Denis Heaslip: Meet the Kilkenny legend 'in the style of DJ Carey, only faster'

Last May, Denis Heaslip turned 87, during the lockdown. He will enjoy tomorrow watching Ballyhale Shamrocks, striving for three senior titles in a row, take on Dicksboro.
Denis Heaslip: Meet the Kilkenny legend 'in the style of DJ Carey, only faster'

Two-time Kilkenny All-Ireland winner Denis Heaslip

Denis Heaslip is sitting in a room with a view, a quintessential Knocktopher view.

The double doors of his quarters look out flush at the Abbey, once the home of Hercules Langrishe MP. Over left sits the Carmelite Friary.

Nearby is a factory, Highway Safety, a site that once housed the village's national school. "I have been looking at those things all my life," he says, Amish plain.

Knocktopher is a village in South Kilkenny mostly known for two elements: hurling and Heaslip's shop. Now closed, this establishment was famous not just throughout Ireland but in many far corners.

The shop, where almost any item could be found, stood for certain values. Because one of those values was the importance attached to modesty and reticence, I will say no more, except that the Heaslip family, with finest reason, is revered.

Over the decades, there were countless quiet acts of thoughtfulness and kindness.

Last May, Denis Heaslip turned 87, during the lockdown. He will enjoy tomorrow watching Ballyhale Shamrocks, striving for three senior titles in a row, take on Dicksboro.

"It's so hard to win any cup in Kilkenny," he stresses. "So to have two club All-Irelands together, before making it back to Nowlan Park for another final, is wonderful altogether. And we still have a young team, overall."

This man was a Kilkenny hurler, one of the brilliant figures, a lightning wing forward. There is a note of restrained awe when locals recollect his gift.

My father PJ, born in 1945 and bred half a mile outside Knocktopher, saw Denis Heaslip in his prime.

"Just something else entirely," the father notes.

Way ahead of his time. Something in the style of DJ Carey, you could say, but probably even faster across the ground, if you can believe that.

"He was so skilful, like Jimmy Doyle of Tipp. He could run full belt and strike left or right without breaking stride. Most lads could only try to stop Denis by hocking or tripping him. But he never reacted. God knows what he could have achieved if Denis had been able to hurl with [Eddie] Keher and [Kieran] Purcell and [Pat] Delaney in the 1970s..."

Club wise, Heaslip played with Knocktopher, mostly a middling Junior team, between the early 1950s and the late 1960s. County wise, he won two senior All-Irelands, 1957 and 1963, with Waterford the opposition on both occasions. This hurler counted as an embodiment of Kilkenny elegance and craft.

"The county had a good junior team in 1956," he explains. "Had enough for the All-Ireland with it. A few lads got promoted to the senior team, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Everything kicked on from there."

The mid 1950s became a crucible for Kilkenny hurling. A 'one parish' rule got introduced for the 1954 season. This directive meant club teams could contain only natives and people newly resident in the parish. The days of Carrickshock and Éire Óg scooping up young talent from lesser outfits were done.

Heaslip pictured attending the 2013 Kilkenny SHC final between Clara v Carrickshock in Nowlan Park. Picture: Stephen McCarthy
Heaslip pictured attending the 2013 Kilkenny SHC final between Clara v Carrickshock in Nowlan Park. Picture: Stephen McCarthy

"You'd have to mark that time as a genuine turning point," Heaslip emphasizes.

"First, you were giving the opportunity, with the one parish rule, for clubs to get better organised. They now knew they could hold on to their best players. So they could plan, and there was an incentive to build for the future. Before that, it was more or less just season to season."

He continues: "But in Kilkenny you have to win. Nothing is sealed in Kilkenny until you win an All-Ireland, until you attach an All-Ireland to whatever new rule. 1957 was massive, because half our team were from junior clubs, like myself.

"Supporters associated winning the 1957 All-Ireland, which was the first one since 1947, with that new rule, and afterwards there was no question of changing it."

The development, burnished by triumph, unfolded. By the early 1970s, nearly all of Kilkenny's parishes featured just one club. Ballyhale and Knocktopher, remembering the older club Knockmoylan, amalgamated as Shamrocks in January 1972.

Fr Anthony Heaslip, an older brother, proved an important facilitator for this initiative. There was, especially at the Knocktopher end of the parish, quite a bit of opposition to the merger.

"I think a lot of good people came together," Heaslip recalls. "Francie Holohan, a neighbour in the village, was for it. People could see what a strong team there could be in the parish if we pulled together. And they were right."

He takes the long view as the Shamrocks attempt another milestone: "I grew up watching serious hurlers around Knocktopher and it made me think of trying to be a hurler. Bill Walsh, from outside the village, was brilliant with Kilkenny during the 1940s. Bill hurled with Carrickshock, and they were our senior team to follow, at the time."

This connection was natural — 11 Ballyhale Parish natives started on the Carrickshock selection that took the club's first senior title in 1931. But Knocktopher was originally a football stronghold. The last man to captain Kilkenny's footballers to a Leinster senior title, back in 1911, was Dick Holohan, father of Francie Holohan and grandfather of Frank Holohan, captain of Kilkenny for 1986's NHL title.

Denis Heaslip smiles: "Yes, football was strong, before hurling came along. My own father, John Heaslip, played football for Kickhams in Dublin rather than hurling while he was working there as a young man. He grew up in Knocktopher in the early part of the last century. So football must have been the big game.

I think the Kilkenny hurlers winning three in a row in 1913 kind of made hurling in the county. Football sort of took a back seat after that, and Knocktopher football was probably affected to some extent.

Then that long level view again: "It must be terrible difficult when a club or a parish has just one prominent hurler over a long number of years. Puts an awful lot of pressure on that person and on anyone coming up. The good thing about our parish, all three parts of it, is that we have great hurlers long gone and we have great hurlers today.

"I was down earlier looking at the young girls and young boys going into the Friary for their Holy Communion. They had to have two separate masses because of this virus. I'm sure there will be good hurlers and good camogie players among them."

Then a long look out through those double doors before Denis Heaslip's summation: "But I'm... I suppose you could say I'm hopeful about the Shamrocks' chances."

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