Last week I came face to face with the legendary Henry Shefflin, the most decorated player in GAA history and arguably the greatest hurler of the modern game. I had been looking forward to our meeting for quite some time and took advantage of a gap in my day to visit him. A discreet inquiry and I was directed to Mr. Shefflin’s whereabouts. Smilingly broadly I approached Henry, looked him straight in the face and said: ‘Dude, you’re looking cool’. I said no such thing. The day I call someone ‘Dude’ is the day someone should call someone for help. For me! Looking Henry straight in the eye I said: ‘You look wonderfully well, my friend’. Not that Henry and myself are friends or buddies or even associates. We are not. It’s just that I’m so used to seeing Henry on the field of play, so used to seeing him on the telly, so used to seeing him in newspapers and magazines that I, like many a Kilkenny man, have come to look upon him as a friend. Which, of course, he is. Henry Shefflin holder of a record 10 Senior All-Ireland Hurling medals and 11 All-Star awards is a friend to all Kilkenny men, and women, not least those of us who follow the holy game of hurling.
Henry and myself were both in the capital and our convening was by no means planned, indeed it was quite spontaneous, thanks to the above-mentioned gap in my day, which made our meeting all the more enjoyable. And I guess it was somewhat strange meeting Henry, without the old, familiar and famous, black and amber ‘uniform’. He looked the same, but different if you know what I mean. And here’s a question, as often as we’ve seen him grace our television screens down the years - what colour are Henry Shefflin’s eyes? I never gave much thought to this before but today, up close and personal, I see, without totally getting in the man’s face, that they are blue. Greyish-blue I reckon (though I could be wrong) and they perfectly complement the trendy grey jacket that he is wearing. All considered Henry is cutting quite a dash. ‘I’m proud of you, Henry,’ I hear myself say, ‘and I want to thank you personally for all the enjoyment and entertainment that you have brought me, and my fellow Kilkenny hurling devotees, down the years. It’s been something special, a whirlwind, a frenzy of pleasure and excitement the likes of which we may never experience again.’ And then the cheeky question: ‘So where did you get the jacket? In fact, if you don’t mind me asking, who togged you out, Henry, because in fairness, and in true Kilkenny parlance, you look ‘deadly’ and I really like the dark denim jeans’.
And that’s when I became aware of a presence behind me. A presence I had hitherto been unaware of because when I came in it was just Henry and myself, the two of us, not a sinner in sight. The presence was that of a Japanese couple who had obviously over heard my few words with Henry and who were now whispering nervously to each other. These two visitors to our National Portrait Gallery in Dublin (for this is where I am) had come to see the portraits of our national heroes but hadn’t bargained on an animated ‘monologue’ in front of one of them! They took one last look at yours truly and scurried off. Time to be scurrying along myself I thought as the National Portrait Gallery began to fill but I couldn’t complain as I’d had Henry all to myself, so to speak, for a good ten minutes which allowed for my one-to-one with him. But first a few shots with my camera to capture this historic painting of Henry (the first GAA player to have his portrait hung in the National Gallery) which was painted by the artist Gerry Davis, a Tipperary man if you don’t mind!
And that’s when the security man ambled over, nodded politely to me and pointed to the small icon of a camera with a large X running through it at the bottom of the portrait. Quietly chastised I wandered off to view the rest of the portrait collection which ‘acknowledges the contribution made by outstanding individuals to Ireland’s social, political and cultural life.’ Individuals like: WB Yeats, Mary Robinson, Gay Byrne, TK Whittaker, Ronnie Delaney to name but a few and I felt proud that our ‘King’ Henry with his hurl flung over his shoulder, a latter day Cúchulainn almost, stood gallantly, and heroically, among them.