Maurice Woodcock puts down his glass, feeling that bit philosophical.
“I’ve got one of Jim McGrath’s jobs,” he says. “But I don’t know who’s going to take the other 19 of them…”
We are in Delaney’s of Patrick Street on a Wednesday night, with Maurice in Kilkenny so as to leave in lotto tickets. This task Jim performed with particular zest since Séamus Delaney, the proprietor, was one of his closest friends.
Back in April, Maurice’s colleague in Danesfort GAA Club was gone but a month, lost to a long battle with cancer. The absence was immediately and severely felt. “No job was too big or too small for Jim,” Derek Dooley emphasises, another clubman and a longstanding friend. “He did everything: groundsman, swept out the dressing rooms, sold any amount of tickets, took money on the gate. You name it…”
Derek continued: “The other thing about Jim was that he was great to bring the younger and the older in the club together. Maurice and myself are a case in point. Jim was just a total people person, across the board.”
Jim McGrath was born on March 7, 1943. His home place was Annamult, a picturesque townland on the banks of the River Nore.
“I always thought Annamult was a kind of idyllic place,” Brian McGrath says. Jim’s son loved visiting the grandparents there, same as his sister Áine. “You have the woods and the river so close together,” he recalls. “His parents pretty much lived a self-sufficient life, which influenced the father.”
Local geography meant an early twist. “Jim did his hurling first with Aghavillar,” Dick Mahony explains. “He went to national school in Stoneyford, which is part of that parish and the Carrickshock club.”
A former Chairman of Danesfort, Dick elaborated: “But Jim came to hurl with us at 14, because the parish rule was very strict for youngsters at that point, since it had just come in.” Dick was two years older, part of the same run. They soldiered together, young and not so young. “Jim was never afraid to pull,” he says, chancing a smile.
The same man was well able to hurl. Jim McGrath won a Minor All-Ireland at right corner-back in 1961. Brian McGrath shows me a charm bracelet his father had made for his mother, Ann. Five medals are strung together: the two Minor ones from that year, a Leinster Intermediate one from 1967, and two for twice winning the Mount Carmel Challenge Cup.
Jim McGrath began an apprenticeship in the early 1960s as a painter and decorator. This path ended up taking him to London for a spell. He hurled over there but was back before too long, resuming with Danesfort.
Injury later affected his club career, which finished a little early. That chapter over, Jim became a noted referee and stuck to this task until the mid-1990s. All the while, he was becoming more and more involved in the running of Danesfort and served as team trainer in the 1980s.
Through that apprenticeship with Éamonn McHugh, Jim met Ann McHugh. They married in 1970 and built a house at Bamford, a townland in St Patrick’s Parish (and Village territory). The house next door became that of Ann’s sister, Stastia, and her husband, Tony Tierney.
Brian McGrath, boy and man, hurled with James Stephens. But there was to be another twist. “Dad knocked a big kick out of me hurling a couple of years with Danesfort, after I built a house out in Cuffesgrange,” Brian relates. “Even though it was only Junior B, it was still Danesfort!”
For decades, since 1930 saw their sole title in the grade, Danesfort had lodged at Junior. “They didn’t really want to go up Senior,” Dick Mahony stresses. “That time, the club preferred to be gone early in the summer so they could hurl in the tournaments. And especially in the Mount Carmel Cup in Knocktopher, which was the big one at the time. Suit lengths and all that…”
I can hear, in Dick’s wistful voice, those summer evenings of the 1950s and ’60s, the lovely inland murmur of youth and near youth.
So all natives exulted when Danesfort won Junior in 2006. It had been a long time coming. Released, the club strode to an All-Ireland title in the grade.
No one exulted more than Jim McGrath, of course. But not in typical fashion.
Derek Dooley tells the story: “Jim wasn’t drinking at the time, because of his stomach. So he spent the night of the All-Ireland ferrying people between the two pubs, The Harvester and Mowler Gorman’s. He just loved being in the thick of it all.”
There was natural delight at the contribution of Danesfort’s Richie Hogan and Paul Murphy to Kilkenny in recent seasons. Derek expands: “It was a great moment for him to attend the All Star Banquet in 2014. Jim saw Richie and Paul both get one, and Richie become Hurler of the Year. He did some smiling that night…”
Jim McGrath had distinctive traits. He loved to drive and enjoyed going fast. For any Kilkenny match, league or championship, he liked to be home first, greeting other supporters as they filtered into Delaney’s, soliciting their opinion of the day’s events.
Maurice Woodcock smiles: “If you were in the car with Jim, you knew to be on the move at the final whistle. Or maybe before it!”
Jim enjoyed good food, even though an operation for a stomach ulcer in the 1960s, severe in the way of the time, meant he had to be sparing in that enjoyment. Nothing was better than the wild mushrooms he foraged, the trout he caught.
“He kept half the town supplied with mushrooms,” Séamus Delaney interjects.
There was no side to the man, never any sense of entitlement. He did all that he did because he enjoyed doing it. It was a life well lived, one done on his terms, which were forever generous.
Jim liked a small quiet bet. He had a sharp eye and was good at it. Cheltenham gone by proved beneficial, with an accumulator delivering a substantial return. Those funds bought a lawnmower for Tony, his brother-in-law and neighbour.
“You can keep the grass cut after I’m gone,” he told him.
I met Jim McGrath in Loughboy Library a couple of days before he died, when Paul Murphy’s number 2 jersey adorned his coffin. He was taking out books, discussing his choices with desk staff in the same jovial way as he had always met the world.
A little tactlessly, not having expected to see him, I asked how he was. Pure gentleman to the end, Jim made little of my slip with a smile. “Ah, I’m alright,” he said. “No point complaining.”
Then he wanted to talk, with every excitement, about how Kilkenny would get on in 2016.
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