His funeral took place at St Mary’s Church, Carrigtwohill, with parish priest Fr Bill Bermingham the chief celebrant.
Players of different generations were in attendance, including Tipperary and Borrisoleigh star Jimmy Finn, one of two surviving members of the Premier County team which had recorded the provincial and All-Ireland treble in the preceding three years. “Willie John could play anywhere, really. He was a little tiger and he was great craic,” Finn commented.
Another contemporary was Castlemartyr’s Paddy Abernathy, who was a team-mate when Willie John won his first All-Ireland medal as a member of the Cork junior team of 1947.
Abernathy described him as “a genius”. “He was a great man,” he added.
Amongst the co-celebrants at the Mass were two former Cork hurlers of the time, Fr Bernie Cotter and Fr Colman O’Donovan.
Cork County Board chairman Ger Lane led the Cork representation, which included senior administrator Diarmuid O’Donovan and Frank Murphy. Current Tipperary board chairman Michael Bourke represented the Premier County, along with former chairman (and ex-hurler) John Costigan, and Sean Nugent.
Also present were former Cork players Pat Fitzgerald, Denis Murphy, Denis Coughlan, and John Fenton. Fenton’s late father Dan hailed from Carrigtwohill and hurled with Willie John.
Fr Bermingham said successive generations of Carrig people were proud “not only of what he achieved but of the man he was”.
“Language has been stretched to its limits as we hear words spoken like ‘icon’ and ‘legend’.”
Frank Murphy praised Willie John for “notably advancing the game he served with selfless dedication and which brightened the lives of so many people that we were privileged to have seen him play and to have known him”.
Outlining his early career, he recalled that he made his adult debut for Carrig at the age of 17, with the junior ‘B’ team which defeated Russell Rovers in the East Cork championship final of 1941.
“The year 1952 was probably the year in which he gave his greatest hour of hurling in the famed Carrig jersey, when they defeated Glen Rovers in the second round of the county senior hurling championship. The Examiner reported that ‘having played superbly in the half-back line in the first half with Mattie Fuohy and Dan Fenton, he took on the role of attacker in the second half — his move to left half-forward signalling an all-out effort by Carrig and he set a headline by sending over five copybook points.’
“Most people, I suppose, will remember Willie John for his massive contribution to the Rebel County. He played for Cork for 11 years, first on the junior team. The late 1940s and early 1950s was an era of great hurling teams. Tipperary had won the Munster and All-Ireland championships of 1949, 1950, and 1951 and were going for a four in a row to emulate Cork’s achievements of the early 40s.
“But then came a great Cork team that was to capture Munster and All-Irelands over the next three years. Carrigtwohill gave three players to that formidable Cork team, Matt Fuohy, Willie Moore, and Willie John Daly.”