The legend at the heart of ‘Hell’s Kitchen’

He speaks softly but carried a big stick. Michael Maher was one of the greatest full-backs to ever play hurling. The Tipperary legend spoke to Michael Moynihan.

There’s no change out of Maher. – Christy Ring

THE SUBJECT of that tribute chuckles when you mention it and pours out more tea in the quiet back bar of the Anner Hotel.

Michael Maher’s courtesy and quiet manner is at odds with the image. When Tipperary ruled the hurling world in the 50s and 60s, he was the forceful gatekeeper in the number three jersey.

Implacable and powerful, he embodied the enduring Tipperary self-image: that of brawny country lads going up to Croke Park and barring the way to all-comers.

“I enjoyed it all,” he says. “We never felt we’d get hurt. I gave Ring a shot of a shoulder one day – a harmless one – and he fell, but he came down on his wrist and broke it. I got the blame but it was the fall that did it.

“That was 1957, the day Mackey was the umpire, and they had an exchange of views as he went off.”

Like Wyatt Earp, who was never wounded in a gunfight, Maher never collected a stitch or a fracture wearing the blue and gold.

“I was taken off once with a mild head injury, they were worried it was more serious than it was. It was grand after 10 minutes.

“Maybe I was lucky, but I was always close enough to my man, so I never got hurt. Close to your man, first to the ball: that’s how I played.”

There are similarities between Kilkenny now and Tipperary then. The Premier collected four counties in five years, with a Waterford win in 1963 disrupting their run, and were viewed as invincible.

“‘Will they ever be beaten?’ All that kind of thing. You don’t really think of it like that when you’re in the middle of it, though.

“For a team to be successful you need a good few players around the same age – at least half of the team.

“We had Theo English, Mick Roche, Donie Nealon, Liam Devanney, Mackey McKenna, Tom Ryan, Sean McLoughlin, Larry Kiely.

“In the backs we had Tony Wall – very hard to beat – Noel Murphy, Mick Byrne, John Doyle.”

Like Kilkenny, that Tipperary team had a readily identifiable manager, even if the cult of personality wasn’t the norm in the GAA at the time.

“There was a manager figure in Paddy Leahy that time with Tipperary. He was a major influence on the team.

“If someone said something you’d wonder about it, but if Paddy said something you knew it and you took it on board.”

Having a full-back line of John Doyle, Maher and Kieran Carey helped, and the former full-back doesn’t bristle at the mythology.

“Ah, it’s enjoyable to be remembered. I think it was John D. Hickey called us ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, but the three of us never got upset about being called that or anything.

“Lower the blades? It was Mickey Byrne said that – before our time. It wasn’t us, anyway.

“But that was how the game was played. It was very different, there’s been a lot of tidying-up of the roughness in the game. You couldn’t allow a forward in on top of the keeper and you kept them out through strength.”

The imperishable self-confidence of the Tipperary hurling supporter hardened in that golden age, bolstered by Maher and company’s omnipotence. He compares the eras and the teams.

“We were on top a good bit, and we beat Kilkenny a fair bit. They didn’t beat us in the important matches, they weren’t great at the time, but they’re an established team now. They’ll take a lot of beating.

“They’re well able to hurl and there’s no great weak spots in the team. They had a share of luck last year – they got a penalty and Shefflin made a good job of it, and then they got a handy goal, soft enough. That’s not to say they didn’t deserve to win – they won it and best of luck to them.

“Tipp are capable of doing the same to them this year but things will have to go right for them. I saw them training during the week and there’s no problem with their ability, they just need a bit of luck on the day.”

In their heyday, Maher’s team needed a break or two. He singles out the 1962 win over Wexford as a highlight.

“We were two goals up after a few minutes but Wexford fought back. Tom Ryan of Killenaule got a very good goal in the closing minutes to give us a couple of points of a lead, and we held out.

“I said afterwards to Tom, ‘I was watching you and after goal number one you could have easily got goal number two’. He says, ‘if we wanted it I would’ve got it’. You’d enjoy it more when you win a tight game.”

In that vein the narrow win over Galway this year was a big boost for Tipperary, says Maher (“That shows a team they can battle through and should give them confidence,”).

He doesn’t care for the amount of talking on the field of play these days (“Players should rely on their skills,”) but he’s no conservative. He was delighted that Croke Park was opened to rugby and soccer.

On the Tipperary team it’s no surprise to hear Maher praise his namesake Pádraic (“very good”), while Joe Canning of Galway is a particular favourite: “A wonderful player: I rate him very highly. He’s very strong but he has good hurling, that’s the most important thing.

“The three best players I saw were Ring, Jimmy Doyle and Eddie Keher – the three best consistent hurlers, though it helped they were from three top counties.

“I’m inclined to put Ring first among them. I found him okay to mark but he was inclined to get wild at times on the field.”

And the future? And Sunday?

“Tipperary need to win an All-Ireland soon for the tradition, to stay in the top three, that’s what they’ll be fighting for Sunday in part, but they’ll mostly be fighting for the win on the day.”

So will he be nervous? He finesses the answer: “No. I won’t be nervous. Anxious, maybe.”

Maher sees his old comrades at Tipp games still. He usually sits with Mackey McKenna, and the man who made them smile in the dressing room still pulls an audience like a magnet draws iron filings.

“Mickey Byrne was the man for the craic, and he still is. On the sideline in the field he always has a crowd around him.”

After he retired Maher served as chairman of the Tipperary County Board and the Munster Council, and he also put down a few years on the GAA management committee. He ended his working career as chief agricultural officer for Tipperary.

It turns out, by the way, that Christy Ring was wrong: there was some change out of Maher.

The full-back knew the Corkman went to hospital after that game in 1957 and sent him a card wishing him well.

“He appreciated it. He came to visit me after and thanked me for it, and we became good friends.

“If he was around Tipperary working after, we’d meet up for a chat. About hurling, what else?”

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