Mickey ‘The Rattler’ Byrne: He lifted us all

“People trained like alcoholics in those days. They didn’t like people to know they were training.”

Tony Wall is reminiscing about his fellow Tipperary stalwart Mickey ‘The Rattler’ Byrne, who passed away on Sunday, aged 93.

Time was you didn’t advertise the extra mile.

“Training on your own wasn’t done,“ Wall says. “It was, but you didn’t like people to know. That was the culture. One of the Wexford fellas had a farm and he had a hollow up at the top of the farm. And he’d run around in the hollow, so that nobody would see him.

“Mickey never drank or smoked, but people told me he always had the hurley on the truck. Someone told me he’d pull in and go for a run.”

Seán McLoughlin, a teammate on 10 of Byrne’s 14 county winning Thurles Sarsfields teams (and winner of four All-Ireland medals himself) remembers Rattler’s extra miles under cover of darkness.

“He was a great county man, but a fabulous club man. We’d be training for a county final, this time of the year. Mickey, that time, used drive a truck to Dublin every day and back. We’d be finished our training around half-eight or that, and Mickey would be back out on the field on his own running around in the dark when we were gone home. He was so determined,” said McLoughlin.

Theo English — who, like Wall, won the first of his five All-Irelands with Rattler in ’58 — points out that the training session itself would have had that do-or-die flavour, particularly for those considering a venture into Mickey’s territory in the corner.

“He’d train the same as if it was a Munster final, an All-Ireland. If you went in, you’d get a belt and he’d laugh it all off: ‘You shouldn’t be coming in here. You won’t be coming in on solo runs like that against Cork.’

“He’d give you a reminder.”

Wall was on seven of those Sarsfields teams and was nominated as head of the deputation to bring Rattler back for his last hurrah, at 42, in 1965.

“That last year, we were caught for a full-back. Mickey had kind of half-retired. I went up to the house to meet him. ‘If ye win the mid-final, I’ll come back,’ was the word.

“He was back for the county final against Carrick Davins, and played a blinder in the replay. Another blinder.”

The talk is of great men who met their match. Jimmy Smyth. Ned Whelan, Nicky Rackard. Wall ranks holding Waterford’s Donal ‘Duck’ Whelan in the ’59 league final — Rattler was 36 — among his greatest feats.

Everyone meets their match.

“Christy Ring was a bogey man for ’em all,” says Wall. “No one liked marking Ring. He’d always slip you one or two. Christy was more of a devil than he was. There was a pair of them in it.”

Sean retreads the day of the famous league match, when Christy landed in afterwards and Rattler went over and the famous tango was danced.

“Christy, we’ll have to shoot you.”

“Ye’ve tried everything else.”

In the photograph above, courtesy of Seamus O’Doherty, Mickey is accepting the Dan Breen Cup from Breen himself after Sarsfields’ win over Borrisoleigh in 1955. He often joked how he was the first man who left a hand on Breen and lived to tell the tale.

Mickey ‘The Rattler’ Byrne receives the Dan Breen Cup in the presence of Dan Breen himself. Rattler joked he was the first man who left a hand on Breen and lived to tell the tale. Picture courtesy of Seamus O’Doherty.

And that is what they all remember best. He might have won five All-Irelands and seven leagues and those 14 counties. He might have earned a reputation as a hard man around the square, but they all recall first the jokes and the laughter and the songs.

Yesterday, GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail measured his legacy in more than silver.

“Characters such as him embed GAA and our games in the minds of young people, generation after generation.”

That charisma and warmth still drew flocks around him whenever he ventured out to watch his beloved Blues, until the last year or so.

It left a mark on the hearts of tough men, in whose company Rattler was once among the toughest.

“A very witty guy. Always in good humour,” says McLoughlin. “A fella people used like to meet; you’d always get a good one out of him. He was a father figure in Thurles. We all looked up to him. Any advice he’d give you, we’d all try to follow it.

“He gave great encouragement. He’d urge you on the whole time, though you wouldn’t want to be shying back. He’d let you know.

“We had great camaraderie in Sarsfields. He was a big part of that. On the old bus or the dressing room. A bit of humour. He lifted us all.”

On the old bus, where Mickey would sit at the back for “a longer spin”.

“Everyone knew him on the road going up and down to Dublin. Even in other counties. He always had a yarn for them,” says English.

“The most wholehearted man you could meet,” says Wall. “Full of determination and the will to get it done.

“And he always had a smile on his face.”

  • Mickey “The Rattler” Byrne will repose at Thurles Sarsfields Social Centre, Semple Stadium, today, from 4pm to 8pm. Arriving in The Cathedral of The Assumption tomorrow for requiem Mass at 11am, with burial afterwards in St Patrick’s Cemetery, Thurles.

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