Kieran Shannon: The hurlers who talked the talk as well as they walked the walk

THE simple pleasures we took for granted. Like hopping into a car and travelling more than 2km and meeting up with some athlete or coach, past or present, in some café, hotel — or even their living room or garden patio — and hearing their stories of triumph and struggle, public and private, many of them previously untold.
Kieran Shannon: The hurlers who talked the talk as well as they walked the walk
Players who shared insights with Kieran Shannon include Cork’s Brian Corcoran with whom he teamed up to write ‘Every Single Ball: The Brian Corcoran Story’, and Kilkenny’s Eddie Brennan whose interview signalled his later success. Picture: Sam Barnes

THE simple pleasures we took for granted. Like hopping into a car and travelling more than 2km and meeting up with some athlete or coach, past or present, in some café, hotel — or even their living room or garden patio — and hearing their stories of triumph and struggle, public and private, many of them previously untold.

And then, after we’d pressed stop on the old tape recorder or the phone voice memo device, and perhaps lingered and chatted some more in a hotel lobby, car park, or front drive, we’d shake hands, often parting with a laugh, particularly if they were old and mellow enough to have finished up playing the game that once consumed them. No social distancing, no Zoom, no Skype. All in person. In the flesh.

Nine years ago this week I began the Big Interview slot with the Irish Examiner, the first being with the late great Anthony Foley in a canteen out in CIT while he was serving his coaching apprenticeship with his beloved Munster.

Just as it’s 25 years now since I started out full-time in this business, in the same year that Axel’s native Clare won that most magical and unlikely of All Irelands.

Over that time, I’ve sat down with closer to a thousand sportspeople than I have to a hundred, two-thirds of whom must have been GAA players or coaches. I’ve learned and adapted — as I should, says you, having been at it so long.

With a slot as flexible and as eclectic as the Saturday interview, I can avoid the reticent and reluctant; unlike my days as a GAA correspondent with a Sunday paper, there’s no need to deal with a player or setup that subscribes to the mushrooms theory of media relations — to feed journalists shite and keep them in the dark.

Why bother, when you can instead just talk to a former player from that county who has seen and lived a life outside that bubble, or someone from another sport altogether?

In all, though, interviewing sportspeople has been a joy and a privilege. Hurling folk in particular have been a delight.

There can be an earthiness and a humour and often a lyricism about them that I’ve been lucky enough to capture on my dictaphones, whatever about in my eventual pieces.

And so, in these strange, nostalgia-laden times, when everyone else in this writing game seems to be selecting every county’s sporting Mount Rushmore or the best matches they’ve seen, I’ve been in reflective enough mood myself to pick a personal all-interviewee hurling XV.

The goalkeeping spot was as ferociously competitive as it was during the position’s golden age that inspired Christy O’Connor to write a book celebrating it.

Brendan Cummins and Donal Óg Cusack have been very generous to me through the years with their time and insights. But ultimately our Last Man Standing had to be the inimitable Joe Quaid.

I first interviewed him over the phone a few days out from a do-or-die Munster championship semi-final in 1997, the kind of access that now seems unimaginable and naïve so close to a big game.

Two months earlier he’d lost a testicle literally putting his body on the line to save a shot, yet here he was, ready again to stand between the posts and between John Leahy and the back of the net while joking about all the nuts and grapes his teammates brought visiting him in hospital.

Not everything though was a laughing matter with Joe. Last year I met up again with him.

He’d recently lost his sister, aged just 60, his “hero and inspiration”.

And, reflecting on the All-Ireland his beloved county had won the previous August, he’d recount the journey he had shared with Cian Lynch & Co, being one of their coaches at underage level, and the funeral of an U15 teammate they’d to attend.

How he couldn’t watch Joe Canning stand over that free and instead turned his back to the play. How he didn’t know how he’d react if Limerick did indeed win.

Would I be elated? Or would I be selfishly pissed off and envious that it was them getting it and not us?

So how did he react when they did win? Well, the following night he was dancing around with the team in a nightclub to Mark McCabe spinning Maniac 2000, only he wisely left his shirt on.

“I don’t think any night will ever replicate it. And I don’t even think I’d have enjoyed ’94 and ’96 any better had we won either of them.”

A man gladly at peace with his past and the world.

At right corner back, where she won a couple of her 12 All-Irelands, is Ann Downey for her honesty and directness.

About growing up in the shadow of Angela, struggling with her mental health in the wake of being let go in her job, her duty of care to players, yet how she doesn’t settle for a text or WhatsApp message from them — if you can’t make training, call her, don’t text.

At full back, where he’d sometimes fill in before a certain red helmet emerged to free him up to play elsewhere, is Anthony Daly. Since you read this paper, you don’t need an explanation why.

In the other corner then is Cathal Freeman, the student doctor who only in January reminded us how they can love hurling in Mayo as well, and who only at the weekend ran the most imaginative of marathons to raise over €50,000 for the HSE and Irish Cancer Society. Something with a bit of soul in it, as he’d say.

If at times watching his Waterford side hurl could be poetry in motion, then hearing Tony Browne describe the similarities between the journey of a hurler’s season and career and that of the salmon he’d fish the morning after big championship matches was poetry too.

Brian Corcoran was also very good to me through the years, informing me when he was quitting inter-county football and then shockingly (temporarily) from hurling at just 28 — “I just feel it’s too much time to waste, doing something I’m not enjoying anymore” — before we’d team up to write a book detailing the inner workings of that exceptional Cork team he returned to.

BUT the standout character on this half-back line of stars has to be ‘Brother’ Larry O’Gorman.

One minute into our conversation he was ridding the streets of crime. “[This guy] smashed the shop window and tried to treat himself to a fur jacket and jewellery. But I didn’t think they were meant for him, so I just held him.

‘No, you can’t do that! It’s not your property! Leave it alone!’”

The next he was describing how he once found it hard to even leave his apartment after a relationship breakdown, only for Liam Griffin to look out for him.

He was so open, childlike, poignant, funny, often all at once. This is what he had to say in his glorious Wexford accent about the night he had to pull the car over in tears coming back from training having been informed by management his services were no longer required.

“My whole life had been crushed. There was nothing else in the world. Winning the Lotto wouldn’t have made me any happier.

“I’d rather be a hurler than a millionaire. I’d rather be a hurler than a porn star. I’d rather be a hurler than the most famous man in the world. I loved it more than anything else.”

Oh Brother, King Larry, never leave the building and never change.

Denis Coughlan was not of my generation, but he beautifully painted his and that of his father, as well as the aura and quirks of Ring. Ciarán Carey opened up about his struggles with alcoholism and being without work before finding his vocation as a counsellor.

Tony Griffin spoke in a way we had never heard an active hurler speak before. “I really think we can create our happiness by choice,” he’d tell me for the Sunday Tribune before a 2006 All-Ireland semi-final.

“How did Nelson Mandela come out of prison with the attitude he had unless he chose to think that way? Or the way Andy Dufresne talks about hope and Zihuatanejo.

“When I went to [study in] Canada, I realised as great as hurling is, the world is bigger than the GAA.”

Which might explain that, after winning an All-Star that winter, he’d spend the following summer cycling across Canada for cancer research instead of hurling for Clare.

GAA players just didn’t do that back then — head off at the peak of their powers. Some do now. Not for the first or last time, Griffin led the way.

Kilkenny haven’t always been the easiest to write about or at least interview during the Cody years, but, ahead of the 2011 All-Ireland final, I secured a one-to-one audience with Henry Shefflin.

It had been arranged through a PR agency, but Shefflin’s level of courtesy and candour went beyond any commercial obligation, giving a precious insight into the workings of the player of a generation.

With other Cats, we had to wait until they retired for similar openness, but it would turn out to be worth it.

Derek Lyng, Brian Hogan, and Jackie Tyrrell have all been fantastic interviewees — but it’s Eddie Brennan that makes our actual starting XV.

At the time he was only in his second year as a coach, having suffered the ignominy of losing to the Westmeath U21s in his first, and about to lose heavily to Limerick in an All-Ireland final in his second, but it was clear to me from his remarkable reflections on his own playing career and fledgling coaching path that he’d cut it as a manager the way he has with Laois.

Our full-forward line is considerably less star-studded — but they have all shone in other ways.

Around this time last year, I spent five hours with Shane Fitzgibbon, one of the former Limerick players who helped prepare the rocket without needing to be there himself on the moon for the 2018 landing.

For years, Conor Cusack hid away in his room but, through his eloquence, courage, and kindness, has helped others emerge out of that hell on earth and to see light.

Tommy Guilfoyle had us in fits of laughter and on the verge of tears recalling his scrapes with everything from lawnmowers to Ger Loughnane, and how, in the lead-in to the 1994 Munster final, he and his wife suffered private devastation with the arrival of a stillborn child; how little we know what these men in the arena might be going through.

Yet through it all he’d retain a Larry-O enthusiasm for the game. At 49, he was still hurling.

“I’m not sure there are too many guys who can claim to have won three junior B championships and one junior C championship,” he’d smile, nearly 30 years after helping Feakle to a senior championship, and the image of 10 of those men of ’88 still at it, playing alongside their sons, with their younger kids again tucking into their crisps and Coke when they all stopped off in John Minogue’s in Tulla on the way home.

Good hurlers have been left on the line ready to come in. Damien Hayes pucking a ball against the wall on his lunch break between selling cars and charming us remains a fond memory (we’d even buy a second-hand car off him a year later).

Paul Flynn in Tramore too. There’s been Seán Óg, Tony Óg. Stephen Lucey. Brian and Jim Greene. Seamus Hennessy. Seanie McGrath. I’ve been spoiled.

And then there are the mentors. They’re another piece again.

The gentle wisdom of John Allen and the wonders of the concertina. Eamon O’Shea. Paudie Butler. Michael O’Grady. Micky ‘Wing’ McCullough. Jamie Wall. John McIntyre. Michael Ryan. Tom Ryan. Justin. Loughnane. Griffin. What those men have given us and the game, though no doubt they’d point out what the game has given them.

May our path cross theirs again.

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