Jimmy Finn at 90: 'I never, since or before, saw a back that could clear so many balls'

"I said to my father once: ‘Was Jimmy Finn that good?’ Because I never saw you hurling, Jimmy. He said to me: ‘Timmy, he was the best I ever saw.’"
Jimmy Finn at 90: 'I never, since or before, saw a back that could clear so many balls'

KITCHEN CABINET: Brendan Maher and Jimmy Finn with the Liam MacCarthy Cup after 2016 All-Ireland SHC final. Picture credit: Borris-Ileigh GAA Club / Martin Bourke

Whiskey, however excellent the barley, requires time.

Make a connection. Hurling is a series of occasions that fix time, establishing patterns of success, grooves of tradition. Whiskey needs its spell in a cask, same as hurling needs, for definition, its top level contests. You cannot have profound release without bounding limitations.

Recall a compelling GAA image: Brendan Maher and Jimmy Finn with the Liam MacCarthy Cup, one September day in 2016. Both men have a glass of whiskey to hand. Borrisoleigh endures as a place of license, a place where those pockets of time between duty’s call get treasured. Exactly 65 years after Finn had lifted this trophy, Maher repeated the feat.

Both men hold their parish every bit as dear as their county, a trait not the case in every part of Tipperary but emphatically the case in Borrisoleigh. This environment might even be described as a kind of cask, a locale where high expectations deepen and round out talent.

I allow myself licence because I heard, last September, Jimmy Finn describing a boat journey. Outside, the haze of a promising autumn day, the haze thrown up by sheltered inland spots. Inside, we are at sea, travelling from Dublin to London. “It was for the Monaghan Cup,” interjects Martin Bourke. “That was an annual trip during the 1950s. Most of the time, Tipperary won.”

Finn sets sail: “There was the Dublin camogie team going over on the same boat. And they were in third class and we were in first class. They had a banjo, anyway. So [John] Doyle and [Jim] Devaney lifted the gate off its hinges, and sure we had a great night, dancing with the women.

“We had our fun, and then we were all sleeping in small little rooms. But one of the lads got water and threw it in on top of Devaney, a team selector, Liam’s father. He appeared out, anyway, after two or three jugs, and he hadn’t a whole lot on.”

Finn continues: “The corridor was about a hundred yards long, and he up and down the corridor: ‘Oh the Devil is at me tonight!’ And there were women appearing out, here and there.”

“One fella went and reported it. He said he was in The Blitz in London during the war, but it was nothing to what had gone on, travelling over on this boat! The middle Fifties…”

A Tipperary occasion but a quintessential Borrisoleigh story. I once read Noel O’Dwyer, one of the parish’s finest hurlers, a passage from John McGahern: “The ordinary farming people had to conform to the strict observances, and to pay their dues to the Church from small resources, but outside that they paid it little attention. They went about their sensible pagan lives as they had done for centuries, seeing it as just another of the fictions that they’d been forced to kowtow to, like all the others since the time of the Druids.”

Noel just laughed: “Yes, it would chime with how Borris’ people are ever so blasé about most things. Whether it’s socializing or drink or greyhounds or horses or whatever… They don’t mind. They relax.”

Picture seven of us around a table in The Pavilion, Borrisoleigh with Jimmy Finn. From the same parish, Timmy Delaney, Fr Denis Kennedy, Bobby Ryan and Fitzy Ryan. Completing our octet, Martin Bourke, one of the county’s foremost GAA historians, and John Costigan, former County Board Chairman.

There is an equilibrium to places that have been good at something for a long time. Borrisoleigh and Ileigh, their focal points, remain such a co-ordinate. Borris-Ileigh, the club, arrived as a comet. Their initial spell yielded three triumphs for glamorous newcomers. The first one clicked in October 1949, the club’s second season, after Borrisoleigh and Ileigh amalgamated in January 1948. The same click, 1950 and 1953.

Seán Kenny captained Tipperary to All-Ireland success in 1950, a path immediately followed by Jimmy Finn. The latter figure surged to the game’s pinnacle. Shorthand for his status? That he was picked at right half back on the GAA’s Centenary all time XV in 1984.

This assessment dropped even though an eye injury, at 28, foreshortened an already stellar career. Finn’s spell yielded a Minor All-Ireland, three Senior All-Irelands, six NHL medals and four Railway Cups. 90 on November 16, he is currently hurling’s oldest champion captain.

Borris-Ileigh’s reputation as supreme in celebration? Soon established. One of local newsprint’s most drôle examples of parenthesis can be found in a Tipperary Star account of reaction to 1949’s breakthrough: “(It is reported that they could not give the reception earlier as the members and officials of the team could not be found for a few days!)”

The decades spun on, thick and thin, feast and famine. The gap to 1953 got bridged in 1981. Bobby Ryan lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1989. Borris-Ileigh now count as the only Tipperary club with three surviving Senior All-Ireland captains.

Does an outfit become particularly popular for consistently producing standout intercounty hurlers? Jimmy Finn concurs: “It was super for us, of course. Only for the two clubs joining that time, it would never have happened. It made hurling in Tipperary, really. I think there were six Borris’ fellas on the Tipp panel.”

Fr Kennedy’s childhood speaks its memory of that foundational moment. “I recall vividly walking down the street, past the chemist shop, Frank Kennedy’s, and there they were in the window, on display, the North Tipperary Cup, the Dan Breen Cup, the Munster trophy, the Liam MacCarthy Cup, the National League trophy, the Thomond Shield.”

Martin Bourke adds: “And the Monaghan Cup as well. 1950. The year Seán Kenny was captain. They had the whole lot.”

Fr Kennedy nudges himself out of mere memory: “And they were never stolen. There was no guard on them. They were just sitting there.”

Obvious question to Bobby Ryan: what it was like, growing up as a hurler, with that sort of achievement in the background? He comes back measured: “I would never have seen it as a pressure, the past. But there was pressure on us, later on. There was this huge gap back to the first titles. Timmy [Delaney] was part of the teams who had been trying to close that gap in the 1970s. They were getting near, very near.”

He elaborates: “When you grow up, you are sitting across the table from your father, who’s saying to you: ‘What are ye at, like? What are ye doing? Do ye want to go back to what we had, with Dermodys’ cows shitting inside in the field?’ That was what went on.”

Persistence brightened and found a dawn: “Well, the excitement of winning the ’81 County Final… It’ll never be lost on me. It was incredible in itself. But it was even more the effect it had on older people in the parish. I never saw my father really get excited, about anything. But in ’81, with him, it was like the whole thing lifted. Dwyer was like a pure child on the night.”

Ryan reaches back to dark before dawn: “I remember well a dressing room and it was after we’d been beaten in the championship. And I was sitting beside Timmy [Delaney], and I was aware Timmy was coming towards the end of his stint in the jersey. And I said: ‘Jaysus, Timmy, I’m sorry about today.’ I actually genuinely felt sore sorry.

“And, Timmy, you put your arm on me and said: ‘Old hand, you’re fine, you’re fine.’ But I was feeling his pain, because I’d loads of years left but Timmy had the opposite.”

Ryan moves back into the light: “I suppose we have a little bit of something. It’s not a superiority complex or anything. But we have a self-confidence that maybe comes with the spirit of the place. And we’d like to think we gave it on to the next generation.

“And Brendan Maher and his vintage will give it to the generation after them.

A winning tradition only stays that way if it is also a respectful tradition.

The mysteries around this sort of groove preoccupy outsiders. Fitzy Ryan sketches: “The one thing that always stood to Borris’ is always being represented by a county player, and usually a really good county player. Just when Jimmy was coming near the end of his career, Liam Devaney appeared. And then, as Liam was going out, Noel O’Dwyer was coming in. Then Bobby. And now Brendan [Maher] and Dan [McCormack].”

Finn rises gracious and philosophical: “It was wonderful for us to see the gap disappear, for us lads to properly go into the background, in the best sense. As the years went on, the gap was becoming harder all the time. It becomes a mental thing.”

John Costigan provides an intimate outside perspective: “In the Seventies, Borris-Ileigh blew County Finals. Ye had a good hurling team at that time, and classy players. But ye couldn’t beat Kilruane [MacDonaghs].

“Another thing that should be mentioned is yere coaching system. I spent my teaching career inside in Templemore [CBS]. The one thing that you would notice was the Mick Prior effect. Mick was a simple and ordinary man, in the best sense. The Borris’ lads used bring that bit of polish. They were that bit better coached, by an ordinary man that never projected himself or looked for notice.”

Timmy Delaney enlarges: “Another man to be mentioned is Philly Ryan. After Jimmy’s period, there was a time when the fortunes were poor. And there was strong talk of dropping out of Senior. But Philly had a stubborn obstinate refusal: ‘They will not go back Junior. We’ll never go back Junior.’

“And he maybe even defied democracy a bit. But they didn’t drop back. And you have a lot of clubs who went back Intermediate that found it hard to regain lost ground and rise back into Senior.”

Then Delaney resumes on the main man: “John O’Grady, known as ‘Cúlbáire’, wrote a piece about Jimmy, fairly recently. And it was so good that I tried to memorise some of it. It is extraordinary what John wrote: ‘I never, since or before, saw a back man that could clear so many balls. I never, since or before, saw a hurler that was as comfortable left or right, high or low. And I never, since or before, saw a man so severe in the pull.’ Wasn’t that some summary?”

Bobby Ryan beams: “Ah jaysus… The days of the severe pulling.”

Those afternoons all but convulsed a far different Ireland during the 1940s and 1950s. Few nights involved a boat trip to London. Important social history plaits these GAA conversations.

Costigan states. “I suppose Clonakenny, my home club, in the Tipp phrase, wouldn’t even be let hurl at the weekend. I grew up listening to the oldtimers, my father included, talk about those matches in the 1940s and ’50s. There were huge crowds. They were simple people. They hadn’t very much.

“And my father, God rest him, his mother died when he was six. He was ploughing at 11. And his weekly entertainment would be to go to mass in Thurles and watch whatever game would be in the Stadium. Those games were survival of the fittest, really.”

Jimmy Finn time travels to the years that mesmerised John Costigan’s father: “It was between Ned Ryan, Bobby’s uncle, and myself for the captaincy in ’51. It was exciting to be involved in the making of our tradition. Of course it was. There was hardly anything spoken about only hurling. And the fairs used to mean always meeting the Cork crowd.”

Timmy Delaney produces his own take: “My father was John Delaney of Rathmoy. And he was a neighbour of Jimmy’s, all his life. “I said to my father once: ‘Was Jimmy Finn that good?’ Because I never saw you hurling, Jimmy. He said to me: ‘Timmy, he was the best I ever saw.’ His account.”

His neighbour can only demur: “Ah, would you stop…”

As the afternoon deepens, Jimmy Finn weaves back and forth on those ribboned years. He instances concern at the time about how some of the younger Tipperary figures would fare against Kilkenny in 1951. Finn was deployed, 18 going on 19, to mark Jim Langton, one of the game’s superstars.

“John D Hickey had an article after that final,” he reflects. “John D wrote about how ‘the two babies’, John Doyle and myself, got on sound in the final. And you know we were winning by four points in that match and a Kilkenny fella hit a ball from about 80 yards out and it went in the corner of the net, beside [Tony] Reddin.

“And Con Murphy of Cork was refereeing it. And Pat Stakelum says to him: ‘Con, there were two men in the square.’ He says: ‘I know that, Pat. As soon as the ball is pucked out, I’m blowing it off. The match is over.’ And we won by 1-8 to 1-9.”

I note, ruefully, how Langton miscued several frees on the day. Arsa Martin Bourke: “He missed a couple, alright. Jimmy must have got to him, Bobby.”

Arsa Ryan: “He had the aim frightened out of him with severe pulls!” Then he goes to nub: “You’ll never get too far above your station in Borrisoleigh. You’d be brought down to size very quickly. And you’d be surprised who’d bring you down to size, too.”

Fitzy Ryan augments: “I happen to know a connection in another parish, and his parish wouldn’t have had a lot of success over the years. One thing he said about us stuck with me: ‘In victory or in defeat, the Borris’ lads go for their few drinks and enjoy themselves, and they leave it behind them. They don’t carry disappointment or bitterness home with them, and leave it festering there for the next year, all the things that went wrong.’ It’s important to park stuff.”

Our chat is nearly three hours long when Brendan Maher arrives in the door. He has been in Dublin on business and now must attend to spinning classes in his gym upstairs. He stands tall, a charismatic young man, strikingly pleasant and strikingly handsome.

Maher is keen to contribute to this conversation. “I don’t know if saying ‘It’s bred into you’ is quite the right way of putting it,” he begins. “But my earliest memories of Borris’ matches would probably be the 1995 North Final. I remember Bobby was coming towards the end of his time with us, but all the talk was still ‘That’s Bobby Ryan, the former Tipperary captain’. I was born in 1989, not long after the club broke back in.”

Senior County Final and Munster Final triumph for Borris-Ileigh in 2019 represented a dam burst of old dreams in young heads. Maher turns emphatic: “Definitely the highlight of my career. It wasn’t to do down the value of an intercounty medal, but it was always something you just wanted to do.

“And maybe that was feeding from the history of the club. When you are growing up, and when you are hearing people going back as far as 1949 and 1950 for County Final wins, and we were always hearing those stories of those wins. There was no pressure. It was almost nearly an inner belief that we could do it.”

He swerves into fascinating insights: “There’s a good strong culture, I think, of belief in Borris’ people. In general, I mean. Not just in hurling. I don’t know what it is about us but we’ve an awful lot of self-employed people in the parish, for example.

“I often thought about it. Even in our younger generation, there are a good few of us who have our own businesses in different ways. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in Borris’. Whatever it is, we are pretty independent. And the geographical location as well would have an influence, I’d say, because we are a pass through village, almost.”

Timmy Delaney knots these observations: “I sometimes get the notion that an ethos develops in a place, a kind of psyche, and it’s very hard to pinpoint how it ever evolved. But what I’m trying to come at is based a lot on Jimmy’s presence here, since he is one of the cornerstones of tradition in our parish.

“We spoke earlier amongst us about your extraordinary performance, Brendan, against Ballygunner in that Munster Final. That game was won with heart and tradition. The two teams were neck and neck. I’m 72 but I’ll never forget being in the stand and you got that inspirational point.” Epiphany followed: “And suddenly you felt: ‘This can be won.’ And that sense somehow, in an unsaid way, spilled over into the stand and suddenly this ‘Borris’! Borris’! Borris’!’ broke out. What I felt then, at that exact point, was that this chant was this unquantifiable Borris’ thing , the heart of our parish tradition .

“Here it is now. It’s on display. And every young boy and girl there would never forget it.”

Brendan Maher nods: “You obviously need that mix of talent and skill. And your key opponents have that mix as well. But I think, when it gets to fine margins, that bit of extra belief you have, the tradition of Borris’, does carry a lot of weight.”

We break up, almost regretfully, and head for the hospitality of Stapleton’s public house, a living museum of the most beautiful game. There are large bottles and there is satisfied laughter. There are unhurried conversations.

I admire, again, the tuned equilibriums of Borrisoleigh. Jimmy Finn will turn 90 and there will be a book launch and youngsters, when old, will remember a nice fuss in late 2021.

A pocket of time, forever.

Jimmy Finn: A Tipperary Legend book cover. Picture courtesy of Borris-Ileigh GAA Club and Martin Bourke
Jimmy Finn: A Tipperary Legend book cover. Picture courtesy of Borris-Ileigh GAA Club and Martin Bourke

Martin Bourke’s Jimmy Finn: A Tipperary Legend will be launched on Sunday, December 12.

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