The last time Cork played Limerick in a Munster final, Kevin Hennessy picked up his final Munster medal. He’s been through quite a bit since, including a brush with death, but still has his trademark bright outlook

From the moment you’re shown how to grip that hurley right, it seems the game then has a grip on you.

Last weekend, the Midleton minors were playing Na Piarsaigh at CIT, they needed an umpire, and since he’d been a referee before the cancer scare, Kevin Hennessy said he’d do it.

As he took up his spot, he heard a familiar voice shouting from behind.

There behind the goal with the thumbs up was Na Piarsaigh’s finest, Tony O’Sullivan, keeping a watchful eye on their young and brightest, 34 years on since he and Hennessy won a minor All-Ireland together.

Just last Tuesday night then, Hennessy was in the Mardyke to support the club minors playing in the local championship when who did he meet but Jim Cashman. They talked about family, the upcoming big game in Limerick, but it was only after that it dawned on Hennessy why Jim had decided Midleton-Ballincollig was the best way to spend such a glorious summer’s evening; the winners would be playing his beloved Blackrock in the next round and he was there to scout what they were like.

Today Hennessy will make his way to Limerick and from the stand look down at the Cork management below. Jimmy, looking fresh enough to still be playing himself; Jimmy was team captain when Hennessy won the first of his seven Munster medals.

Johnny Crowley: when Hennessy was off scoring two goals and a point in the 1986 All-Ireland, Johnny was at the other end foiling Galway’s famous two-man inside forward line tactic.

Kieran Kingston will be there too: when a point and stellar display from the Tracton man forced a replay against Limerick back in 1987, Hennessy was team captain and banged in 1-2 in the replay.

Ger Cunningham will be on the line too. Ger was also on that 1979 minor team and between the posts for the seven Munsters and three All-Irelands the Cork seniors would win during Hennessy’s time. Almost as soon as he finished up playing with Cork, he was helping out Cork, as a selector with the U21s, along with Hennessy.

Down at the club in Midleton, it’s the same story, the same passion lives on. John Fenton is club treasurer. Denis Mulcahy, steady as ever, still makes time to help out as a selector. The man-mountain that was Pat Hartnett is a more refined creature these days with a dentistry practice in Mayfield but still manages to take the club U21 side. Ger Fitzgerald, Hennessy’s partner in scoring goals with club and county, has been manager of the Cork U21s these last few years.

Hennessy himself is club vice-chairman, serving as a club officer just like his father John before him. The way he views things, any day you’re above the grass is a good day, and the best way of spending time above that grass is on it. Before we go into how he nearly died, though, it’s best you first know how he’s lived.

Just as Hennessy’s large frame commands any room, his huge personality used to fill any dressing room. As much as he offered Cork on the field, his value within those four walls was even greater.

As Justin McCarthy put it in his book ‘Hooked’, Hennessy was the definitive ball-hopper, the team’s resident comic. Nothing or no one was sacred. Not even the Canon. Not even Frank.

“Lads would be frightened of Frank Murphy but I’d say anything at all to Frank. I’d be there with other fellas, Frank would be within earshot and I’d say to them, ‘Don’t be swapping the jerseys now! You’re not allowed to do that! If you’re going to take a jersey, take someone else’s!’ I’d be winding him up to the last!

“Or there’d be some topic of the day. ‘Oh, you can get a footballer off in Croke Park when he should be getting six months. Have you done that for a hurler? Well, it might be done for a Blackrock hurler...’

“I’ll tell you a few things about Frank though. He could take it and he could give it. He’d always wait to get you back with a line. He was like a good fisherman that way: throw out the hook, wait awhile, then someone like me would take it and sure Frank then would reel you in. I found him a great character. I remember when we won the All-Ireland U21 in ’82, we’d beaten Galway in Birr. We stopped off in Mitchelstown for a drink and a sing-song and Frank gave us a great song. Frank has this reputation for being serious all the time but I found him a very sociable fella. At the end of the day if any other county could pick a county secretary, they’d all select Frank.”

Canon Michael O’Brien was another to feel the wrath of Hennessy’s wit just as he wanted Hennessy to incur his. The Thursday before a big game — either the 1991 Munster final replay or one of the 1993 league replays against Wexford, accounts vary — the Canon roared at his players in a team meeting that only three forwards had played to an acceptable level. Hennessy, who had hardly been going his best, put up his hand and looked around. “Who were the other two?”

That had steam coming out of the Canon’s ears but for Hennessy it broke the ice. He was constantly looking for ways to relieve the tension.

Those old Cork teams had their share of cool cats, or at least ways of keeping relaxed. For the 1982 Munster final, the team’s East Cork contingent travelled down in one of the Roche brothers’ cabs.

When they were held up a bit in Cahir meeting the Waterford crowd, Seanie O’Leary took the shoes off and put the feet out the window. A few hours later in that scorching sunshine he’d score four goals.

For All-Irelands they’d head to the dogs the night before: Shelbourne Park. Jimmy was the ringleader that way, even though he was one of the quietest of the lot.

“He’d have the (Evening) Echo all marked out for us, picking out what (greyhounds) he thought were best. We’d have a great laugh there, then a few of us might go to Paddy Cullen’s for a couple of pints before being back for some tea and sandwiches at 11. If I was playing a county final at home I’d sneak off to a pub outside the town for my two pints as well. I found it helped you sleep. Now, not every fella did it. John Fenton and Pat Horgan never drank in their lives. Some fellas would go to the cinema, go for a walk in town, or read the early editions of the Sunday papers. But for a few of us the dogs and the couple of pints was our thing.

“You wouldn’t have it now but it seemed to work for us.”

You’d have to say it worked for Hennessy. At times through the years he would have lean spells and take some flack from the terraces. “I wasn’t ever taken to by the Cork supporters,” he says, “I was gangly and not the most skilful and made mistakes but I’d persist with it and get some luck then.” He talks a lot about luck; how a Pat Herbert might be beating you to every ball, then you’re moved over to someone else, he misses a ball, it breaks for you and next thing you’ve a goal and you’re a hero. “Luck plays a pivotal part,” he stresses. “Right place, right time.”

Such was Hennessy’s scoring and winning rate though, it was down to a lot more than luck. Cork supporters have a lot to thank him for. He was a goalscorer and a big-game player, finding the net in each of the three All-Ireland finals he won.

He was especially a thorn in the side of Galway. In the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final he scored 2-1, then again in the victorious final a year later. When the sides met again in the 1990 decider, a groundstroke of his flashed to the net after just 48 seconds. That goal was to prove the difference and to this day remains the quickest final goal ever.

Playing Galway wasn’t easy though, especially going up against Sylvie Linnane. Hennessy vividly recalls a league game up there where Galway rarely lost but where Cork had to win.

“With about 15 minutes to go we were looking for a winner when I went to pull on a ball. Sylvie came in under a bit early and I caught him over his eye. They were treating him on the ground and Jimmy comes over to me. ‘Kevin, just a few minutes left now, just you keep running away from me.’ I could tell why, of course; when Sylvie was taking out his retribution he didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire.

“Anyway, nothing happened. We won and we were in the hotel having our food when just as we were leaving Sylvie, was coming back in. I can still see him to this day: four or five stitches over his eyebrow . Says I, ‘Sylvie, it was an accident.’ He said, ‘Oh sure, Kevin, I know it was, I know it was! See you on Sunday anyway!’ I said to the lads in the car, ‘He must have a right bang on that head. What game on Sunday is he talking about?’ Then the lads said, ‘We’re playing them in the Oireachtas final in Cork.’ Well, my jaw dropped. I never trained as hard as I did that week. And never ran as much the week after either.”

In those days he could run. Over the years though his pace would slow down. Brian Corcoran in Every Single Ball recalls Cork training sessions in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in the early 1990s where the team would be running laps of the tunnel. “Next thing as we’d be over on the open stand side, Hennessy would hop up onto the steps, take a seat in the stand, stretch back and wait for us to go around another few times before joining back in.”

He didn’t need to be so quick of foot then when he was so quick of mind.

“Sure he’d be pulling and dragging and playing the hurley and leaning in, you know, all elbows and hands,” his old teammate Ger Fitzgerald has observed. “He’s a big man. But he was also very smart.

Very quick brain. Sometimes he’d be wrecking your head, maybe, calling you to run there, go there, but at the same time he did read the game very well.”

They’d win four county titles and an All-Ireland club title together and still be competing in county finals up to 1996 in Hennessy’s final year with them. Once he stopped playing, the weight mounted up.

The real health scare though was seven years ago. He went to the doctor complaining about a headache and when they finally took a closer look in the hospital they found he had tumours on the brain. Cancer.

“When you hear cancer you think: Dead. And my mother was of the opinion, ‘Everyone beats cancer now, come on.’ I said to my mother, ‘Not everyone beats it.’ I read a very good book about beating cancer and the thing you must admit is that it can take you. If you admit that, everything is alright. If you can’t admit that you’re in trouble. It’s all psychological; mind over matter. It’s all about the right attitude. I beat it because I was determined to beat it. I did everything right. And we caught it in time.”

Word around Cork was that he was gone but then there was a breakthrough — they’d checked one of the tumours and it was treatable. He followed the treatment to a tee and by that Christmas he was released after six months in hospital. It was the most testing six months of his life.

“When you’d be on your own in the hospital in the morning, you’d be crying away to yourself. It was tough going. I found the radiotherapy harder because it burnt you. You’d lie there with a mask and they tied you down…

“The last two chemos I was sick, especially the second last one. I didn’t eat for about a month, I was only picking at things. All the hair fell out and I lost three and a half stone — but they were small things.”

He got by with a little help from some friends. Former Cork coach Johnny Clifford would call in to him every day. Tomás Mulcahy would do anything for him. Nicky English regularly called and had the old Tipp team Hennessy fought against all sign a card wishing him well. His wife Una was a rock all through.

Now they’re grandparents. Their eldest child, Caoimhe, is married with a one-year-old son. Sean, 26, is over in England where he has a fiancée and a child who’ll be one next month. Megan, the youngest, is still at home, working as a beautician.

For years Kevin Hennessy had left his medals uninterrupted in an old USA biscuit tin under a bed. Then he decided to hand them to the kids.

Caoimhe was born in ’84, the year he won his first senior All-Ireland, so she got that.

Sean was born the Saturday after the ’86 final, so he got that (he won an All Ireland of his own last month, the Lory Meagher final in Croke Park with Warwickshire).

Megan was born in ’88 but since Cork didn’t win the All-Ireland that year, she had to do with the 1990 edition her father won for Cork. His nephew James will get the U21 medals while Una still has the minor All-Ireland medal which she wore on her wedding day.

Medals count. He’s learned that through the years. Win an All-Ireland senior with Cork and you can still get tickets for every Munster final and All-Ireland Cork play.

Cork could do with a Munster medal now. It’s seven years since they last won the province. The strikes did damage but he can sense a healing and a renewal. “That team of Seán Óg, Donal Óg, that was a great team. Everyone has their day. It’s these lads’ chance now to shine.”

Four of the panel are from Midleton, two will start: Conor Lehane and Luke O’Farrell up front just like Hennessy and Ger Fitz back in the day. If they even laugh, whatever about score, even half as much in their time with Cork, what a time they’ll have had.


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