Liam Griffin Interview: Made in Wexford, stayed in Wexford

He’s 68 now but as you can guess Liam Griffin’s passion for sport and business is still there. The desire — no, the desperation — to see Wexford back on a hurling pedestal.

Liam Griffin Interview: Made in Wexford, stayed in Wexford

Liam Griffin is animated now.

We may be in the oasis of rest and relaxation that is the splendid Monart Spa but explaining its inception and the survival of his hotel group has him worked up, just as talking about Wexford hurling will.

“How did this [place] come about? We wanted to save our business! Government decisions were sending the country and industry into oblivion with tax breaks and planning permission, left, right and centre! Hotels were going up all over the place, many of which didn’t fit into the landscape! They were just these massive concrete places plonked in the middle of rural Ireland. And they had to have golf courses and saunas and whatever anyone else said.

“It was going to be impossible to fill all those places. Anyone in business could see that. So to save ours we had to do something completely different.”

The Monart here just outside Enniscorthy is certainly that. It’s been ranked among the three leading spas in the world. Here, there are no conferences, no golf. No deaths, weddings, births, communions, confirmations, even children.

“Here, you have privacy,” says Griffin. “You can go around in your robe. Be yourself, do what you like, no pressure.”

It’s why he built it and people come. Including top sportspeople. Champion jockeys. Champion rugby players. They get to rest and recuperate their battered bodies in the saunas while their partners can go treat themselves to various treatments.

As luxurious as the Monart is, Griffin would like to think it’s the antithesis of so much of the Celtic Tiger. Everything here stems from an existent house and gardens from 1740s Anglo Ireland. Anything added on is made of timber or glass: no concrete. The gardens were landscaped by Chelsea flower show winner Mary Reynolds, a Wexford woman.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people we used were from Wexford,” says Griffin. “Most of them like Mary were great. Some certainly were not. My son [and current Griffin Group CEO] Michael says to me, ‘Dad, don’t ever mention Wexford patriotism to me again!”

The old fella can’t help it though. It’s why the spa is here. He wanted to keep and create jobs in Wexford.

And though there isn’t a hurley in sight, the spirit of ’96 is about the place too. In the corridor he introduces you to one of the therapists, the highly-pleasant Ciara Storey. That’s Ciara Storey, All Ireland winning camogie player. And yes, daughter of Martin, captain in ’96. In another corridor is a picture of a Shaolin Monk. Each winter monks from that Chinese sanctuary reside in Monart, teaching martial arts and meditation.

“They’re terrific,” says Griffin. “And how I got into them was because of ’96.”

It goes to show you the lengths he went to try and win that All Ireland. Up to then Wexford’s foul rate had been horrendous yet gone largely undetected. To tackle and address it, he confronted his players with stats – you’re costing us five points a game trying to be a hard man. Then he presented them with an alternative vision: that of the east, the peaceful warrior, Shaolin.

“I’d admired that here was a sport where you could come within a breath of killing a man but the discipline not to do it and you bowed and showed each other respect before and after you fought. That idea of respect, respect, respect yet still being a warrior: I thought, ‘If I could only instil that into a hurling team...’

“I remember playing a Leinster junior semi-final for the footballers and we’d fellas pulling and dragging everybody and giving away scoreable frees. Nobody seemed bothered. I went into the dressing room at halftime and said ‘Lads, what’s the story?!’ And they just looked at me as if to say, ‘What’s the story with you?!’

“See, in our games where if you’re beaten by a man too often, you’re shamed. So the answer to that is to stop him at all costs; just don’t let him shame you.”

He’d win the men of ’96 over by showing them how they were losing.

“People say Kilkenny are still winning All Irelands giving away 10 scoreable frees. But the opposition are giving away 10 as well, so they’re neutralising one another with that type of play. We’d never win an All Ireland that way. We had to give away next to no frees and still win the same amount of frees as was the norm.

“So my point in the dressing room was very simple. If you foul too much we will not win! Because we’re not good enough! Now, once we accept that, it’s not an issue. Our strengths have to be different. We don’t have a DJ Carey! We don’t have a John Troy! But I tell you what – that doesn’t mean we can’t beat them – if we use our brains!”

In the second half of the Leinster final the backs would give away no free. In the entire All Ireland final they’d concede only two. They’d win that All Ireland, the county’s first in 28 years. Griffin is hugely conscious that his own role shouldn’t be overplayed. Because he didn’t play. He thinks of a line Joe Hayes of Tipp cracked at a gig Nicky English and Griffin were at. Both were onstage, given this very flattering introduction. After English’s the crowd fell quiet, only for a deadpan Hayes to pipe up, “You were overrated, boy!” Hayes might only have been joking but Griffin insists he isn’t when vouching for perspective on his own contribution.

“I was lucky because of players of the calibre of Liam Dunne,” he says. “If I didn’t have him or a George [O’Connor] or a Storey or all those fellas, there wouldn’t be a Liam Griffin.

“I genuinely have a great love of all those guys. Because we joined arms and walked down the road together. No one broke the chain.”

That’s why the past couple of seasons, he’s been back giving a helping hand to the county senior team. At the start of 2014, Liam Dunne asked him to come in and coach the forwards and mentor to himself and everyone else, just sprinkling some wisdom about here and there as he saw fit. How could he refuse one of the leaders of ’96?

It helped that he knew a lot of the younger players. He’d served as a minor selector for a few years to Willie Cleary and Martin Storey. Dunne wanted him there to recommend what players to bring through to the next level and ease that transition.

Some of them you’ll already be familiar with. Conor McDonald, Liam Ryan, the pair of them All Star nominations last year. Others he expects you to hear more about in the coming years, including a child of one of the men of ’96: John O’Connor’s lad, Jack.

“Talent is not the problem in Wexford. Identifying it is the problem, or rather, the challenge. There are certain things in fellas that you can see, they just haven’t blossomed yet. Jack O’Connor wouldn’t have been a star at minor; I don’t think he even made his college senior team. He was raw and at 6’2 he was gangly. But having coached youngsters for 28 years I could see ‘There’s a talent.’ Because he had the mentality.

“When you’re tall and gangly in your teens, everyone wants to criticise you because you stand out like a sore thumb. Have you the toughness to deal with all the gobshites that kept putting you down? Has your family the patience to support you and allow you to develop rather than push you? If you’re a small fella playing corner back working your heart out, you’re great. But the big guy is as sensitive as the small guy.” It’s all about environment to Griffin. If the kid has a talent and is willing to persist and improve, then get them in with like-minded people. He recommended McDonald and Ryan and Kevin Foley all be fast-tracked into the minors when they were U16s; then into the seniors their first year out of minor.

“In the past if you were playing minor for Wexford and the season was over, it was ‘Good night, Joe’ and you were down to the luck of the gods if anyone was going to bring you forward.” A two-sport county like Wexford can’t afford that. Not when your neighbours and competitors are a one-county sport like Kilkenny.

When he read Matthew Syed’s Bounce he could only think of Kilkenny. Syed wrote about how the street he grew up on produced more outstanding table tennis players than the rest of the UK combined. A study Griffin’s son Rory conducted for Wexford showed that virtually every Kilkenny player lives within 20 minutes of Nowlan Park. Cody is 10 minutes away. If you were to pick the ideal environment for hurling, you’d choose Kilkenny. A city at the centre of the county and a club network they’ve grown and developed themselves. Feeder systems in the likes of St Kieran’s, Kilkenny CBS, Castlecomer and Callan.

Wexford is a big, long, strung-out county. It’s torn between hurling and football. Like in ’96 with the frees and the Shaolin, it has to use its brains more if it’s going to consistently compete.

“We need to recognise something in Wexford. The market wants hurling. If you’re in business and don’t respond to your market, you lose your market eventually. The crowds show that the people of Wexford want hurling.

“I chaired a review of Wexford GAA there where we found that over a 20-year period Wexford brought in €900,000 less than Kilkenny and €700,000 less than Tipperary from national league stipends. That’s a huge amount of money for a county that’s broke.

“Leave aside the emotional attachment to Wexford hurling and football for a moment; if you look at it from a pure business perspective, not doing well is costing Wexford a fortune. And then when we do get some finance we split it equally which makes absolutely no sense.”

He’s 68 now but as you can guess the customary passion and verve is still there. Yet there are some things he can’t do now. He’s a lot less involved with the seniors than he was last year. As Syed wrote in Bounce, a lot of sport is repetition. Griffin showed the young fellas the way forward last year; now they just need to repeat it, they don’t need him always supervising it.

Mary needs him though, or at least he feels she does, most of the time. And for all he loves Wexford hurling, his love for Mary comes first.

It’s why he walked away after ’96. It’s why he almost walked away Christmas week in ’95. His wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She insisted he stay on and so he agreed that he would until after Wexford’s last game of the championship. Ideally he’d love to have stayed on another season for the challenge of trying to retain the Liam MacCarthy. But he couldn’t do another season of crying his way to training. And as he’s often said to Mary, they probably wouldn’t have won it in ’96 only for her. The focus she gave him, knowing that Wexford’s next championship could well be his last.

Thankfully there have been more tomorrows for Mary. But it’s been hard. She’s often fallen hard. She’s broken her arm, broken her shoulder. Yet as we speak here in the Monart, she’s in the gym. She’s a strikingly good-looking woman, always has been as long as Liam Griffin has known and loved her, but it’s her strength and dignity that really shines. As her husband often reminds their kids, she’s the toughest of the lot of them. And so while he feels he can no longer be out with a team four or five nights a week, at least once a week she’ll push him out the door with her trademark line

“Ah, Liam, don’t be ridiculous!” That’s why he’ll be there in Nowlan Park for Dunne tomorrow, working with his analysis team.

He’s still vibrant, thirsty for knowledge and wisdom while imparting some himself and even more goodwill. Every customer or staff member is greeted with a hearty smile. “I still don’t see it as work,” he says. “It’s a privilege to deal with our own people and customers. It’s great!”

Some things about business, of course, are still challenging. We’re back to talking about his friends in government, new and old.

“They’ve driven the costs of doing business in Ireland through the roof. I pay €500,000 a year in local rates to local authorities. Like, I sell cups of tea for a living, slices of bread! Ham sandwiches! How many ham sandwiches to I have to sell out there to get the €500,000 to pay the council?! And for what?! I pick up the rubbish myself at the Monart!

“It’s just total incompetence and it’s been going on for years. Politicians are still getting fat pensions while the rest of our pensions are being decimated. There’s no scenario planning. Where will be in 10 years? The way this country is run, we just look at how do we get out of this hole today?

So we dig another one for tomorrow to climb into. And mark my words, we’re going down the same path again if we’re not careful.

“In a dressing room you have to have values. You play midfield for your county. You have to stand up and play an honest game. But if I’m running the country I can be the opposite and get away with it. That’s not good enough.”

But the Monart is working well enough, and thanks to it, his other hotel in Ferrycarrig and the Hotel Kilkenny are too, even though their direct competition is often hotels propped up by NAMA. A business that started out with four people now employs 400.

“We’ve been to hell and back and then back out of it again. I’m proud of the fact that we got into the river and swam against the current when all we met coming down was dead fish.”

It was the same spirit and vision that inspired ’96. More if it will be needed to keep the Wexford renaissance afloat.

*******

‘I love how the game has evolved. I’d love to be playing today’

Watching hurling these days, and Liam Griffin couldn’t be much happier with how it’s played between those white lines.

“I love how the game has evolved,” he says. “The only thing is we’ve to find ways to minimise rucks. If the ball goes into a ruck, the throw-in should be called a lot quicker. There should be a way whereby the referee turns his back and there are only two fellas behind him when he throws it in. At the moment, we throw it into a heap and start another ruck.

“But I’d love to be playing today. There’d be fellas playing the ball [into him] the way I wanted it. I never had that! You’d be put in corner-forward and instructed you couldn’t go anywhere, just stay in there and stop the ball going wide. You were really a ballboy with a number on your back.”

Away from the field, he feels there needs to be a rethink on how to develop more players and counties to shine on it.

“I tell you what disappoints me about hurling and it’s a serious indictment of the way we think about the game: it’s that combined colleges teams can’t play in the All-Ireland series.

“In the whole history of colleges hurling, only two teams have ever won an All-Ireland with an amalgamated team: Dublin Colleges [in 2006] and the Dungarvan Colleges two years ago.

“After that, we looked to bring in a Wexford colleges team and we’re in the second year of it now. But what else did the powers-that-be do? Bring in a rule whereby combined colleges teams can only play other combined colleges teams up to a provincial final and even if they win it, they can go no further.

“Here come the first couple of college teams to win an All-Ireland and we hit them on the head and say you can’t do that again!

“People say it wasn’t fair to individual colleges. I tell you what’s not fair: a fella lives within three miles of Bridgetown school in county Wexford and he’s a really great little hurler but he’s told you can’t play at this level because we’re living in the city of Kilkenny and Cork and we’ve colleges here. Why shouldn’t that lad play with a combined colleges team? Would it be good for hurling? Yes, it would. But that’s where we show we’re not sincere about developing the game. We just look at how it affects our own interests.

“Don’t forget, those individual colleges have the advantage of all knowing each other; a combined team doesn’t have that same cohesion.

“Last month Waterford won their third-ever national league title. A lot of that team were the product of those colleges. Why wouldn’t we want to provide that background for everyone?

“Laois are doing well with a combined colleges team. They won a couple of B All Irelands. Why shouldn’t they be allowed go on now and win an All Ireland A title?”

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