Border crossing: the Kilkenny man who played in goals for Wexford

David ‘Stoney’ Burke turns, attention broken. He has a big hurling occasion to mind from between the posts. But the voice is familiar, all too familiar. He scans the bank of wheelchairs at the back of Croke Park’s Hill 16 goal.

Border crossing: the Kilkenny man who played in goals for Wexford

“Puck it out left!

Puck it out left!”

David ‘Stoney’ Burke turns, attention broken. He has a big hurling occasion to mind from between the posts. But the voice is familiar, all too familiar. He scans the bank of wheelchairs at the back of Croke Park’s Hill 16 goal.

Then he spots the voice’s source: his father, with his great friend Johnny Fox.

“I had to go over,” Burke says. “Leinster final or no Leinster final. Just for the quick word.

“Johnny had organised a wheelchair and got him out of the hospital for a few hours. He was bad even then with cancer, the myeloma, and Dad passed away the following year, only in his early fifties.”

The years break not this glaze: “So I said to him: ‘What are you at?’ He just said: ‘I had to come, for a bit of support. Watch where you’re going with those puckouts.’

“Then he rolled down his jacket, which was buttoned right up, and showed me the scarf he had under it, out of sight.”

That scarf was a twist of purple and gold, the colours his son was wearing, Wexford’s colours. This jersey had replaced black and amber for 1992’s Leinster final. The son’s voice catches: “I suppose blood is thicker even than loyalty… And my father was as staunch a Kilkenny supporter as God ever made.”

What happened?

David Burke is a middle-aged man, fresh faced and grey haired and gregarious. He works for FBD, investments and pensions, and lives in New Ross. He is married to Rosemary and they have four grown children. Three sons: Declan (30), Kevin (26) and Éanna (24). Gráinne is 28.

Another full laugh: “We spaced them out beautifully. Anyway, they’re all sporty and sound people. Declan is over in Canada, and could probably be playing rugby for Canada, but doesn’t bother. I don’t know where their height came from…”

Sitting in a New Ross hotel, Burke opens Christy O’Connor’s Last Man Standing, that marvellous account of the goalkeeper’s lot centred on 2004’s intercounty season. I brought the book because this custodian spoke to O’Connor in candid terms.

Burke reads aloud: “The commentator Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh once referred to ‘Stoney’ Burke as ‘the man with the height of a bantamweight boxer but the body of a sumo wrestler’. He didn’t look like much of a goalkeeper but he was a superb shot-stopper.” His Ó Muircheartaigh take off is perfect. Then Burke explains the compliment’s context: “He said that about me after a league game against Dublin in October 1990, when I did fierce well on the day.” What happened? A decade and a half later, the man who was to be king raises his eyebrows. He self deprecates about his weight and lack of height with likeable aplomb.

Burke counted always as the self aware side of ebullience and is long since, 56 next December, the philosophical side of life.

A young goalkeeper started getting noticed outside his home patch during the early 1980s. He hurled for Emeralds, the Urlingford club founded in 1972, and inherited a nickname along with a position from his father. Michael Burke had kept goal during the 1960s for St Lachtain’s, in neighbouring Freshford, and won a senior title in 1963.

“Black cat, black kitten,” the son summarizes. “Or scuttery cow, scuttery calf… There were always lads there to say either!”

His talent announced itself: “Fêtes were the big summer draw during the 1970s, and we ran one in Urlingford. The Fenians, from Johnstown, our neighbours, were a glamour club at the time. I was picked on goal, at 14, for a Fête game against them. The father was dropped. He was my sub keeper!”

Back in 1978, The Fenians’ Pat Delaney was not long finished as Kilkenny’s centre forward. He clocked the situation and approached an Emeralds mentor. Delaney offered reassurance and steel in one package: “I see ye have young Stoney on the goal. The chap won’t be touched. I’ll make sure of that. But if get the ball, I’m going to go in to him and hang it up.”

Burke half wonders at his teenage self: “I was walking by and heard what Pat was saying. So here is me to him: “You’ll hang it up only if you’re able to get the ball passed me!”

You need confidence as a goalkeeper. Not too much, but without confidence you’re at nothing.

“There is a line there, a bit like acting or pantomime, as I found out later. You need to stay on that line, or else you’ll make a mistake of yourself.” Superb for the champion Kilkenny minors of 1981, young Stoney captained Johnstown VS to an All-Ireland senior title the following year.

He started studying in Waterford RTC, where his capabilities helped establish the place as somewhere for serious hurlers.

“I met my wife to be on our first day in college,” Burke remembers. “Rosemary was on the same course, Business and Sports Management, and we were both looking for the correct room. She was a Roscommon woman based in New Ross.”

Momentum did not stall. Burke produced a transfixing display when Kilkenny defeated Tipperary by a point in 1984’s U21 All-Ireland final. He was the hour’s hero.

No moment felt sweeter to someone brought up a couple of miles from the border.

“I’d have loads of relatives in Gortnahoe,” Burke emphasizes. “My grandmother was from there, a staunch Tipp woman. This group of cousins came down, a couple of weeks before the U21, for a barn dance that was an Emeralds fundraiser.

“Myself and John Lyng, Derek’s father, were in a little caravan, collecting for the door. We gave that group of them a few quid off the price. As those lads were going in, soon as they had the cheaper tickets, they roared back: “I hope the Tipp U21s beat the living shite out of ye!”

Oh yeah…

“No messing or joking. They were deadly serious.” 

Momentum swelled. David Burke got promoted to senior goalkeeper for 1985’s Leinster semi-final with Offaly. Kilkenny were nine points up when he fumbled a possession. Pádraig Horan stuck the ball in the net.

The game ended up drawn. Kilkenny lost the replay by six points. Offaly won that year’s senior final.

Chastened, Burke headed to New York and hurled for the Westmeath club over there. He came back for 1987 and was sub goalkeeper to Kevin Fennelly until 1990, when Offaly walloped Kilkenny by 19 points in another Leinster semi-final. Along the way, Burke minded goal for 1988’s Junior All Ireland success.

Fennelly retired after the Offaly disaster. Here fell best chance for one candidate, 26 going on 27, the perfect age for a new goalkeeper. Locally, Burke had just won 1990’s IHC title with Mooncoin, the South Kilkenny club to whom he had transferred on foot of college days by the Suir.

What happened?

David Burke could be any bright pleasant middle-aged man. Stoney Burke is different, a 3D version of his doppleganger. Stoney Burke is getting for unique. A gifted mimic, he can bring people alive.

The shrill Cork accent of a forward is summoned. This particular hurler caused intimate injury during a NHL tie in November 1990: “Yer man came in as a ball was dropping and landed me with a kick in the nuts. I can still feel it… He goes: ‘Jaysus, Stoney! Sorry about that, boy! Didn’t mean it!’ Yeah…

“The game went on. Cork scored four goals that day. I was to blame for one of them.”  Next fixture: Limerick at home. David Burke got dropped, with Michael Walsh his replacement. The latter did not get on well, with Limerick victors by 17 points.

Burke was leaving the dressing room when his admirer from the earlier Dublin tie came over: “Ó Muircheartaigh was always pleasant with players and said to me: ‘Well, Stoney, I’d say you’ll be back the next day.’ Little did he know…

“Not alone was I not back on the team after Christmas but I never heard one more word from the County Board or the Kilkenny management. Not a solitary word. That was it. I was gone.”

Burke appreciates the colouring this moment acquired: “Was it significant that Mickey Walsh was Ollie Walsh’s son, the manager’s son? I don’t know. Mickey was a fine goalkeeper and a decent man. But I think most of the lads on that Kilkenny panel would have felt I was at least in the top two goalkeepers around. At worst, I’d have been sub goalkeeper for the All-Irelands in 1992 and ’93.

“Adrian Ronan became both a corner forward and sub goalkeeper, which didn’t help his career, as Ronnie would be the first to say.”

In action for Wexford in 1992.
In action for Wexford in 1992.

For 1991, David Burke hurled away senior with Mooncoin. Then came the swerve that put an odd scarf on his father: “I was sitting at home in New Ross in early 1992 and Cyril Farrell, Wexford’s new manager, landed in to me. He had Martin Quigley, one of his selectors, with him. More or less, they put it to me that I was working in a bank in New Ross, that I should put something back into Wexford, through the hurling.

“I was unsure, but finally went along with them. They only wanted me for a year, because [Damien] Fitzhenry was coming. At that stage, I was settled in Wexford with two young kids. Our future was here.”

He clarifies the choice of club: “Lads in New Ross often say to me: ‘Why did you not hurl with Geraldine O’Hanrahans?’ But I knew nothing at the time about their club scene. Cyril and Martin said to apply for a transfer to Rathgorogue-Cushinstown, and I did as instructed.”

1992 uncoiled into that Leinster final. Burke leaves it plain: “Maybe my presence with Wexford was a motivating factor. But the reality is that Kilkenny put on one of their best ever performances of that era. They beat Wexford by ten points, pulling up.

“Didn’t matter who was goalkeeper on the day. Kilkenny were way better.” 

All the while, there was rugby in David Burke’s life. He started turning out for New Ross RFC in 1988. Fun and something different and settling into the town. He became an accomplished out-half, with a phenomenal boot on the ball.

Benjy Lawlor propped for Kilkenny RFC during that decade and into the 1990s.

“Stoney was pure class,” he stresses. “Obviously, in Kilkenny, we knew all about him from the hurling, the eye and the hands he had, even though he always looked that bit heavy. So we weren’t surprised about how good he became as an out-half. Other clubs underestimated Stoney to their cost.” Burke demurs at this warm verdict. “I couldn’t get over rugby,” he reflects. “A lad, with two hands on the ball, throws you the ball. You can catch it with two hands, before ever having to do anything with it. A fair difference from trying to catch a sliotar, going 90 miles an hour, with one hand…”

The 1992 Leinster final closed an arc. He saw out the year with Rathgorogue-Cushinstown. Then a portcullis dropped. Hurling was over, for a player not quite 29.

Ticker tape… Such scenes run in nearly every man’s head and never become any less strange. Middle age is in part bafflement at what someone called your name once did. David Burke became that out-half, portly and deadly in deceptive measure. He is New Ross RFC’s current President, looking forward to Tadhg Furlong’s visit for their annual dinner. Burke’s Wexford self is much involved with pantomime and drama.

“Through concerts and so on, we raised a million euro and more for the community hospital over the last number of years,” he notes. “There is tremendous support here in New Ross, once you know where to look for it.”

Still, core allegiance never wavered: “I’m a Kilkenny supporter, even though I’m here now longer than I lived in Kilkenny. Always will be the same. I’m the son of a man from Urlingford, the son of a woman from Johnstown.”

He will watch this evening’s match in The Theatre Tavern on South Street. “I have an ally in the lady of the house,” Burke laughs. “You need allies in this town… She was Betty Frisby from Mullinavat, before moving, and we keep the Kilkenny flag flying. I’m Stoney in there, a former Kilkenny player of some sort. The atmosphere in The Tavern is brilliant.”

He would not be without it: “If Kilkenny were playing Leitrim in the hurling, there is a rake of women I know who would arrive in wearing Leitrim jerseys. They might not know where to find that county on a map of Ireland but they’d know where to buy a Leitrim jersey if Kilkenny were hurling them.”

Adopted texture is relished: “I was reared on the Kilkenny-Tipperary bitterness. I think it’s the GAA rivalry, bar none. Is there anything to compare with Kilkenny and Tipp?

“I saw the Kilkenny-Waterford rivalry, through college. Then I came into New Ross, because of meeting Rosemary. Glenmore and Tulloger and The Rower, the Kilkenny supporters, are so close around the town. But here it’s all centred on banter. That’s how I’ve found it, without that massive bitterness I grew up on.” There are many memories, those few sharp at the edges, but no regrets: “I won a reasonable bit with Kilkenny, but not the big one. I might have been there senior in 1992 and ’93. So be it.

“Same for that season with Wexford. It all just happened, at the time. I didn’t think an awful lot about it at the time and I don’t think a lot about it now. Unless lads like yourself come around, before some big match!”

Then the steady note: “Really and truly, it’s well gone. I’m married a long time, lucky enough to have terrific healthy children. They’re my Celtic Cross. "In fact, I have four Celtic Crosses. Anything else in life, whatever medals or the rest, is irrelevant. The Celtic Cross won’t come home to bury you. The Celtic Cross won’t sit at your bedside as you pass on.”

Then this man smiles and looks sideways, knowing he just got a bit too serious for his own liking.

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