A legend at 90: 'Theo English would still talk hurling with any man, woman or child in Tipperary'

"You have to remember that Theo English is a man that worked hard all his life," Paddy O'Keeffe explains.
A legend at 90: 'Theo English would still talk hurling with any man, woman or child in Tipperary'
Theo English, one of Tipperary's finest ever hurlers, is Marlfield's President. This weekend marks Theo's 90th birthday. Picture: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE
Theo English, one of Tipperary's finest ever hurlers, is Marlfield's President. This weekend marks Theo's 90th birthday. Picture: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE
Theo English, one of Tipperary's finest ever hurlers, is Marlfield's President. This weekend marks Theo's 90th birthday. Picture: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE

"You have to remember that Theo English is a man that worked hard all his life," Paddy O'Keeffe explains.

"He was the same in his hurling life as in his working life. I remember Theo coming up to my father, Michael, on a Sunday, a day the father always had to work, because the cows don't know what day of the week they have. But Theo would be up to him straight after a match, even as a young lad in his teens, or on the Monday, at the latest."

This man draws a moral: "It was an education to listen to them discussing hurling. My father used represent the South Division when there were only two divisions in Tipperary. The detail they used go into... Theo always wanted to know where he'd gone wrong a bit, where he could have done better. That was Theo, from the start."

Paddy O'Keeffe is Vice President of Marlfield GAA Club and a former Chairman. Theo English, one of Tipperary's finest ever hurlers, stands as the club's President. This weekend marks Theo's 90th birthday. English is a legend, a neighbour.

O'Keeffe harnesses the true intimacy of a local. He grew up with the figure who became glamorous but never remote. English spent his career with Marlfield and Tipperary as one of the supreme midfielders, coolly dynamic, a superb athlete. The winner of five senior All-Irelands between 1958 and 1965, he remains a nigh automatic choice on the county's all-time selections. Club wise, there were four South Championships (1960, 1962, 1964, 1970).

"I changed national school at seven years of age, from Rathkeevan to Marlfield, in 1942," O'Keeffe recalls. "Theo was in sixth class at the time. He really stood out, but so did Mick Kennedy, who later went to Dublin and hurled for them. They played against each other in the 1961 All-Ireland final."

He elaborates: "Our teacher, Pat Kearney, would bring us out every lunchtime to The Lawn, which was in front of Marlfield House. The local landlords, the Bagwells, put The Lawn at the disposal of the school. The Master would throw the hurleys in a heap and divide us up. That was how hurling thrived in Marlfield.

"When the club started up, in 1946, its first team had 13 that went through Marlfield National School. It was a great place. The Bagwells sponsored it. Even during the war years, The Emergency, we had heat all the time. There were five gallons of milk going into the school every day from the Bagwells. They replaced all the windows as well, during the war."

Then that true intimacy again: "There was real pride, of course, when Theo made the Tipperary senior team in the mid-1950s. It wasn't just a Marlfield thing. It was a South Tipperary thing. But there was sadness too, because Mr Kearney wasn't alive to see it. He died a young man, at 42, when I was in sixth class. He had been in and out for a while."

Andy Moloney picks up on this career's resonance: "I think everyone in South Tipperary revered Theo," he notes. "Everyone in Tipperary, really, because he was such a marvellous hurler, and such a pleasant man, into the bargain. But it counted more for us, the South Tipp people, to have someone that gifted in with the Tipp team. Traditionally, South Tipperary was a division that hadn't delivered a lot of intercounty men.

"Also, Theo didn't make it with just any Tipp selection. Plenty of steady people think the team we had between 1962 and 1965 might be the best one ever. I don't know, but it's up there. And Theo got on that team, and was one of the stars on that team. That surely says a lot."

Theo English lines up for a throw-in with Cork's Christy Ring
Theo English lines up for a throw-in with Cork's Christy Ring

Moloney speaks both as outsider and insider. A native of Poulmucka, he hurled for Cahir during the 1960s and 1970s. He frequently played against English on the club scene and briefly with him in the 1960s, as midfield partner, for a South Division team.

He laughs at the memory: "Theo would learn you... You would be there the next day after marking him, feeling sore and maybe wondering why, and you had to learn. Theo had a great shoulder, a great jostle. I usually did the chasing, though I was well younger. He was massively fast over the ground, and he was as fit the day he gave up hurling, in his forties, as the day he started out.

"What you learned about Theo was that you got right in with him or you got out of his way. He had a wicked overhead pull on the ball. He was brilliant on a sideline cut. If he'd had the modern light sliotar, I don't know how far he could have cut it."

For Moloney, that divisional team, even if a short-lived experiment, endures as distinction: "I'd consider it a fair honour to have been asked to hurl alongside Theo English in the same jersey. We went at it as hard as we could, when it was Cahir and Marlfield, but we had those few days together as well. And there was no nicer person than Theo, off the field. Everyone wishes himself and Maureen, his wife, the very best for this special birthday."

Paddy O'Keeffe reiterates the power of one man's personality: "Nobody in Marlfield was one jot surprised when Theo became such an effective selector with Tipperary during the 1980s into the 1990s. People forget he was also a selector in 1971, when Tipp won the All-Ireland. Was there ever anyone better to discuss the game than Theo English? He has had three passions in life: hurling, ballroom dancing and horse racing.

"Theo would still stop on the road and give an hour and a half talking hurling, no bother at all. And that would be for any man, woman or child in Tipperary."

Theo English by the numbers

- Leo McGough

1: SHC appearance as a sub, coming on at midfield with 10 minutes to go in 1957 Munster semi-final v Cork in the Gaelic Grounds.

1: All-Ireland JHC medal (1953), Munster JFC medal (1952).

2: Points scored from lineballs in SHC career, one in 1963 Munster final v Cork in the Gaelic Grounds, one in 1965 All-Ireland final v Wexford in Croke Park.

2: Cuchullain Awards (All-Stars), selected midfield in 1963 (with Des Foley, Dublin), 1966 (with Bernie Hartigan, Limerick).

4: Goals scored in SHC career, two against Kerry in Austin Stack Park, Tralee in 1957, a brace against Cork in 1965 Munster final in the Limerick Gaelic Grounds.

4: Railway Cup medals, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963.

5: All-Ireland SHC medals, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965.

6: Venues played in during SHC career. Gaelic Grounds (16), Croke Park (8), Cork Athletic Grounds (8), Thurles Sportsfield (2), Austin Stack Park, Tralee (1), Cusack Park, Ennis (1).

7: Munster SHC medals, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967.

8: NHL medals, 1953-54, 1954-55, 1956-57, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1960-61, 1963-64,

1964-1965.

9: His number of midfield partners in 33 SHC appearances: Mick Roche (9), John Hough (7), Liam Devaney (6), Tom Ryan (Killenaule) (4), Donie Nealon (2), Tom Ryan (Toomevara) (2), Jim McDonnell (1), Ray Reidy (1), Matt O’Gara (1). Also: Phil Shanahan during ’57 substitute appearance.

12: Points scored in SHC career, 10 in Munster SHC, 2 in All-Ireland finals.

33: SHC appearances at midfield, including

7 in All-Ireland finals.

36: SHC appearances with Tipperary between 1954-1967.

90: Birthday this weekend.

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