An education on what makes Kilkenny tick
By Michael Moynihan
You would hardly mistake this corner of the newspaper for the social and personal page, but we couldn’t let this morning pass without sharing a classic ‘seen about town’ moment.
Apparently in the midst of Kilkenny’s annual Arts Festival, which was held last week, a novelist noted for his high-brow (trans: pretentious) tomes strolled into a well-known establishment in the South-East and sat at the next table along from a gentleman most readers here will be familiar with.
The difference between them? Enda McEvoy has done the state some service with his new book, Fr Tommy Maher: The Godfather of Modern Hurling. The man at the next table in Tynan’s? Not so much.
Quite apart from the fact that it’s a welcome addition to a relatively select library of good hurling books, it’s also a winning portrait of an individual who deserves to be more widely known, the eponymous Fr Maher.
But one of the crucial underlying lessons we took out of the books belongs to an area that’s difficult to define: the culture of a county, and specifically, the hurling culture of Kilkenny.
This is a slippery concept, admittedly, and one that’s subject to change, which we’ll get to, but it’s something badly in need of description. For a county which has won so much, particularly in the last dozen or so years, there isn’t an accompanying literature about those accomplishments. Certainly not when you compare it to the wealth of productions coming out of certain counties which would not, by any stretch of the imagination, boast the same back catalogue of hits.
Anyway. The main point is that while the stripy men may be great hurlers, you don’t get a lot of freewheeling conversation from a lot of them about their approach to hurling.
This book though, is an education. For instance, regarding our comments about hurling above, it may be a surprise to the youthful reader to learn there was a time when ‘Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipp for the men’, was an expression with a good deal of substance to it.
The blue and gold held Kilkenny in check until the ’60s when, with the adroit direction of said Fr Maher, they met fire with fire (literally, in the case of Pat Henderson; as McEvoy points out, the Kilkenny man was educated in Thurles, which didn’t do his appetite for mixing it any harm).
The parallel observation is also made and strengthened by example; that in recent years at times the roles were completely reversed, with Tipp focusing on style and Kilkenny not lacking steel.
There is also the due attention paid to a time when Kilkenny didn’t have a stranglehold on hurling. McEvoy revisits the ’50s, when wags suggested turning Nowlan Park over to the cows, and a championship clash with Dublin ended in a draw because Kevin Heffernan — yes, Heffo — apparently dawdled in possession for half-a-second when the winning of the game was at his mercy, and the referee blew full-time.
McEvoy is too good a writer not to enjoy a flight of fancy imagining what would have happened if Kilkenny had lost that game and spiralled into a Limerick-style famine; in fairness, he’s too good a reporter not to record Heffernan’s dismissal of that alleged delay as an urban legend.
There’s a huge technical focus in the book, about the mechanics of taking a sideline cut, of free-taking, of hand-passing the ball, adding to the sense that almost every decent book about hurling also functions, almost unconsciously, as a primer on how to play the game, but it’s not a dry textbook. We hear too much about legendary figures such as Paddy Grace for it to drag (and this is precisely the kind of book where you get a flavour of figures like Grace, and Paddy Leahy, and others of that ilk).
What light does yesterday’s game throw across the book? Well, clearly a Kilkenny defeat would have supplied a neat elegiac note to proceedings, something we mused on with 10 minutes to go when the Cats were a mere 15 points ahead. That’s not to mention, even, the fact that Paddy Grace was represented yesterday, for instance, by his grandson. You know him: smallish lad, plays right-half-back for Kilkenny: red helmet.
The constituent elements of their excellence yesterday would have been familiar to Fr Tommy Maher, certainly: accuracy, aggression, teamwork. Taking the right option over and over again. Simple hand-passes, executed well. All the basics executed well, in fact.
To judge by yesterday, an extra chapter or two may have to be added to that book, and soon.
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