In all of the years that I have known, written about, analysed top-class sportsmen, never have I met two men with a greater honesty, integrity and simplicity of purpose than the Treacy brothers, Martin and Jim from famed Bennettsbridge, writes Barrie Henriques..
Not for them the pretentiousness of enforced stardom. Not for them the hollow expectations of trophy winners. Not for them the thinking that national champions placed them on a level above the ordinary.
“Listen,” said Jim, “we were Bennettsbridge (very important to get the statement in chronological order), and Kilkenny hurlers who were very fortunate to be chosen with a team of men that proved they were the best on a given day, at a given time. When you consider that there could, and probably were better than us around the country who never had a chance of walking out on Croke Park on All Ireland final day, it certainly puts an awful lot of analysis, and thoughts into perspective.
“I hurled against a lot of lads, and so did Marty, who gave us plenty of problems, and I’m sure in the opinions of many were considered better than us, but we were the lucky ones. We were the chosen ones who lived the dream. Its as simple as that,” was the way he put it.
They certainly lived the dream!
The Treacy’s was a typical Irish family in that they were big in number, and multi-functional. Five of them - Martin, Jim Paddy, Sean and Willie - won senior hurling championships with Bennettsbridge on the same day when Glenmore were put to the sword by 4-9 to 1-4 in 1964. But Martin and Jim’s road to All-Ireland honours was honeycombed with potholes of strife, living, fiscal depression and hard physical work.
Cut the ice
Martin is the elder by more than a half dozen years. He was the one that cut the ice for Jim when the county road beckoned. In fact, they were both members of the Kilkenny team for a short period before the elder was forced to retire.
Rewind the spool. They were both at pains to remind of the difficulties around when they were but spalpeens around the ’Bridge during their formative years. They were no different to many more such families in a land still suffering from a World War fall-out.
As an aside I asked the question if either could remember what they got for their First Communion. Their answers would help to put the culture, and lifestyle of the times into context.
Consider the immoral money being laid out to service the ever-growing outlay for the first of many great days in a child’s life in the modern era, with the answers I received from the Treacy lads.
“I don’t rightly remember, but it might have been a sponge cake or something like that,” answered Jim.
Martin added: “ Neither can I remember, but it might not have been even a sponge cake.”
They were even better off than me on my great day!.
Martin was quick to point out the importance, and the influence of the Catholic church in rural Ireland in his youth.
“We were brought up with a deep-lying sense of the importance of our Faith,” he explained. “We never missed mass. We attended evening devotions, Holy Hours, Sodality meetings and Missions when they came to the parish. The Rosary was recited in every household in the evening time, and it became so much a part of our Irish culture.
Plenty of lads never drank
“For many of that era it was mightily important to them, and thankfully many of our era still cling to our upbringing credentials. Many lads became members of the Pioneers, and many have remained true to its concept. I hear lads of the present era making a big issue of going off the drink prior to getting into serious training.
“Contrary to popular opinion, there were plenty of lads in our dressing-rooms who never drank. But that was our culture in our time, and I don’t think for a second it did us any damage, and neither do I think that we should apologise for it.”
Life was no bed of roses for families in those trying times?
“There were no roses where we were anyway,” said Martin. “Whenever we were able we gave a hand to my father, a hard working man, who would be working the land for farmers. If he was scarting a ditch, or shaping one, whichever of us was able, we went to give him a hand. When we got older, we went working for farmers, and I’m not one bit ashamed to admit it, because we were beholden to nobody, and whatever came into our house was earned hard, and honestly.
“As we got older, we started catching rabbits. We had a couple of great ferrets, and with them, and lamping, we trapped a lot of rabbits, which we sold on. There was a big trade at the time for rabbits on the English markets. That supplemented the family income, and believe me, my poor mother was the greatest manager of all. She must have been at her wits end to keep the ship afloat. It wasn’t easy for either of them.
“They were great people,” he glowed at the memories.
On to hurling!
Ned Lyng is well documented as the messiah of the glory of Bennettsbridge hurling, given the enormous work in unearthing and nurturing talent at schools levels, but Fr Nugent, God Rest him, was the Don of all Dons, the Capo that brought the astonishing greatness to the place where 11 county senior titles were quarried over a 19 year time zone.
It was easy to call a meeting in Bennettsbridge?
“You could gather us all up in a few minutes,” Jim smiled. “But then what else was there to do on a Summers evening? We’d go down to the hurling field after early mass on a Sunday morning, go home for a bit of dinner, and be back in the field until teatime. That was the way of things then.
“We were seldom without a hurl in our hand to be honest. On a Sunday night then, some of the lads would cycle into the pictures, but not everyone could afford that either, so hurling took all of our time.”
What did it mean to the village to have so many ’Bridge men on the Kilkenny team, one of them being your brother?
“Of course we were thrilled to bits, and very, very proud that they were our lads. We had the likes of Mickie (Kelly), God rest him, Marty, Mc Govern (Johnny), Timmy (Kelly), Seamie (Cleere), Liam (Cleere), Dick (Carroll) all there before me, and the village swelled with pride.”
I suggested that surely his most memorable occasion on the Kilkenny team was being captain when Kilkenny nailed Tipperary in the final of 1967 for the first time since 1922.
“It surely was, but my memories of the occasion are few, such was the joy of everybody, and the only thing people spoke of was the demise of Tipp,” Jim continued. “I do, however, remember, and it has never left my thought processes, my father throwing his arms around me when I came down with the Liam MacCarthy. Now that, I will never forget.”
Looking at the records, isn’t it quite amazing that Bennettsbridge produced All-Ireland-winning captains in all years from 1940 until 1973, with the single exception of 1969 when Eddie Keher broke the cycle?
Martin with a laugh would say that he was on the Kilkenny team before he could get on the ’Bridge team.
“I played in the Leinster final of 1959 when we put Dublin down,” he recalled. “I was marking Bernie Bootman, a bloody great hurler. I played at centre-back, and Dublin put us to the pin of our collars to get home in front by a single point.”
Many of the opponents challenging Martin Treacy in his days of black and amber glory were household names in any era, or sport. The mighty Ned Wheeler of Wexford was one. So too was the likes of Jimmy Doyle from Tipp. Des Foley from Dublin too offered serious opposition, as did Hopper McGrath from Wexford; Paddy Barry from Cork and Seamus Power from the Decies were no mean wielders of the camán.
Liam Devanney from Tipp tested many in his prime, and Mick Birmingham (Dublin’s first All Star) provided stern challenge to many, including
Martin Treacy from famed Bennettsbridge.
Martin would state categorically that much of the Bennettsbridge abilities came from Fr Nugent’s philosophy of getting games against outstanding club teams in Wexford (St Aidan’s), Cork (Finbars and Glen Rovers), Mount Sion (Waterford), Thurles Sarsfields (Tipp) and Dublin (St Vincent’s and Young Irelands).
Play the best
“You see he always was of the opinion, and we as players bought into it, that you will learn nothing from a lad worse than yourself,” Martin explained. “That is why he got games against the best around.”
“Even when Fr Nugent was transferred to Ahaboe in Laois, he would ask us to come up to play some of the Laois teams hoping that he might improve them, but I felt that discipline was the core issue of their problems.”
Kilkenny with the Treacy brothers on board travelled to Croke Park for the 1963 final the night before by train, and stayed in the Hollybrook Hotel in Clontarf. That was the Kilkenny stronghold of the time. Their party included such luminaries as Paddy Grace, ‘Chew’ Leahy and Dr Kieran Cuddihy, and, of course, FrTommy Maher.
“Relative to the training being done now, we would not come remotely close to that preparation,” said Jim, Kilkenny’s first All Star. “But comparisons are unfair, because there is such a disparity in time between the sides. We would go in three weeks before an All-Ireland, do our stuff with Mick Lanigan, go down for the bit of grub to Podgers (Central Hotel) and home.
“Often I remember hurling a Leinster final in Croke Park, and coming back to hurl a tournament that night in Thomastown or Mullinavat. We didn’t have gyms (unknown at the time), but then we didn’t need them. Most if not all of our players were working lads who were on their feet
all day doing manual work, and consequently were physically very strong, well muscled, well toned and carrying no surplus weight (the vast majority at least).
“We practiced a lot of ground hurling, so we didn’t have to devote too much time to carrying the ball. Fr Maher always said that we should try play as much of the game inside the opposition’s half of the pitch, and the fastest way to get up there is to hit the ball rather than carry it. When there
were no games the lads on the county teams would always get together in groups to do training on their own.
“The vast majority of the lads never let themselves slip back too much during the off- season,” Jim revealed.
As iconic All-Ireland winning stars, were women hanging out of you wherever you went, I asked as a little aside?
“Will you stop that ould rubbish,” both said simultaneously.
“Do you realise that we are talking about Ireland of over 50 years ago,” said Jim.
“I’ll put it to you this way,” said Martin, “I was a bit laid back (hard to please said Jim), and it took me a while to get going, but I met a decent girl (Teresa) that time and she is still with me, and the mother of our children.
“And the same applies here,” said Jim. “I married Marie, and I don’t think hurling influenced the situation.”
Ah well my efforts to introduce a little romance into my writings foundered on rocks of good sense. Some of the hurling tournaments at the time were legendary, I suggested.
Gold watch win
“We won a famous gold watch tournament in Thomastown one time, and a lot of us wouldn’t have a watch. I still have the watch,” calling on Teresa for assistance in locating it. “It is still ticking, keeping excellent time, and a marvellous memento. We won more suit lengths that would kit out the Irish Army, or at least the Salvation Army.
“Fr Nugent’s philosophy paid huge dividends, and we got to the stage where we were building churches all over the place,” said the elder Treacy.
“Jayz if we don’t have the best seat in the house in Heaven, then none of the rest of ye have a chance,” laughed the younger.
Jim, you lads did a power of winning hurling against various Cork teams, not so against Tipp. Did you like hurling against them?
“We beat them in 1969 and ’72, after they taking care of us in the much talked about ’66 final. They had a similar style to us, with its well-practiced emphasis on skill. Both of us were dedicated exponents of the concept that we made the ball do the work, because no man can travel faster than a well-hit ball.
“There was a terrific rivalry, but a very respected rivalry between us. I had great battles with Charlie (McCarthy), who was an electrifying corner
forward, a great player. Yes I preferred to play against Cork than any of the others,” said Jim.
The talk last year was about a drive for five, but what people forgot was that in the 70s, Kilkenny could have accomplished that feat, if any denomination of good luck, even bad luck had favoured them.
“It was all possible really,” said Jim. “We should have won the ’71 final. We beat Cork in ’72, were beaten by Limerick in ’73; we were short Keher, Purcell, ‘Chunky’ got injured at the throw-in, Paddy Broderick was forced to come off as his glasses didn’t function in the rain and Brian Cody was on for myself. We won ’74 and ’75, so really a little thing could have given us the five-in-a-row.”
You suffered a horrendous injury that kept you out of the final in ’73?
“In a club game with Bennettsbridge in Mullinavat, in a tournament, I remember stepping back towards our goal to defend, and my foot went into a hole. I heard a snap, and all use of my foot left my body. As it transpired, I snapped my Achilles tendon. I didn’t even know what a tendon was at the time, and I was not alone in my ignorance.
“Dr Hindle got me operated on, and I was on crutches for 14 weeks. It was hellish sore. A physiotherapist in Kilcreen Hospital, Burtwhistle was her name, did amazing work with me. Then I did a lot of running out the Kilbline Road on my own, but I can tell you, it was a long lonely and painful road back to full recovery. I was out of hurling for a long 10 months.”
Jim has a great regard for many hurlers from other counties. Being an avid horse racing fan, he would always be in places like Leopardstown, Gowran, the Curragh, Galway, Clonmel and others.
Bump into other players
“I would always bump into the likes of ‘Babs’ (Keating), Theo (English), Matt Hassett and others,” he explained. “Lads like Pat Hartigan could be there as well, and we would still have the craic, and the camaraderie. I always thought that the Tipp team of the 60s and 70s was a super team.
“Our own team in the 70s was also a great team, but with regard to being the best ever team, now that is an impossible choice to make. As I said earlier, it is impossible to compare like with like because of the differing eras. The only opinion that I would have is that each in their time was the best in their time”.
Jim Treacy travelled with Kilkenny teams and All-Star teams to the US.
“I certainly had a terrific time with our own lads and all of the other lads, hurlers and footballers we would meet up with,” he samiled as the memories flooded back. “Marie came with me on many trips, and but for hurling, and the Kilkenny success, it is quite conceivable that I might never have seen half of the places that we visited.
“Hurling was good to me, and I wouldn’t have missed a single moment, and I most certainly would not have changed a second of it,” he smiled.
Martin travelled to the US in 1964. He too enjoyed his time, his moments in the sun. He won nine county senior medallions, while Jim won half a dozen. Jim bagged six All-Ireland Celtic crosses, and his elder sibling got one in for the 1959 replay, and another in 1963.
Oh yes. They got suits to “bate Bannagher”, and enough watches to stock Murphy Jewellers.