Brendan - a lifetime of commitment to the cause

Brendan - a lifetime of commitment to the cause

It intrigues when people outside the county wonder about the reasons why Kilkenny hurling is enjoying such a rich vein of success.

Many would present ideas as numerous as the colours in Joseph’s dream-coat.

But irrespective of the pontifications, the answer simply swirls around a couple of major issues. They are endemic in the old adage that reads “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”.

It really does come down to preparation of mind and body, and nobody addresses that idiom with a greater verve and concentration than Kilkenny.

The county has records, a super-star aura, a rich hurling history, legends and what have you.

The great Phil 'Fan' Larkin would have you believe that there is no such thing as a bad Kilkenny hurler. Reference the life-span of most of us; it is difficult not to agree with 'Fan'.

It is not taxing either to present the whys and the wherefores for the above. Recently I wrote a few words about the imperious Liam 'Chunkey' O’Brien, and how at Christmas time, most of his friends of five and six years of age were getting guns, holsters, lorries and trains as presents, while he always got the same present - a hurley and sliotar.

He spoke too of playing under the Railway bridge day and night on the O’Loughlin Road, and how the Insurance Agent, the iconic County Board secretary of the day, Paddy Grace would always have a sliotar for him when he passed along the road.

The game is in the DNA.

Take a stroll along Ormonde Street on any school lunch break, and have a look. Then tell me your impressions.

Students from the Christian Brothers and St Kieran's College, many of them armed with hurleys tip-tapping a sliotar to each other, or pucking the same sliotar on to the walls of high buildings with tremendous accuracy and concentration.

In a game where failure to hit the third story walls is temporary elimination, the sight of so many young lads participating could only be seen in a county like Kilkenny.

In very simple terms, these young men have been doing such practices at home, and in their clubs a million times over.

Recently I met with one of the modern-day development gurus - he will hate that description - who has been central to the development of under-age hurling in Kilkenny. It is Brendan O’Sullivan.

The popular 'Sully' was begot, bred and welded in Thomastown lore. He attended primary school in the town.

Later when he qualified as a primary school teacher, the bus back to his native sod couldn't travel fast enough.

You start talking to Brendan about hurling in Thomastown, and you have a tough job fining the full stop. And can he find that reverse gear in a heartbeat?

Tell me about it dear reader!

Before returning to his home patch, Brendan furthered his second level education in De La Salle in Waterford as a boarder. There he befriended two people who had more than a passing interest in hurling.

The first was Liam Griffin, the former Clare and Wexford hurler, Wexford All-Ireland-winning manager, and one of Ireland’s leading hoteliers. The other was Ned Quinn, the Kilkenny GAA Boad chairman.

Brendan O’Sullivan cemented a friendship that continues to this day.

De La Salle were defeated in a Harty Cup final by Árdscoil Ris, and an All-Ireland colleges football final by Belcamp College, for whom one Frank Cummins clattered home a superb goal.

Brendan conceded that the pursuit of education was often parked while a Leinster Railway Cup team was selected, or an Ireland team to play the Combined Universities got assigned much of the time that should have been allocated to the módh cinnealach, or the Pythagoras Theorem.

“But we got there nonetheless,” he smiled philosophically.

We need to clutch and engage the rev gear. While in school with Peadar Laffin (RIP) and Tom Comer, Brendan hurled in numerous schools finals, winning a fist of them. Schools hurling was vibrant, flourishing and competitive.

Thomastown won half a dozen schools championship on the bounce, with the much admired MrLaffin in charge.

“We lost the first one the year Mr Laffin passed away,” Brendan recalled. “I remember it was against Mooncoin.

“But there were great schools teams around at the time in place like St Patrick's, Rower Inistioge, Mooncoin, Kilkenny CBS, Ballyhale and Jim Neary’s lads in Kilmanagh.

“That time it didn’t matter what parish a lad came from, as long as he was on the roll call at the start of the year. The first win I had, we had Jim 'Boxer' Walsh at centre -back. He is from Bennettsbridge, but he went to school in Thomastown.

“It was the same in every parish,” he reminded.

When Brendan finished playing he was already immersed in the hurling life of his own school.

“We had a great run of school wins during the early seventies,” he recalled. “It was an incredible time for the Thomastown school as we had tremendous youngsters there.

“We had Paudie Lannon, probably the most talented all-round sportsman this county has ever produced, and we had Dick O’Hara, John Costello, the Hoynes, the Walshes and others.

“As well as the hurling championships, we also won plenty of football championships too, with practically the same players. They were great times with great players.”

The Kilkenny Schools Board organisation, started by people like Tom Waldron, was the template many others copied.

“Certainly,” Brendan said when it was put to him. “Much of the heavy lifting in that regard was done by people like Tom. Then when we came home to take up our positions in our respective schools, most went in to join up with the Schools Board.

“Lads like Paul (Kinsella), Jimmy Neary, John Knox (Gowran teacher), Tommy Hayes, Dick O’Neill and others were young, ambitious and focussed on the core issue of the betterment of Kilkenny hurling.”

One remembered one of the new innovative ideas that you initiated, which was the provision of hurling equipment to schools, and by definition children at a very affordable price, we suggested.

“Paul was the instigator of that,” Brendan revealed. “Families were finding life difficult, with low wage packets, or unemployment. Paul approached hurley makers in Kilkenny with a proposition to purchase good quality hurls for juveniles.

“There was no profit accruing to anyone. We let the hurleys off at what was paid for them. He also negotiated a price for helmets.

“They too were sold with no profit. To be fair to all the Kilkenny hurley makers, they extended a credit facility that you would get nowhere else.

“Bank interest rates at the time were over 17%, so normal credit was expensive. But the Kilkenny hurley makers were very understanding, and very decent.

“People like Ramie Dowling, Pat Delaney, Michael Brennan of Castle Hurleys were marvellous to us. They extended our credit beyond every boundary, but they knew that they would eventually get paid.

“Paul was brilliant that way, and in many other elements of the schools operation. It was an organisation built on trust and friendship, where the chairmanship alternated on an annual basis.

“The secretary and treasurer never changed for 30 years, with Paul and John Knox in situ for all of that time. It wasn’t all about teachers either.

“We had great people involved like Billy Phelan from Mooncoin, Joe Quinn from Kilmacow and others. They worked away for the good of hurling in their own schools.

“We had a brilliant minder in Paddy Grace (Co. Board secretary). Even when there wasn’t a bob in the County Board, Paddy always said there would be money found for schools hurling. He never, to his eternal credit reneged on that promise.”

How did you arrive at the County Board initially?

“If I was honest, I would have to admit that I probably got in there by default,” he smiled. “You remember the marvellous Joe Walsh, secretary of the South Board? He insisted that I run for the Leinster Council.

“I found out afterwards that my running guaranteed that another delegate would not win the election. So I really came in on the back of a little subterfuge, in-house politics, and some naivety.”

There were times Brendan, certainly when you attended County Board meetings, that you were on a kind of crusade which at times was very much viewed by the elder statesmen as arrogant and even disruptive?

“Maybe so,” he said. “We were young, with some different ideas. I can see how we could have been seen thus, but it was a tough arena at meetings under the old stand.

“It was a great education too. You needed to know your rules before taking on the likes of Mick O’Neill, John Hunt, Kieran Meally or his dad, Mick, Mick Neary, Sean Tyrrell, Jim Walsh, Johnny Ivory, Ned Curren, Joe Walsh or Tom Ryan from Glenmore. But we survived.”

Brendan remembered the chairman of the Leinster Council in his time, Tom Loftus.

“He was a far-seeing man,” he insisted. “I remember that there were five Leinster counties, including Kilkenny, who were absolutely broke.

“Tom Loftus brokered a deal whereby Leinster Council advanced five years of grants to the counties in one offering, with the proviso that they would be returned whenever their circumstances allowed.

“He was a great man, as was the then young secretary called Michael Delaney.”

Again, we go back a little. Progressing to the under-16 grade, and then minor, Brendan O'Sullivan played with the celluloid star of the land, one Ollie Walsh, goalie supreme.

“Ollie was a hero to all,” he beamed at memories of the great one. “We looked up to him as if he was a God, and to many around Thomastown and further afield, he was. He was the original GAA pin-up star.

“He was a marvellous hurler, with flowing blonde hair, a tremendous sidestep. He was a terrific human being, who never lost his love, or never failed to announce that he was from Thomastown. As young lads we would go down to Grennan to watch him train.

“And he worked awfully hard at his game. When I got up the age ranks and found myself playing on the same team, it was pure exhilaration.

“Thomastown were asked to play in loads of tournaments, but it was Ollie that everyone wanted to see. Thousands would turn up to the games. Lads would be talking about the big crowds, but in honesty, if Ollie travelled alone there would still be the same numbers.

“He was admired, loved and enjoyed everywhere he went. He was a brilliant outfield hurler too.”

Brendan continued with the stories of his beloved Thomastown. He spoke of how they got to and lost the senior hurling final in 1967, for instance.

“Fate and downright bad luck denied us our chance of senior glory,” he ventured. “We lost Tom (Walsh) because of that dreadful accident in the ’67 All-Ireland final. He was a terrible loss.

“He had not even reached his prime. He was so dedicated that there is no doubt in my mind that in time he was destined to join the legends of hurling. He was such a lovely fellow, and still is.

“We lost Ollie because of suspension after the National League final against Tipp the following year. I have no doubt, but that if both were available, we would have won.

“That setback had a deep effect on the hurling life of our town. It dealt a blow that took a long time to get over. The effect lingered too long in the minds and hearts of the staunch hurling people.

“For a very long time the scars were very raw,” he insisted.

Brendan played with the Thomastown seniors before he was 17. He was sharing the same dressing room (a skeough bush or the back of a parked van, if lucky) with some of the greats of the day like Ollie, Tom 'Blonde' Walsh, 'Cha' Whelan, Dick Blanchfield and Dick Walsh.

He played on successive Kilkenny minor teams in 1964 and ’65. The former were beaten by reigning All-Ireland champions, Wexford, while Dublin won the All-Ireland in ’65, having beaten Kilkenny on the way.

He progressed to the under-21 team in ’67, again with limited success. Ironic then that the Thomastown man couldn’t buy an All-Ireland victory as a player, but couldn’t miss All-Irelands as a selector with the entire spread of county teams at all levels, except junior.

He even won two titles with the greatest camogie team the country has ever known in 1976 and again in ’77.

“They were an amazing team,” Brendan recalled. “I have been involved with many championship winning teams, and while they were all superb athletes, none of the team was better at what they did than those camogie players.

“They had very little support financially, although to be fair to Paddy Grace, he never saw them stuck. Ann Carroll and Bridie McGarry would drive from Dublin to Kilkenny to train on a Wednesday evening, pick up Liz Neary in whatever hospital she was in training to be a nurse, and bring her on.

“That was replicated on many nights and days through the campaigns. Then you had Biddy (O’Sullivan) coming up from Tullogher on a bone shaker of a Honda 50. The Downeys, Fennelly, Kavanagh, Martin, Conway, O’Neills, Carey, Holden, Ryan and the rest knew no limits of the energy and dedication that was needed to win titles.

“I treasure every memory I shared with those girls - truly awesome. Amazing people to know and work with.”

Brendan was appointed Leinster Hurling Officer by the Leinster Council. His remit was all about improving the state, and standard, of the game in Leinster.

He spent many, many hours on the roads preaching the gospel. To this end, he elicited the help of his hurling friends in his native place to give a hand.

“The likes of Noel Skehan, Georgie Leahy, 'Fan' Larkin and Tony Doran never failed to honour their word when asked to give a hand in other counties,” he revealed.

You are still a great friend of Georgie Leahy?

“Of course,” he replied. “He is one of the most loyal, trustworthy, honourable, decent people that I have had the pleasure of working with. But you see, that is no State secret.

“There are literally thousands of people with whom Georgie has worked or helped who would say the same. Some would say it better. I am always honoured to say to people when they ask if I know him, that he is one of my greatest friends.”

On his time with the winning minor team of 1988 he offered: “They were a smashing bunch of young lads. They had great talent. Lads like D.J. (Carey), Adrian Ronan, Pat O’Neill, Charlie (Carter), John Conlon, Declan Roche, Jimmy Conroy, Patsy Brophy, Pat O’Grady were terrific, but the real engine room of that minor team was Briain Ryan. What a player. Brilliant!”

Brendan was a selector with senior All-Ireland winning teams in 1982 and ’83.

“I’m going to say something, and many will take exception, but it is an opinion of mine that the best Kilkenny team ever was the double-double winning team of that time,” he insisted. “They were magnificent players with a ferocious will to win.

“We had Pat (Henderson) as our manager, and the rest of us didn’t really matter. He never believed in this shouting and roaring, or breaking tables with hurleys.

“He established a trust in the players, and they responded. Look at the players he had, and tell me that Kilkenny have produced better?”

I can hear the arguments starting. Give the man credit for courage and honestly held conviction.

Back to the goal by Frank Cummins which denied De La Salle the All-Ireland football title.

“I remember one evening at training 'threatening' Frank Cummins with dropping him because he beat us with that fantastic goal,” he said as he laughed at the memory. “It was a joke. I wasn’t that brave, but we often had a good laugh about it.”

Name one major change in the game that you have noticed over the years, we urged.

“I’ll give you two,” he answered. “I think the fun has gone out of the game, but particularly at the younger age levels. It has become too serious too early for the youngsters.

“Now they are pumping iron, following dietary specialists and specialised programmes. There is something very wrong with that progression.

“It is still about enjoyment. It is still about friendships. It is about being a part of something enjoyable. If it is supposedly about enjoyment, how do I hear terminology like hard work being used?

“The second element I worry about is that the core element is slowly but surely being eroded by a lack of acknowledgement and encouragement.

“How often do you hear the words 'grass roots' mentioned?

“How often do you see any of that 'grass roots' being manured with any worthwhile significant growth hormones?”

I asked one final question! Why is Kilkenny so far ahead of others in many elements?

“We have great people making telling contributions to every element of the GAA in the county,” he insisted. “At club level, at schools level, at development level, at administration level, at Supporters Club level. They are tremendous.

“Take, for instance, the development of Nowlan Park. Is there a better, more appropriate stadium in any code in the country?

“They don’t all have to be as big as Croke Park or Thurles. Look at the achievement in Dunmore?

“Take a simple matter like the Yearbook that a few of you are involved with. Nobody does a better job. It meets the need to publicise a yearly record of our activities.

“The Kilkenny system is a long way removed from a castle built on sand. Everyone has bought into the culture, and even when they retire -players, mentors, even supporters - there are plenty of acolytes ready and willing to take up the mantle.

“So yes, we do a huge number of things right and better.

Enough said!