THE BIG INTERVIEW: Johnny Moriarty - the third Tipp man to hurl for Kilkenny

Johnny Moriarty was the third Tipperary man to hurl senior for Kilkenny. His bid for an All-Ireland medal in 1971, with his home county in opposition, wasn’t to be, and left his family torn. But he has no regrets and was a central figure in the rise of the Fenians from Johnstown.
THE BIG INTERVIEW: Johnny Moriarty - the third Tipp man to hurl for Kilkenny

Johnny Moriarty is talking about Elvis Presley.

Tupelo Honey and Johnstown buzz.

We are in his house in Folkscourt, couple of minutes outside the town.

“North Kilkenny’s Gaza Strip,” as Billy Fitzpatrick once described the dynamic. Fitzpatrick, stylist attacker of the 1970s and ’80s, grew up immersed in a particularly intense version of Kilkenny-Tipperary rivalry.

Mere minutes away are Templetuohy and Tipp. The border is a vein of sweetness and venom.

Johnny Moriarty is not ready to talk hurling, yet. Not at all. Photographs gladden this home’s walls, offerings to a fascination. He walks us round: Elvis quiffed and Elvis in sideburns, Elvis in Las Vegas, leathered up.

“I wouldn’t listen to anyone else,” he states. “I’d have no interest. Maybe the odd singer, or what people call singers, but I think Elvis is way ahead of anything else you could mention.”

Johnny Moriarty is an individual of 71, fresh and vigorous. There is a great welcome in his kitchen for a stranger. I go to shake hands with Mrs Moriarty.

“I’m Vera,” she says, widening smile. “Don’t be doing the ‘Mrs’ on me…”

Her husband was a hurler and a good one, fleet and light at wing forward. During the 1970s, he was a teammate of Billy Fitzpatrick with the Fenians, a side where places were at an absolute premium. Anyone picked could hurl a bit.

There are several unusual aspects to Moriarty’s career, but the most unusual one is straightforward: He was a Tipperary native who hurled for Kilkenny. When? Summer of 1971, when Tipperary beat Kilkenny by three points in a searing senior final.

The Venn diagram of outsiders in Kilkenny might be the smallest of any hurling culture.

Before Moriarty, there were two other Tipperary natives. Rody Nealon (father of Donie) hurled a Leinster quarter-final in 1922, when he was a schoolteacher in Mullinavat and playing with Knockmoylan. Nealon took no further part in that campaign. Connie Keane of Thurles likewise hurled championship a few years later, when he was a soldier stationed in the town and playing with James Stephens.

What happened in 1971? You have to trace. There are intriguing swerves.

Moriarty is from Triandra Cross, a step outside Gortnahoe on the way to Urlingford. Born in November 1945, he grew up in a famous era, when Tipperary won five senior All-Irelands in eight seasons, 1958 to 1965, a time when they could have won each year.

“Sure, hurling was royal,” Moriarty laughs. “Tipp were very strong. You’d a lot of Tipp stars to contend with, to act like. Every field you went into, there were 20 John Doyles in it.

“And 40 Jimmy Doyles. Everyone wanted to be Jimmy.”

Moriarty was left-handed, like Jimmy Doyle, like my father. They were beaten for it. I am left-handed, never beaten, born 1960s rather than 1940s. They were beaten.

He nods a recognition: “I was left-handed from the start. A child thinks nothing of it. But then I went to school in Gortnahoe. The minute the teacher saw anything in your left hand, you were flattened with a ruler. They had no time for anyone going with the left hand. I often came home and the back of that hand would be black.”

Hurling proved a different sphere, one where a left-hander could thrive in the wake of Jimmy Doyle’s ciotóg artistry. “I played on goal all that time,” Moriarty emphasises. “I was well able to mind the goal, well able to mind the square.”

Still, disappointments and setbacks fell early. This boy was skilful, but small, which counted big time.

“I remember a rural schools competition in the mid 1950s,” he continues. “I thought I was good enough for that team, but I didn’t make it. And Gortnahoe went on to win it, sure enough.

“The teacher over the team met my father and said to him: ‘Jack, bring up the young lad to the hall tonight. The youngsters are getting their medals.’

“Here, didn’t daddy bring me up to it. Watching them all getting all the medals, when I felt I should have been getting one… It disheartened me a bit at the time.”

He sketches a milieu that now seems impossibly remote: “Every Sunday morning, there’d be a leaflet put on the chapel gates. We’d all go to first Mass in Gortnahoe. Straight over to the gate to see who was on the minor team.

“Is my name there? Down along, down along… Okay, so. My name is there.

“Down at the right bottom, there’d always be a line: ‘Bring hurley, boots, and togs.’ Same as you might go without them!”

Boy became young man, the given swerve. Moriarty became Gortnahoe Glengoole’s main goalkeeper. “We didn’t win a lot,” he says. “The only medal I ever got was a junior mid final against Moycarkey-Borris.”

By 1968, he was accomplished enough to be asked to trials for the Tipperary intermediate team. This horizon held deceptive light.

His voice tightens as he recalls those months: “I did the trial games. I kept a clean sheet. I felt I couldn’t have done any better.

“The evening of the last trial, I was only given five minutes in goal, after playing an hour, three-quarters of an hour, all before. Anyway, I stepped in. I remember it was a lovely occasion, the evening falling down, the moon coming up. It was actually hard enough to see.

“Anyway, this thundering bullet of a ball came in. I just went where the dust was, and managed to flash it out for a 70.”

The aftermath proved the first of those swerves: “They went into Thurles to pick the team, and to give us a cup of tea. I was with Tom O’Hara, chairman of our club.

“We came back out. It’s about a mile-and-a-half from Gortnahoe to Triandra Cross, but it felt like it was 20 miles. There wasn’t a word remarked in the car. I said to myself: ‘Johnny, me man, you’re not going to make this team, or even the subs bench.’”

He remembers O’Hara’s distinctive way of clearing his throat at tense moments: “So we got to Triandra and Tom gives these two coughs, and says to me: ‘Johnny, I wasn’t able to get you on. I tried, but I just wasn’t able.’

“I said: ‘That’s alright. No problem.’ Then he said: ‘Look, Gortnahoe are playing in Semple Stadium on Sunday evening. A bus will be passing this way for you.’ I said back: ‘Tom, the bus can pass this way, but I won’t be on it.’

“That was a goodbye to Gortnahoe Glengoole, and to Tipp as well.”

Moriarty gave a spell in London, where he went floor laying with a cousin.

“London was brilliant,” he says, smiling. “New lease of life.”

He hurled with a club named Young Irelands, before being headhunted by the much stronger St Gabriel’s.

“I think I was the first non-Galway man with the Gabriel’s,” he says. “They were a fine team. I had Pakie Grealish as my full-back, father of the soccer player Noel, who played for Ireland. Pakie was some serious tough yoke… He’d go through a lad like lightning.

“He’d be looking back in at me in the goal, over his shoulder: ‘Alright in there, stock?’ I’d be back: ‘Ton alright, Pakie!’”

Johnny Moriarty (third from left, front row) on a star-studded Kilkenny team.
Johnny Moriarty (third from left, front row) on a star-studded Kilkenny team.

Moriarty ended up in a London final against Brian Borus, who had Billy Barnaville as their goalkeeper: “Two Gortnahoe men, trying to keep both ends of field tidy! Anyway, Borus won that day.”

Then the decisive swerve: “I went to Johnstown, to a job with Roadmaster Caravans. Vera is from Folkscourt, from the house we’re in now. My mother was a Kilkenny woman, from out the road in Beggar. So it wasn’t difficult to settle here. No way difficult. We got married in 1969.”

He continues: “Then I started hurling with Roadmaster, in the Factories League. There was a great man from Danesfort, Tom Gleeson, who looked after the team. We had a right strong crew, PJ Ryan and Nicky Orr, and plenty others.”

Roadmaster did not require a goalkeeper. Father of PJ Ryan of 2009 fame (and a first cousin of Moriarty), PJ Ryan Sr went on to win senior All Irelands in 1974 and ’75 as understudy to Noel Skehan.

Here was another swerve. “PJ was a great goalie,” Moriarty notes. “So, they landed me out to wing forward. I liked it and started hurling well. Mick Gannon, who was big involved with the Fenians, used come and watch Roadmaster hurl.

“He came down to the house here and asked me to join up with the Fenians. Yes, I thought long and hard about the move, but eventually I had to say: Why not? They were a smashing team, on the way up. I went to them the year I was married.”

Moriarty was getting involved in one of Kilkenny club hurling’s most fascinating stories, Johnstown’s rise. Founded as an amalgamation of two junior clubs in early 1968, the Fenians won that junior championship. Within nine years, they had taken five senior titles. They were an avalanche.

Junior momentum alone catapulted them into 1969’s senior final. Although hammered that day by James Stephens to the tune of 16 points, they defeated the same opposition by three points in 1970’s senior final. All the while, Moriarty caught the eye as a livewire wing-forward.

Kilkenny mentors, who now included Mick Gannon, did not fail to notice. Moriarty started featuring in stripes in late 1970. He started all five league ties in early 1971, up to when a playoff with Wexford was lost by a point. A subsequent panel shake-up meant he was not with Kilkenny during the Leinster Championship, when Dublin and Wexford were defeated.

Times were far different than 21st-century arrangements. Panel membership was far more fluid. A strong performance by Moriarty for the Fenians against The Rower-Inistioge in early August spun him into a wing-forward spot for the All-Ireland semi-final against London.

“I was going well in training,” he recalls. “So they reckoned they’d chance me, but it didn’t happen on the day, and I was taken off at half-time.”

There are swerves we cannot see, because they are counterfactual. Nicky Orr, workmate and clubmate, successful Kilkenny captain in 1974, was a sub against London. “Johnny hit four shots at the posts early on,” Orr reflects. “All four went about an inch wide. If they’d gone over, the selectors would have started him in the final.”

He elaborates: “The funny thing is that they could have started Johnny at wing forward on Tadhg O’Connor. He was from Roscrea and a wonderful skilful clean hurler, but Johnny had often hurled well on Tadhg when the Fenians met Roscrea in tournaments. You’d never know what might have happened, if those shots went different…”

Moriarty was retained for the All-Ireland final, but Ned Byrne came into the forwards.

“We trained really hard for that final,” he remembers. “Maybe too hard. We might have been a small bit overcooked on what turned out a scorching day in Croke Park. There was a lot of talk beforehand about Tipp’s danger men.

“Looking back, Kilkenny would have been better off not starting Ollie Walsh, who was struggling after an appendicitis operation. I think starting Noel Skehan might have tipped the balance, in a match where there was only three points in it at the end.”

So many years later, that September day devolves into a memory of Pat Delaney, another clubmate, tussling with Mick Roche for a ball: “They were on the ground, and Roche was lying on Delaney to stop him getting at a ball a few feet away. Suddenly, the ball was swept away down the field, and Tipp had a point. They just got those breaks on the day.

“I was thinking of that moment when I saw Mick Roche in his coffin last year…”

Was it difficult for his family, Moriarty in black and amber? He hesitates: “Nobody ever said anything bad to my face, family, or neighbours. My father really wanted me to get an All-Ireland medal. Oh God, he did. It would have meant everything to the family.

“But maybe not against Tipp… He was a roarin’ Tipp man, out and out. What he actually felt on the day, I don’t really know.

“People at home told me he was very torn, up in the stand.”

That Sunday evening, he was done with stripes. The governing note is magnanimous: “I never had any bitterness over not being called back afterwards by Kilkenny, not like I had over those intermediate trials with Tipp. I got my chance. I was just proud to have played with some truly great hurlers, especially with so many of them from Johnstown.

“I’d have loved to get an All-Ireland medal, but it wasn’t to be. Maybe I didn’t do too bad for a small man from Tipp!”

The same man hurled away with force after the 1971 All-Ireland final. Though the Fenians lost to Bennettsbridge in that year’s senior final, they took three in a row between 1972 and 1974. The Fenians had risen right to the top.

Moriarty stayed omnipresent on those champion sides, tireless and incisive at wing-forward, when that fifth senior title went to Johnstown in 1977. He signed off with a junior A final win over The Rower-Inistioge in 1980.

“When I gave up hurling, I gave up hurling the whole way,” he says. “I didn’t bother much with going to matches and all that. I kept two sliotars from my day as mementoes, which was about it.”

This evening’s NHL meeting between Tipperary and Kilkenny is not a major topic of conversation.

Four children and nine grandchildren later, they look right well on their years, Vera and Johnny, lively and outgoing. We are finished, or nearly, but he insists on another pot of tea, cuts me apple tart. He wants to say more about Elvis.

He opens presses and cupboards, displaying neat stacks of CDs and tapes and books. “I think I have most of the books on Elvis,” he says. “And I love listening to the different versions of a song he would do for different concerts; comparing them.”

His family sent him to Graceland in 2007, one of his most treasured experiences. A son in law, Dominic, and a granddaughter, Shannon, were his companions: “Visiting Elvis’s house exceeded anything I ever expected. Which was a fair lot!”

Roused, he goes off for another photograph. Here it is: Standing outside the gates of Graceland, the three of them amid a soft dark. The timer on the photograph notes 12.49am, which I mention. “People have no idea,” he says. “It’s a totally different world, the heat in Tennessee.

“God, we have no idea in Ireland how hot it stays over there after midnight.”

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