Barrie Henriques talks to Michael Lanigan on hurling, Fr Tommy Maher and the thrills of the sixties.

“I HAD a more than passing interest in the methodology of the athletics movement, so when Fr Maher (Tommy) asked me to come on board initially, I said that I would consider it. Then the following year - the GAA never had seasons, just years - Paddy Grace came to me and things went from there.”

“I HAD a more than passing interest in the methodology of the athletics movement, so when Fr Maher (Tommy) asked me to come on board initially, I said that I would consider it. Then the following year - the GAA never had seasons, just years - Paddy Grace came to me and things went from there.”

We are talking to an athlete, a GAA junkie, and a man who was before his time, as they say. He is Mick Lanigan, Senator, Alderman, County Councillor and business guru.

Mick Lanigan, a man with a story to tell, and we are ostensibly talking about the sporting disciplines at which he excelled, which make up but an average percentage of other parts of his compelling life story.

Although he was born in Limerick, and lived there for a short time (a few hours), and later lived in Clare for a further short shift - if you get my drift - Mick Lanigan is Kilkenny through and tharough. The Lanigan family were from Bonnettstown. Mick Lanigan is very proud of that fact on his CV.

To this day you would reckon that he should have been an athlete, if you didn’t known the background of the man. He strikes an imposing figure, even if he is somewhat more rotund than he would desire, but there is no mistaking the purposeful stride, the powerful upper body dimension, indicators that here was a man that played a game, that ran a race, that jumped a fence, or that kicked or hit a ball.

Pictures of his sporting days would underscore such an assessment.

Mick’s education highway started with the lovely Presentation nuns, thence to the Kilkenny Christian Brothers, and for a short span with Good Council College in New Ross. He subsequently transferred to the De La Salle College in Waterford City, where he boarded.

“My parents were working God-awful hours trying to keep our trucking business on the road (no pun intended), and we also had a coal yard in Patrick Street,” he recalled. “So in dreadfully tough times, they found it necessary to board their children due to the dreadful demands of business on their lives just after the War.”

Failed medical exam for the Army

He had a great desire to join the Army Cadet College after his Leaving Certificate, but, believe this is you wish, he failed the medical examination.

It was not exactly that he was carrying a strain of plague or whatever into the blue-blooded college of the armed forces. No sir.

Michael Lanigan’s teeth were not symmetrically situated in his mouth, due in no small way to a hurling injury that relieved him of some of the said teeth.

I ask you. Beurocratic madness, Irish style, didn’t start last week!

Having played with Good Council and De La Salle, Mick was also a big, strong and powerful minor hurler with the James Stephens club.

“He was a very good minor hurler,” recalled former great, Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin. “He had great pace, and he was a big young lad. He gave up the game far too early.”

In 1956, The Village played St Lachtain’s (Freshford) in the North minor hurling final in Jenkinstown.

“We had a very good team with the likes of Fan (youngest on the team), Philly Larkin, Mickie Dunne, Lou McCarthy, Nicky Morrissey and Georgie Leahy,” Mick recalled. “Freshford had Pa Dillon, Seanie Buckley and Toss Molloy. We drew with them the first day (2-9 (SL) to 3-6), but they came out on top second time of asking (2-7 to 4-1).”

“If Lanigan had been able to get out of college we would have won the replay,” said Fan. “He was well able for Buckley with his speed. He was a good one,” he insisted.

Mick Lanigan loved hurling. It was suggested that the game was not as well organised in his time as it is now.

“Not so,” he shot back. “It was extremely well organised in the schools around the town, and out around the rural areas of the county because there was a huge number of lads with a tremendous interest in the game who promoted it with gusto. From those great men, the embryonic under-age systems flourished.”

Goals parcelled in the goalie

He remembered a game at colleges level and he was sited at number 14. They were playing Portlaoise in the Leinster colleges championships. It is recorded that M. Lanigan scored five goals and a few points.

“You must have been good Mick?” I intoned.

“In truth, I didn’t hit all the balls into the net. The majority of the goals were parcelled in the goalkeeper who ended up in the back of the net.”

Those were the days, as the Rattler Byrne would say, when you could hang up the goalkeeper in the back of the net. We rounded a bend on the sporting stage road, and we found ourselves in the athletics arena.

Mick Lanigan beamed. He was more assured, on safer ground here.

“I was playing billiards in the CYMS and a friend of mine, Phil Hogan, said that he was going out to a sports meeting in Callan,” Mick said as he took himself back in time. “So I went with him. I entered and won two events. My enthusiasm was whetted by the winning experience.

“There was a very good athletics club in Kilkenny called Kilkenny AC. I joined it. There were some tremendous people attached to the club. The likes of Sean Byrne and Lorcan Bergin, who gave their life’s blood to the club. There were tremendous competitors like Frank and Mick Smith there at the time too. Both brought back All-Ireland titles to the club.

“They lifted athletics to stellar proportions at a time when it was not exactly sexy to be a Kilkenny athlete. We had John Joe Nolan, an Irish champion cyclist in our club. He was the father of one of our greatest Kilkenny and Irish athletes, Geraldine, the former European championshionships runner. The club later became Kilkenny City Harriers after the amalgamation of the BLOE and BLE,” he explained.

As the ’Harriers developed over the years, so the fame and achievement of the club spread. Mick Lanigan would say that being a minority sport in the county - one of many - the amount of work invested by a huge number of supremely dedicated people was truly amazing. He would say that while the efforts of all were magnificent, the awards were not available like they are in team games.

He won 14 All-Irelands

Athletics, ostensibly, is about the individual. It’s about man/woman against the clock, or the measuring tape. The ’Harriers of Sean Lynch and before brought great honour and glory to the county. Their membership was a relative who’s, who of Irish athletics. The contestants have cloaked themselves in acclaim in all manner of disciplines in far-flung arenas.

One instantly thinks of people like (always dangerous to mention names) Eileen O’Keeffe, Geraldine Nolan, Joanne Cuddihy, Adrian O’Dwyer, the Costelloes’, the Norwoods’ (Fiona and Robbie), Marita Walton, Sinead Delahunty, Brian Maher, Emily Maher, Phil Brennan, Seamus Murphy, Ian Wilkinson and..................

But Mick Lanigan gilded the Kilkenny athletics lily better than most. He won a staggering 14 All-Ireland hurdles titles at senior level, seven of them in-a-row. He was also a tremendous sprinter. The number of his All-Ireland medal wins were augmented with a string of All-Ireland winning relay wins.......six in all.

That was a lot of gold!

His wife Dor was a beneficiary. She wears some on gold that was fashioned into jewellery. Likewise his daughters. And he still has a couple left over for the next generation.......his seven grandchildren.

Speaking of grandchildren, Mary Kate has already represented the Irish schools in the high jump at international level. Her prowess is being monitored by Irish athletics bosses. Her brother Michael – the fourth Michael in the line - is also a very talented athlete.

Mick Lanigan is an unashamed admirer of the people that give so much of their time to the development of young athletes at the Kilkenny City Harriers club.

The real stars

“Everyone cannot be a great footballer, hurler, camogie player, handballer or whatever,” he suggested. “Not everyone in athletics is a great sprinter, jumper or whatever, but some lad might just find his niche by being able to throw a javelin, or a shot.

“Another lad might just be able to throw a discus further than anyone else, and that is tremendous. But the real stars of the athletics world here in Kilkenny are people like, and I hate mentioning names, Sean Lynch and his dedicated workers. They are the real stars.”

Mick’s first taste of international athletics was in the European Catholic Students Games in Lisbon around the late fifties. The day he failed his Army medical he boarded the boat at Dun Laoighire for the first leg of the journey to Lisbon. His marquee discipline was the hurdles. He was a hare at 100 yards (pre-metric times).

Mick won the hurdles gold medal. He was a member of the 4x100 winning relay team. He was second in the 100 yards dash. He also competed in the high jump.

Not bad for a lad considered medically unsuited for a life in the Irish Army.

Like most young men of his generation, Michael Aidan Lanigan had but a vague - very vague - idea of where he wanted to propel his life.

“Do you want to go to College,” he was asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to come into the business?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hard ta plaze a young lad like dah,” as they’d say in Gortnahoe.

Eventually he joined the bank and he was sited in Dublin. He commenced a BA degree course in UCD at night. His mam and dad were delighted that the young lad in Dublin was showing some initiatives. He joined the University Athletic Club, and he also joined the FCA (Forsa Cosanta na hEireann), which was often times referred to by local jack the lads as the Free Coats Association.

Won with UCD

Mick won many national championships in the UCD singlet. He also took part and won events in the World Army Championships in Brussels.

When we speak of Mick Lanigan’s athletic career, we are talking of a time when this little country was emerging thanks to the exploits of Ronnie Delaney, our fabulous boxers (Freddie Teidt (RIP), Johnny Caldwell, Freddie Gilroy, ‘Socs’ Tony Byrne) and wrestler Gerry Martina who brought home medals from the 1956 Olympics. Athletics ethic was suddenly high profile.

We had a great wee girl - Kilkenny born - Maeve Kyle representing us there as well. Also the brand new Billy Morton Stadium, a splendid new innovation with its cinder track, was opened in Dublin and played host to a mile race in which the first four runners home all broke the four-minute mile - Herb Elliot, Ronnie Delaney, Murray Halberg and Brian Hewson.

How well we remember it all. It was front page news the world over.

Mick Lanigan specialised at the sprint and hurdles disciplines. He succeeded the marvellous Donore man, Eamonn Kinsella as the national hurdles champion, a title he held for many a long year.

Mick reminded me that there were a few cinder tracks around the country.

“There was a great one in James Park on the site of the present dog track,” he reminded.

Hurling, Kilkenny beckoned

He remembers the All-Ireland Garda Athletic Championships taking place there on many occasions, where crowds of some six or seven thousand would attend. He remembered great local athletes like Paddy Burke (news agents in Rose Inn Street), Harry Meehan, Liam Meehan (RIP), who was employed on the clerical staff of the Kilkenny County Council and the HSE.

Mick finished his career (injury) on a winning note when he retained his hurdles title at the national finals in front of 10,000 patrons in Banteer, Co. Cork in 1966.

The hurling, and Kilkenny, beckoned.

What prompted Fr Maher and Paddy Grace to ask him to do the physical training with the county teams, one wondered.

“I got permission from Paddy to put up the hurdles in Nowlan Park because it was the best surface around the place for my needs,” Mick smiled when he unfolded the story. “I presume they liked what I was doing and hence they asked me to come on board and give them a hand. It was rather innovative really, because there were not too many, if any at all, physical coaches around.

“Fr Maher was a trail blazer in the hurling coaching doctrine. He felt that specialist physical training would give Kilkenny the edge, so I was invited to help out.

“I studied elements of the game, like reaction time, time spent doing sprints, running backwards, take off from a standing start and take-off to jump. Those elements are still very pertinent to this day. You never see a Kilkenny player lose sight of the ball in flight.

“They still do their programme of short sprinting. So there are still many similarities to days of yore.”

Inevitably, I had to ask him about Fr Maher, who was generally regarded as the prime mover of what we would now know as coaching in hurling.

“He was a man ahead, light years ahead, of the posse with regard to hurling coaching,” Mick insisted. “Time and again he proved to lads that direct hitting as opposed to solo running was key, and that no man alive could run faster than a driven sliotar. I heard a Dublin player recently marvelling at the fact that there was a Dublin mentor up in the stands in direct communication by walkie-talkie with the manager.

Student of game

“Sure Fr Maher had that system going back to 1967. He was a tremendous student of every nuance of the game. He gave many private hours experimenting with style, skills, game plays. He was a great student of player capabilities, and he also had a gifted sense of knowing when to do the right thing.

“Like Brian Cody today, he trusted his players to do the right thing. They responded in like mode with the utmost respect. He was very focussed and rather single-minded. He was not easily swayed, if ever. Even Paddy (Grace) couldn’t bend him if he was convinced that his decisions were the right ones for the team.

“He was a very calm, level headed man, but he had steel when needed. He would have been a tremendous Human Resources Manager in commercial life, if he had not been ordained. He was a marvellous motivator. He was a remarkable man in every sense, still is.”

Surprise, surprise - here’s a question for you dear reader.

Who were the first sponsors of the Kilkenny senior hurling team, and when?

Answer later, but Mick Lanigan told me, and we smiled at the fun of it.

What about Paddy Grace then, the colourful former County Board secretary who served from 1948 until 1984?

“In our time it was commonly felt that we had no County Board as such,” Mick smiled. “Paddy Grace was the County Board. He had many great attributes, not least of which was his care of every hurler that pulled on a black and amber jersey. He was a players’ man. I know of no Kilkenny hurler that was turned from the door if there was a need.

“Paddy, or often it was Paddy with Maureen (his wife) behind him, was a terrific organiser. At the time modern technology was but a pipe dream in the minds of some mad scientists. Paddy looked after everything, including the fixtures, Nowlan Park, match notices, referees, transport for teams to games and a hundred other jobs.

“He was a full time GAA official with none of the re-imbursements, or trappings. He was a slave to the game. He was an unpaid secretary, but that was never an issue. He did a tremendous task for the promotion of the game. He had a deep love of the ’Association and all that it stood for. He was a giant of a GAA man.”

Mick would say too that Paddy was well served by some terrific officers like the dearly departed Nicky Purcell, and latterly, Mick O’Neill.

Great times

He spoke of great times built into the All-Ireland times. He spoke of great people like Paddy Downey, John D. Hickey, Mick Dunne and John O’Shea, all journos. He reminisced about the great players of his Kilkenny days, mentioning the likes of Seamie Cleere, Mickie Kelly, McGovern, Cummins, ‘Chunky’, Coogan, Keher, Treacy, Purcell, Delaney, Henderson, Carroll, Dillon, Walsh, Mick Lalor, Paddy Moran, John Teehan, and many more.

“Listen,” he said, “I could stay going on for ever talking about the great players without venturing outside of our own county. They gave us all a tremendous sense of pride, of belonging, of being part of a great movement. They were magical times provided by magical people.

“I will cherish them to my grave. I was privileged and honoured to be a small part of it,” said the man, who through politics, had the honour of meeting some distinguished world leaders, people like Yassar Arrafat, Ghadaffi, John F. Kennedy, Tony Blair, Mubarac, Jaques Chirac and more.

He would say that the Kilkenny team of the 1969-’79 were as good as he has ever seen (this interview was done prior to the All-Ireland final).

“They won five All-Irelands in nine years,” he reminded. “In fact, but for a glut of injuries in 1973, they could have done even better. It’s impossible to compare teams separated by decades or more.”

His favourite All-Ireland final?

“It would have to be the 1972 final,” he beamed. “We were down by eight points with 22 minutes to go, but we came home in front after a magnificent recovery.”

He rated the Leinster final of 1972 against Wexford as the greatest hurling game he ever saw. That was a double feature, a thrill a minute 6-13 each draw the first day, followed by a Kilkenny win, 3-16 to 1-14.

I could have stayed yapping for hours. We only scratched the surface in terms of the story of his life.

I had accomplished my mission - get Mick Lanigan to talk Kilkenny hurling. It was a joy to hear the stories, an honour to be allowed share.

Oh yes! Did you work out who were the first commercial sponsors of the Kilkenny senior county hurling team?

Surprise, surprise - Anglo Irish Bank!

Let’s leave it at that!