Seamus Kennedy’s All-Ireland diary: ‘It does hit home that you are doing something a bit special’

Seamus Kennedy’s All-Ireland diary: ‘It does hit home that you are doing something a bit special’
Séamus Kennedy of Tipperary arrives prior to the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

From watching Arsenal in Clonmel on Saturday morning through the third lap of homecoming celebrations on Wednesday night in Liam Sheedy’s Portroe, Seamus Kennedy’s All-Ireland diary takes us inside an exhilarating and emotional week in Tipperary. And tells the story of his own resilience in the face of disappointment and setback. A story of going back to the well.

Friday, August 16: Going to the well

I ease myself down on the stone wall and let my ankles dangle in the cool water, same as a million times before. Paddy’s Well, as we call it, has been part of my hurling and football life since I was 11. Recovery and preparation. Or just clearing the head.

I’ve sat here after matches and training. I’ve sat here injured. With club mates, shooting the breeze. Or I’ve turned up to see lads from other clubs and rivalry melts into slagging. I sat here alongside Seamie Callanan once, while he looked for healing in the minerals from the spring.

The water shoots up through a bed of limestone. Purified. It’s meant to cure skin problems and stomach complaints. David Flannery from the St Patrick’s Day Society, the man who always seems to be here, tells me that thousands gathered here once. They came to heal, to buy and sell, to socialise, to wash, to make matches. Druids, traders, musicians, storytellers.

Then St Patrick baptised here and it became a place of devotion. The cross dates to the fifth century. The Cistercians built the church and Cromwell destroyed it when he besieged Clonmel.

This place has seen it all. Now you come for peace. A minute from the chaos on the roundabouts that feed the town, you can step down into this sheltered valley and just listen to the water. A hideaway. An oasis.

It’s actually in Marlfield, sealing its place in Tipp hurling legend. Theo English, who has five All-Ireland medals, lives up the road, and still comes to the well. Dad meets Theo at Mass. He’s fresh out. The water has done him no harm. David Flannery says:

If all the hurlers came down here more often they’d win a lot more

It all goes through your head, down here. Big questions and small. Who am I? Sometimes you just want to be Séamus, Terrence and Frances’ son, Méabh and Seán’s brother, who works down in Cork now.

Rather than Kennedy, the hurler. Or footballer. Here, you can be whoever you want. Sometimes, this year and last, I came to wash things away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m lucky, I don’t get massive lows, don’t do despair, thank God.

But back on May 12th, it was bitterly disappointing not to make the 26 for Cork. Later, too, when I was dropped for Laois. Coming home in shit form, though you try not to. I know the parents worried.

I’ve often sat here with the words of my mentor, St Mary’s legend Billy Carroll, ringing in my ears. He’d always say it when I was trying to break onto the panel first, then the team: “Just keep knocking on that door and eventually it will open.” Billy has been unbelievable with me. A card arrived from him this week.

Dad has been very good too. There’s a few people I chat with, about sport and life. The common theme is: keep the head down. It’s not smooth sailing. The odd genius can sail along serenely, but for most of us, there’s good days and bad days. Peaks and troughs. Just bide your time.

Thursday and Friday dragged. You just want to get to Thurles. You think you know. Training has gone well since Wexford. I’ve had that edge the last couple of weeks. You’ve worked hard enough to get the jersey, now hang onto it. But it wasn’t real until Liam called it out tonight, with everyone gathered close. I’m in the team.

Saturday morning: Pancakes and Arsenal

Andy Pyke is home from London, a big Arsenal man like myself. I collect him opposite the fire station. Mickey O’Sullivan as well. Bill Maher from the football, and Cathal McKeever. Myself and Andy go for a haircut first. Day before a game, I always go to Joe or Mary in Get Your Locks Off. Since I was a minor. Still the same haircut.

Then breakfast in Hickey’s. As my housemate Shane Taylor puts it, “fuelled on pancakes and flat whites”. Fruit and bacon and a pile of pancakes. The lads reckon I’m horsing into too many. “What are you doing, like?” It’s grand, we’re allowed. Day before, you carb up. Store the energy for Sunday when you won’t feel like eating much. We have our nutrition plan laid out, but it’s flexible enough.

They’re slagging because last day out I was in the team but wasn’t named so couldn’t tell them. “How can we believe anything you say?”

I always surround myself with the lads the weekend of a big game. People who are used to me, talk everything but hurling. Sometimes, we have two tables in Hickey’s. Jason Lonergan, Greg Henry, Brian Gleeson, maybe Michael Quinlivan.

Séamus Kennedy of Tipperary celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy cup following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Séamus Kennedy of Tipperary celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy cup following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

It’s Arsenal time. Burnley. I’m a lunatic Arsenal fan, same as dad, and go over a lot. It dictates a lot of my spare time. I’ve been offered a ticket for the away end at Anfield but can’t go. Pity. There’s a few of us in the Tipp panel. Seamie, Tom Fox, Eamon O’Shea, Ronan Maher. Myself and Ronan went in April, for Napoli. A good night, Ramsey’s last goal.

For now, I’m more worried about who’ll be centre-half against Burnley than who’ll be on the wing for Kilkenny. Luiz is in. Still not convinced by Sokratis, and thought Chambers unlucky to be left out after Newcastle. Did nothing flashy, just defended. We’ve missed that. He’ll be at some well in north London this evening, wondering when his knocking will be heard.

A win, good start to the weekend. I drop off my girlfriend Orlaith, who’s heading up early, to her sisters in Dublin. After a few games of nine-ball in Circles, the lads start making tracks too, to make a weekend of it. All of a sudden, I’m on my own.

Saturday afternoon: Granny and Nana

It’s my favourite photograph. After the Limerick game in 2016, Granny and Nana both with me on the pitch in Thurles. Granny, Dad’s Mam, lived to 91. That was her one game that year. After the final in 2016, I was trying to ring her, but couldn’t get through. She had taken the phone off the hook because she didn’t want to be disturbed.

She died in November 2017. She’d have loved this weekend. It’s never hard to figure out how much all this means to people. I drive out to Newcastle, on the border, past the old house, and down to the grave. Ask for a bit of extra help tomorrow.

I lived in Newcastle until I was 11 or 12. Then we moved to The Nire, in Waterford. Before my granddad passed away, he asked Mam to come home and look after Nana. I call to his grave too. Seamie Wall, who I’m called after, was on the famous Commercials three-in-a-row team in the 60s. Won two himself. For my birthday last year, Nana said, ‘I don’t know what to give you’, so she gave me his two county medals. So I’ve his two and three of own. That’s special.

Seamie Wall was a scratch golfer and I was born the day of the Captain’s Prize. He was teeing off when someone rang the secretary of the golf club to say Frances had the child and they’re after calling him Seamus. He went out to try and play anyway, but left it after a few holes.

A quick prayer in the church, then home. I’m living in Cork these days. In Jacob’s Island. Working in business development with Dornan Engineering. Trying to get us work in pharma and data centres. The CEO Brian Acheson, a Clonmel man and massive supporter of Commercials, has been unreal. Joe Conway, my direct boss, too. All the training and matches since last November wouldn’t have been possible without their help.

I love Cork, love strolling over to Mahon Point where nobody has a clue who I am, but this is home. Mam’s bacon and cabbage on Saturday, as usual. What you need most today is normality.

I watch most of Man City-Spurs with Seán, the brother. That City winner has to be allowed, especially when it’s against Spurs. Dad dips in and out. He’s conscious of leaving me be. So he walks the dogs, we’ve a new chocolate labrador.

Nana pops her head in. She has every candle in The Nire lit. I get the gearbag ready, tick a few last boxes. Regrip all the hurleys with the fresh grips picked up at training on Friday. I like to wake up knowing everything’s done. That you just have to let it all out.

After a sandwich, The Fugitive is on RTÉ. We half watch it. I slip off around 11. I haven’t thought that much about the game, haven’t leaked too much energy. I’m asleep in minutes.

Sunday morning: We are blessed

Stir at ten past seven. Great sleep. More routine, coffee and diesel at Maher’s shop. I pick up Mark Kehoe. My turn to drive. We collect James Barry at the Horse and Jockey, and meet the bus in Portlaoise.

Now we relax. We’ve made it this far. We’re together. It’s a very tight group. Sound lads. And nobody is a bad traveller these days, not like Conor O’Mahony used to be. Jesus, that was brutal.

Sit in with Brendan, as usual, three up from the back, him in the window seat. Chat away. Everything but hurling. He’s a big Liverpool fan. Himself and Aoife have a new dog too so we compare the madness of pups. Brendan’s a super fella. You just get comfortable, at ease.

The Garda escort then from Portlaoise. I enjoy that stretch, the buzz building. The day just rolls, looks after itself. There is nerves but nothing crazy. You’ve the work done. We’re in the stadium before the end of the minor. I like to go out and watch a few minutes, get a bit of fresh air.

I see a familiar face. Last couple of games Jamie Wall has been doing the sideline for TG4 for the minor. We’re cousins. My great-grandfather Michael and his great-grandfather John were brothers. Both were in the Third Tipperary Flying brigade with their brother Tommy during the War of Independence.

Jamie would do anything for you. He’s been so supportive when things aren’t going well. I often stayed with his parents Sheila and Michael in Kilbrittain while doing the Masters in UCC. And Jamie has a key to the house in The Nire if he’s ever stuck.

Tipperary Hurler Seamus Kennedy, pictured at St Patricks Well near Clonmel Tipperary. Picture: Brian Arthur
Tipperary Hurler Seamus Kennedy, pictured at St Patricks Well near Clonmel Tipperary. Picture: Brian Arthur

We’d often ring when on the road. Run things by him or he’d hop coaching ideas off me. Though I haven’t seen him use any of my notions yet!

Being in his company is refreshing. And I’m conscious of being so lucky. Blessed. I get to play a hurling match today with Tipperary, my dream. There’s tragedy everywhere. We have had our own in Clonmel, with Jack Downey’s death. A young guy who loved his hurling and football.

Jamie is the last person who’d want me feeling sorry for him. He’ll abuse me for even writing this, tell me to cop on. But the way he has applied himself to everything since his own tragedy is inspiring. Coaching teams, back in college. An incredible person whose attitude is infectious, even though he’s a big Man United fan, and gives my poor father an awful time.

Jamie would never minimise your problems because he’s got worse on his plate. As he always says, ‘my shit is my shit, your shit is your shit’. Back inside, a lot of the talking is done. Lads are tapping around in the warm-up area. Cairbre Ó Cairealláin takes the activation drills, stretching.

I heard Liam say after that he was worried during the warm-up, that we were a bit off. But I didn’t notice. Players are looking to get different things out of it. I just want a second wind, a bit of a blow out, get the legs moving, a few handy strikes. I’m not one for milling into lads. Though some like that, everyone’s different.

We zip the balls around in a circle. Short, sharp. You’re really tuned in then. Getting used to talking and calling. Awareness. Who’s free, who wants the ball?

Then the President wishes us luck and we’re off.

The first half: I didn’t see ze incident

You’re conscious it’s not going great. Certainly, we’re not playing how we wanted. I haven’t watched it back yet, but it felt messy. Lots of rucks and passes going astray. In the teeth of a monsoon.

I’ve hardly hit a ball for 15 minutes when Michael Breen makes a great catch and pops it back to me inside their 65. But I drive a brutal wide. Fuck. Don’t look up to see if Seamie is inside giving out. Just turn and get back.

Couple of minutes later, I hit a loose pass over to Brendan, leave him short. Thankfully, Walter Walsh puts it wide. In fairness, the lads won’t crucify you over that kind of thing. It was the right pass, I just botched it.

You’re going to make mistakes. Next ball. Just get on with it.

Another HawkEye goes against us. Little frustrations. I’m bumping off Walter and we’re jawing. Over nothing really. James Owens is close by and just says ‘leave it out’.

Maybe it’s easy to say now but there was no sense of panic. Around 25 minutes in Tommy Dunne came in and just told me to go across and swap with Paudie. Just matter of fact, no big deal, no fuss. I went over onto Donnelly. He’s good, playing well, covering a lot of ground.

But we have a lot of experience at the back now. And versatility. Against Wexford, we all ended up in different positions.

I think the way we worked our way back in showed that experience. Paudie and Brendan surged forward with a couple of balls. And Niall’s goal was outstanding, gave us a real push. To go a point up, having not played the way we hoped, was a sign of character, I think.

I caught a ball around 50 yards from their goal. Eoin Kelly had actually said it to me, that I might get a few chances, the way they are set up. Told me to have a few shots at training and think about it.

Eoin was an absolute hero of mine growing up. To watch him play club games in Clonmel, in your local field, was unreal. So to be getting advice like that off Eoin Kelly is nice.

It feeds into the experience. You look around the room and Eoin is there, Tommy, Liam, Eamon, Darragh. They’ve all played themselves. all been there, and have such knowledge.

So when I get the chance again, I have another go. If this one went wide Seamie would definitely have been onto me. But I catch it sweet and know it’s over. What’s rare is wonderful.

It does lift you, a little shot of adrenaline. Though the puckout could be bombing down on you 10 seconds later, so you don’t dwell.

Then the sending-off. I’ve heard it often enough over the years, so I’m going to give you the Wenger: I actually didn’t see it. Just thought it was a foul, so I got a shock when I saw the red card. Jesus.

It’s funny, there’s no real discussion about it on the field. Obviously Richie protested, but the Kilkenny lads didn’t surround the referee. You’re conditioned to just get on with it. You don’t have time to think. I saw Tommy come on with the message to say who would go free. But

nothing changed for me.

Wexford was mentioned a lot at half-time. How the extra man counts for nothing. How we had to start playing. To start distributing better to the forwards. Nothing much had gone to plan but somehow we were a point in front.

Second half: Going with the flow

How do you describe that most elusive feeling? You are lighter. Everything happens just a fraction slower. Reading the flight of a ball is easier, like you got new glasses. Something clicks and you’re in the flow. If only it could be like that all the time.

We spent last year looking in as everyone talked about an incredible summer of hurling. And it was. But we weren’t there. That’s not easy. That hurt. 2016 felt a lifetime ago. Maybe some of that spilled out. But we got a performance. As John ran through the middle I was watching Seamie ghost in from the left. He slides in. Goal. Just what we wanted.

Then Seamie cuts in from the right. Bubbles’ first touch and finish. Jesus, that’s unbelievable. But you don’t dwell. You can’t. The next bomb is 10 seconds away.

But Barry and Ronan are decommissioning them. And we’re working it through the lines better. How many Noel McGraths did we have? Every time I looked up, he was there. John too. Two of the most intelligent hurlers you will meet. If they are on a lot of ball, things will happen. Like the great soccer players, things slow down around Noel.

I find myself in their half again and have another pop. Over it goes. Pigs are flying over Croke Park. People say it was over long before the end. You reckon? Kilkenny don’t give up. They are role models for every team. The rest is a blur of clearances. Walter is getting away from me. I’m trying to get back and hook him but know I won’t make it.

Is this the moment it turns? Paudie just throws himself into an incredible block. Tarzan. Superman. Body on the line stuff. He’s just an animal of a man. An unbelievable fella who has given so much. We cleared the ball and the roars rattled your soul.

The old lads are tired and the young lads are on. Mad for ball. A great reflection of the panel that everyone contributed. Delighted to see Mark Kehoe do so well again. He has pushed hard.

Whatever way I ran at the whistle, it was the two Mahers and James Barry I hugged first. Then Orlaith, Mam and Dad, Méabh and Seán on the sideline. There’s enormous satisfaction. If you told me in May I’d have a decent performance on an All-Ireland winning team, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

But I kept knocking. And now Heaven’s door had opened.

If you could bottle a moment. Amy Lawrence has a new book out, about Anfield ‘89. On the back, there’s a quote from Arsenal manager George Graham.

“Isn’t it lovely to have moments in your life where you think, oh, nothing can beat that. Nothing.” What he said.

The Hogan Steps: Repaying a debt

It’s all a bit surreal. Up the Hogan steps. You’re just trying to take it in. I think of Donnacha Fahy in 2001, the last Mary’s man to do it. I think of Theo English. Mam and Dad were emotional. They’ve sacrificed so much for us. To see them that happy, you hope you’ve repaid some of it.

You’re out there representing them and your club, where you come from. Same for all the lads. Finally, back inside, John Sheedy starts the singing.

‘Happy Are We All Together’, the song his mam sung. He has the cup and we huddle in close around him. Just naturally, as if nobody started it, ‘Slievenamon’ rumbles. First of a million renditions.

The banquet: Never mind WhatsApp

I heard Ken Hogan say he was more emotional after the Wexford match. Stuck in the middle, you don’t get how frantic it was. I met people after with tears in their eyes. Older supporters told me it was one of the best ever days in Croke Park.

That felt strange. A semi-final, no cup to show for it, but maybe they saw the lads dig in, and everyone rowed in behind that. It probably stood to us, that second half. Our character had been questioned, rightly or wrongly. Liam alluded to that after the final. I’m fairly bulletproof that way. I think most lads can put it to one side now, the criticism.

Maybe you saw me feature in one of the WhatsApp rumours last year. Drinking before the Cork match, or so it went. For the record, I wasn’t. The WhatsApps were bad. The bullshit. We got used to it, but some of it was scurrilous. It’s a minority. But people have too much time on their hands. Do they forget there’s families, parents reading this? There’s a line and it’s too easy to cross. People can throw anything on Facebook.

Maybe they forget it’s not our whole life, that it doesn’t define us. Or shouldn’t. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’d hate to be seen as just a Tipperary hurler. Don’t get me wrong, we put ourselves out there. Nobody puts a gun to my head. We love it. And we can handle a bit of flak. But not everyone is bulletproof.

There’s another side to that. We heard soon after the semi-final that a Tipp supporter had collapsed, in the excitement. Later we learned he died. Billy Ryan from Kilcommon. It could have been one of our fathers, our grandfathers. Going up to watch the match, and not coming home.

Seamus Kennedy and Jamie Wall at the post-match banquet at the Clayton Hotel Burlington Road.
Seamus Kennedy and Jamie Wall at the post-match banquet at the Clayton Hotel Burlington Road.

That’s the other side, that people from all over Tipperary want to watch us play, that it means so much. There’s such a proud tradition. It does hit home that you are doing something a bit special. And that in the middle of so much tragedy we are living the dream.

We will be conscious of the scrutiny celebrating this. If I go down to Clonmel and have a few pints, I will be representing the Tipp hurling panel. There’s eyes on you. It’s an added responsibility but a privilege too.

This idea that Tipp celebrate too much… Everyone is in the shadow of that great Kilkenny team. Tipp were going to dominate. Then Galway, then Limerick. If we win the U20, the talk will probably be of our domination again. If people think having a few drinks this week will affect next year’s championship, fair enough.

A quiet moment in the players’ lounge. Meet Orlaith, all the girlfriends. Then back on the bus to the Burlington. That 20 minutes is special, just the players and the management. A short journey together at the end of a long one. Someone has a speaker out and we’re singing.

Then the buzz in the Burlo walking in. Meeting people from home. That goodwill. I meet a few lads from the club and friends working in Dublin.

Some of the lads watch bits of the match on The Sunday Game. Noel gets the award. Well deserved. I’m too busy talking. Revelling in it. There’s enough bad things in life. When you get a chance to enjoy something you’ve got to make the most of it.

Monday: The Palace

This is the moment Dad would bottle. After the hospitals, outside the Palace Bar. That Tipperary enclave in the capital. If he could stop a moment in time that would be Dad’s. Seamie getting out of the car with Liam MacCarthy, Fleet Street packed with Tipperary people. The sun is shining. Tourists snap pictures and wonder what’s going on. Slievenamon spontaneously breaks out. Really special.

The girlfriends are on the bus back down to Thurles. They all know each other now too. Nobody is married yet. James Barry is the first, we’re losing him in November. James and Shannon are two smashing people and I’m delighted for them.

Like me earlier in the year, James had to put his own disappointment aside. Travelling up and down together, you’d never know. Just kept giving to the whole thing. No sulking. No throwing the head. At least he saw a few minutes in the final. So deserved. The Stadium crowd was massive. Another reminder of what it means.

Then the drive from Thurles to The Ragg. Watching Seamie at the top of the bus, bringing Liam back to his own little place. Bonfires lighting. We meet his parents. Seamie has given so much to Tipp and had good days and bad like the rest of us. Now he’s a legend. He’s always been a legend to us, how good a captain he has been.

That was a late night.

Tuesday: The Ragg

Lads have dispersed. Some stayed in the Anner Hotel, some in Hayes. Some on the sofas of parents and friends around mid and north Tipperary. Six of us gather ourselves in Thurles and get out to The Ragg again. The place is full all day but there are no ceremonies, no duties. We just enjoy each other’s company.

Wednesday: Portroe

Orlaith can’t do Portroe. Bridge too far. The bus makes a few stops. In Borrisoleigh, Nenagh, collecting lads. We get there eventually. My first time ever in the place. It’s two hours from Clonmel. You’d be in Dublin quicker.

Some crowd. Same as everywhere I go, people ask how’s Billy Carroll. He’s synonymous with St Mary’s. Every club has those characters. What Sunday will mean to the likes of Billy is special. You can see what it means to Portroe’s Billy Carrolls. And what it means to Liam Sheedy and John and Robert Byrne. Liam holds it together well.

Thursday: Back to the well

It’s great to be home, all the same. Nana is walking around the town just to meet people, to talk about it. Tomorrow, St Mary’s have the cup already, somehow. So there’s a function.

When anyone asks my club, I say St Mary’s/Commercials. Not everyone sees it like that. They are separate entities, pull different directions. It maddens me often, that you are seen as a hurling man or a football man, rather than a Clonmel man. Why the divide?

Commercials have given me one of my happiest days — the Munster final win over Nemo — and lowest — the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Ballyboden. Three points up in injury-time, I’ll take that to the grave. Playing with your club in Croke Park would top even Sunday.

Another of my proudest days came watching Seán in Thurles win a Minor A county title with St Mary’s. Unheard of in my time. I go back out to the well. Let’s see what its restorative powers are made of. Sitting now, I think of all the lads who have coached me, invested so much. I can’t wait to sit down with them.

Billy Carroll. Willy Peters. Frank Maher, who’s sadly not with us any more, the life and soul of St Mary’s. Donnacha Fahy. Ger Deely, Noel Buckley, Kevin Leahy, Brendan Cagney. Seanie O’Sullivan, on the Commercials side. Michael Quinlivan’s Dad Martin and Angela, my second mother. Charlie McKeever. They’ve all been so good to me.

One very special man is John McNamara, the president of Commercials. He played in goal on that three-in-a-row team, one of my grandfather’s best friends. I remember seeing him at the anniversary mass for years. He presented us our jerseys before that Nemo match. And I can’t wait to meet him now, though he’s not well at the minute.

There’s a Cúl Camp in the club tomorrow too, so I’ll head in. Sitting, listening to the water, I wonder what I’ll say to the kids. What else? Keep knocking.

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