‘You couldn’t say enough good things about the McGraths’

Tom McGrath reckons it was close to 9pm before his nephew Brian left the Connolly house on the night of Saturday, September 19.

‘You couldn’t say enough good things about the McGraths’

The 17-year old had spent the majority of the day at Connolly’s, his presence born out of the loyalty that comes with wearing the green and red of Loughmore-Castleiney.

Brian, the youngest of Pat and Mary McGrath’s three sons, was listed at full-forward on the Tipperary team for the following afternoon’s All-Ireland minor football decider against Kerry, but that fixture had taken a definite back seat given the events of the days previous.

Eddie Connolly, who passed away on the Thursday night following an almost two-year battle with brain cancer, was a friend and team-mate. And around these parts, club and family, for which there is no distinction, come first.

“Brian played in Croke Park the afternoon Eddie was buried. Croke Park was the last place he wanted to be. He would have preferred to be back with the lads,” says Tom.

“It was very hard for him to say goodbye and leave the house that Saturday night. Only a few from the parish made the journey up on Sunday. I suppose there is a little payback in that Brian is getting to experience All- Ireland final day in much better circumstances this year. His head will be in a much better place than it was 12 months ago.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015: The Loughmore-Castleiney senior hurlers have made their way to Doon in Limerick for an evening challenge. Hurling, mind you, couldn’t be further from their thoughts.

Noel McGrath was diagnosed with testicular cancer the day beforehand and began informing team-mates and friends on Tuesday morning knowing the County Board were to release a statement on his health that evening.

“Pat [Noel’s father] rang me on the Monday to tell me,” recalls senior manager Declan Laffan. “It was a tough one to take. Now, no one would have expected Noel to be present for that challenge game. All the same, we knew he’d probably show.”

Club first. Family first.

Two days after last month’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Tipperary and Galway, the Loughmore- Castleiney club organised a guard of honour for the late Jim Ormond, an uncle to former Tipperary hurler Paul Ormond.

Jim had married a Loughmore woman and despite setting up base in Templemore, it was his wish he be buried back the road in Loughmore. The club took to ensuring he received a proper send-off and who was John McGrath to ignore his role in a long-standing club tradition.

“Timmy Connolly was telling me about one of the young Ormond boys the day Jim Ormond died,” club chairman Eugene Stapleton begins.

“The young lad was no more than six or seven and knew absolutely nobody standing in the guard of honour. Didn’t he spot John McGrath, the Tipperary forward he’d seen scoring the goal against Galway, and sure it made his day.” Club first. Family first.

It is Wednesday lunchtime in Loughmore. Five days out from the county’s latest All-Ireland hurling final appearance and the front window of Stapleton’s pub is hidden behind three Tipperary flags. The primary school up the way, though not yet having reopened its doors, is decked in blue and gold bunting.

To have three players involved, all of whom were reared under the one roof in the townland of Lisheen, has the village giddy with excitement. Eamonn Sweeney shoots in the road from Thurles in his post van. The wooden bench outside Stapleton’s lies idle, as suitable a place as any from which to offer a brief history of the village given the school, church and parish hall sit within view.

The staff of Loughmore NS, busy ahead of the first day of school on Thursday, make their way down to The Cottage tearoom for a spot of grub. Among them is Tipperary captain Brendan Maher. John Meagher, who was part of Michael Ryan’s panel earlier in the year, is there too.

“Howya John,” shouts Eamonn. Young Meagher raises his arm to salute Eamonn and continues on down the road. Eamonn Sweeney holds club stalwart status. Hardly surprising. The postman captained the club to its maiden county senior hurling title success in 1988. In 2007, this time wearing the bainisteoir’s bib, he masterminded their second county title. Munster was also conquered under his watch.

The 2007 campaign has plenty of troughs. Tommy Ormond and Martin Gleeson were both lost to injury. Then, Noel Morris, a member of the 2001 All-Ireland winning Tipperary panel, tore his cruciate. Halfway into the summer and Sweeney had gaps to fill. But who to fill them?

Enter 16-year old Noel McGrath. He was thrown in against Boherlan-Dualla in Semple Stadium in the Mid championship and held his place right up until the final whistle sounded in their Munster Club final win over Tulla at the Gaelic Grounds on December 2.

“After we brought him in, he became the mainstay of that team. He was the man. He had fierce talent, fierce vision. We played him at wing- forward, at midfield. We let him do what he wanted. The county quarter-final against Borris-Ileigh was the game we looked like we were going to lose. We got a fortunate goal. David McGrath, his cousin, kicked a goal and we got through. It was always a McGrath who was saving us. Noel was instrumental that day. He gave a masterclass in the Mid-Tipp final too against Drom & Inch.”

Go back to 1988 and it was another McGrath who edged Loughmore-Castleiney over the line at Borris-Ileigh’s expense. Pat “wandered” up from right half-back to deliver the match-winning goal in the county final.

“It is always a McGrath,” the assertive tone in Sweeney’s voice telling you he’s not half joking at all.

Pat was joined on the 1988 team by his brothers, Frankie, Tom and Mick. Richard, the baby of the five boys in the family of nine, was too young.

Their father Mick, who married Tess (née Delaney), hailed from ‘The Little Road’, which also produced the Websters, the Cosgroves, the Hayes, the Healys, the Gleesons, the Danaghers, the Russells and the Nolans.

“It all began with the four McGrath brothers, Mick, Phil, John and Richard, who played for the club in the 40s and 50s,” says Sweeney, pointing to a photo on the clubhouse wall of the 1955 Loughmore- Castleiney football team which overcame Arravale Rovers to land the county title.

“John was the only one of those four brothers to move outside the parish. It was the same with the next generation. They all hung around. If they are going to get married, they bring their wife into the parish and we all benefit from it!” He’s not exaggerating.

Mick, Phil and Richard, between them, had 12 sons. Ten of that dozen are presently based in either Loughmore or Castleiney. With the combined population of the two areas barely stretching beyond 1,000 people, it’s been a considerable help that the majority of the McGrath clan opted against settling elsewhere.

“I don’t know what we’d do without the McGraths. They backbone this place.”

It’s 3pm and the conversation has moved to a wooden bench outside Nolan’s bar in Castleiney. Present are Tom McGrath, Eugene Stapleton and Declan Laffan.

The eldest of Pat’s three sons is dealt with first.

Club chairman Eugene Stapleton throws the ball in: “The seniors were training here on the Sunday morning of the Cork-Tipperary Munster championship game earlier this summer. And who was there on the line watching on only Noel. That tells you the kind of attitude he has.”

Having been sidelined for close to three months last year following treatment, the 25-year old made his return to competitive action in a Cahill Cup fixture against Holycross. He hit five points upon his introduction in the second period.

Today FM’s Paul Collins reported Noel’s tally in his first bulletin the following morning.

“You hadn’t 10 people at this match,” continues the club chairman, “yet because of what Noel had been through, it was national news.”

Noel Morris, part of the Tipperary panel between 2000 and 2004, is tied up in Kilkenny with work and so is unable to join the chat outside Nolan’s. He still makes time, mind you, for a quick natter over the phone.

“Anything for these lads,” he says. “You couldn’t say enough good things about the McGraths. “The standing ovation Noel received when introduced against Galway in last year’s semi-final said it all really. He carries such respect. They all do. They’re such a humble family. There’s never been any airs or graces and there never will be.”

Onto 22-year old John. In his first full championship campaign, he’s clipped 4-4. None of them are surprised.

“We won the U12 hurling in 2002,” recalls Tom, whose own son Liam captained Tipp to win All-Ireland MFC in 2011. “This was Noel’s team, but John, who wasn’t long gone eight, was introduced in the semi-final. There is a tape at home of the final against Clonoulty Rossmore. Any ball that went into his area, it stayed going. It didn’t come back.”

“He’s so laid back,” adds Declan Laffan. “And this is a chap that has won nearly everything. John has a collection of county medals that is ridiculous. He has everything bar U14 football and minor football. He has U12 medals in both codes, U14 hurling, U16 medals in both codes, minor hurling, U21 medals in both codes and senior medals in both codes.”

Then comes Brian. Centre-back and captain of the minor team who’ll face Limerick in the curtain-raiser.

“We weren’t surprised when John made the cut and we won’t be surprised when Brian makes it either,” remarked Eamonn Sweeney earlier in the day.

“It is great for Brian to get another crack at an All- Ireland minor medal,” says his uncle. “Last September was tough on him, tough on everyone.

“The parish became a total family during that time. Eddie’s illness really cemented that. It makes you that bit more appreciative of days like Sunday.”

Don’t miss the Irish Examiner GAA Podcast. Daithi Regan, Tadhg O’Connor, Eddie Keher, Eamonn Murphy and PM O’Sullivan join Peter McNamara to discuss the Kilkenny v Tipperary All-Ireland hurling final.

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