Cycling to Dublin from the small Wicklow village of Talbotstown was a considerable feat in 1947, though not unusual in an era where traffic congestion was a nightmare not yet even imaginable.
Certainly, the 18-year-old Peter Keogh wasn’t perturbed by the prospect, nor was his brother Jack. More remarkable from their point of view was that they were going to an All-Ireland final but not a football one. This was hurling.
They knew nothing about hurling. The local club, Kiltegan GAA had been founded in May, 1929 — Peter was born just a couple of weeks later on May 23 — but in so much as the Anglo-Irish community had any leanings in that regard, it was football that held primacy.
The children collected tokens from Fry’s Cocoa jars to get their hands on balls. Peter and his mates raided the bins of one local who was particularly partial to the product.
Wicklow reached an All-Ireland junior football final in 1936 and Peter was distraught that he was considered too young to be part of the contingent transported to the match on the back of Tom Keogh’s lorry.
After a day kicking his heels, tormented with worry and speculation, he hit the streets waiting for the convoy to return. He never forgot the feeling of euphoria when that first sound of beeping and shouting careered sweetly through his eardrums. It could only mean that Mayo had been beaten. As the cacophony grew louder, he knew it: Wicklow were All-Ireland champions!
Hurling made a brief appearance during the war but with nobody knowing what they were doing, a local youngster was injured and the hurleys were binned. And burned.
The initial plan for the Keogh brothers had been to attend the football final, but that was rerouted to New York’s Polo Grounds, so there was only one alternative.
No matter. The game was a secondary issue anyway.
You didn’t just walk into a shop and walk out with a bike in those days. The Keoghs had their order placed for two years before receiving delivery. So giddy were they about their gleaming new wheels that they resolved to show them off to their Dublin cousins.
Going to a game provided the necessary cover story for making the trip.
Peter was concerned that they would be exposed for their ignorance but Jack reassured him that as long as they kept quiet, nobody would ever know of their heathen status.
So, by pure chance, they witnessed what is still considered one of the greatest hurling finals of all time, when Kilkenny beat Cork by a point and in the process, denied Jack Lynch a seventh All-Ireland success in a row.
“I could not believe what I was looking at” recalled Peter last summer. “I could see nothing at the beginning until I stopped looking for the ball and looked at the direction lads were running in. And I got into it. I’d never seen anything like it in my life and I was a hurling fanatic from that day until this. I still believe that there is no game like hurling.”
He was 42 before he became a writer and future GAA president, Jack Boothman often joked about Keogh keying out notes and reports on a typewriter while perched on his steamroller in his time with the county council.
Initially, he made his mark as a GAA administrator, starting with the now defunct West Wicklow board and subsequently as PRO and chairman of the county board. He had been president of Wicklow GAA for more than 20 years when he died after a short battle with cancer on Sunday, February 28.
It was during his tenure as secretary of the divisional board that he was persuaded to provide weekly updates on events in the west and over time, that evolved to a situation where he was arguably the oldest working journalist in the country.
Generations of people grew up on Keogh’s Corner, his weekly column in the Wicklow People. The Nationalist and Leinster Leader also called on his expertise, as did radio stations East Coast, KCLR and Kfm.
His energy was incredible and he celebrated his 80th birthday by walking to the top of Lugnaquilla, the highest peak of the Wicklow Mountains, to raise funds for the Michael Dwyer’s underage club.
You don’t write that many match reports without offending someone, and over time, everyone.
“Some would be looking for you maybe to say something good but there’d be a hell of a lot looking for me to say something bad. ‘You wrote something about my son last week and I want to see ya about it’ and a lady waving an umbrella over my head. It’s not all sunshine!”
Such was Peter Keogh’s sunny disposition, positivity, humour, story-telling ability and inherent goodness, that nobody could stay mad at him for long. Not even the one-eyed mammys.
“He was some character” says photographer Dave Barrett, who was a close friend. “He had the equivalent of a ‘Freedom of the City’ in Wicklow. He went into the dressing room for all the Wicklow matches. If he didn’t spot who scored a point in a club match, he could wander out onto the field during the match to ask one of the players who got the last point.”
His funeral was thronged and the stories flowed at a rate not seen since the wine was doled out at that wedding in Cana all those years ago. Like the time he bought Wellington boots in New York on a trip after Wicklow had won the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2007.
Or claiming to have been in the wrong dressing room by accident when discovered in the toilets by members of the St Patrick’s team at half-time in the senior county football final… against Kiltegan.
Or reluctantly joining good friend and Wicklow great, Kevin O’Brien on a trip to the Aviva Stadium to watch Ireland play rugby.
“That 13 lad (Brian O’Driscoll) is doing nothing.” And being embarrassed to have been spotted at the ‘foreign game’ by Barrett, who promptly took a shot to record the very obvious discomfort for posterity.
It was safe to say that rugby didn’t leave his mark on him like hurling did. One of his proudest moments was when Wicklow (with Keogh as a selector) won the special All-Ireland minor hurling championship in 1974. Kiltegan’s eight senior titles in 15 seasons, including two three-in-a-rows in the ‘90s were dear to him too, particularly as he was credited with introducing hurling to the club.
When Wicklow secured their Christy Ring status last year, Keogh was there and delighted. It was a good way to mark his 86th birthday.
After fulfilling his radio duties, his thoughts turned quickly to getting back down to Blessington from Mullingar for a junior club game. Such was his passion that he attended a game or a training session every night. He had more time to do so after his daughters Josie and Breda had grown up up, and the greatest love of his life, wife Mary passed away.
But he had done it anyway. It was the GAA. People questioned why he kept doing it, travelling to games, in all weather, at 86 years of age. They thought him a marvel, or maybe a madman. It always left him bemused.
“There’s no secret” he said, in wonder at why such a question would even exist.
“I just love the damn thing.”