Farewell Frankie, you stood small but hurled big

There was a time within living memory when the Railway Cup was a big deal.

Provincial games drew huge crowds for competitive encounters, and sometimes the competitive urge spilled into selection debates which were sustained by what would now be called sectional interests.

Selectors were routinely appointed by counties to ensure their players got on the provincial side, so it was surprising when, during the 50s, with the competition at its keenest, the nomination of a Munster hurling 15 was held up by a Limerick selector trying to get a Waterford player on the team.

It wasn’t just any Waterford player, though, but Frankie Walsh, who died a couple of days ago.

And it wasn’t just any Limerick selector, either, but Mick Mackey.

The counter-argument to Mackey’s case was that Walsh was too small to be effective, but the Limerick icon’s retort was immortal.

“Frankie Walsh may be small,” said Mackey. “But he hurls big.”

Mackey’s reference to size wasn’t an accidental one. The Limerick man’s power was a key element in his achievements, but he recognised class when he saw it. If you caught the brief televised tributes to Walsh’s passing over the weekend you would have seen a slim, spare young man accepting the Liam MacCarthy in 1959.

Walsh certainly didn’t put the seams of his jersey under stress, not the way powerful cornerstones of the team like Tom Cheasty and Austin Flynn did. In an era when physical confrontation was a given in the game, Walsh starred in Croke Park and Thurles, Walsh Park and the Athletic Grounds weighing less than 10 stone dripping wet.

Being that light wasn’t much of a help when Waterford took on the great power of the age, the awesome Tipperary team of the late 50s and 60s — Hell’s Kitchen and so forth — but Walsh’s courage was never in question.

In his very first senior inter-county championship game, in 1956, Walsh had his skull fractured and spent weeks in hospital. He was advised not to continue hurling, reasonable advice in view of the fact that basic protective helmets — never mind faceguards and protective gloves — were over a decade in the future. His destiny couldn’t be denied, however. Walsh was a distant relation of John Keane, Waterford hurling legend of the 30s and 40s; as a child he’d call to Keane’s house to see the All-Ireland medal won by his hero in 1948.

Walsh returned to hurling. He won his first Munster senior championship medal within 12 months of that terrible injury; he would line out for his club for almost two more decades, but it was the golden evening in autumn 1959 that most people will know him for.

Before he went up to collect the Liam MacCarthy cup — and advised Éamon de Valera on hurling tactics before getting his hands on the silverware — Walsh hit eight points in Waterford’s replay victory over Kilkenny. A captain’s part.

Recently Páidí Ó Sé was laid to rest in Kerry, and was rightly celebrated. Ó Sé amassed a dazzling collection of honours in a lengthy career and was one of the great characters on a team of great characters, a bright star in a throbbing galaxy.

Frankie Walsh’s fame was of a different order. An All-Ireland winning captain has presence even where there’s plenty of success, but an All-Ireland winning captain with little company in his county’s pantheon retains an aura always.

You could ask Anthony Molloy in Donegal what it’s like to be the only man from your county to walk up the steps of the Hogan Stand to make small talk with the president of the GAA in September — and about his relief to finally have another man to share that experience with, thanks to Jim McGuinness and his players last season.

For over half a century Frankie Walsh was in that position. Yes, Waterford had won an All-Ireland senior hurling title in 1948, but that era has receded into mythology. For more than five decades Walsh was pointed out by fathers to sons in an expression of the curious there-that’s-him fame of the GAA: as Walsh strolled the steep streets from Ballybricken or stood on the grassy banks of Fraher Field, a ripple of nudges and nods rolled back around him.

You can expect a good crowd in Waterford this morning — the funeral mass is at 11 in The Holy Family Church and the burial is in Ballygunner cemetery afterwards; you needn’t be a close student of Waterford club hurling to appreciate the irony involved in a Mount Sion legend spending eternity in Ballygunner.

If you’re from Waterford then presumably you’ll be there. If you’re interested in hurling you’ll probably feel the need to travel as well, like the man who rang this columnist early on Saturday morning. A near-contemporary of Walsh’s, he left a short and simple voicemail message: another good one gone.

* Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

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