Rocky road to Dublin

The Kieran Shannon interview

At the top of page two, in big bold writing, is the heading ‘A Vision for Dublin Hurling’, with immediately underneath it the target — ‘Hurling to be the number one Gaelic sport in Dublin by 2010.’ A couple of lines further down, the report declares they will have succeeded when, amongst other things, “our sporting competitors regard us as the leader”. It hasn’t quite worked out like that. Alan Brogan has since won seven Leinster football medals while Brian O’Driscoll has become the most feted personality in all of Irish sport, never mind just in Dublin.

But by shooting for the stars, Dublin hurling hit the moon. They’re in the frame, they’re in the discussion.

“We will have succeeded when the professionalism of our management and the quality of our coaches is envied and emulated.” Check.

“When Dublin hurling teams are consistently among the top six teams in Ireland.” You can make that top four now.

“All Dublin hurling clubs totally support a true hurling culture.” He thinks of a club like Naomh Barrog in Kilbarrack, a traditional football club. Now they win more in hurling. Even Thomas Davis’s in Tallaght facilitate the small ball now. His own club, Lucan Sarsfields, has been a footballing stronghold. Tomorrow both the county minor and senior hurlers will be captained by Lucan men.

“Even in Parnell Park on a football Sunday,” observes O’Grady, “kids are out hurling at half-time in their Dublin jerseys. That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.”

Just as the blueprint envisaged, a “clear Dublin hurling identity” has been built which “projects a dynamic image of Dublin hurling”. Incredibly, though systematically, Dublin hurling has become respected, sexy even.

But to understand how far it has come, it helps to understand first where O’Grady came from himself.

The Dublin hurlers last contested an All-Ireland senior final when he first moved there. Up to 1961, he lived in Patrickswell in Limerick which basically meant he lived hurling.

“We’d hurl at night-time in the local farmers’ field. Then you’d graduate down to another field where Richie and Philly Bennis used play. There’d be skin and hair flying when they’d be marking one another. You learned how to defend yourself.”

Then he chose to leave those fields to join the Christian Brothers. He was 13.

“You weren’t leaving much at home. My dad was a farm labourer while mum would look after the 10 of us children, making bread, washing clothes. They were wonderful people, that generation, but they were tough times at home and when this Christian brother came round, it appealed to me, the idea of teaching and maybe going on the Missions.”

O’Grady would indeed teach but his missionary work was confined to Ireland, spreading the gospel of hurling. One of his first set of converts were out in Drimnagh Castle where he came across probably the most promising Dublin hurler you never saw, a ruffle-haired young fella named Kevin Moran.

“Kevin’s family had moved to our area and bought The Coconut, a kind of grocery shop and newsagents. And Kevin often would knock on the monastery door at six in the evening, asking me would I come out for a few pucks down the field with him. He was a fabulous hurler.

“Anyway, he wanted to join our club, An Caislean. So we were playing Cuala in a challenge match, the week before the transfer season officially opened, so I said to them, ‘Listen, we have a young lad who’ll be our player next week. Can he play?’ ‘Of course you can play him,’ we were told.

“Didn’t his former club hear about it? He got suspended for six months. In those six months he took up soccer.”

O’Grady soon moved on to pastures new himself. He was sent to teach in Cashel where in the field across from the monastery you could find the Bonnars hurling at six in the morning. Before he knew it he was training all the teams in the primary school and helping out in the secondary and then coaching the county minor team to the 1976 All-Ireland, hammering Kilkenny 2-20 to 1-7 in the final.

Coaching consumed him. He would devour books on coaching basketball and soccer because there were no such books on hurling. While the Tipp senior team persisted with the traditional direct game, O’Grady was coaching his players the subtleties of a support game. A couple of months after guiding the county U21s to the 1978 All-Ireland final, however, a 29-year-old O’Grady asked his superiors to redeploy him.

“I found myself going into a dressing room and saying to myself, ‘Who am I talking to here? The U12s, the U15s or the county U21s?’ Long story short, I’m in Synge Street four weeks when there’s a knock on the door.

“It’s Bill O’Donnell [the old Tipperary hurler and stalwart]. Will I take the Tipperary senior team? Sure I don’t know what possessed me, I didn’t have a car or anything, but I said I would anyway.”

That 1979 season O’Grady would lead Tipp to the national league title, their first major honour in eight years, but their first-round championship assignment was a trip to Cork to meet a home team that had won the previous three All-Irelands. Tipp lost by a point.

“That game,” said O’Grady, “still annoys me.” He swears Pat O’Neill was fouled before he blazed wide with the last puck of the game but there was no free awarded or no backdoor either, so O’Grady stepped down, worn down by the commute and the system.

As hurling’s own answer to Forrest Gump, though, his adventures on the margins of history would continue. He coached UCD to a couple of Fitzgibbon titles. Then while teaching in Sexton Street CBS, he took over Limerick whom he guided to two league finals, winning it outright in ’84, but again had the misfortune to come up short against crack Cork teams in the first round.

He coached Wexford for a year while he was principal of Wexford CBS. In 1989 he was an advisor to Antrim and was on the line the day they shocked Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final. For the final he was in the stand with a walkie-talkie supplied by the RUC, which was about as ecumenical and as hi-tech as you could get in those days. A few months after coaching Wexford to the 1990 league final, however, he sensed it was time to take sabbatical.

He went over to Chicago for a couple of years, studying a masters in management in Loyola. He came back full of enthusiasm with ideas for the Brothers yet by 1994 he’d left them.

“It was unlinked to all the [religious orders’ abuse scandals] that would unfold later. I just found there was no energy in the guys older than me. In fairness to the Brothers they had empowered you to make the right call for yourself.

“I think they saw the writing on the wall. They were no longer interested in numbers. I read a book which said something like 500 different orders have petered out over the last 500 years. They’re founded for a purpose, for a time. The Christian Brothers were founded for the education of the poor in Ireland and the fact is that need is looked after by other people now.”

He knows some — a lot of them — were too heavy with the stick. But, he says, that was the culture at the time. “When I was training, I had a fifth class for Irish and I was terrified to ask the kids a question in case one of them got it wrong and the lay teacher sitting at the back would jump up and give him six of the best.

“I couldn’t cope. So my method was extra homework. It worked a treat. You’d have lads coming up, ‘Can I have three slaps instead of three sums?’ Fellas had no problem getting a tip on the hand, if it was done properly, without any hatred or anger.

“I would still have great regard for the Brothers. I learned so much from them. I’m playing golf with three of them next Friday. And leaving the Brothers didn’t change one bit my relationship with God.”

He’s married now. While in Loyola, he befriended Irene, a former nun, and after he left the Brothers their relationship became more intimate. They wed in Rome around the same time another great love of O’Grady’s life began in earnest. In 1996 John Bailey approached him to become Dublin hurling manager.

When he thinks back on his five years in the gig, they mostly make him laugh. The things he had them do, the things they would do.

“I had the lads keeping training diaries. I would give them out books to read, on sport psychology, so they would rotate them round; you’d have this book one week, then give it someone else and so on.

“One year we took the lads away in Mullingar in the middle of January and I had Niamh Fitzpatrick, the sports psychologist, booked in for the whole Saturday. Didn’t the feckers get tickets for a disco on the Friday. At 8.30 there’s no one down for breakfast, so we start knocking doors.

“Well, the smell of feckin’ whiskey! So I says, ‘Niamh, I’m sorry, we’ll go through with this but don’t be upset if you find the lad aren’t fully tuned in’.

“Of course, typical Dubs, the lads are all sorry and the following day they run their arses off but the following year Sean Power says to me, ‘Where are we going this year?’ I tell him, ‘Slieve Russell’. And of course the lads are delighted. The five-star hotel in Cavan. ‘Well, fair play to you, Michael, you didn’t hold last year against us’.”

But it wasn’t the Slieve Russell exactly we were going to. It was an old camping place a few miles beyond it. And gradually myself and [trainer] Thompson started calling it Slieve Muscle but the lads didn’t pick up on it. The day before we go, they’re talking about not bringing any towels, that they’ll get plenty of fancy ones up there.

“Well, they arrive in this place. You should have seen the jaws drop. The food was this big strop of Irish stew. You could smell the urine from the bunk beds. But that weekend they worked their arses off and then had their few pints and at two o’clock the last night we could see their place through the blinds and there was a pillow fight going on. They were a fantastic bunch of fellas.

“Even though they probably had no chance of winning they were the best trainers I had in all my time with teams.”

In 1997 they beat Cork in the league to win promotion ahead of Waterford and were a point up on Kilkenny entering the last quarter before a fortuitous goal turned that Leinster semi-final.

“I’ll never forget it,” says O’Grady. “My mother had passed away the day before so I’m in Croke Park and my mother is being buried the next day.” In 1998 they were even fancied to trip up Kilkenny in the first round but DJ and Co skinned them in Parnell Park. They would get within a point of Wexford the following year but the momentum was gone.

Only months after he stepped down as team manager, he assumed the position of chairing a review group to help transform Dublin hurling. The group listened to the clubs. They invited every club player to a forum in Parnell Park at which 70 players attended at which they heard players say they wanted more games, more respect.

“There was no hurling culture at the time. The fecking footballers would always go for big strong hurlers. Conal Keaney played hurling only up until minor. Liam Óg Ó hEineacháin from Kilmacud was a serious hurler. Then he was put on the county senior team and hardly got a match for four years. He doesn’t even play club hurling now. But I think fellas got pissed off of football and when we were drafting the report the timing was good because things were beginning to happen. The Dublin colleges was starting to get going. We knew a lot of the people involved were sound guys with a great hurling attitude.”

The blueprint created the position of a Director of Hurling and while Diarmuid Healy would never be directly replaced once he stepped down 18 months into the post, the Kilkenny man’s legacy remains. Healy told all the clubs and schools of the value of small but important things, like how to cut grass properly, that there’s a difference between a football pitch and a hurling pitch.

“You go down to Kilkenny,” says O’Grady, “the pitches are like putting greens.” Above all he sold them on the value of coaching. As O’Grady puts it, “Clubs are now coaching hurling and coaching coaches as against to just getting teams out.”

There have been all kinds of vital, if now forgotten victories. Four years ago the national league was going to be restructured which would cost Dublin a place in Division One only for O’Grady to make an impassioned plea at Special Congress.

“I was so annoyed. I knew this much. Thomas Brady is an outstanding footballer. So is Johnny McCaffrey. They played minor football for Dublin. And they’d have gone to football if we had been moved down to Division Two by the stroke of a pen. If we’d lost those two leaders you wouldn’t be talking about Dublin hurling today.

“I told delegates, you can’t do this to this team because otherwise we won’t have a team in 12 months. We won the vote anyway but when I heard a Kilkenny official say in the paper after that Dublin were one of the teams for the future, I told him that he had some cheek; if he had his way we’d be down in Division Two with no team.”

He has a wishlist. He wishes the footballers win Sam so Diarmuid Connolly and Rory O’Carroll will come back to hurling. He sees Dublin winning the Liam MacCarthy within the next five years, possibly three — that’s what the next blueprint would envisage. And he wishes that Lar Foley and Jimmy Boggan were still around for days like the league win over Cork back in April when every other Dublin hurling person seemed to take to the pitch afterwards.

“Lar was a great players’ man,” smiles O’Grady.

“He’d bring players out to his house for dinner, give them a big feed of spuds and cabbage and bacon and give them his big lecture. Jimmy would take Dublin teams when nobody would take teams. When Jimmy bought a car the first item on the checklist was the boot — was it big enough for five-dozen hurleys and helmets?”

They might no longer be alive but thanks to them Dublin hurling is still alive today.

Funny thing is, Jimmy was from Wexford. Dublin hurling can get a hold on you. A fortnight ago in Thurles O’Grady’s nephew Seanie O’Brien might have been on the Limerick panel but O’Grady had no conflicting emotions.

He’s retired three years now as a teacher while this year he underwent another huge life change.

“For the first time in 42 years I’m not taking a team,” he smiles. “And I’m loving it. I can play golf when I like. I can go and see matches when I like.”

He sees a lot of them, especially ones involving Anthony Daly’s team. These last few years he’s chairman of the Friends of Dublin Hurling Society, helping raise money, raise awareness, run buses.

But he’s been a true friend of Dublin hurling for a lot longer than that.

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