miners on your team?
“Life in the mines was a tough call,” he said, a coldness in his voice. “Men in the bowels of the earth, lying on their bellies, water dripping down on them for a shift of 10 or 12 hour, and they digging out what was called black gold. There were a few of our team working down there.
“The work was tough, but it was terrible well paid. That was the attraction I suppose. I worked down there for a while, but thanks be to God, I came out of it still in good health. Other lads were not so fortunate. I never drank nor smoked, so that helped.”
There being no under-age football competitions in vogue in Timmy Wilson’s time, he had to wait for the minor grade to play his first competitive football game.
“I won my first minor championship in 1954, when I was barely 15 years old,” he enlightened.
The story of that particular final is legendary. Railyard played Kilmoganny and as both umpires couldn’t agree, and the score stood at Kilmoganny 1-1 to Railyard’s 0-5, the referee called off the game. A replay was the order from the halls of justice, and so it happened.
With Kilmoganny leading by 1-1 to 0-2, an invasion of the pitch caused the referee to abandon the replay. Another replay was ordered. In the second replay, both sides scored 1-5. So on to the fourth game. Railyard edged ahead by a single point, 1-5 to 1-4.
The Kilkenny Football Board breathed a huge sigh of relief!
As captain in 1956, Timmy led his beloved Railyard to another minor championship win when they hammered Eoghan Ruadhs from Callan by 4-12 to 0-2.
What was his earliest memory of an official trainer?
“Joe Walsh, secretary of the club trained the minors and the senior teams. He was a superb clubman,” Timmy told us.
Timmy Wilson won additional minor championship medals in 1955 and in 1956, but it was not in his native county.
“John Nash and I were contacted by Din Murphy from Ballylinan to play with them in the Laois championships,” Timmy explained. “We duly obliged and we beat a great Portlaoise and Annanaugh team to win successive finals.” He was reminded that they were illegal.
“Of course we were,” he said with a mischievious grin. “But sure who was to know, and we kept our traps shut.”
He spoke with great reverence and respect of some of the men that started the club, Cloneen, which became the famed Railyard.
“There were three Brennan brothers, Andy, Tom and Mike playing. I was only a chap. Two of them played Railway Cup with Leinster, with Mike getting a winners medal. They said that they were terrific footballers.”
He mentioned too a Sean Brennan from Cloneen, who I knew to be a superb midfielder with Kildare. He too played Railway Cup football, and won medals before emigrating to America.
“He would be a cousin of the Cloneys,” Timmy said, putting things on context. “He was a brilliant player. I think that he is still alive in America.”
Where on the field did you play Timmy?
“I always played as a forward, either at centre or full forward,” he said. “To be brutally honest, Mr McCann always insisted on being able to use both feet with equal ability. That early training and coaching furnished me with two great feet. I could even take frees with either foot, depending on the side of the pitch the free was on.”
Fast forward to ‘Fan’ Larkin.
How good was Wilson, Fan?
“He was as good a footballer as I ever saw,” the much honoured James Stephens man insisted. “He was exceptional in the sense that he was superbly accurate with either foot. He could make a ball talk.”
But for a footballer, he was not the biggest man on the field.
“Listen (as if admonishing me) once you have the ball in your hands, or in hurling down on the ground, the odds have levelled off,” he said with a teacher like tone. “Wilson had uncanny vision and superb courage. You don’t have to be a giant to be brave.
“He would go through two stone walls with the ball, if they were in front of him. One of the best players that ever laced on a boot,” was the Larkin verdict.
When did Timmy Wilson get his first pair of football boots?
“I remember my father going in to Castlecomer one day and coming back with a new pair of boots,” he explained, the joy of a young boy in his voice. “I was only a young lad. During the first match the bloody cogs fell off. Then it rained and the rest of the boots disintegrated from the wet.
“I thought they were made of cardboard, but it wasn’t leather,” he smiled. “I always made sure, certainly when I was earning the few bob, that I would have the best boot around. There was the high pigskin, with the big square toe-cap boots. Then the Blackthorn boots came on the market, and they were great boots.”
Timmy attended his 60th All-Ireland football final this year. His first was the Armagh/Kerry encounter in 1953.
His greatest Game of football was the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin versus Kerry. He felt it was even better than he recent Dublin /Kerry semi-final.
Timmy Wilson won his first county senior championship in 1957 when Railyard beat Cotterstown/Kilmoganny by 3-6 to 2-4. He won his last in 1978, beating The Village by 2-6 to 0-7.
Railyard had won a hat trick of titles from 1951 to ’53. They won two sets of five in-a-row. In Timmy’s time, Martin Meally - a tremendous hurler and footballer, who donned the black and amber in both codes - was the only link with the early Railyard run fron 1950.
Other names that came tripping off Timmy’s tongue from the early fifties included Joe Walsh (secretary), Willie Dowd (chairman), John ‘Roe’ Brennan (Sidegate), Murty Brennan (great footballer), John Conners (Crettyard) and Joe Buggy.
Time and age has caught up with Timmy Wilson, so he must be forgiven if his memory is not as acute as it was.
Timmy remembered the great players of his 14 medal winning championship days.
“We had great players like John Nash, Michael Brown, James O’Shea, Seamus Kennedy, the three Meally brothers -Martin, Kiera and Michael, Danny Dowd, Timmy recalled.
“Every year we would have a couple of young lads coming on replacing some of the older lads who retired.
“ When we got old too, John Nash, Michael Brown and I, we moved into the full forward line and won another few championships,” he smiled.
There is no doubt that the Railyard team of Timmy Wilson was a match for many of the more illustrious teams around the land. They played in numerous tournaments which were huge crowd pullers. Teams like Portlaoise, Gracefield, O’Hanrahans, Carnew Emmetts, even UCD, felt the ferocity of the Railyard men.
“We were a match for any of them,” Timmy said proudly.
You were very prominent on Kilkenny teams?
“Sure we were, and we often beat teams like Carlow, Wexford, Tipperary, Clare, Limerick, Wicklow, Waterford, Limerick, Louth, Longford in our time,” he recalled. “We had terrific players too. ‘Fan’ Larkin, for instance, was a far better footballer than he was a hurler. He was a natural, with a great pair of feet.
“Kieran Purcell was excellent and the Morrisseys were as good as anything around. I won two Factory League championships with Flemings (The Swan), beating the great Irish Ropes of Newbridge in one final,” he told us. “We beat Readymix (Joe and John Timmons, Dublin), Noel Delaney (Portlaoise) in the other final in Naas.”
What finals gave him the greatest enjoyment?
“The ones against Muckalee,” he assured. “They were serious I can tell you. They had outsiders like Cyril Keegan, Seamus Delaney, Andy Hefferna, and anyone else that came into the City. I remember we played them in the semi-final in 1957 in Ballyraggett. A full house was present at a shillin’ a skull.
“ The gate was enormous. We bet them by 1-9 to 1-7. We played them the following year in the final again in Basllyragget, and we bet them well. But they were tough, but I would have to say that when the game was over, and no matter what went on at the game, we shook hands and walked off together.
“They were honourable, decent men and the lads I befriended are still my friends,” he insisted.
He prides himself in stating that many of the lads he played with are still his friends. Some are gone to their Maker, but those still around call to see me when passing the way.
“I have enjoyed every second of my time playing, and not a second would I change even if I could,” he insisted.
Timmy is married to Sheila for over 53 years. They have five sons, John, Pat, Tim, Tommy and Donal, and all are working, which is something to be able to say in these difficult times.
His 14 grandchildren give him enormous joy and happiness. A farmer, Timmy Wilson is very involved in breeding and breaking show jumping horses. He enjoys that, but football was his nectar, football was his bag, football was his all-consuming friend......even now.