My hands aren’t too bad, they’re not too out of shape to look at.
I have a pin permanently in the thumb and forefinger of my right hand, though. My hands were probably where I picked up most of the injuries I got hurling, and that’s why I took to wearing a glove for protection.
Oddly enough the majority of the breaks were in the hand I used to hold the hurley rather than my catching hand — your hand’s loose if you’re trying to catch it whereas your other hand’s fingers are around the hurley, obviously, so a wild pull could break the finger off the hurley. Or you could be heading off on a solo run and a player could pull from behind.
With a lot of the injuries there might be a little break but you could get to the end of the match at least. Towards the end of my career I was at a stage where, unless the doctor was pretty sure there was a broken bone, I wouldn’t go for an x-ray any more because of all the radiation.
It wasn’t that I was a target every day I went out to play or anything. The ball’s moving fast, it’s coming out of the air, if you decide to do something different at the very last second to catch it, and the opponent is pulling on the ball...
The one thing I was lucky with over the years was that I didn’t get a slap down across the hands when striking the ball too much. That’s something I can’t stand — a deliberate flake down across the hands as you’re striking, someone coming across you, and often on the blind side of the referee.
The glove didn’t take too much getting used to, but I was helped by the fact that my other sports career was in handball, so I was well used to wearing a glove there.
Brendan Cuddihy — whose brother Kieran was the Kilkenny team doctor for years — designed the glove and I used it for seven or eight years; while wearing it I think I broke my little finger of that hand once, so it made a huge difference.
Handball was a help to me in general terms — with hand-eye co-ordination, getting your hands to work faster, all of that. The one thing you’re trying to coach lads to do in hurling is to work with as few touches as possible — whatever level you play at, if there’s a ball bouncing around it’s easier to get it into your hand than to put it on the hurl.
So handball was a help there — and in terms of handpassing I could deliver a hand pass 10, 15 yards because of that background.
It’s funny that nowadays a lot of inter-county players take an extra touch to control the ball, though I wonder sometimes is that to give them the option of a second catch: If they catch the ball straightaway that’s one catch gone already.
Or maybe they’re not as good at catching it, or it’s not as important an aspect of the modern game. In my time playing catching the ball was a big thing, but if you went back 30 years before that the game was all about pulling first-time in the air and on the ground, batting and striking the ball, and catching wasn’t regarded as being nearly as important.
I liked a light hurley but it was all about feel rather than the grain in the hurley or anything like that. It just had to feel right, feel light — I won’t say lighter than most because I think most lads preferred a light stick — and whatever weight was in it at all had to be in the bas, if possible.
I wasn’t overly particular. Growing up, my uncle Martin bought us hurleys for Christmas, the best Christmas present you could get, and as I got older and went into St Kieran’s I got more of them.
I wouldn’t have any hurleys around the house, really. Over the years I would have given bits and pieces away for charity and so on, and with moving house as well I would lost them. I have one or two paintings of hurleys, and there are a few I’d have preferred to keep rather than medals and things.
As a kid I admired Ger Henderson of Kilkenny, and then as I got into my teens and started taking more notice of players it would have been Joe Cooney. Nicky English was another player I admired, they were my two favourites: Two forwards, of course.
In the modern game? Seamus Callanan is a phenomenal hurler, Brendan Maher, Noel McGrath are also lads with brilliant skills. Joe Canning the same. From a Kilkenny point of view, TJ Reid. Lee Chin. If the gun was put to my head, though, Seamus has fantastic skills.
It’s interesting — you’d nearly be lost without speed and fitness in the modern game, yet skill is nearly a given. You’ve no chance without speed and fitness, but you need skills at a very high level too. A good touch will get you there, but then to get any further you need that and the athleticism.
I think there’s very few from my era — which is not that long ago — who’d survive in today’s game. That’s not to say they couldn’t be developed and trained to survive and do well in the modern game, but the way we were at that time, very few would survive. The speed, the strength, the skill — it’s a different game nowadays, and of course it would have been different in our day to the previous generations.
While we’ve been in lockdown I’ve been looking at old games on YouTube and on the television and I’m not sure I’d have liked to be involved in some of those games. There was some heavy sledging involved in a few of them compared to nowadays.
In the modern game... take blocking down. In the old days you were blocking a hurley because you were protecting yourself from the follow-through, not necessarily blocking the ball. Now they block the ball rather than the stick.
Going up for a high ball, in the old days you’d be going to catch it while the man behind you was winding up to hit it as far as he could in the opposite direction.
Now, though, most lads go to catch a high ball, and maybe one goes to block it, not to pull on it. And the odds are against you pulling or blocking because if you miss the ball then your opponent’s gone on to it like a flash and your momentum is carrying you away from the play.
In our time if something happened to a player in a game it was nearly carried on to the next game: A stroke might be pulled. Nowadays that stroke is more likely to be a shoulder in the chest rather than someone being hit by a hurley.
I was watching the 1995 Clare-Galway All-Ireland semi-final recently, and Jamesie O’Connor went to pull on a ball in the air and followed through and caught Pádraig Kelly, his marker, on the head.
A complete accident — Jamesie was looking at the ball — but Pádraig went down, rubbed his head, got up and took the free. No fuss, no big deal.
If that happened nowadays the player struck would be more likely to stay down — though he’d have a helmet on — and wait and see if other player was booked or sent off.
That is gone from the game because if there’s an accident and you catch someone with the hurley, you’re gone.
The same with ground hurling — if you mistime your follow-through then you’re in trouble with the referee.
I don’t like going back to my own time over and over, but when we played a chop was an opponent coming down and across you with the hurley: Nowadays if a guy flicks the ball off an opponent’s stick, even if he wins the ball, he might be penalised. It’s very different, certainly.
Interview: Michael Moynihan