PM O’Sullivan reads the autobiography of the 10-time All-Ireland medalist.
"I suppose there’s a pretty fine line between cleverness and bullshit." - HENRY SHEFFLIN
He is gone, Henry, into autobiography and there is nothing overblown or clichéd in discerning an era on the move with him.
That only one word is required tells much. To say Henry Shefflin is a hurler is akin to saying Bob Dylan is a singer. The former’s first name will come to stand for a distinct period in the most beautiful game, same as the latter’s surname frames the Sixties. Such is intimacy, on a small island.
While Henry Shefflin hurled for Kilkenny between 1999 and 2014, Ireland thrived, falsely prospered, went bust, put back on its boots. 20 years from now, 30 years from now, Reeling in the Years for that span will be dotted with black and amber jerseys and Shefflin moments. Those moments will be part of what was true.
He understands the dynamic, sport’s place in the whirl, and has spoken of the lift Ireland’s rugby grand slam of 2009 offered in the mire of recession. One of the ways in which Henry Shefflin is unusual lies in his thoughtfulness, which is why he made a seamless transition to commentating on The Sunday Game. He is bright out.
There is a compelling story in a young man’s rise from the rural middle class of South Kilkenny to being one of our finest sportsmen. He became much more than a hurler, a status reflected in 2006’s Sports Personality of the Year award. The thoughtfulness is no hindrance to his story’s progress. This memoir is cast in its author’s likeness, honest but tactful, direct without being brusque.
There are top athletes who seem relaxed about their capacities, almost nonchalant. Usain Bolt comes across thus. Henry Shefflin is not of this camp.
A profoundly emotional individual, he needed to channel his worries. Shefflin worked his gift on the lathe of his determination, shaping and shaping to the end. He puts it straight:
“I have this thing that, if team-mates are training five times a week, I’ll see to it that I do six. It’s a psychological trick I play on myself, always looking for an edge.”
Most unexpected aspect? Probably the numerous references to Shefflin the hurler in tears. Rarely is he lachrymose with joy.
Anxiety and frustration, during mid and later career, were often his bedfellows. He is admirably candid on this front. Injuries dropped a bucket deep into the well of his temperament.
For him, 2012 was a long night’s journey before the daylight represented by his third Hurler of the Year award. He states: “Because to know about my finest hour in hurling, you need to understand the wretchedness of the journey that got me there. Maybe I had to almost hate what my days had become to find a way of living again.”
He had swung to associating hardship with readiness, a splice that managed to wreck his head every bit as surely as one shoulder had been wrecked in a club match. This gravitation was nothing new.
Back in 2011, during January’s heavy snow, Shefflin and family were confined to home, away from the gym. His wife, Deirdre, discovers him out in the garage, black with dust, as he uses a 40 kilo bag of coal and tins of paint for an improvised weights session.
“When she found me,” he writes, “I could tell she was a little emotional.”
What drove this journey? The boy ends up the most decorated hurler of all time, becomes a husband and father of four. The strands are not to be separated.
This autobiography is dominated by moments of recognition, by instances when he accepted that he would have to change, despite success and all the more because of success. Nothing altered from childhood onwards, save the stakes.
There is a terrific filmic quality to certain vignettes, as with an early one set in Ballyhale National School. Memory speaks: “The back of our farm used to stretch up to a small apron of land, maybe a quarter of an acre in size, directly behind the school. That apron was where we played our school league matches and, if I looked out through the ditch, I could see my father standing there in his wellingtons, still on the farm, but watching.”
You need not be from Ballyhale to see that scene plain in mind’s eye.
Henry loses to a team containing his younger brother Paul in the league final. His father brings him out into the yard at home and speaks: “His opinion was that I hadn’t worked hard enough for my team. The message, basically, was: don’t try to hide behind your scoring total from frees.”
This hearth truth, although it took a while, was absorbed. As repeatedly stressed, there was nothing stellar about the underage career with St Kieran’s College and Kilkenny.
Five years in WIT, centred on the Fitzgibbon Cup, made him. There was the usual stuff in rented houses, amid the matches: “My sister Aileen was always very good to us and sent me down a massive pot of chicken curry once. It was gone before we’d had a single spoonful.”
That undergraduate had the luck to start growing up, as a man and as a hurler, at a time when an unusually driven individual took on managing the Kilkenny Senior panel. Now their names, Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin, twist around each other like ivy.
A signature contribution, once Shefflin found inter-county feet, became finishing strong after not starting wonderful. Leading cases in point: the All-Ireland Finals of 2003 and 2009. Even in 2001, amid meltdown against Galway in an All-Ireland semi final, the free-taking held up. Mental strength was there, like ore beneath clay.
That defeat proved the first big test. The memoirist does not spare himself: “My own whining and general childishness when presented with a bit of provocation maybe reflected a general preciousness in Kilkenny.”
Shefflin passed and accepted Hurler of the Year in 2002. Their team stood up again in 2003. The next test arrived when Cork took 2004 and pushed on through 2005.
The next All-Ireland Final slotted as a cusp contest. Everything was back on the line. Dónal Óg Cusack’s Come What May: The Autobiography (2009) flags how Cork felt they “could have finished Cody off in 2006”.
Three years later, Cusack drew a sobering moral: “Instead we created a monster.”
Henry Shefflin has his own take on that juncture: “Cork had been depicted as everything that we weren’t. They wore little motivational tattoos on their arms in the final, which, no doubt, would have been held up as a masterstroke had they won. I suppose there’s a pretty fine line between cleverness and bullshit.”
Here is Kilkenny’s authentic voice, inland and maybe insular too, suspicious of gimmickry, pressing towards bitter, aware of the stakes as farmers are aware of the sky. A winning tradition cannot stand still. To stay successful, this tradition needs bitterness, wherever found, the way whiskey needs wood.
Clare served, before Cork, in Brian Cody’s time as manager. Then Tipperary arrived as cooperage.
Henry Shefflin was the ultimate predator when championship blood ran, this polar bear coming across the tundra at startling speed, a strange and busy grace. Probably nowhere outside was he admired more than in Tipperary, where they appreciate that skill without ability to win possession is like currency without a bank. The Tipp crowd were first to speak of Shefflin as better than DJ Carey.
Before he died in 2010, John Doyle lamented that Kilkenny now hurled as Tipperary had operated in the 1960s, that Tipperary now hurled as Kilkenny had chanced in the 1960s. Coincidentally or not, most of Henry Shefflin’s closest friends during WIT days ? Éamonn Corcoran, Enda Everard, Andy Moloney ? were Tipp natives.
I fancy that he learned a lot from their company, on and off the field. Shefflin was at the epicentre of that furious transition between 2002, when he marked Corcoran, and 2014, when Tipperary played beautifully but still could not win.
What will endure are the masterpieces, scores or songs. Henry Shefflin has a scatter to his name. Although a small avalanche of newsprint greeted his inter-county retirement last March, I felt not enough was made of supreme skill.
Power, athleticism, dedication: tick and tick and tick, where Shefflin is concerned. But there was more. He laminated summer occasions with sui generis interventions.
An unnoticed but crucial quality was the ability to handpass off either side. He deftly made a goal for Willie O’Dwyer in the 2007 Leinster Final with his left hand. Then there was that wonderful torpedo handpass to TJ Reid in August 2012, which led to a goal and settled Tipperary’s hash on the day. That ball was dispatched with his right hand.
Two championship goals against Waterford are summary brilliance.
2004: Henry Shefflin is running in hard at goal from left corner, almost on the endline, when he jinks out to his right a split second, clearing a pleat of space on his left. Bang: compressed leftsided stroke, burying the ball to the net.
That cold jink while in hot chase…
2009: Tommy Walsh, intercepting a Waterford attack at half-back, spots Henry Shefflin at full-forward, inside their full-back, Aidan Kearney. Walsh’s delivery just clears Kearney’s flailing hurl. Shefflin kills the ball with a touch, bringing it an inch or two closer. Bang: next stroke, instantaneous, scythes the ball to the net.
That first inch-stealing rub…
Henry Shefflin is one of those rare exponents who come to represent limit possibilities in a discipline. Enduring summation on Ornette Coleman, magus of the saxophone, was that he could play between the notes. Shefflin often hurled between the notes.
You would not coach an U14 to play centre-forward the way he did, drifting away to the sides, reading it all outfield, like a chess grandmaster before the board, moves ahead. But Shefflin could do it and Shefflin repeatedly did do it. Coleman has ‘Beauty Is A Rare Thing’ and Shefflin has those goals, those assists.
At the heart of all great achievement must nestle a vertigo. The lines are so fine and everything could have been so different. This book has a haunting passage set in Croke Park but not as we know it.
Henry Shefflin got asked in 2012 to carry the Olympic torch around the roof of the stadium, a request among his most treasured honours. That season, his left shoulder remained a savage problem and brave face, which thinned inner spirit, was frequently called upon.
He recalls: “I am over the Hogan Stand when they want a great, warm swing of my free arm. Just one problem. The torch is in my right hand now and, well, my left arm is not for lifting. I’m really squirming as I force it higher than it wants to go.
“‘Smile, Henry!’ they tell me. Through clenched teeth, I manage to oblige.”
Later, he finds an odd clarity: “There is one moment, just over the Nally Stand I think, that makes me quite emotional. I’m standing there, slightly separated from everyone else, looking down across Croke Park.
“I think of Deirdre and the kids below, looking up at me perched, quite literally, on the top of the world.”
Henry Shefflin is gone from stripes and Croke Park but not from Ballyhale Shamrocks. They are hurling The Fenians in a Senior quarter-final this Sunday at 2.00pm.
He will be there, still a hurler, on the green tundra that is Tom Ryall Park in Kilmanagh.
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