The one that got away for Nicky Power

In the latter half of the 1950s and throughout the following decade, Nicky Power was one of the great hurlers.
The one that got away for Nicky Power

Yet he never got his hands on an All-Ireland. The divide of the River Suir and local club rivalry saw him switch from the Déise to Kilkenny colours. Geography reared its head again as he was cut from the black and amber in their 1963 All-Ireland-winning year

Asound performer for the Waterford U21s in their recent Munster final victory over Tipperary was midfielder Mark O’Brien.

His club is Ferrybank and there is no question that O’Brien would ever hurl for any county other than Waterford.

The past is a different country, though. Ask Nicky Power, likewise a Ferrybank native. He won an NHL medal with Kilkenny in 1962, lining out at midfield on the team that beat Cork. He won a Leinster medal as a sub in 1963 but did not make Kilkenny’s All-Ireland panel. Therein lies a tale.

Born in November 1940, Nicky Power did all his juvenile hurling with Ferrybank, who were affiliated to Waterford GAA. A rising star, he played three years with the county’s minors. Their lot was to be trounced by Tipperary in the 1956 Munster final and by Limerick in the 1958 Munster final.

Even those days, Power stood out, fast and nimble and an excellent striker. He was also a dependable freetaker. There was no surprise when he progressed to hurl intermediate with Waterford in 1959. Nicky Power looked set for a senior stint.

Whence the Kilkenny tilt? You have to know the lie of the land in that part of the south-east. Ferrybank is one of those places where geography offered a natural border but history intervened in the form of housing and development.

Well into the 20th century, the north side of the river retained a different cast. Dónal Foley, the renowned journalist, was a native. He wrote in his autobiography, Three Villages (1977): “It was the River Suir that gave Ferrybank its separate identity as a kind of native reservation opposite Waterford City, which we tended to look upon as alien. We thought of ourselves as part of Kilkenny and of the great hurling men of that county. It was the river which divided us.”

Power agrees with Foley’s summation: “Yes, there was always something about going over the bridge. You felt you were going somewhere different, out of Kilkenny. That was definitely Ferrybank in the 1940s and ’50s.”

The 21st century nature of the place is hugely changed. All the houses in Sally-park, a specific part of Ferrybank, have been demolished. This spot, where Locky Byrne was born and reared, lay to the north of Waterford Railway Station, as you come in the road from south Kilkenny. A supreme talent, Byrne hurled with both Kilkenny and Waterford in the 1930s, the product of geography’s tangle with talent.

“Growing up, I heard a lot about Locky,” Power notes. “He was the absolute idol of everyone. What I always heard was that Locky considered himself a Kilkenny man. But who knows now…”

Until the 1970s, both Ferrybank and Sallypark were part of Slieverue, a south Kilkenny parish. Growth in population (with many Waterford natives from across the river involved) altered the picture. Today Ferrybank is solidly Déise, as per Mark O’Brien.

Power’s swerve was born of his father’s people. “That grandfather was from Bigwood, in the parish of Mullinavat,” he recounts. “He came into Ferrybank, to an uncle’s undertaking business, and eventually took it over. My father was born in Ferrybank and always considered himself a Kilkenny man. That’s the way we were.”

He continues: “We did an awful lot of the funerals, all around Kilmacow and Mullinavat and Mooncoin. I rode in a lot of hearses with my grandfather and father around the highways and byways of south Kilkenny… There was hardly a family we didn’t know.”

I can hear the energy rachet in Power’s voice as he recalls those years. His grandfather did hackney for the south Kilkenny hurlers on Kilkenny’s first great team, the men who won seven All-Irelands between 1904 and 1913. “I used to hear this talk about the Doyle brothers in Mooncoin, and Droog Walsh, the great captain,” he says. “My grandfather knew them, and he liked to talk about them.”

Doors slid before Power came to hurl with Kilkenny. While those family ties had established an emotional allegiance in that direction, he could easily have become a Waterford senior hurler at 18 going on 19.

Long and short: Nicky Power was being noticed across town. Ferrybank had won the 1958 junior championship, with their young minor a dashing presence in midfield. He was averaging seven or eight scores a game. Here was hurling’s version of a gift colt.

Tipperary met Waterford in the 1959 NHL Final, winning by 0-15 to 0-7. Tom Pinker, a local in Ferrybank, was a selector. Beforehand he approached John Power, Nicky’s father, looking for a word. “My father didn’t know that much about hurling,” notes Power. “He was actually more interested in cricket. Anyway, he was told that they were interested in me.

“Pinker said to him, ‘If he plays, he’ll be on John Doyle. What do you think?’ My father replied: ‘Nicky has plenty time. He’s too young.’ That was that. I was disappointed. It would have been a great game to have played in. But I was only told about it afterwards…”

Time has not entirely softened the regret. Power points out that a young player named John Flavin, not much older than himself, went in as a sub in that final. His tone glances between mordant and wry: “He survived it, didn’t he?”

That slice was late April 1959. Five months later, there was another road not taken. Waterford drew with Kilkenny in a rip-roaring All-Ireland final on September 6. Nicky Power was in attendance, wearing black and amber colours.

The replay was rostered for October 4. The Munster team’s preparations centred on training games in Walsh Park. Young Power received a call: Would he come in and make up numbers?

“I was very familiar with that group of Waterford players,” reflects Power. “I knew them to see around, through work and all. So I was comfortable going into The Sportsfield, as we called Walsh Park at that time.”

History is darned with contingencies. Power recalls how Waterford found it impossible to locate a decent challenge match: “There was nobody fit enough at that stage to take them on.”

An internal game was organised, on the line of Probables versus Possibles.

“I went into the dressing room that evening expecting to play at midfield for the B team,” he says. “I’d been doing grand there for the couple of weeks in training. But I was in for a surprise…”

He elaborates: “Erin’s Own people picked that team. Where did they pick Nicky Power? Corner-back. They had their own man, Joe Condon, for centre-field.

“Nonetheless, I went out and hurled at corner-back. I ended up on John Kiely, who was nearly twice my age and had played for years with Munster. He was a big strong man, seasoned and clever, and I got a few roots but nothing dangerous. I did OK…”

Power swerves into a gloss on how hurling has changed: “In those days, you played in a position and stuck with it. It’s not like today, where you have a lad like [Waterford’s] Austin Gleeson being shunted from Billy to Jack, half-back line one minute, full-forward line the next. It’s hard to see the logic of all this moving.

“Our day was far different. I’d been a midfielder the whole time. I knew the position. If you didn’t get on the team at midfield, you probably didn’t get on the team at all. It was much more rigid, then.”

History is darned alike with the threads of local rivalry. Ferrybank was not an influential club. As Power details: “Mount Sion and Erin’s Own, they commanded Waterford hurling. They ruled the roost. You had to be of that niche, and Ferrybank fellas weren’t, by and large.”

He could have reached that niche: “Erin’s Own approached me to hurl with them. But I declined. Mount Sion asked me to come in with their minors, with a view to moving up to senior after a while. But I declined there as well. I didn’t want Ferrybank people calling me a medal chaser…”

Power does not labour the point but those rebuffs clearly stymied his chances. I can still see that single-minded youth in the Nicky Power of six decades later. “That selection annoyed me,” he admits. “Was I a cheeky fecker to be annoyed? I don’t know… But I was annoyed.”

His thoughts turned back: “Slieverue was a local club. And Slieverue was my parish, end of day. Also, I wanted to hurl in tournaments. Tournaments were the big thing, in my time. And Ferrybank didn’t bother entering tournaments. Hurling for Ferrybank, you’d have very few matches in the whole year.”

Slieverue made an overture and he assented. This move got Power noticed. He was drafted into Kilkenny’s senior panel for 1961. “I suppose winning the league was the highlight,” he says. “Getting to play in a league final, after missing out back in 1959, was a big thing for me.”

His first two seasons in stripes were lean enough affairs. Wexford beat Kilkenny in 1961’s Leinster semi-final. “We should have won that game,” says Power. “And in fact we could have gone all the way. As Dublin showed in the All-Ireland final, Tipp were a bit vulnerable that year.”

1962 saw a surprise defeat to Wexford in the Leinster final. 1963 looked more promising. Momentum was building, with Wexford and Dublin defeated. Now Waterford were up in the All-Ireland final. Could it be more intimate for a Ferrybank native?

That question was never to be answered. Power lost out in that pre-All-Ireland cut. “Paddy Grace came to me one evening in training and told me,” he says. “Although I was fierce disappointed at the news, I was always grateful to Paddy for that.”

A key factor was Power’s move to Dublin as a Garda recruit. At 13, he had lost his mother, a Waterford native. Subsequent years became scattered. “My father simply couldn’t cope, understandably enough,” says Power. “Drink got involved too. I was the youngest and it was an awful tough time. It meant the end of school for me, into the bargain.

“I was working here and there. Eventually, a local guard suggested that it might be the life for me. I went back to school, to the technical college, for three years, and eventually got in as a recruit.”

While in Dublin, he trained in Terenure College with men such as Seán Clohosey, Eddie Keher, and Billy O’Dwyer. They were overseen by Matty Power, Kilkenny’s star forward in the 1920s and ’30s. Having become a garda in the mid-1920s, Power had switched to Dublin for a period.

“Matty was an absolute gentleman,” says Nicky Power. “And he had a say in the depot about where a young recruit would be stationed. He wanted to get me to Castlecomer, which would have been handy. Another officer, a former Cork hurler, wanted me to go to Cork City, and hurl with Glen Rovers.”

Neddy Aylward, another officer, was a Kilkenny native. A stalwart of Young Ireland GAA Club in Dublin, he coveted Power for those colours. During 1963, he appeared in a couple of league matches for Young Ireland, a fact that had not gone unnoticed down in Kilkenny.

Power was never certain but offers informed opinion: “I think they were worried that Waterford might object, if I was on the All-Ireland panel. I wasn’t living in Kilkenny and so that door might have been open… Whatever way it went, I ended up gone.”

Still, his stint with Young Ireland was not without reward. They became Dublin’s senior champions in 1965, beating UCD.

Nicky Power, still but 24, proved one of their standout figures. This exposure led to him being invited to line out with Dublin. He would have done so but a rule designed to favour native hurlers baulked this idea.

“I was happy to go to Dublin,” he says. “But it didn’t happen in the end. Then shortly afterwards Ferrybank came back on to me, wanting to know would I declare for them and hurl for Waterford. So I did. It’s strange how things turn out, for some people.”

He hurled with Waterford between 1967 and 1969. No silverware was won. The highlight was a Munster first round in 1967, when they beat Cork, guillotining their status as All-Ireland Champions.

Power ended up back with Young Ireland, where he hurled on through the 1970s, winning a junior title and making the intermediate final the following year. This chapter of his life was reaching its estuary. “I really enjoyed hurling,” he says. “But I don’t think I ever took it seriously enough, or put everything I could have into it. It would have been nice to get an All-Ireland medal, even as a sub. But…”

Nicky Power’s favoured colours have never been in question. Same story, so many years along. When we meet, there is a family holiday in Kerry, round Portmagee, in the offing. He mock bristles when I ask whether he will miss tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final: “God no! I’ll be back up for it, and will be in Croke Park. I’ll be hoping that Waterford do well but that Kilkenny win. That’s it.”

He is not a fan of the current obsession with structures and systems: “I hate it, to be honest. The way hurling is going, with Clare and Waterford, you’re going to end up with a whole load of lads who are jack of many positions but master of none. That’s how I see it. You have all these rucks because lads don’t want to hit the ball most of the time. What is the hurl for, if it’s not for that?”

The decades rinse and cleanse. Power has managed a long and engaging life. He is strikingly hale at 75 going 76. “I swim,” he says. “And I try to walk a lot.”

The young boy who rode in hearses all over south Kilkenny grew to marry Mary, the widow of a Garda colleague. Once a husband, he was immediately a father, taking charge of four stepchildren. “I was never short of responsibilities,” he says, with impressive restraint. Tragedy visited as well, when he and Mary lost a daughter to cancer in her twenties.

Power is a man with perspective.

1963 was his best chance of earning that All-Ireland medal. Such a severance never rubs blunt. Even at the time, he was unsure what to do with himself on the day of the All-Ireland Final.

Then came an idea about putting distance between himself and places where hurling followers would gather. “What I decided to do was put in for a shift in Donnybrook, out in RTÉ,” ‘recalls Power. “Teilifís Éireann, as it was. That’s what I did that Sunday, mooched around on duty out there. They had a big screen for the match. It was a great novelty at the time.

“So I ended up watching Kilkenny beat Waterford, looking up at that big screen.”

He cocks his head, all but 53 years younger.

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