The mantle of courage, toughness, cuteness, uncompromising bravery and reliability has cloaked the legend and still remains, wherever and whenever hurling men pause to debate the merits of Patrick James Dillon, endearingly known as Pa.
Many moons have cast their shadow and spun their orbit since the Freshford farmer last donned the county black and amber jersey. Mark you, I did say county, because Pa Dillon played in the black and amber of his beloved Freshford until he hit the half century mark.
The fearless, uncompromising full-back - well it seemed he was to most opponents when playing in the number 3 - like many high-powered sportsmen of any era created an aura around and about himself that had many trembling at the prospect of sharing the same patch. Stories about sharpening hurleys at the expectation of certain opponents coming into the Freshford man’s hurling parlour abound.
Tough men, one and all
It was a honey-pot of opportunity for many predating forwards, but for many the down payment was too rich. Some have intimated that plying your hurling skills in around the Kilkenny full-back line of the day was akin to jumping into a jacuzzi with an unbroken racing stallion. The ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ was crafted for the Tipperary full-back line at the opposite end of the field of that era, but Carroll and Treacy, flanking Dillon, was not a meeting of the men’s monthly Sodality either.
Granted the trio outside them, Cleere and Coogan, flanking the greatest (my opinion) Henderson, were formidably daunting and unbending. As a sum of the parts, that sextet, with Ollie in goal had hewn their own greatness on the template of time, being the first in the living memory of most Kilkenny supporters to have beaten Tipperary in and All-Ireland final.
Were you aware of the reputation being built around your presence on a pitch, Pa?
“There was a lot of b*** ***t built around certain players, and teams at that time. Most of it was exaggerated beyond belief, and quite honestly I didn’t pay a lot of heed to it,” he said in his soft voice.
Lets rewind the track.
Coming from farming stock, Pa Dillon knew of no other sporting discipline beyond hurling.
“Running around the yard at home as a child, I either had a bit of a hurley, or a stick beating something resembling a ball. Now it could be the lid of a churn, or a bit of a tin can, but I was swinging at something,” he recalled with laughter.
I just love the conations of those last three words!
At the local school, where Pa got his education, he would unequivocally attest to the influence exerted by his teacher, the much revered, now departed, Tom Waldron.
All family interested
“My family, mother, father, brother Billy, and my uncles were enormously interested in hurling,” Pa continued. “As a little lad I would watch them pucking around out in one of the fields. Then I went to school, and like most Freshford lads, we came under the wing of the greatest mentor any young lad could wish for in an ideal World, Tom Waldron.
“He was all things to all youngsters, and he left a lasting impression on all kids that he taught. Tom revolutionised under-age hurling in this county, establishing the Schools Board for starters. But it was his method of imparting his knowledge both academically, and from a hurling viewpoint, that made him a man alone. Under Tom’s guidance we won a Schools League around 1951.
“That was a big thing for us, and the village, as there hadn’t been a great hurling history achieved. Then at home my brother Billy (RIP) and myself would be clattering the ball around the place, beating it off gable ends of houses or shed doors. He was a far better hurler than me. We would spend hours hurling up around the green, where blood was spilt, and limbs were sore.”
Pa spoke of the under-age teams and players of the age.
Seanie Buckley opened the narrative on good Freshford hurlers that shared the stage with Pa Dillon as a youngster. He spoke glowingly of the likes of Toss Molloy, Johnny ‘Killarney’ Butler, Billy Juliens, Billy Crosbie, Francie Dalton, Nicky Grace (Threecastles), Denis and Tommy Butler, who all played on the St Lactain’s minor teams of 1954/55 and 1956, winning the middle one. Stange how history has a habit of repeating itself.
Their opponents in the 1954 and 1956 finals were Thomastown. The vast majority of the players involved in those minor finals were again going forehead to forehead in the senior county final of 1961, when St Lachtain’s won their first of two county finals against the Near South, winning by 4-5 to 0-12. Freshford won their second title in 1963 when beating Tullogher by 1-7 to 0-3.
Pa made the Kilkenny minor teams of 1955 and 1956. Tipperary were kings of under-age hurling at that time. Jimmy Doyle played in four minor All-Irelands starting in goal in 1954. It was hard to win one in that company.
Tipp won three-in-a-row 1955-’57 and again in 1959, but Kilkenny won three-in-a-row in 1960, 1961 and 1962.
St Lachtain’s got tremendous value from the minor players of tht era. They won their first junior title in 1959, and stepped up to the senior ranks for the first time. A new dawn had peeped over the parapet.
This Freshford band of youthful enthusiasm looked one of the more likely up and coming outfits which showed that they might just cut the mustard of senior endeavours.
A big step up
It didn’t take too long to cross the Rubicon of senior competition. They faced and beat the Near South in that 1961 final. The representative team included such hurling luminaries as Ollie Walsh; Tom Walsh and his brother ‘Link’ from Dunnamaggin; Denis Heaslip, Tom Ryan (Carrickshock), and the former chairman of the Kilkenny County Board, Mick O’Neill, who lined out at corner forward.
Pa’s first outing in the senior ranks was with Kilkenny against Waterford in a Wembley Games qualifier.
“It was a big step up for me,” he recalled. “What was alarming for me was the speed of the Waterford lads like Frankie Walsh, Larry Guinan, Philly Grimes, Seamus Power and Tom Cheasty was no slouch either”.
Full-back play has changed over the years. The late, great Dick Grace answered when asked about the credentials he would need when looking for a good hurler, said: “Give me the full of a gansey, and the closest thing to a hurler after that would do.” When Pa Dillon made the number three jersey his own, Kilkenny indeed had the full of the gansey.
“I would say that strength was an important ingredient,” Pa offered when asked for his judgement. “I was paranoid about training, mostly on my own. We didn’t have any of the modern facilities or equipment, but our improvisation was not too different. I would often be throwing half hundreds (ask someone) around the yard.
“I would nearly always have a hurley in my hand when out around the fields hunting cattle or such. A huge amount of my daily work would be doing great things for muscle development and stamina. Nowadays farmers have quads, but in my time, you could be running after mad bullocks in the depth of Winter through muck and hedges, with heavy clothes and wellington boots. That kind of stuff was so important in toning up muscles, and reaction.
“Nowadays they talk of quads, cryotherapy, hamstrings, adductors, a language that would not have been heard in our era. I know that many of the lads trained in little pockets at handy central locations. Fan, Keher, Henderson and Ted would have trained regularly in the city. But back to your question. My job was to protect Ollie first and foremost.
“That time forwards would be trying to hang him up in the back of the net anyway they could. Myself, Treacy and Ted, and others like Jim Lynch would see to it that the only thing Ollie had to deal with was the ball. There was plenty of ash flying. I would often come home with my hands ripped asunder, and the legs cut to bits.”
But it wasn’t all one way traffic, Pa?
“No for sure,” he smiled. “I remember early on going home and my father saying to me that he didn’t mind me hurling, but there was plenty of work to be done and there was no point in hurling if I couldn’t work after a match. He said that I would have to be able to look after myself a bit better. I can tell you from that day on things had to be done.”
There was prolonged laughter. Read what you will my friend!
Pa Dillon’s reasoning was simple.
Tipp were great
“Tipp had great hurlers, and great forwards,” he added when he took up the story. “Wexford too had great forwards, as did Waterford and Cork. But as our grand forwards were being sorted out at one end of the pitch, there was no reason on earth why we should be playing the part of gentlemen hurlers at our end. I remember one day playing against Wexford. I was on a tremendous player, Tony Doran.
“He was a giant, a superb player, very honest, but enormously strong. He had good men around him too like the Quigleys. We were playing Wexford, and John Quigley – he could do anything - was on Jim (Treacy). I decided that I would give Jim a hand. As Quigley came, and Jim was readying, I was just behind with my little plan.
“Unlike Martin his brother, John was always doing things that were not covered by rule, not that that mattered at times. I remember going out behind Jim as Quigley came tearing in, and I had made up my mind to give him my calling card. As Quigley went by, Jim turned and let fly. I never got such a belt in my life. He nearly cut me in two,” he said, still laughing as the memory came flooding back.
On another occasion Kilkenny were playing Waterford and one player was giving tough grief “above and beyond reasonable expectation” (Pa’s words) to Ted.
“I just said to him to take things easy,” he recalled. Things didn’t get easy. Pa ended up with a broken jaw.
“Imagine having your jaw wired up and not being able to eat for 12 weeks, only drink milk and clear soup,” he recalled. “Sure you would fade away.”
Not nice, Pa! I had the same experience in a football game, and I can empathise with your sentiments. What was the prologue to that, Pa? Let’s just say the perpetrator didn’t pull any more dirty strokes. The belt he delivered went back with a little bonus.
“Sure he nearly destroyed me,” Pa offered.
Did you carry grudges?
“When the game was over I shook hands, and that was the finish of that day,” he answered. “Now if someone did me a bad turn on the pitch, and I didn’t get retribution on the day, I would file that away and redress the situation later. I’ve met plenty of the lads who dished it out and were on the receiving end too, but there has been no animosity between us. Once the final whistle goes, its all over.”
What kind of training would you have done for a National League or a Championship?
Lanigan a powerful trainer
“We had a terrific trainer in Mick Lanigan,” he insisted. “He was an Irish champion athlete, and Paddy (Grace, the Countuy Board secretary) asked him to train us. We practically did no training as such for the National League. We went to the games in cars, had a bit of grub and came home, not to meet again until the next match.
“It was much the same for the Championship. We might get together once or twice for the Leinster semi-final and that was it. Wexford were generally our opponents, although Offaly had some great players that time. Even when we were training in Nowlan Park there would never be more than 17 players there. We played backs and forwards. The full pitch was never utilised.”
Pa Dillon was fastidious in his approach to pre-match preparation.
“I never drank the week before a match,” he revealed. “I didn’t smoke until I was well finished with hurling (he finished at 50 years). I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I had a bad game. I knew myself, and what was more important, I knew the reason. I probably hadn’t trained hard enough, and I probably didn’t get enough rest.”
How did he manage with referees?
“Be God I couldn’t crib with the likes of John Dowling, Paschal Long, Paddy Johnson, Tom Ryall, Jack Mulcahy, Mick Hayes of Clare to name a few,” he insisted. “I was a bit iffy about Frank Murphy of Cork. But the best of them all was John Maloney of Tipp. Everybody had great respect for him, and if we were playing Tipp I would have no problem whatsoever if John Maloney was the referee.”
Tipperary were Kilkenny’s nemesis for years around the start of the 50’s and the 60’s.
“We had good teams, but they happened to be better,” said Pa gratuitously. “They were unlucky not to have five in-a-row from 1961. We slipped in with one in 1963, and that put a stop to that. But they had great hurlers, let nobody tell you otherwise. ‘Blondie’ Tom always said that John Doyle was a great hurler, and I wouldn’t disagree.
Up against it
“Then they had the likes of Devanney, ‘Babs’, Nealon, Theo, Sean McLoughlin, Mackay Mc Kenna, Tony Wall, Gaynor, Jimmy all top class players. It was extremely difficult to nail them. That is why the 1967 final was so special to us in Kilkenny. It took us 45 years to do it.”
Did you like playing against Tipp?
“Loved it, because you knew what you were up against it,” he smiled. “It was always tough and hard. You knew that the lad that left down the early marker was going to go okay for the hour. As they say in farming, be on the market first, and you’ll have no problems.”
Did the banter ever get to you?
“The finest neighbours and people in Ireland live in Tipperary,” he offered.
“I have woeful respect and regard for Tipp people, and I couldn’t say a bad word about any of them including their hurlers. Tremendous people, even though we left plenty of marks behind us on the field when we met.”
He told of great times in London and America. He readily admitted that but for hurling he would never have seen those places, which were relatively off-limits in his hurling time.
He positively glowed when talking about the men of his time, as the named fell off his tongue.
“Ollie, Ted, Treacy, Seamie, Pat, Coogan, Moran, Teehan, Keher, ‘Blondie’, ‘Goggy’, the Murphys, Dunne, Lynch, Skehan, and the rest were all tremendous men,” he assured. “Then closer to home we had great hurlers in our club too, many already mentioned. But I would have to say that it pained me when our parish split up, because we would never have won the championships we won at minor, junior and senior without the men from Threecastles.
Retired at 50
“John Minogue, Martin Dalton, the Teehans, Din Lennon (lost to hurling too early), Nicky Grace were terrific players, and nothing would have been won without those men.”
Did he miss it when he had to surrender to age, finishing his last competitive game at 50 years of age?
“Of course I did,” he said straight up. “I loved the game, and there is no game in the entire universe to compare to it. When you see our lads today, sure how could you not fall in love with it. I get great enjoyment from watching my nephew Aidan Fogarty playing.
“I enjoy another cousin, J.J. Delaney, as I did his uncle, Billy Fitzpatrick, and their terrific hurling work. They give me particular pleasure, but the rest of this fabulous team are above description. Absolutely majestic, and terrific young men as well.”
He also had his son Bob playing with Freshford and Avonmore for a number of years. But probably nothing from a hurling perspective kept his enthusiasm buds popping as much as the exploits of his daughter, the marvellous, multi-All Ireland winning camogie star, Gillian.
“I continued to live my hurling through Bob and Gillian, and now my grandson, James Maher is cutting a notch for himself with Freshford and the Kilkenny under-age teams,” he said. “That keeps me going too. So in all, I still have plenty to captivate my interest in the game, centred by Aidan, J.J., James and Gil is still playing her camogie.”
We spoke about Pa’s uncle, the iconic Jim Farrell, Jim Cuggy, Jim Bergin (trainer), all great Freshford men. The Wexford men were prominent too.
“Don’t forget that Wexford were a mighty outfit in our time,” he insisted. “They had great players in the Dorans, Colfer, Willie Murphy, Tom Neville, Wilson, the Quigleys (Dan, John and Martin) and Martin Casey. Tony was a great, powerful man, and was very honest. Not the greatest stylist, but a very effective full-forward, and a great leader. We remained friends, despite the clashes.”
When did you play at full-forward, and what’s the story?
“I played at full-forward in the 1966 League, and I was starring,” he smiled. “I was top scorer for a long way, getting heaps of goals. I had great feet and lovely hands, and I was well able to cod the full-backs (I wondered, because he was more than smiling, but I decided to be attentive and courteous). Alas it came to a sudden standstill against Cork in an All-Ireland and I got an early shift.”
I only got the tip of the Dillon iceberg. There was a story about a golf ball being stitched into a Jack Lalor hurling ball to beat Ollie Walsh’s pucko-ut on a particular day.
“Puck this one the farthest Pa,” said his uncle Jim, just to take the honour of the longest puck on the day from the legendary Ollie.
There is much more to come.
We might return, le cúnamh Dé.