Hurling hands: Tom Dempsey - 'Going to Randall’s for my hurleys was like going to Disneyland'

Hurling hands: Tom Dempsey - 'Going to Randall’s for my hurleys was like going to Disneyland'
28 May 2017; Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald with former Wexford star Tom Dempsey before the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Laois and Wexford

Tom Dempsey, Buffers Alley and Wexford.

My hands aren’t too bad. I picked up the usual breaks and bruises, and one of my little fingers is bent out of shape, but they’re not like George O’Connor’s hands, put it that way. He was fearless going up to field the ball and took plenty of belts.

My worst injury was in a club game towards the end of my career. I was corner-forward against Glynn-Barntown and I tried to hook Tommy Kehoe but my hand got caught between the hurleys. Broken.

I even didn’t want to look at it. Aidan O’Connor, our physio (and my best man), said ‘It’s not great.’ The bone was coming out through the skin.

In the old Buffers Alley tradition I got it taped and played on, and afterwards I went to a GP. I wanted to play in the county semi-final two weeks later and he said if I went to hospital my hand would be stitched and pinned - but if I came to see him every day for the coming two weeks he’d try to keep the flexibility in it.

I did, he did, and I played.

I don’t think people are as reckless nowadays, and they’re right. You might hurl from the age of ten to 35, but you’ll always need your fingers.

When we were playing lads had a different outlook, though. In a club tournament one time Matty Foley, who was a great man to field a ball for us, dislocated his thumb. Our keeper, Henry Butler, came out and got the thumb back in - and Matty fielded the next ball that came into him with the same hand.

Hurling’s a wonderful game. I was chatting to Enda McNulty one day and he was saying that a hurler has the option to puck a ball off a wall until he’s 70 or older, and he’s right.

In terms of mastering the game there’s a period when the hurley still controls the young fella, when he’s eight or nine and still doesn’t have full control of the stick. But when that switches and he’s in charge of the hurley, hurling takes over his life.

Tom Dempsey's hurling hands
Tom Dempsey's hurling hands

I can remember being in goal for our U14 team at the age of seven and leaving in about 16 goals, so the only was up from there. As I got older I got to grips with it, and my father Ger was a fanatic, which helped me with the basics.

Early on I was totally left-handed but when I was ten or so Colm Doran told me to use my right hand all winter when I was hurling. If Colm told you to do something you did it, so I did, and I ended up taking frees, everything, with my right.

I got completely comfortable with my left and right heading to around 13, 14, and it gave me a huge boost, because striking from both sides is so important.

I was very finicky with my hurleys. As a child my father would bring me down to Randall’s for my hurleys and it was like going to Disneyland - into the shed, Frank Randall there making the hurley in front of you, making it to your needs, which made you feel special . ..

I always used Randall hurleys. I never got a bad hurley from them, they’re very good - Albert and Lee (Randall) are there now.

But my father would be out in the shed the day before a Leinster semi-final or final with my hurleys, working and working on them, which would drive me crazy - this isn’t a criticism, but he was probably getting them to suit what he felt was right for me. He was so influential, though, he probably made me a hurling fanatic in turn.

It’s funny how the game has changed - and the effect that’s had on hurleys. We played a tournament another time up in Bagenalstown against St Martin’s Muckalee, a fine strong team like ourselves.

After the game my father came into the dressing-room: “Lads, we won’t be playing this crowd again. The club will be broke, we’re after breaking 24 hurleys in one game.” You don’t see that any more, the ground game is gone and overhead pulling has fallen out of favour as well.

I was in Randall’s recently and they have replicas of old hurleys, and the difference in the hurley is very noticeable. The older ones are narrower in the bás, for instance, but no matter what size the bás is you need to make contact with the sweet spot.

I know DJ Carey used a lighter hurley while Tony Doran had quite a heavy hurley - I’d have often felt Tony’s skills were underestimated because he was seen as a big man and good to catch a ball, while his wristwork was very good. He was great to get a shot off in a very confined area. Mick Butler was another very skilful player of that era.

Brian Whelehan was an amazing player not just in his reading of the game but with his hands. John Taylor of Laois was someone I loved to watch playing, he was incredible.

Martin Hanamy was also underestimated even though it’s hard to think of anyone who mastered the art of playing corner-back as well - and it is an art.

Billy Byrne’s ability to field the ball, Seanie Flood’s striking. These were all exceptional players.

Latterly, I know Henry Shefflin and DJ Carey are regarded as Kilkenny’s greatest, but TJ Reid is edging into that company now. There’s something very romantic about his style - that left-hand, Jimmy Doyle style of striking.

Ken McGrath is another player I always had huge time for, Joe Canning has incredible skills . ..

Incidentally, I read Eoin Kelly saying in this slot a few weeks ago that a player would only really love a couple of his hurleys during his career. What would he have accomplished if he’d had more hurleys he loved?

Interview: Michael Moynihan.

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