Dream of ’63 lives on

BEING taken to watch Waterford play Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling final of 1963 was a dream come true for a seven-year-old boy from Cappoquin.

It was Kieran O’Connor’s first visit to Croke Park where his brother Michael had helped the Déise to win the Liam McCarthy Cup four years earlier.

Waterford hurlers were beaten that year and young O’Connor, who remembers travelling to the game in high spirits, was broken-hearted.

His late father Michael consoled him afterwards with words that every GAA dad has uttered to sons and daughters in the gloomy aftermath of dark defeat —– “We’ll be back next year.”

It has taken 45 years, however, for Waterford to return to Croke Park for an All-Ireland final but Kieran O’Connor will be there again on Sunday hoping to banish the ghosts of the past.

But this time he will be in a unique position as sponsorship and communications manager with Glanbia, the 1.1 billion turnover food group with roots in both counties.

Glanbia, which was formed from the merger of Avonmore (Kilkenny) and Waterford co-ops, has the rare distinction of being the official sponsor of both teams.

Group chairman Liam Herlihy said the sponsorship, which goes back to 1999, means the company has backed the winners of Sunday’s final between the neighbouring counties, no matter who comes out on top.

Kieran O’Connor said that while Glanbia is a global food company, it is rooted in Ireland and especially in Kilkenny and Waterford where hurling is embedded in the lives of the people.

What’s more, the current president of the GAA, Nickey Brennan, the winner of All-Ireland senior hurling medals with Kilkenny, is also a Glanbia employee.

He is on record as saying there has always been strong links between the GAA and the farmers of Ireland, who have played the games and served as officials in various capacities.

Those links go back to the days when most clubs did not have playing pitches of their own and depended on the co-operation of local farmers to make fields available for training and matches.

It is rooted too in stories of farmers’ sons playing for club and county on Sunday afternoons and then rushing home to help milk the cows.

Others have been known to hurriedly swap the combine for the camán on busy harvesting days in August and head for the training grounds before big championship games.

Farmers’ wives and daughters have also played their part looking after the jerseys, togs and boots of their hurling men. Together they all shared in the collective parish joy at victories big and small and in the sorrows of tantalising defeat.

Indeed, the link between farm families and this year’s hurling final is reflected in the respective panels of players. Both captains are in fact from farming backgrounds.

Kilkenny will be led by teacher James “Cha” Fitzpatrick, whose father Ned is a Glanbia milk supplier and director from Ballyhale, while Waterford will be captained by Michael “Brick” Walsh from a drystock farming family in Stradbally.

Noel Hickey, the stalwart Kilkenny defender, is a milk and tillage farmer from Dunnamaggin. Ritchie Mullally, Glenmore, is a dairy farmer. John Tennison also comes from farming stock and has a brother, Pat, working as branch manager with Glanbia in Kilmanagh.

On the Waterford panel, Eoin Murphy is from a tillage farming and agricultural contracting background in Knockanore, while Pat Fitzgerald, Modeligo, is a dairy farmer.

The Prendergast brothers from Ardmore are also close to the land. Declan works with his father Pat in running the family tillage farm and agri-contracting business.

Seamus is a representative with Norbrook, the veterinary medicines company, where one of his colleagues is the former Tipperary All-Star hurler Declan Ryan.

Kieran O’Connor, who has been commentating on GAA games for WLR FM for 17 years, with former hurlers Fergal Hartley and Shane Ahern as analysts in recent times, has won praise from both counties for his even handling of Glanbia’s sponsorship and his match broadcasts.

He is, however, a loyal Waterford man, who has shared over the past decade all the joys of the Déise’s breakthrough in Munster hurling and the dark days of tantalising defeats in five All-Ireland semi-finals.

“I think that this year’s Kilkenny panel is the best since Brian Cody took over. They are to hurling what the All Blacks are to rugby. Beating them will be very difficult.

“But the Waterford team, under Davy Fitzgerald, has improved with every game and is going into the final with every hope. I think it will be a fantastic game of hurling,” he said.

A young boy’s dream of ’63 still lives on in a new century, is replicated across a proud but patient county and will clearly influence O’Connor’s match commentary on Sunday.

Should Waterford bridge that 45-year gap, he will no doubt come up with descriptive and emotive lines similar to those he uttered in the dying moments of the country’s long-awaited triumph in the 2002 Munster final.

“Generations have gone by,” he said. “The currency has changed twice. We have had six presidents and seven changes of taoisigh. Nelson’s Pillar is gone — but Waterford hurlers are back.”

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