An audience with Billy Joyce: 'Did you ring the airport? I don’t want to go tangling with airplanes'

A Galway legend, the winner of eight Connacht titles and  the same machine-gun chatter and classic candour as his nephew, the current manager, Padraic. 'In my day, beating Mayo was like going to mass,' he says. Now read on...
An audience with Billy Joyce: 'Did you ring the airport? I don’t want to go tangling with airplanes'

LEGENDARY STATUS: Billy Joyce, Galway football legend during an interview with the Irish Examiner's Maurice Brosnan.

Even heroes have heroes. No one would suggest that Galway’s figurehead Pádraic Joyce is sentimental, but he is a student. Amidst a wide arsenal the standout skill as player or manager has always been an unyielding spirit. A value learned.

Joyce holds a keen sense of where he is from and why it matters. Galway football, his obsession and heritage. A calling. His uncle Billy Joyce summarises that essence with a smile. In 2004, he sat in Croke Park as his nephew led Ireland to International Rules victory against Australia. Pádraic made for the Hogan Stand to lift the inaugural Cormac McAnallen Cup, Billy hit the road to prepare for a club league game. He was Killererin manager and they were due to head west to Carna/Cashel the next day.

“It was a bank holiday Monday. I was down at the pitch getting footballs and jerseys, usual shite. All of a sudden he rang me. ‘Where are you?’ I said I’m down here at the club. Pádraic said, ‘pick me up. I’m at the house.’ He got up that morning after a night celebrating and drove down for the game. He’d never let you down.” 

Did he do it for the lads, for the club or for Billy? Yes.

“Galway haven’t won a league title since my own uncle was playing back in 1981,” declared Pádraic Joyce after their win over Armagh in this spring's Allianz Football League. And again after they defeated Kerry. In the last week of press events various Galway players have mentioned how their manager has made that fact clear to them. A curious thing from Joyce’s media dealings is how conscious he always is of history.

Before the All-Ireland final, he was at his most expressive when reminiscing about Seán Purcell. How revered he was and how excited they would get awaiting his customary arrival into the dressing room post-championship victories. One iconic Tribe footballer paying tribute to another. It stems from home. A fire further stoked in St Jarlath’s and ever-present in daily life. Sit and listen to family visitors like Mattie McDonagh talk about the county’s travails and past glory. See. Do.

His greatest educator was uncle Billy. An all-action midfielder who won eight Connacht medals with Galway as well as featuring on the losing All-Ireland teams in 1971, 1973 and 1974. They are so much the same. Machine-gun chatter with classic candour. An identical inclination to cut through the noise and boil the game down to its fundamental components.

Begin at the roots. Paddy Joyce was a farmer. His brother Billy was half a mile up the road. “It was always the same scene,” laughs Billy. “You’d look across the land, he’d be out working. Tommy and Pádraic would be kicking the ball around him.” Pádraic looked to Billy for inspiration. Before that Billy looked to Down 1961 All-Ireland winner Paddy Doherty. Even now he has a childlike excitement when talking about him. That is how it works. Different seeds are sown, the soil is always shared.

Pádraic’s debut was particularly essential. Their parish is small and in 1992 numbers were tight. Billy was a desperate senior boss, scouring the earth for bodies. He came up with a 15-year-old, wasn’t sure if he should play. Better let fate decide. Heads, no go. Harps, he plays. Harps won out. “Pádraic straight away was telling seniors what to do. It worked out ok anyway.” 

NOSTALGIA: Billy Joyce and Dermot Earley.
NOSTALGIA: Billy Joyce and Dermot Earley.

What a start. Only surpassed by his own. Famously, Billy Joyce was an intercounty star who emerged fully formed. He never played football as a kid.

“I’d no interest,” he explains. “I was born in 1949 and my first year with the club was 1968. They were desperately short for a challenge game and I played with them for that. Once I started playing then, I stayed at it. If I spent as much time playing golf as I did training, I’d be out in Florida playing with Tiger Woods. It’s all about commitment. The funny thing is that Mullins, Jack O’Shea, Willie Joe, Dermot Earley, every one of them were way better footballers than me. None of them could bate me. I’d stay going all day.

“We were junior in 68, won that and went up to senior. The club never went back down until two years ago. In 1976 we won a county title for the first time ever and won Connacht. Did the same in 1978 and were beaten in an ALl-Ireland semi-final by Nemo Rangers.

“We were only a small club. That team in the 70s was five houses. Six Coens. Five Mannions. Some craic.” 

That is the key. A creed they carry still. Joyce rotates various guest speakers through his current squad in a bid to keep it fresh. They collectively celebrated championship wins with friends and family throughout 2022. They’ll gather again Sunday night regardless of the result against Mayo in Croke Park. For Billy it’s all about getting back to HQ.

“No place like Croke Park. Great footballers have to go both ways there. Once the grass gets green and the ball bounces high, you have to have legs. One day I was talking to Pa Burke, the county secretary for Galway, before one of the All-Ireland finals. Pa was a lovely man, he’s dead now. I said to him, ‘did you ring the airport?’ Why would I do that he asked. ‘I don’t want to go tangling with airplanes.’ 

“Croke Park will find you out. I was playing Armagh in a league quarter-final on Colum McKinstry. The game was ten minutes long and I was running like a dog up and down. He said, ‘come here I want you. Would you stand beside me for five minutes?’ Sorry, I said. No time to stop. I’ve to keep going. I was always fit. Sure I spent all my life in pubs and never drank. First in, last out. I never drank. I loved the craic.

“Another time we were planning Roscommon in a Connacht final. It was a dreadful day in Pearse Stadium. Your man turned to me before the start and says, ‘weather is awful for football.’ I said to him, ‘don’t worry. You won’t be out in it long.’ 

“Gerry Beirne was actually playing midfield. Dermot Earley was out foreign at the time. Beirne was 6’6 with long hair. The heading in Irish Press before the game was, ‘Beirne holds the key for Connacht final.’ It was ten minutes in and I saw the Roscommon subs warming up. So, I pointed it out to Gerry and said, ‘you’d want to get that key out soon because they are coming for you.’” 

In 1981 they beat Roscommon in the National League final 1-11 to 1-3. It was sweet success after sore losses and off-field sagas but never the sole incentive.

“At that stage I’d lost three All-Irelands. My first national medal. It was great to win one. Our hope soared after it, then we played Mayo in the first round of Championship and they beat us. In 1982, Offaly beat us by a point and went on to win the All-Ireland. Politics. We’d backs playing as forwards. Ah…” he says before tailing off.

To what extent did those decider defeats define him?

“Look it, it was brilliant to have played in them. Spillane said to me one time, I won eight of them and they are below in a biscuit box,” he responses. “It was great to see Pádraic win though. I didn’t want him to go down the same road as me.” 

Joyce sits in the heart of the city and watches the world go by. Here some prefer hurling, others are rugby-inclined and some pay no heed to sport at all. He ingests it all, as animated discussing Scotland’s Euro 2024 win over Spain as he is any Galway glory day. The football contingent knows him and stops periodically to say hello. Each supporter more enthusiastically greeted than the last. He is at ease with people. No wonder a stint in management was inevitable.

“It was all the same as playing. A field, two crossbar and four goalposts. Get as many scores as you can. I’d great fun at it. It’s all about getting lads to buy in. At one stage I went up to a hurling team in 1991. Pádraig Pearse's. They hadn’t won a game in five years and I never hurled in my life. We won the intermediate championship. Bate Killimor in the final. It took three draws before we beat them. I said to them after, ‘If ye did it for the fella who was here before you wouldn’t need me at all.’ It’s all about attitude.” 

In that sphere he never stopped living large and enjoying every minute. In 2004 Killererin reached a county final against Salthill-Knocknacarra. Pádraic struggled throughout that year with injury. Two weeks before the fixture he finally went under the knife to have surgery on his groin. Billy had an idea. Team photograph, pre-match parade, national anthem… suddenly on comes the Galway star, appearing dramatically just before the throw-in.

“Salthill were in a heap straight away. They forgot all about my lad Nicholas. He scored 1-4 that day,” Billy recalls with a hearty chuckle.

“You couldn’t mark them. Tommy as well. I watch them playing in their prime and you’d just laugh. They were unstoppable. Two would try double up on Pádraic and Nicholas would cut lose. We played Corofin one day. Pádraic at 11, Nicky 14. Fitzy (Kieran Fitzgerald) was marking Nicholas. He put the hand out pointing towards the sideline, Pádraic knew well he didn’t want a ball like that at all. Nicky spun the other way towards goal, Fitzy was the other way. They had it off to a tee.” 

What of the challenge their Mayo neighbours pose this weekend? In his lifetime Billy has seen the balance of power shift dramatically. As a player Mayo rarely troubled him. As a supporter, he saw them streak away. By 2013, he knew exactly how it would go. He elected to stay at home and watched on television as Galway suffered a 17-point defeat.

“I played for Galway 16 years. Beating Mayo was like going to mass. We only lost to Mayo once. We won a Connacht club in 1976, beat Garrymore of Mayo in the final. We won another in 1978. Bate Castlebar,” he says. “That team were a great side. Keith Higgins, Barrett, Boyle, Keegan. I was awful sorry for them. They scored 1-16 one year and people said they’d no forwards. Lost by one point! I loved watching them. Loved it. F*cking hell, the speed of them.” 

Above all else, the best thing Billy Joyce got from the game was friendship. He is at his most serious when asked about Dermot Earley. “We were like that,” he says, holding up two interlinked fingers. On his phone is a picture of them both, taken in the aftermath of the 1981 final. He finds himself looking at it more and more. A reminder of their shared love and primary purpose in the game. To play.

“I went up to see him the week before he died. I was sorry I went up but glad I went up if that makes sense. He couldn’t talk at that stage. Do you know the first time we met was the 1969 Connacht U21 final. At that stage, he had a senior medal with Roscommon and had won a Railway Cup medal, still only 21.

“I played on him and cleaned him out. We went at it again the next day, they won it in extra-time. I was sitting down after it was over, looking at them lift the cup. He came over, sat down beside me to talk about the game. ‘Ye could have won, kicked wides and all that.’ 

“Then he got up and before he left he said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you in a Galway jersey again!’ I met many great people through football. He was one of my best friends. It was the same all over. It’s the one thing I’d love to see back. Even Galway against Mayo. Some county players, they hardly say hello to each other. If I met T. J. (Kilgallon), Willie Joe, any of them, we’d go for coffee. Roscommon, Earley, John O’Gara, we’d make time to meet. In Kerry, Jack O’Shea, Pat… no problem with any of them. I hope it’s not too business-like now.

“There is so much at stake, but you can’t lose that. I’d hate to think the fun is gone out of it.”

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