The PM O'Sullivan interview: ‘In my haste I put the jersey on upside down’

Seventy-three years ago, Jimmy O’Donoghue hurled for Limerick against Kilkenny in Croke Park. One of two remaining survivors from that champion NHL panel, he reflects on this evening’s All-Ireland semi-final between the two counties and on his journey as a hurler and a civil servant which saw him play the game in four counties

The PM O'Sullivan interview: ‘In my haste I put the jersey on upside down’

Seventy-three years ago, Jimmy O’Donoghue hurled for Limerick against Kilkenny in Croke Park. One of two remaining survivors from that champion NHL panel, he reflects on this evening’s All-Ireland semi-final between the two counties and on his journey as a hurler and a civil servant which saw him play the game in four counties

The past strives to frame the present but the present is a roll and Jimmy O’Donoghue is eagerly looking forward to this evening in Croke Park.

Limerick take on Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final and this Shannonside native will watch the match from his home outside Finglas Village. He is cautious and optimistic.

“They have a right good team,” O’Donoghue affirms. “And I think they are getting better. They showed it in the Munster final against Tipperary, especially in the second half. I don’t think Tipperary had too many answers for what Limerick brought in that second half.

“Fair enough, Kilkenny will be a different challenge. It’s a game in Croke Park, rather than in Semple Stadium, which changes things. But a young Limerick team, and it is a young team, should enjoy what you get in Croke Park.”

This man hurled on that stage. As a boy, Jimmy O’Donoghue knew the great Limerick-Kilkenny rivalry of the 1930s and early 1940s.

The counties met in four senior finals, honours even, two victories apiece. Born on March 25, 1928, he was 12 when Limerick overturned favourites Kilkenny in the 1940 final.

“They were probably going off a bit by then,” he states. “The older players were coming towards the end of their prime, even [Mick] Mackey. And the younger players weren’t coming in at the rate needed. But Limerick caught Kilkenny, on the day.”

Not until 1973 would the two counties again meet in the championship. This scenario would have seemed as unlikely at the time, from a Limerick perspective, as a man on the moon.

There sped Mick Mackey, hurling’s first superstar, electric in a world of paraffin lamps. His county counted as the game’s glamour combination, a splash of colour in a monotone world.

“Various things went wrong for Limerick afterwards,” O’Donoghue allows. “But it was always going to be tough to live up to what the 1930s team achieved. A big factor was the decline of Ahane, after the 1940s. They were supplying nearly half the county team. When Ahane went down, you could say Limerick went with them.”

Back in the 1940s, Limerick were part of hurling’s big four, every bit a match for Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary.

The future seemed green. No-one could have foreseen the fourth county’s slide back into the pack, a mere brace of senior titles in the following 79 years.

As a player, Jimmy O’Donoghue caught the tail end of that Limerick-Kilkenny rivalry, 1947’s NHL final.

For one young player, the circumstances were somewhat strange.

A young civil servant in Limerick’s Custom House, he was just back from a first posting in Dublin. “I don’t really know how it came about,” he confirms. “Jackie O’Connell, who was secretary of the Limerick County Board, was in another branch of the civil service, and he had got to know me. He sent me a letter: ‘You have been selected for the Limerick team…’ We drew with Kilkenny, the first day.”

That fixture took place on November 9, 1947, when he was an unused sub. The replay was fixed for March 8, 1948. Having played with the breeze, Limerick led at halftime by a mere point, 1-5 to 1-4. Kilkenny, reigning All-Ireland champions, were expected to push home.

A photograph of the action hangs on the sitting room wall. Six hurlers, three from each side, are contesting possession. Jimmy O’Donoghue is there with Pat ‘Diamond’ Hayden, nearest the ball as it squirts out into the left corner. “The bás of my hurley is turned the wrong way round,” he laughs. “The Diamond must just have given it a tip, to put me off. He was a hardy clever full-back.”

O’Donoghue sets the scene: “We were all there in the middle of the field, because at the time you didn’t go back into the dressing room at half-time. Jackie O’Connell came down to me and said: ‘You’re on. You’re on next.’ So I said: ‘I’ve no jersey.’ Because they didn’t have enough jerseys to go around, and I was probably way down the subs list beforehand.

“He said: ‘Get one, I want you on immediately after half-time. Get one off one of the other subs.’ Paddy Creamer, who was from Cappamore, heard O’Connell. I looked around. Paddy said: ‘Here, take mine.’ So, on the sideline, he just threw off his coat, pulled the jersey off, and I put it on.”

O’Donoghue is merriment personified at the memory: “But in my haste I put the feckin’ thing on upside down. And didn’t notice, until someone said it to me afterwards. It was showing number 81… That actually happened.”

Disorganisation on the day ran to more than gear. “I used normally play half back,” O’Donoghue outlines. “The whistle had gone and there was a throw in, and I was going in.

“So I said to O’Connell: ‘Where am I going to play?’ He says: ‘Go up into the half-forward line.’ That was that.

“Now, I never played in the half-forward line for Limerick. But I didn’t mind. Up I went left-wing forward, and I think I was on Bill Walsh, a fine hurler. Anyway, I found my man and the game went on.”

The contest, intense and finely balanced, reached its final quarter. Paddy Grace, Kilkenny’s right corner-back, found himself way up the field and palmed over. Limerick’s lead fell to two points, 2-6 to 1-7. Jimmy O’Donoghue, in unusual fashion, was about to be involved in this final’s denouement.

“About 10 minutes from time, we were just that little bit ahead,” he relates. “Ten minutes to go… There was a tussle in the goalmouth, and I was about 25 yards out, and the ball came out to me, at a beautiful height. I snatched it, and the thought went through my mind: ‘Put it over the bar.’ And there I was.”

A turn of events rarely seen on a hurling pitch intervened: “I threw up the ball like that [indicates right side stroke]. And who comes around, nearly under my hurley, only John Mulcahy… He took the ball, after I’d thrown it up, flashed by me. I was left with my mouth open.

“Mulcahy hopped the ball once on his hurley. And then he fires, from about 20 yards out, and got a goal. I think it went in off the goalie’s head.”

That score broke the hour’s tension. Limerick added two points and ended up convincing champions by a seven-point margin, 3-8 to 1-7. Annexing this title a seventh time took until 1971.

That sub glosses his contribution to the sixth title with more merriment:

“I always remember that. The fecker took my goal! Well, my point…”

The irony is that John Mulcahy is the only other survivor from that panel.

A native of east Limerick, Jimmy O’Donoghue grew up in this area’s criss cross of affiliations and orientations. “We lived in the parish of Doon, in Clogher, by the Blackboy Bridge,” he details. “Everyone around there was known as ‘The Blackboys’.

“But the parish marker was only out the road, at a place called Dickie’s Bridge. That was the flag, only a couple of hundred yards from Cappamore Village. The parish line was there, and we were another mile and a half out. But we went to national school in Cappamore. I mean, that time, we had to walk to school.”

He elaborates: “Then we went to the CBS in Doon. But I knew all the lads in Cappamore, of course, matches and all that. Even after going to secondary school, we often went over to the pitch in Cappamore for a few pucks.”

This affinity led to Jimmy O’Donoghue winning 1945’s minor championship in shadowy circumstance.

“Peter Carbery from Cappamore was our postman,” he smiles. “He would come by every day, and Peter, even if he didn’t have a letter, would stop for a chat. So here is this Wednesday morning before the Limerick minor final, and Cappamore were in it against a city team, and we had a couple of words about it.

“Peter says to me: ‘Would you play for us on Sunday?’ I said: ‘Sure, I’d be illegal.’ He says: ‘Ah, nobody would care about that.’

So I said: ‘Well, if I’m picked, I’ll go.’

And I did go, and I was picked right half back, and Cappamore won.

“I had a pretty good game. But my name didn’t appear in the paper. I was a Kelly or something!”

The following year, he won the same title out in the open: “As I say, I was in Doon CBS, and I had played minor the year before with Doon. So they asked me to be part of their team again. At the time, Oola were joined with Doon. They had a football team in Oola but no hurling team. So they joined up, and we had a couple of Oola lads when we won the championship in ’46.”

Seventy-three years have not bleached memories of that victory against Askeaton: “Seán Nash of Oola and myself were playing midfield. We were two tough boys there… Well, he was. Seán was about 15 stone weight, and he did the hard thing, and I got the ball! We’d a good midfield area.”

Few means existed for a rural schoolboy from a modest background in 1940s Ireland to change his life. There was emigration and there was an exam hall. The O’Donoghues were bright and potential did not go unspotted. A door opened that was not a step onto an emigrant’s train.

As this retiree details: “There was an old brother in Doon [CBS] and he said to me: ‘You should do this exam, for next year.’ In your fifth year, you see, you didn’t have any exams. ‘You might as well do this,’ the brother said to me.

“And he gave me aid, during some Saturdays and all that, what you’d now call ‘grinds’. I used to hate it, because I’d be kept in school. But we did the thing, and luckily enough I got the exam.”

He continues: “The 19th of September 1946 I started a job in the Civil Service, here in Dublin, in the Custom House. The next day, there was a fella and he comes at me: ‘I believe you play hurling. Would you play for the Civil Service team?’

“That was great for me. They had their own pitch in Islandbridge.”

Despite the agreeableness of his new life, home ground still called: “Less than a year later, an opening occurred in Limerick. They were looking for volunteers, and naturally I volunteered. And I got transferred down to Limerick.”

TREATY TANGLE: Kilkenny’s Pat ‘Diamond’ Hayden and Limerick’s Jimmy O’Donoghue (second left) contest possession in the 1947 NHL final on March 8, 1948 in Croke Park.
TREATY TANGLE: Kilkenny’s Pat ‘Diamond’ Hayden and Limerick’s Jimmy O’Donoghue (second left) contest possession in the 1947 NHL final on March 8, 1948 in Croke Park.

Jimmy O’Donoghue is a highly pleasant, enjoyable man. I can see how he acquired keen friends everywhere he went. One of his best pals in that civil service team was PJ O’Grady, a native of Kilmallock. By chance, O’Donoghue came to share Limerick digs with two of his brothers, Mossie and Dominic. This affinity led to the three of them playing together for Treaty Sarsfields, a city club.

O’Donoghue’s time with this outfit did not begin until 1951. Between 1947 and 1950, he hurled junior with Mental Hospital, a civil service-orientated club, and senior with Young Irelands.

He sketches that era’s intrigues as regards club affiliation: “I never played with Ahane, which I could have done, as a native of Doon. Ahane had the pick of East Limerick’s junior clubs. John Mulcahy played with Ahane, and won three or four championships with them.

“Anyhow, Paddy O’Reilly of Ahane, who was treasurer of the county board, came in to me at the counter in the Custom House. He started talking, and then says: ‘Would you play with Ahane, if you were asked?’ I said: ‘Well, you’re unlucky, because Jim Sadlier was into me this morning and asked if I’d hurl with Young Irelands. I can’t go back on my word to Jim.’

Sadlier was Limerick’s right corner back and a respected figure. They were club colleagues, until Young Irelands folded, and club colleagues again with Treaty Sarsfields.

“Myself and the O’Gradys moved digs out to near Shelbourne Park,” O’Donoghue clarifies. “Shelbourne Park had a well known pitch at the time. Half of it was for the soccer and the other half was the hurling field. So every evening in the summertime, after a cup of tea, up with the hurleys and out onto the pitch. That way, we got to know the Treaty lads.”

A powerhouse of the time, t

This club won three titles in a row 1951-53, with O’Donoghue an incisive contributor. He shows me a photograph of each team, goes through the individual names with emotion. The past shines still like a lake: “Look at my great head of black hair… Paddy Fitzgerald, Podge Coughlan and myself were a decent half back line.”

Jimmy O’Donoghue, 19 when he won that NHL medal, did not press on to become a championship starter with Limerick. He is modest and philosophical about this eventuality: “I have no regrets about not playing with Ahane, who had an awful lot of influence. To be honest, I wasn’t a member of the senior panel all the time. I was nearly on the fringe all the time, you know? I played in a lot of tournament games, the Clanwilliam Cup and so on. That was a great competition, in that era, the Clanwilliam.

“I was quite a light hurler, ten stone something. I think that told against me too. I had to be tougher, to be on that Limerick team.”

Humour at his own expense remains a forté: “The first day I played with Limerick, it was against Cork in the Gaelic Grounds. Probably the Clanwilliam or some such. I was left half back that day.

“The first Cork forward I marked was Willie John Daly. He wasn’t at his peak, and was fairly new to the Cork team at that point, but he was already very dynamic. When he came down before the match, before the throw in, he said to me: ‘Ah, good! A nice light fella like myself.’ That was Willie John.”

The outing was a tutorial on the vagaries of reputation, about how spectators’ views are slanted towards what happens late in a game. “Willie John did fairly well,” O’Donoghue stresses. “He scored a few points off me. He was always going to do that.

“Anyway, before the end of the game, I was switched out to midfield. With about 10 minutes left, I hit two terrific clearances. I broke the ball in midfield and sent it back into the Cork square. That was the Cork puckout I was returning. Twice in a row, I did it. It must have been my speed.”

The next day, he learned a key lesson about hurlers on the ditch: “A fellow worker in the Custom House came over and said: ‘Those two last balls you drove in were the best of the day by anyone.’ I made an impression, but only at the end. No one said anything about Willie John Daly…”

Meanwhile his life took on the dynamic a civil servant’s career entails, with transfers for promotion a fact of professional life. He is wry: “Do you know what happened me? I got moved to Donegal, in 1955. That was the way up the ladder. I couldn’t exactly turn it down.

“That move finished me with Limerick hurling. They weren’t going to pay expenses for a sub to come down from Donegal. Jackie Power was one of Limerick’s best ever, and he fell out with them [the county board] over getting expenses down from Ballinasloe. Jackie was in the railway and had been promoted up to Ballinasloe.”

As always, one man made friends and in particular found another hurling fraternity.

O’Donoghue hurled for Letterkenny, who were beaten in the county final, and hurled for Donegal in the Ulster Championship, where they were beaten by Down. If in no way one of hurling’s big names, he saw hurling from valuable and informative angles.

Next came a return to Dublin, where O’Donoghue hurled with CJ Kickhams. A stint in Galway swung the next curve. “There were great GAA people in Galway city,” he emphasises. “I hurled with the Fr Tom Burke’s club. Most of all, I got involved with starting up a juvenile club in Mervue.

“It was all new houses up there at the time. I think we did important work. Anyway, there used to be kids knocking on the door all through the evening. They were mad to hurl, and we did our best for them.”

The next move, back to Dublin, clicked as the decisive one. The family settled in Finglas, one of North Road’s first inhabitants. A leg injury in Galway had foreclosed O’Donoghue’s playing career. Even so, he became closely involved with Erin’s Isle, the local club, and with an attached pitch and putt club. “I found the pitch and putt a relaxing way of giving an evening,” he reflects. “But I haven’t been out at it now for a few years. The legs are not so great anymore.”

That young man getting grinds from a kind Christian Brothers made a productive civil service career. He continues to enjoy a fine retirement.

“My eldest is now 60,” O’Donoghue notes. “His birthday was just there recently. In fact, my lads are now retiring themselves, or talking about retiring. They all did grand, and there are grandchildren and great grandchildren. Everyone is well. That’s the main thing.”

We are in Finglas on a skittery humid day and Jimmy O’Donoghue is the soul of patience as photographs are taken in the back garden. The O’Donoghues head off to Portugal tomorrow on a family holiday. Back indoors, this supporter is level and plain, glad that his county made the first semi-final. Otherwise they would have to catch this match on the run, with no enjoyment to it.

“I think Limerick have a good team,” he repeats.

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