One of the game’s immortals

I AM looking at a photograph in the programme for the Tipperary-Kilkenny All-Ireland final of 1967 (priced, incidentally at an old shilling).

It shows John Doyle clearing his lines in the Munster decider against Clare, hand-passing as a Banner stick bears down on his hand, with no sign of his own hurley. You could say its imagery typified his bravery at a time when men were men and survival at the highest level of the game owed more to strength and guts than to actual skill than it does nowadays — not that it was in short supply.

Underneath the photo is a short piece headed: “In search of immortality,’’ with the following text: “This afternoon John Doyle of Holycross bids for the immortality of nine senior hurling medals, while Kieran Carey, Tony Wall, Theo English, Donie Nealon, Liam Devaney and Jimmy Doyle try for their sixth.’’

I was at the game, covering the minor final between Cork and Wexford, and I can’t recollect how much publicity was given in the newspapers the following day to the fact that he had been denied ‘immortality’ as a result of Kilkenny winning the game.

Reflecting on a remarkable inter-county career which spanned 20 years from the time he won a minor medal 20 years earlier, you would have to say that Doyle was guaranteed his place in the pantheon of hurling greats even before he won his eighth medal in 1965, thus equalling Christy Ring’s record.

Incidentally, in the 1972 edition of ‘The Clash of the Ash,’ author Raymond Smith wrote that Doyle ‘would never have wanted’ to win a ninth medal if he had to do so as a substitute, saying that he had ‘confided as much’ to him after the ‘67 final: “I knew he was well satisfied with eight. He didn’t think it was such a death-or-glory matter to win another and it was love of the game, rather than medal-seeking that made him go on as long as he did.”

I can’t remember when I first got to know John Doyle personally, but I do recall clearly that our last meeting was at the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel in May 2009 when he was a recipient of an inaugural Gaelic Writers Award. At the time he was in a wheelchair and I knew he had been ill a few years earlier.

Sometime in the last decade he was honoured by the Tipperary County Council (South Riding). He joked to me some time later, when I said I had been unable to take up an invitation to attend, that they had held the function ‘because they thought I was on the way out.’

Doyle was known for his wit and he was such a gregarious person that he shared it with a lot of friends and acquaintances. During his time as GAA Central Council delegate he would have attended meetings of the Tipperary County Board on a regular basis and former PRO Liz Howard recalled yesterday how he was well known for ‘defusing’ any situation that might have been awkward ‘with a bit of humour and a bit of wit.’

To use the old cliché, he was a character, a great story-teller, with an impish sense of humour. I think I got to know him around the time he was a senior selector in the early eighties. Tipp went through a barren period when failing to win a single championship game from 1973 to 1983.

He would have been a ‘casualty’ when selection committees were changed frequently over that period, until Babs Keating, Donie Nealon and Theo English helped to restore a sense of stability in 1984 – when Doyle’s two sons Michael and John played in the memorable Munster final against Cork in Thurles.

Any time you bumped into him in Thurles, he was invariably in the company of his good friends Tommy Barrett (who spent a lifetime as County Board Secretary) and Clonmel publican Gerry Chawke (brother of the well-known Charlie). He always had a story and was never slow to air his views about the hurlers or the games of the day.

One of the conversations I remember most clearly with him concerned Ring and their shared achievement in winning eight Celtic crosses. In tribute to the Cork legend, he said that he had ‘won’ All-Irelands for Cork, whereas other players on the Tipperary team had helped him win his medals. I thought at the time it was very gracious, indicating a genuine respect for Ring, which was shared by hurlers everywhere.

Of Doyle it can be said in truth that, long before he was named in the Team of the Century and again in the Team of the Millennium, he was one of hurling’s immortals.

*Tommy Barrett will deliver the graveside oration at his funeral, which follows 11.30 Requiem Mass in Holycross Abbey today.

**Regrettably, a photograph of Theo English was used yesterday instead of John Doyle due to a mistaken photograph caption.

Picture: From left: Former Tipperary great John Doyle; Jim O’Sullivan, Irish Examiner; Ed Donnelly, PRO Tipperary County Board; and Mick O’Dwyer at the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel, Dublin last year where six legends covering six decades of GAA heroics were honoured.

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