17 Aug 2022

The greatest of the great - my Kilkenny list

The greatest of the great - my Kilkenny list

Henry Shefflin - he won a record 10 All-Ireland senior hurling championship medals

The People’s recent hunt to find the Greatest Kilkenny Person Ever - I still can’t believe I didn’t make at least the quarter-finals, incidentally - prompted a thought.
Who have been the greatest, or at any rate the most influential, people in the history of Kilkenny hurling? The people who made the Black and Amber what it is, the people without whom the county would not be top of the All-Ireland leaderboard?
Here’s my top ten. The odds are that no reader will agree with all ten, which is only to be expected. Exercises like this one constitute an inexact science. If logic is part of the equation, so too are gut feelings and partiality. Needless to say, a host of worthy candidates didn’t make the cut. That comes with the territory.
You may argue that this particular production is tilted too much towards personalities from the last 50 years, at the expense of the giants of the first half-century of Kilkenny hurling, and that’s a fair point. You may also hold that not enough players feature. Historians of the local game like Jamesie Murphy, Dermot Kavanagh and the late Tom Ryall would doubtless have come up with different lists. So: who should be here, and where, and who shouldn’t be? Let the debate begin…
10. Mick Loughman
Never heard of him? Not a surprise. Loughman (1896-1965) is the forgotten man of Kilkenny hurling.
Born in St Patrick’s parish, Loughman was one of the founders of Eire Óg, the city club that initially drew its players from Kilkenny CBS, and was involved with county minor teams from the 1930s to the ‘60s as manager, selector, fundraiser and general factotum.
A postman by profession and a dictatorial and complicated individual, he also worked in Stallard’s Theatre in Patrick Street, now Zuni restaurant, where he ruled with a rod of iron. In later life he was involved with the St Canice’s minor team.
Paddy Buggy once posed in print the question of whether any individual would ever again contribute as much to Kilkenny hurling as Mick Loughman had. The answer is surely no.
9. DJ Carey
One word: electrifying. The most popular Kilkenny player of the past 50 years, give or take Tommy Walsh, and a turbo-charged synonym for skill and style.
Twice the Hurler of the Year, key man on the All-Ireland double team of 1992-93 and the winner of three more celtic crosses under Brian Cody. A fantastic brand leader for the Black and Amber and never stood out more than when the county were struggling during the second half of the 1990s.
TG4’s Laochra Gael documentary, bursting with goals we’d half-forgotten, demonstrated not only how scintillating DJ was but also how much and how easily we took his warp-speed brilliance for granted.
There was never a hurler like him before and there never will be again.
8. Lory Meagher
The Prince of Hurlers. The man who could talk to the ball and make the ball talk to him. Immortalised by Pádraig Puirséal, whose essay on him is one of the most evocative hurling articles ever written.
“There was Lory as I remember him first in the days when all the world was young, tall and slight, lithe and lissom, his flashing camán weaving spells around bemused Dubliners on a sunny Maytime Sunday at the Old Barrett’s Park in New Ross, long long ago.”
Meagher probably played his best hurling on the unsuccessful Kilkenny team of the late 1920s, but he went on to win three All-Ireland medals in the 1930s, the last of them when producing a majestic display against Limerick in the rain in 1935.
When he missed the second replay against Cork in 1931 through injury it was a case of Hamlet without – yes! - the Prince. Remains the supreme Noreside stylist.
7. Pat Henderson
Man of granite who had a key role in two of the county’s most important matches ever. The first was the 1966 Home League final triumph against Tipperary. The second was the MacCarthy Cup breakthrough against the same opposition the following year, Kilkenny’s first All-Ireland success against the old enemy since 1922. Cue the slaying of the supposed Tipp hoodoo and the moment the county shed the tag of nice handy hurlers unable for the heat of Hell’s Kitchen.
Henderson’s hurling education in Thurles CBS taught him to play with an edge.
As manager he brought a similar focus and determination to the All-Ireland/National League double-double outfit of 1982-83.
6. Danny O’Connell
It may seem hard to believe, but long before Brian Cody there was another man who led Kilkenny to 11 All-Ireland titles. His name was Danny O’Connell.
Was county secretary from 1902 to 1913 during the first golden era of Kilkenny hurling, was secretary again in 1932 and was a County Board trustee at other stages.
The 1939 All-Ireland triumph marked his swansong as manager. It was a minor sporting tragedy that nobody ever wrote a book about this amazing man, his philosophies and his tactics. What a tale it would have been.
5. Eddie Keher
Championship debutant in an All-Ireland final having just turned 18. Six-time All-Ireland medallist. Tip of the spear on the great Kilkenny team of the 1970s. Cold-eyed assassin. Pound for pound the greatest marksman in hurling history.
As the statistician Leo McGough has revealed, Keher scored from play in 94 per cent of his championship outings, he scored at least one point from play in 92 per cent of them and he scored a goal in 34 per cent of them.
Big enough and strong enough to look after himself, albeit assisted by the likes of Purcell, Delaney and Crotty, he averaged 3.30 points from play in his All-Ireland final appearances and his championship total of 35-334 in 50 outings stood as a record until surpassed by Henry Shefflin.
Keher’s scoring total from play, 19-135 or an average of 3.84 points a game, defied belief in view of the heavier sliotar and state of the pitches at the time. Half-man, half-machine.
4. Brian Cody
Only the greatest of the great lend their names to an era, and this man has.
Winning seven All-Irelands in one decade was unprecedented; following up with four more in the next decade was perhaps an even more astonishing achievement, given that Kilkenny were now making the trek back down from Everest’s peak.
For a while there it seemed that not only were the county taking on all comers and routing them but that Cody was taking on the game of hurling itself – and winning.
The parallels with Alex Ferguson are too numerous to mention apart from the most obvious one: each man’s powers of reinvention.
Both built winning team after winning team, an achievement which as a first step necessitated knowing when a side had reached its zenith and had to be reconstructed. For Cody to keep pulling off the trick required a degree of flexibility frequently clouded by the man’s image as a stern, unbending autocrat.
Yet in a dressing room packed with strong personalities he made sure there was only one boss and that everyone knew it.
In 20 or 25 years’ time a future People columnist will revisit this exercise. It will be no surprise if he or she is moved to place Cody at the top of the list.
3. Paddy Grace
Shortly after one of the Cork player strikes of the Noughties Pat Henderson declared of the man who was Kilkenny GAA secretary from 1947 until 1984, when he died in office: “He left a legacy of looking after players. We haven’t had discontent in Kilkenny because the players come first always. That’s down to Paddy Grace.”
Grace did the state some service as a player, winning All-Ireland medals in 1939 and ’47, and he did it far more as an official.
For decades he was Mr Kilkenny GAA, roguish and charming and respected and loved and the scourge of the suits in Croke Park.
“There will always be money for schools’ hurling in Kilkenny,” he declared one year when the County Board’s finances were straitened.
He made sure that there was.
Grace was a man of his era and he was perfect for that era. Would there have been an official as effective as Ned Quinn had Grace not preceded him and set a template? Bonus points for producing a daughter called Frankie who produced sons called Tommy and Padraig.
2. Henry Shefflin
The King. The most successful player in hurling history and a record-breaker when it came to All-Stars and scoring records as well as to All-Ireland medals. Was even named RTE Sports Personality of the Year in 2006, an award that GAA folk do not fall in for.
Possessor of a never-ending list of virtues, among them a bomb-proof temperament and an insatiable appetite to jump into a ditch and start digging.
Think of the manner in which he got stuck in out the field when Kilkenny were under the cosh against Galway in Tullamore in 2009, thereby helping to turn the tide.
Loved to score but seemed even happier when supplying the sliotar to a colleague to find the target. No surprise, then, that his last act in the striped shirt was to provide the assist for Colin Fennelly’s clinching point in the 2014 All-Ireland replay.
How sublimely, entirely Shefflinesque.
For the umpteenth and now final time with Henry it was about the team, not the individual. Kilkenny’s captain in 2007; their on-field commander every year from 2002 onwards. The best of the best.
1. Monsignor Tommy Maher
It wasn’t going to be anyone else. Of course it wasn’t. I’m his biographer, after all. I’m not merely compromised, I’m absurdly biased. But no apologies.
Before Tommy Maher the county had won one All-Ireland in 16 years and were in danger of becoming also-rans; on his watch they would win seven more.
They did so by employing a cerebral, skills-based approach which stressed the importance of whistle-clean technique and diligent practice and didn’t worry overmuch about fitness.
Fr Maher didn’t train Kilkenny teams, he coached them, and therein lay his gift. Practise the skills, practise them properly and keep things simple. By profession he was a mathematician. It made all the difference.
If there was no Tommy Maher, then Kilkenny wouldn’t have ended a ten-year MacCarthy Cup drought in 1957.
If there was no Tommy Maher, then the great Kilkenny team of the 1970s wouldn’t have existed. And if the great Kilkenny team of the 1970s didn’t exist, then the Kilkenny four in a row team wouldn’t have existed - not in the same shape or form anyway, because the story of the previous 50 years would have been altogether different.
His influence was felt outside the county too. With Donie Nealon and Des Ferguson Tommy Maher designed the ground-breaking Gormanston coaching course of the mid-1960s whose ripples led to the subsequent intercounty breakthroughs of Galway, Offaly and Clare.
He changed nearly everything and he changed it for the better.
Monsignor Tommy Maher. The most important man in the history of Kilkenny hurling.

For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.

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