Hurling priest Fr Tommy has nothing but good memories

In the world-wide expanses of the Christian Kingdom, it is a more than a long-shot bet that you will find only one location where an All Ireland senior hurling medal is hanging somewhere in the presbytery.

In the world-wide expanses of the Christian Kingdom, it is a more than a long-shot bet that you will find only one location where an All Ireland senior hurling medal is hanging somewhere in the presbytery.

That distinction belongs solely to the parish of St Patrick’s in Ballyraggett, and specifically to the house occupied by the parish priest, Fr

Tommy Murphy.

In present day Ireland we bemoan the paucity of young priests taking up the vocational sceptre, and paradoxically one could say the same thing about a similar situation in a different ministry when the young Tom Murphy left his beloved Rower to do God’s work back in 1961. There was a shortage of priests in the hurling game then, and the vista has not improved in that regard since.

But growing up in the quiet hamlet of the Rower, the youngsters were satiated with the glory, not of their native Kilkenny, but with the power, majesty and success of a magnificent team of men coming out of the mists across the Barrow river in New Ross. We speak, of coursek, of the great Wexford men of the 50s.

“They were our heroes in those times,” said Fr Tom in the comfort of his presbytery in Ballyraggett. “Of course we were brainwashed with the hurling ethic, but two things mitigated against our unconditional allegiance to Kilkenny hurling. Firstly, the hurling success associated with Kilkenny teams had all but dissipated. We hadn’t won an All-Ireland since 1947.

“The other thing, of course, was that we never saw a Kilkenny hurler down our way, unless Ramie Dowling, God Rest him, came to the village, delivering papers from the Irish Press lorry or P.J. Garvan delivered Smithwick’s to our pub in his truck. The only All-Ireland winning hurlers we saw were Mick Morrissey, who had a shop in New Ross, and maybe one or two others who wandered across the bridge.”

We spoke at length about that tremendous Wexford team of the 50s. Names like the Rackards’, Morrisseys’, Kehoes’, O’Hanlon, Foley, Flood, Wheeler, Codd and Ryan came racing back, bringing valuable memories, warrior bands, Killane, Boulavogue, pikes, drums and Fr Murphy.

Cars in green

I was so privileged to be in Croke Park for Wexford’s many great days in those times. Their games evoked great vistas of Vinegar Hill, Croppies, Tubberneering, Ballyellis, Camolin and proud Enniscorthy. The men doing battle against Tipperary, Galway and Cork were one with their fanatic

hordes of support, truly an awesome sight.

I’m sorry, I digress as I relived momentarily magical exploits of my boyhood.

Fr Tom spoke with relish of the Wexford support struggling to get up the hill in the Rower, and the effort needed to get some of them up.

“Some of them were nearly beaten before they started,” he smiled. “I remember in ’51 when they bedecked their cars in the green of Leinster, with Tipp playing in the Munster blue. Some of the cars - Ford Poplars, Baby Fords - in the Wexford cavalcade were forced to zig zag from ditch to ditch on the Stripe (the notorious hill up to the Rower) to get to the top. Otherwise they would not have made it.

“They were a mighty team, particularly the winning team of ’55, their first since 1910, and doubled it up a year later when stopping Cork and Christy Ring getting his ninth All-Ireland medal. As we now have Henry (Shefflin), they had a colossus of a man in Nicky Rackard. A giant in every sense, with film-star looks. He was unstoppable.

“It was such a pity that his glory and fame were to be his nightmares, taking him into the depressive depths of alcoholism. On the hurling field all three were paragons of great courage and hurling nous,” he said.

After the teachings and encouragement of Dick Curren his teacher in The Rower, young Tom Murphy enrolled in the CBS New Ross for his secondary school education.

“I really was in a dilemma in that a neighbour of mine in the Rower, Tommy Butler, a mad hurling man, was teaching in the Brothers, while another neighbour, Toby Kavanagh was teaching in Good Council,” he smiled.

Nevertheless Tom Murphy finished his education in New Ross. He had arrived at the cross roads of his first major decision.

When did you decide you had a vocation, I wondered. When did you decide that you wanted to be a priest?

Defining moment

“I can categorically tell you that. I cannot remember any defining moment, any specific event or occasion which would furnish an answer to either of those two questions,” he replied. “There were quite a number of lads from our area who had become priests, and for reasons no more edifying than that I seemed to be drawn to the priesthood and the life of being of service and helping other people are as close to answers as I can give you.”

The reception to your decision brought great happiness and joy at home in your family?

“If it did, and there was certainly no evidence to augment the idea, I didn’t know anything about it,” Fr Tom said. “My mother, God Rest her soul, just wised me well and told me that if it wasn’t what I wanted that I could come home anytime. So on I took to St Kieran’s seminary, where there could have been over 120 other seminarians.”

Because of the richness in numbers in the many seminaries throughout the land, Ireland found that there were not enough parishes to accommodate the number of priests being ordained. It nearly was a crisis situation, reminiscent of secular times when there was no work for the unemployed.

As in times of no employment, Ireland exported some its finest to the furthermost corners of the planet to do God’s work. Like the aftershock of a tsunami, young Irish priests found welcome all over the world.

Was the foreign vista in your sights, I wondered?

“I decided that I would stay in the diocese of Ossory, so my first posting was to Thomastown in 1967,” he revealed.

Fr Tommy was on the 1963 team which beat Waterford in the All Ireland final. How did he feel about that?

“Myself and Tom ’Blonde’ Walsh were drafted off the 1963 intermediate team into the senior team,” he explained. “I was still a seminarian, which meant once I returned to the seminary in September I couldn’t get out until Christmas. It was the same again after Christmas until Easter. Actually I never played in the National League.”

So how did you play in the 1963 final?

“Normally the All-Ireland would be over before we would return to St Kieran’s,” he opened. “But in ’66 the All-Ireland Sunday fell on the Sunday after the Tuesday of my scheduled return. However, Fr Maher (Tommy) asked me at training one night if I had sought permission to play in the final. When I told him not, it was then that he said not to ask anyone, but not to go back to Kieran’s until the Monday after the final.

“That was exactly what I did, and returning a week late nobody said a word. I often wondered what might have been said if we had been beaten,” he smiled.

Winning is all that matters

You missed all the celebration?

“Yes,” he answered. “I could hear the cheering down the town and me stuck up in my dormitory. But still winning was all that mattered.”

Incidentally, the medals won by his great friend and colleague, Eddie Keher, and himself were the first All-Ireland senior ones won by Rower Inistioge players.

The Leinster final ranked as one of the greatest games seen, with Kilkenny coming from the jaws of death to snatch a dramatic victory. Eddie Keher grabbed 2-5 (2-3 from play), while Tom Murphy scored the goal four minutes from time to give Kilkenny the lead. Keher bagged the insurance point on the stroke of time to shove Kilkenny into the final.

Dublin were the victims as Kilkenny stormed to a 2-10 to 0-9 win.

Waterford beckoned with a star-studded team. The two Toms’ - Walsh and Murphy - flanked the great Billy O’Dwyer on the full-forward line. They were in safe hands.

“Dwyer was a marvellous hurler, of that there is no doubt,” Fr Tom insisted. “Every element in the make-up of a great hurler he possessed in spades. His skill was phenomenal, his courage unquestionable and his brain was amazing. I remember during the game my marker pulled a stroke that Dwyer took exception to.

“Go in full-forward there for a while young lad (but in terminology I’d had never heard before or since) while I slip out where you are. My original marker never pulled another wrong stroke. Dwyer saw to that. He was terrific and a marvellous leader up where we were.”

Kilkenny beat the Decies by 4-17 to 6-8. The two Toms’ grabbed 4-1 between them with Murphy getting 2-1. Eddie Keher recorded 0-14, while Seamie Cleere completed the account.

It was straight back to the seminary. He did, however, travel to New York the following year, although he was forced to stay behind for a few days in Kilkenny as the group motored ahead.

“There was an old exam to be done in the seminary, so I followed the lads some four days later, thanks in a

way to my uncle Paig who drove me to Shannon airport to catch the plane,” he recalled. “The trip was magic - my first time - and it was

World Fair time in New York. What an experience that was for us all.”

Some day I will tell you my story about taking my mother and two of her neighbours, neither of whom had been out of Galway county to the World Fair.

One of the reasons that I sought to do an interview like this is the fact that I have never interviewed someone who was an All Ireland inter-county hurler and who won All-Ireland medals as a seminarian and a priest.

Never changed attire

Fr Tom went on to win another All-Ireland final against Cork in 1969. He had won a minor All-Ireland in 1960 when Tipp were slaughtered by 7-12 to 1-11. He scored three goals while Pierce Freaney scored 2-4.

He never changed his attire from clerical black - house rules.Given the culture of verbals beyond those used at a Sodality meeting that were so much part and parcel of pre-game dressing room talks, did it make him uncomfortable to be in the dressing rooms?

“Not at all,” he smiled. “I think that it is rather unnecessary, it never caused me any discomfort at all.

“In point of fact, Fr Maher, the doyen of dressing room advisers, never came remotely close to using any type of profanity in the Kilkenny dressing rooms.”

Was he a talker in the dressing room?

“Not at all,” Fr Tom insisted. “Look, I was a very lucky lad to be on those Kilkenny teams. I just sat in the corner quietly, still in awe of the lads around me. I was sharing the space with the greatest hurlers that ever lived. Ollie, Pa, Seamie, Henderson, Ted, Coogan, Moran, Clohessy, McGovern, Dwyer and others.

“What would a lad like me be doing opening his gob in that company?”

He never took a drink of alcohol in his life. Did it bother him the amount of drink that followed a win at county or club level?

“Not at all,” he shot back. “There is nothing at all wrong with the consumption of drink, but the excessive amounts drunk is a concern to me.”

Tom Murphy made a return to the Kilkenny team for the All-Ireland semi-final against London in 1969. He was rendered unavailable for selection because of his clerical commitments since the final of ’66. He scored three goals against the hapless emigrants.

He joined up with his brother Billy on the team. There were now three Rower Inistioge men on the team, with the imperial Keher as skipper.

Evaluate Keher for me, Tom?

“He was a very special hurler, and most certainly one of a few who could justifiably classified as the best,” Fr Tom insisted. “He most certainly was the best in his era. He brought the word dedication on to a higher plateau, when it was scarcely fashionable to say the word.

Tremendous skill

“He had tremendous skill, tremendous speed and tremendous strength. Comparisons are relative in all cases, and while I have had great admiration for the likes of D.J. (Carey), and Henry (Shefflin), I can say this that I have never seen better than Keher. He thrived under pressure.

“It never affected him and he never failed to perform under the severest of demands. Nobody ever held him scoreless, and many of the lads on our teams would always say that he gave us a six-point gap before the game started. An amazingly unbelievable talent, and still a great friend.”

Fr Tom Murphy garnered great pleasure in winning the only county senior title when his club defeated Bennettsbridge in 1968.

“In their wisdom, which was questioned at the time, our selectors put me at right corner forward and Keher on Johnny McGovern,” he said when he remembered that great day. “We won so how could one question the wisdom of those men. Keher got a brilliant goal very early, and I got another shortly afterwards and with Donal Kavanagh in possessed form in goal, it all helped in a big way to beat a fantastic ’Bridge team.”

There were four Kavanaghs’, four Murphys’ and two Walshes’ on the team.

‘Throw in’ the likes of Keher and a few others to make up the numbers (Fr Tom laughed), and the nucleus of the team was fairly solid.

He coached St Kieran’s College to All-Ireland honours in 1965; Kilkenny minors in 1971 and many other club teams along the road of his ministry.

Probably his great achievement was engineering the unification of the St John’s parish into one unit, now of course known as O’Loughlin Gaels.

He headlined the drive that saw this iconic club come from a fragmented miss-mash to its present enviable greatness.

“There were tremendous men in the club at the time, still are,” he said. “Bro Michael (De La sale) was central to the early exhortations on unification. Lads at the time that readily come to mind were Jim ‘Galtee’ Murphy and Pat Shortiss. Then we had Billy Keane, Liam Burke, Tommy O’Gorman, Jim Rice, Pauric Leydon, Michael Minogue, Tom Gregg, Tyrrells’, Bergins’, Mulcahys’ and many more. John’s Park took shape through a variety of different avenues, not least of which was its acquisition through Croke Park from the ’Council.

“Ciarán O’Neill was very helpful at the time. But I couldn’t say enough about the dedication of the O’Loughlin’s people, even after my time there, who have produced a home for their teams to rival anything around the country. It makes me very proud to say that I was associated with some of the greatest GAA men the game has ever known.”

Fr Tom plied his apologetics, Catechetics and faith in Slieverue, Callan and Ballyraggett. His love of his Creator and the GAA have been paramount every place he has pitched his tent.

He has made an impression. He has left a mark. He was happy to do so.