Long before there was Noel Hickey, Pa Dillon was the benchmark for defenders. Full-back on the Kilkenny team-of-the-century, the farmer from Freshford left an indelible mark in the county where hurling is all. Tipperary’s Seán McLoughlin, himself no shrinking violet, was a powerful attacker with the magnificent Tipp team of the early 60s. Diarmuid O’Flynn met the duo in calmer waters this week, the square in Pa’s picturesque home village of Freshford, in advance of tomorrow’s All-Ireland final between the counties.
SEÁN McLOUGHLIN: "There was no such thing as the big pep-talk, just bits of advice."
PA DILLON: "There was none of the hype you see now, no television, very little radio, just the paper."
Pa Dillon (PD): I went to school in that building there on the corner – it’s an old folks’ home – and we hurled in this square in the morning, at lunchtime, and when we got out from school in the afternoon.
Seán McLoughlin (SMcL): There was a little shop around the corner there, Mrs Wall’s, we used to sell her a wagon of minerals (Seán worked for Dwans’ Minerals).
Diarmuid O’Flynn (DO’F): Strange you didn’t have to go straight home after school, was there farmwork?
PD: I didn’t, and it was often a couple of hours later that we’d get home. I know there was plenty of work to be done but when you’re young, I suppose, your parents are lenient enough. My father didn’t mind, he always encouraged me to hurl, as did my mother and my uncles too were great. They would have been very much involved in the local club here and they gave me every encouragement. I had only one brother, he died last November and three sisters but they all died of cancer at a young age. My brother Willie was a better hurler than me but there was a lot of work in farming that time, he was the eldest son so he was expected to do it.
DO’F: You were a sort of country townie yourself Seán?
SMcL: I was brought up in the country, in Killinin, the same parish as John Maher who captained the 1945 Tipperary team that won the All-Ireland. Padraic Maher is his grandson.
DO’F: Was that far out?
SMcL: Just past the Racecourse, on the Nenagh road. We went to school in Thurles and walked in. Pat Stakelum (former Tipp great, recently passed on) lived further out than us, in Ballycahill, and they used to pass in a horse-and-trap – we often got a lift with him. Later on we got well off and had a bike!
DO’F: The horse-and-trap was the fancy rig, for Mass and so on – do you pine for those days now?
PD: I’d often think back on that, and you’d wonder if they were better days or worse. You’d be saving up for months to go to the All-Ireland final to try and get up the price of the train and the ticket. I remember in 1959 Kilkenny were playing Waterford in the final. We cycled from here to the station in Ballyragget, about five or six miles and caught the first train at maybe 8 in the morning. The price of the ticket was 13 shillings and sixpence, a lot of money that time.
DO’F: Did you always play full-back Pa?
PD: Oh I did, even for the club. I’d go out the field if we were under a bit of pressure, maybe go up full-forward and cause a bit of havoc – I wasn’t put up there for my scoring ability. I wasn’t a Seán McLoughlin! But I played there a few times for the county as well, played there against Cork one year and was taken off! As a matter of fact, I was picked to play full-forward for the Rest of Ireland one year.
DO’F: Full-back was a different position that time, you had to be very strong and forceful?
PD: This is it – every full-forward was mad to get in top of the goalie, and it was your job to keep him out. The thing then was to pump in high balls from out the field, and Seán, sure he was an expert at catching it, turning, shooting, sticking it in the net – Tony Doran (Wexford) was the same. It’s a different ball-game now.
DO’F: A major part of playing full-forward was to try to intimidate the goalkeeper?
SMcL: It was, see if you could get him to take his eye off the ball. It wasn’t just being rough for the sake of it, there was a method in it.
PD: Rattle the goalie, that was the idea.
DO’F: Did you ever play anywhere else Seán?
SMcL: I played mostly at corner-forward and full-forward a small bit. I played wing-forward in a couple of minor All-Ireland finals, in 52 and 53, then I broke my leg badly. I was a marked man at the time, I won’t mention any names but there was no ball there when it happened. We were playing Holycross, I was due to go up for the Cadets the following morning and my father told me not to play in that game. I stole out the gear, hurled; someone from the club called up to my father to tell him I was gone to the hospital. That was it, that finished the Cadets – maybe it was a blessing, I don’t know. But it was a dirty belt, very dirty.
PD: I suppose there wasn’t even a free?
SMcL: No, I don’t think there was. I was out for a couple of years, and after that it was into the full- forward line, but I preferred the corner – I’d slowed up a bit with the broken leg.
PD: You were the ideal size for a full-forward at that time – tall man, strong, good hand for the high ball coming. Then you had Mackey McKenna and Donie Nealon to pick up the breaks, two class forwards.
DO’F: What was the worst injury you got Pa?
PD: We were playing Clare in an Oireachteas final around October. I think it was Puddin’ Cullinane who was playing full-forward for Clare, a fine player. We weren’t seeing much of the ball but late in the game a high ball came in. I went out to meet it – got a belt across the face, split me through the lower lip, clean across, took the tooth, root and all. To this day I can feel a bit of a drag on that lip – it was sore for a while. I went in to Doc Cuddihy, he had me on the table, stitching me up – ‘Will it leave much of a scar Doc?’, I says; He stopped stitching, looked at me, ‘Listen’, he says, ‘You’re no beauty, it’ll make no difference to you!’ That’s all the sympathy I got!
DO’F: Kilkenny have a chance to do five-in-a-row, but ye missed that same opportunity Seán?
SMcL: Yeah, we won it in ‘61 and ‘62, again in ‘64 and ‘65, but we were beaten in Munster in ‘63. I was captain, Waterford beat us by a point but I got a goal in the last few minutes that was disallowed. If we’d won it, I’d say we’d have done the five-in-a-row, but we had a good innings anyway – counties go through that, they have their period of dominance, and that was ours. That Kilkenny team we beat in ‘64 was a great team.
DO’F: Ye finally beat Tipp in 1967, Pa, but that Kilkenny team was ripe to take over.
PD: That was a very good team. We were unlucky again in 1968, Tommy Walsh got that eye injury in the ‘67 final and he was a big loss. In 1968 there was a controversial league final – do you remember that one Seán, Tipp and Kilkenny in Croke Park???
SMcL: That was the day John Flanagan plastered Ollie in the goal! I saved you that day, you’d have been in jail only for me!
PD: I wouldn’t have been on my own either, I’d say!
SMcL: You probably don’t remember, but after Ollie was flattened you went to ‘down’ Flanagan, but I just caught hold of your hurley in time, from behind...
PD: Go’way – did you? Thanks Seán!
DO’F: But it was your duty to protect Ollie?
PD: Well when you saw something like that happen you’d be inclined to take some action, you couldn’t just let it go. And then Ollie got suspended, for nothing at all. I remember then Kilkenny weren’t going to play in the Leinster final of ‘68 because of it, but we did. Wexford got a goal that day and you never saw anything like it. It was near the end, we were up by a point or two, a high ball came in and of course Doran, as usual, was in the square, me behind him; when I pushed him in the back he went down, the ball hopped off his shoulder, into the corner of the net.
SMcL: Strange things happen. My wife and myself were down in Wexford on holidays recently and we stayed in Liam Griffin’s hotel. I gave Pat Nolan a ring – the former goalie – and asked him to join us, the Quigleys as well. We had a few great nights. We were talking about that ‘68 All-Ireland final and Pat Nolan said to me, I took a fierce shot in the last few minutes and the ball hit him in the shoulder, went over the bar, and he told me – he still feels the pain from that!
DO’F: So ye could have won that one too?
SMcL: Yeah, we could, but there were those we won that we could have lost too – everything balances out. You win some, you lose some.
DO’F: There were some legendary characters from those days – the Rattler Byrne, for instance, Jimmy Doyle, both of them clubmates of yours with Thurles Sars as well, Seán.
SMcL: I remember when we won ten county titles on the trot, Mickey – the Rattler – was driving a lorry to Dublin every day, for the Sugar Company. Coming up to September, October, county final, we’d have our training finished in the field by nine o’clock; Mickey would arrive on, having driven up and down to Dublin on those roads, no power steering, heavy clutch, get out of the lorry and into the field, and do an hour’s training on his own in the dark. Hard to compare that with today.
DO’F: And Jimmy Doyle?
SMcL: He was a genius. He could put the ball into your mouth if he wanted. He’d get a ball, could be about to hit it, you’d be on a run and if he saw you out of the corner of his eye, and felt you were in a better position, he could change his stroke in a split second.
PD: He was the best Tipperary forward I ever saw anyway. But Eddie Keher – he never had a bad game for Kilkenny, and in the All-Ireland especially, when the pressure was on, he’d really step up to the plate. He was strong too, a big man – I’d come across him in club matches. We were playing them one day, they got a 21-yard free. I was well used to facing him in training and thought I’d get to it. I never even saw it, put it over me head, that finished that! He won a county with the Rower, nearly a one-man band. But he was almost like the modern players, fierce dedicated, even back then, didn’t drink or smoke, always in great condition.
DO’F: And you played alongside Fan for a while?
PD: Fan was tough, a hardy divil – I’ll tell you what, he was the best man I ever saw to read the game. He’d see a backman at the other end about to clear the ball, he’d know where it was going, and if it was coming down his side he was gone.
DO’F: Like JJ and Tommy Walsh now?
PD: Every bit as good. And there was not better man to judge a ball coming out of the sky and pull on it.
DO’F: Did he use an extra-long hurley?
PD: I remember one day in San Francisco there was a local reporter looking for an interview and Fan stepped in. Your man looked at him and in typical American fashion, asked ‘How do you manage those big guys?’ Fan produced his hurl – ‘Do you see that? That will civilise a lot of them!’
DO’F: What are your best memories?
SMcL: Winning your first All-Ireland, that’s special. It’s a great thrill, going out on All-Ireland final day in Croke Park, the first time especially – you get the butterflies. After that you get used to it, but it’s always a great honour. When we won that first final, the first man in on the field to me was my own father. I wouldn’t like to see the tradition of allowing fans onto the field going.
PD: I’d have to say the ‘67 All-Ireland final. I was only a sub in ‘63, Tipp gave us a hammering in ‘64, we weren’t there in ‘65 and Cork caught us in ‘66. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever win one! To win in ‘67, and to beat Tipp in the final after so many years of failure, was a dream come true.
SMcL: I remember after the 1964 final, Pat Henderson – who went to school in Thurles – came to shake hands with me and said – ‘We’ll never f***ing beat ye!’
PD: But we had been catching up with ye for a while before that final, beating ye in various tournaments. In 1966 we had a tough league final, a miserable wet day in Croke Park, we beat ye and I think the score was only nine points to seven. The Kilkenny backs were outstanding; Tipp had the storm behind them for the second half but I think they only managed one point. There was a great photo in the paper afterwards, the three full-backs standing behind their men and holding them out. So we had been catching up.!
DO’F: But you had to be tough, first of all, to even have a chance with that Tipperary team, much like the Kilkenny team of today?
PD: Oh yes, you had to be tough. You knew you were going to get so then you might as well give it anyway! You weren’t going to get it soft anyway, that’s for sure.
DO’F: Were ye riled up beforehand?
PD: No, not that I can remember anyway – there was very little pep-talks then.
SMcL: I remember the 1964 final, we were just about to step on to the field and Babs Keating – it was his first final – was pulled back by Paddy Leahy (manager); ‘Do you see that big arse you have? Would you ever use that arse today!’ And do you remember, with about ten minutes to go, himself and Seamie Cleere went for a ball and Babs hit him with the hip – you could hear the bones cracking! Obviously Babs took the advice to heart! But really, there was no such thing as the big pep-talk before the game, very little of it anyway, just bits of advice like that.
PD: There was none of the hype you see now anyway, no television, very little radio, just what you got in the paper. You knew what you had to do going out, did it, and that was it.