‘They say Tipp have never won an All-Ireland without a Ryan’

Pat Kavanagh won an All-Ireland title with Kilkenny in 1969, before transferring to Borrisoleigh to work as a vet, and then play with the Borris-Ileigh club, giving him a unique insight into an ancient rivalry

‘They say Tipp have never won an All-Ireland without a Ryan’

Pat Kavanagh won an All-Ireland title with Kilkenny in 1969, before transferring to Borrisoleigh to work as a vet, and then play with the Borris-Ileigh club, giving him a unique insight into an ancient rivalry

“It’s a bad night to be a Kilkenny man,” whispers a friend.

Pat Kavanagh is in Roscrea, attending Tipperary’s homecoming after the 1971 senior final. The friend hails from Borrisoleigh, Kavanagh’s adopted place. A native of South Kilkenny, Pat is caught in a squeeze of allegiances, a young man making his way in a hotbed of the most beautiful game. The heat is being turned up.

The day before, Tipperary had defeated Kilkenny by three points. Philosophical back then, this man retains a sense of measure: “I suppose the fact that I had won an All-Ireland drew some of the badness out of it. Also, Tipp went on a serious decline after that victory. It was hard for them to be saying too much to anyone, when Kilkenny went on to land four All-Irelands during the 1970s.

“They were disgusted by a blip becoming a famine. They couldn’t handle it at all. It was one shattering blow after another during that period. Sixteen years of it…”

Pat Kavanagh gained his Celtic Cross in 1969, introduced as a sub shortly before half time. A second-half rally by Kilkenny saw off Cork. “Meeting the parents afterwards was the really emotional thing,” he recollects. “They had brought us all over the country, since childhood, to hurling matches. It was a dream come through for them, even more than for me.”

Kavanagh appeared at midfield in 1970’s Leinster final, when Wexford won. But his senior career lost traction. He is enjoyably wry and modest on hurling politics: “What was very important, that time, was having a selector. Dick Bolger, from home, was made a Kilkenny selector. It’s never a disadvantage! The Rower-Inistioge won the 1968 county final in the spring of 1969, which is where Dick came in.”

Pat Kavanagh had hurled a year with Kilkenny at minor (1963) and at U21 (1966). Both seasons terminated with Leinster final defeat by Wexford. But it was Fitzgibbon Cup prominence that propelled his step to senior.

“UCD won the Fitzgibbon Cup in 1968, which threw my name around,” he notes. “Then UCD won the Dublin county final the same year. I got called into the Kilkenny senior panel.”

He continues:

“After 1969, the club no longer had a selector. Anyway, I just felt I didn’t get to use the momentum playing in that All-Ireland final brought. I had a terrible reaction to the smallpox vaccination the players were given before we went to America in late ’69. It floored me. Then my arm was broken playing with UCD in a club game. I had done little enough hurling before the 1970 Leinster final.”

Both 1971 and 1972 were blanks. Kavanagh did return for 1973:

The Rower-Inistioge were playing James Stephens in a club match in Thomastown. I was at centre-back, where I seldom played, and I was marking big Ned Byrne. And I scored six points from play, which pushed me back on the senior panel. But Limerick beat us in the All-Ireland final. I was well back in the subs for it.

Pat Kavanagh was done with Kilkenny as a hurler. But how did he end up hurling with Borris-Illeigh? Born on November 10, 1945, he was reared in Raheenduff, a townland in The Rower. The place is emphatically South Kilkenny, but New Ross is just four miles distant. Wexford loomed in his childhood. The county’s hurlers started thriving during the early 1950s, as a young Kavanagh began to understand the mutable nature of rivalries.

“We were for Wexford initially,” he laughs. “I remember all the excitement of their cars travelling up to Dublin for the big matches. We used to be jumping and tearing alongside them on the road. Then we kind of took against Wexford, because they were beating us a bit too often.”

The 1958 All-Ireland semi-final introduced him to the rivalry that convulses North Kilkenny. His crowd were the reigning champions, having beaten Waterford the previous September, but Tipperary took the honours and easily beat Galway in the decider.

“I went with the parents and the brothers,” Kavanagh recounts. “We were in the Nally Stand and Kilkenny were playing into that end in the first half. I remember Seán Clohosey running through with a ball, early on. He took this bullet of a shot and it hit the crossbar and rebounded out over his head.

“Jimmy Finn, Clohosey’s marker, gathered the ball and cleared it. Clohosey was a Kilkenny hero, because he was such a stylist.”

He resumes: “That particular day, Jimmy Doyle was outstanding. He had just arrived on the senior scene and I think he scored more himself than the Kilkenny total. He couldn’t be held.”

His childhood was emphatically a GAA one. As Kavanagh details: “The father was totally immersed in hurling and the GAA. A county board delegate for the club and all of that. Our mother, even though she was from a football area in Cork, Ballingeary, had this fierce interest in hurling. We went all over to matches, Munster finals and everything, which was unusual at the time.

Tipperary’s Brendan Maher arrives at the Wexford vs Tipperary game. Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie
Tipperary’s Brendan Maher arrives at the Wexford vs Tipperary game. Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

“Tipp beat Cork in the 1960 Munster final in one of the finest games I’ve ever seen. We were sitting on the sideline in Thurles at half 11, when throw in wasn’t until half three. Got drowned the same day, but it was a magnificent match.”

Tipperary was a long way from Raheenduff. “I don’t think I had much of a sense of the Tipp thing as a child,” Kavanagh states. “I couldn’t honestly say I was aware of bitter rivalry. We went to school in New Ross, to Good Counsel [College]. The Wexford factor was far more important.

“My sense of Tipp was that any time we met them, in the league or whatever, they nearly always beat us. But I had no great animosity towards Tipp, because you wouldn’t be seeing anyone, in the normal course of a day, from there. And Tipp weren’t going great in the early to mid-1950s. They didn’t win in Munster between 1951 and 1958.”

Third-level experience altered this dynamic. Pat Kavanagh began studying in UCD to be a vet in 1964. He hurled with the college’s teams, a pursuit that drew him into another orbit.

“Half our Fitzgibbon Cup-winning team was Tipp,” he says.

We had Éamonn Kennedy in goal, a brother of Michael Kennedy, the future minister. We had Willie Smith, brother of Mick Smith the TD. Jack Ryan of Moneygall was corner-forward, a great hurler.

“There were another five or six Tipp lads as well. I was particularly friendly with Pat O’Connor from Cashel, another corner-forward, and with his older brother, Derry O’Connor. Derry was a vet. When I qualified, I got a job with him, in Cashel. That’s how I got to Tipperary in the first place, back in 1969.”

Proximity in UCD dictated the usual crackle between two sets of natives. “Tipp had won the 1964 All-Ireland final with Kilkenny just before I started in UCD,” Kavanagh recalls. “Then after the final whistle, when we won in 1967, I had a lot of the Tipp UCD fellas I’d got to know around me in Croke Park. I have to say that I enjoyed them being there!

“They were slagging me during the first half and at half time, because Tipp were on top and winning well. But Ollie [Walsh] gave an exhibition in the second half on the goal, and saved the day. Kilkenny hadn’t beaten Tipp in a championship match for 45 years. They were kind of shellshocked. It simply wasn’t meant to happen.”

He elaborates on that professional swerve to Cashel: “I was with Derry until his younger brother Pat qualified. Then I went to a friend of Derry’s in Borrisoleigh, by the name of Tom O’Neill.

“I was only with Tom about two years when he died suddenly one night. Myself and a friend of mine, Matt O’Connell from Roscommon, bought the practice from his widow. And I’m there in Borrisoleigh ever since.”

What does a young vet talented at hurling do in Tipperary? Kavanagh smiles: “Borris-Ileigh had a pretty good team at the time. I used be training away with them the whole time. Every night, if there was hurling in the field, I’d be down there.

“It was a great help to my business, I’d have to say. Being a hurler helped big time, even though I didn’t transfer to Borris-Ileigh for a while afterwards. But I knew everyone, knew all the fellas involved in the club, was hurling and training with farmers’ sons and so on. You had that shared context with everyone.”

All the while, he was making a Tipperary life as well as a Tipperary livelihood: “I used play challenge matches with Borris-Ileigh from the start. I’d travel to matches. If they were a man short, I’d play.”

He transferred in 1977, a move that contained as much accident as design.

Kavanagh sketches the context: “We were beaten in the 1976 Kilkenny county final, by James Stephens. The following year, Borris-Ileigh played a few tournament games down in Fethard, and I played with them. Illegally, of course. I remember my father was going into a county board meeting one night and this fella from Johnstown said: “I see the young lad is hurling very well down in Tipperary at the moment.”

So I was caught.

“I had the choice of two things. I could own up, and be suspended for 12 months. Or I could play with Borris-Ileigh. So I wrote to the secretary of The Rower-Inistioge club: ‘They’re on to me here in Tipperary to sort out my situation. But if there’s anyone in our club who has any objection whatsoever I won’t go’. Never heard a word afterwards, from that day to this day.”

Pat Kavanagh launched in new colours. He hurled in draw and replay when Kilruane MacDonaghs beat Borris-Ileigh in 1977’s senior final. He achieved the rare distinction of a senior title in three strong hurling cultures when he was part of the teams that triumphed in 1981 and 1983. Tipperary got added to Kilkenny and Dublin.

Kavanagh glosses: “I never detected even the slightest animosity towards me hurling with Borris-Ileigh. Sometimes that happens when a fella comes in from outside. But I suppose we all knew each other so well by the time 1977 came round. It probably wasn’t your typical transfer.

“Having said all that, it’s hard to know if it’s a good idea to leave your own. My brothers were playing with The Rower still. I’d say that only I got caught illegal I mightn’t have changed, even though I know there was always fierce pressure on me, up there, to change.”

He modestly adds: “It wasn’t that I was so good. Not at all, though I was hurling away fine. I’d say it was more they felt they needed something extra or different to win a county final.”

Kavanagh is equally self-effacing when it comes to Liam Devanny’s input. One of the club’s finest ever hurlers, Devanney counted as a magician with Tipperary during the 1960s.

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He took over management of the club team for 1981. Before that senior final, he offered a memorable team talk: “Liam went the usual road, starting with the goalkeeper. Pepped everyone up. Then he came to the three of us in the full-forward line.

“He said: “Kavanagh, [Mick] Coen, [Tommy O’] Dwyer, I don’t know which of ye is the worst.”

Everyone just horsed into laughing. Probably relaxed us, in a funny way. A life was accruing: “I didn’t get married until I was 38, when I was nearly finished hurling. We were lucky enough to have four children, two boys and two girls. Although the girls are not so pushed, the boys are staunch Tipperary devotees.

“The girls are in Ireland, teaching. The boys are working in New York, where Toby is chairman of the New York Hurling Board and Tommy is secretary of the Tipperary Hurling Club.”

Music proved a central aspect of the four children’s upbringing, with All-Ireland medals winging to Borrisoleigh on foot of their talent.

But hurling’s draw could not be ignored. Their father brightens: “I remember when they were very small they’d wear Kilkenny colours going to the matches. But I remember one of the Kilkenny matches during the 1990s and I’d bought a black-and-amber ribbon, and Toby wouldn’t wear it. He was only six or seven at the time! He refused, point blank.”

Yet Kavanagh is no way rueful: “Borrisoleigh is a fantastic village for sport. There are great doggie men as well as great hurling men. They’re mad about horses. They like to take life easy in Borrisoleigh. It’s a very friendly town.”

He got to know natives who had starred in blue and gold. Seán Kenny was one such figure, a Premier star during the late 1940s and early ’50s. As Kavanagh soon discovered, singularity is prized and enjoyed in this part of Tipperary: “Seán was an absolute gas ticket, very colourful, a great entertainer. He was a real god around the county, a powerful build of a man.

“I never saw him hurling, but I believe he’d go through the proverbial stone wall. Just a bull of a man…

“There used to be a crowd of them that went into Stapleton’s pub most mornings. And Seán would be there, and one particular morning he said: “Herself is gone for the day and she has left me nothing at all. Only a tin of Kitty Kat…”

Kenny milked an attentive audience: “So he took the tin and opened it and got a spoon from the girl behind the counter, and started eating it. Cat food, they all thought. But it wasn’t cat food at all. He was after changing the label on a tin of salmon. And they were all in a state watching Seán Kenny with a spoon, eating cat food.

Not a bother on him, but they didn’t know why! Completely winding them up… He was capable of anything. He was brilliant.

Borris-Ileigh’s present is also rich in talent. Kavanagh’s admiration for Brendan Maher, Tipperary’s last victorious senior captain, is unequivocal: “He’s the kind of fella that makes any club. No airs and graces, no matter what he achieves, no matter what he wins. I see he was recently a selector with the Junior B team.

How many lads who’d captained Tipperary to win an All-Ireland would be bothered in the slightest with helping out a Junior B team? But that’s Brendan Maher.

Kavanagh’s verdict on living through Kilkenny’s ascendancy over Tipperary between 2002 and 2014 is straightforward: “Pure fantastic! Inside in Thurles Golf Club, I’d get an awful going, before all the Kilkenny wins started happening. Then I used to be saying: ‘It’s a pity Tipp wouldn’t win the other time, to bring them on a bit, to offer a bit of encouragement.’

“They go mental… Can’t hack it at all. They don’t tolerate any slagging at all.”

Even though five decades settled in the place, he still enjoys Tipp idiosyncrasies: “I’d be great friends with Séamus Troy, a Moyne-Templetuohy man living in Thurles, through the golf club. We’d go to all the matches together. But I’d be saying to him: ‘Why are Tipperary so unpopular?’ He knows well they are unpopular, but he won’t admit it.

“It’s amazing how many counties dislike them. Offaly dislike them. Galway dislike them. Clare dislike them. Cork probably tolerate them. I think that’s fairly well known.”

He proceeds, not short of bemusement: “The other thing with a lot of the Tipp followers is that there’s always an excuse. They are never beaten by a better team. They say Diarmuid Kirwan, as referee, beat them in 2009. Hawkeye did them out of it in the 2014 draw. They still go on about how a normal umpire would have given the point and won them the All-Ireland.

“I don’t know what they blame for 2011. Actually, I think it’s Brian Gavin, as referee. They’re great people in most ways, sound as a bell, but talking hurling is a different matter.”

What will happen in the latest dance the two counties’ have with each other? Kavanagh’s wry humour holds to the end: “They say Tipperary have never won an All-Ireland without a Ryan being involved. Tipp had their manager, Michael Ryan, in 2016.

“Is there any Ryan about the house this year?”

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