Memories... and a little hurling along the way

By the time the interviewer arrives, slightly late, the Crotty boys have opened the Crested Ten and are getting stuck in.
Memories... and a little hurling along the way

And why not?

There are stories to be told, memories to be renewed and county finals to be hurled all over again. It is what old hurlers do. It is what brothers do.

In the case of Kieran Crotty (one Kilkenny championship medal but six times mayor of the city and 20 years a TD) the final is that of 1950, when he wore the maroon of Dicksboro.

In the case of Mick Crotty (four All-Ireland medals, two All-Ireland club medals, sensibly gave politics a wide berth when he grew up) there were umpteen finals in the red and green of James Stephens.

Kieran and 1950 first. He was 20-years-old, had been full-back on the Kilkenny team that lost the 1948 All-Ireland minor final to Waterford and was full-back again for Dicksboro. He remembers it all, he says, “like it was yesterday”.

The first game on October 10th in front of 8,000 spectators. His satisfaction when Dicksboro led the favourites Éire Óg by six points with ten minutes left. His disgust when they collapsed late on and were lucky to grab a draw at the death, 3-17 to their opponents’ 6-8.

“We conceded six goals? I’m stunned. Genuinely. My memory obviously isn’t as good as I thought. Six goals?! Must have been a woeful bad full-back line…”

There was frost on the ground the day of the replay six weeks later. “I thought the match wouldn’t be played but it was a white frost.”

Dicksboro made no mistake this time, winning by 4-6 to 1-5.

The excitement afterwards “was wonderful”, the more so because it was the club’s first county triumph in 24 years. A non-drinker at the time, he ended up sipping orange in Walshes’ of Irishtown that night and staring at “all these very venerable gentlemen”, survivors of 1926.

Victory was even sweeter because, in an era prior to the introduction of the parish rule in Kilkenny, Dicksboro were no superpower. Such a status was the preserve of four clubs locally: Éire Óg, Carrickshock, Mooncoin and Tullaroan.

“If you wanted to make the Kilkenny team you had to be with one of them.”

Éire Óg boasted so many luminaries that a young Nick O’Donnell, subsequently a three-time All Ireland winner with Wexford and full-back on the Team of the Century, had to get by at corner-back.

They also had Jim Langton, arguably the most stylish of all Kilkenny forwards.

“He had everything,” says Kieran. “Style, ease of playing, artistry, the perfect athlete. He made it look so easy. The only problem he had was that everyone marked him.”

But Dicksboro had Paddy Grace in the full-back line too, and if Grace was to eventually achieve legendary status as Kilkenny county secretary he could also hurl a bit.

“Paddy read the game better than anyone I ever saw. He hurled every ball. If it was down the other end of the field he was hurling it. You’d learn more in an hour beside him than from a lifetime of going to matches. His stick was part of him.”

Mick would get to know Grace two decades later in a different capacity.

“The lifeblood of Kilkenny hurling. A very practical man. He kept his feet on the ground and kept everyone’s feet on the ground.”

It’s not difficult to construct a scenario in which Kieran Crotty featured in the full-back line on Kilkenny’s All Ireland-winning team of 1957. What happened in real life was this. A bunch of them went playing rugby in the winter of 1950 (“we were young and able and wanted to be playing something”) and six, including him, were banned. When Dicksboro asked him back after his suspension he “took the stúacán and wouldn’t come back, not while everyone else – hundreds of lads - were breaking the rules too and getting away with.

“That was the end of my hurling career. I’ve always regretted it.”

By trade he was a baker, a career he loved. He was a reluctant politician, pushed into public life when his father PJ became ill and there was a Fine Gael seat in Carlow-Kilkenny to be defended.

“I went for the Dáil under tremendous pressure and barely got elected – something like 5,500 votes, whereas my father would have got 8,500 or 9,000 votes. After that I made sure it wouldn’t happen again.”

It didn’t. He spent 20 years as a TD, 1969-89, and found the job most fulfilling towards the end when he spent time as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

“It’s the same as in most other countries. The government and the civil service run the country. But these days you have all these committees, which is all for the better. One thing we did during my time on the PAC was to allow the media in. “We opened the windows a bit.”

In the event Mick, 16 years younger, was the Crotty who wore the black and amber, albeit as a James Stephens clubman due to the decline of Dicksboro. If he rarely did much in the way of scoring, that didn’t matter. He won the ball, usually on the wing, and passed it to lads – Keher, Purcell, Delaney - who did score.

“I was always struggling to get a regular place on the team. I spent a lot of time on the bench in the early 1970s. Eventually I got a fairly regular place.”

There was even a day he did score, much to Kieran’s surprise. The 1972 Leinster final. Wexford leading by a point.

“The last puck of the game. Fifty yards out. About three lads around him. And he scored a point.”

Mick: “The reason I put it over the bar was that I didn’t get a chance to look.”

Kilkenny went on to win the All-Ireland. A year later the understrength champions lost to Limerick, with Mick at the heart of it. Six minutes into the second half, with the sides level, his palmed effort from close range was turned over the bar by Seamus Horgan. The match pivoted on that moment.

“Limerick deserved it on the day. But you could be in the pub and at half-past ten you’d have lads telling you that you were great. By ten to 12 they’re saying, ‘Do you remember that ball against Limerick the year..?’ They always wait for an hour before they bring that one up.”

In 1976 Mick, a Cork county winner with UCC in 1969, won perhaps the most treasured of his many medals when James Stephens floored Blackrock in the All-Ireland club final.

“It was a breakthrough for the club and county, even for the province. It seemed the club championship was going to be a permanent fixture in Cork. We were the first to bring it across the border into Leinster. Five points down after three minutes in the spills of rain in Thurles. I didn’t think we had a hope in hell.”

Among his colleagues the same day was a young Brian Cody. Did Mick suspect Cody would go on to become, well, Cody?

“He was always a leader. The Kilkenny minors in 1972, the senior team in 1982. The seeds were there from the early stages. He was a formidable competitor on the field. You’d know you were marking him. And his father before him. Bill Cody. A great hurling man as well as a great Village man.”

Kieran: “A gentleman.”

Mick: “Brian didn’t lick it up off the side of the street.”

Kieran has been attending All-Ireland finals for closer to eight decades than to seven, most recently Kilkenny versus Tipperary last year. His first final was in 1940, Kilkenny against Limerick. He went up on the train on the Saturday with his father and stayed in the Regent Hotel in Westmoreland Street. That night they went to the cinema.

“The Savoy in O’Connell Street. Ingrid Bergman. What’s the name of it again? I’ve seen it a million times since. It was on a couple of weeks ago. With the tough guy.”

Mick: “Humphrey Bogart?”

Kieran: “That’s him.”

Mick: “Casablanca?”

Kieran: “Yes! And we went to the match without tickets, got in at half-time in the minor match and got seats in the middle of the field on the sideline.”

To tomorrow. Who are you cheering for, gentlemen?

Mick: “Ah would you go away. The Village, of course.”

Kieran: “Dicksboro. And I think they’ll win. They’ve been lucky along the way. I think they’ll finish lucky. Well, not lucky. They’ll finish…winners.”

Let’s leave them there with the Crested Ten, still replaying old games, third eldest and youngest respectively in a family of ten, all of whom are - incredibly – still alive. Plenty of hurling left in the pair of them yet. Here’s looking at you, kids.

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