Finding reality behind a true hurling legend

JOHN HARRINGTON was an impressionable child the first time he saw John Doyle.

“My father pointed him out to me at a Munster championship game, Tipp versus Cork, and seeing him walk through the crowd, the cheering and the back-slaps — the man had a presence about him, and that always resonated with me.”

That resonance has culminated in Harrington’s biography of the great Tipperary hurler, who died recently. At first glance the career of a player who came to prominence in the 1940s doesn’t look an obvious starting point.

“I’m from Tipperary and into my hurling, and into hurling of that era,” said Harrington.

“I suppose John Doyle typified that era for Tipperary. It was a great era for Tipperary but it was also a great era for hurling: the rivalry with Kilkenny in the 60s — we think it’s bitter now, but it was a whole lot more bitter back then.

“The other thing was that nothing had been written about Doyle per se, and I found that odd, given what he achieved, winning eight All-Irelands on the field of play.”

Finding eye-witnesses to the events described was a challenge, but a worthwhile exercise. Harrington says one of his best resources was a man in his 10th decade.

“Obviously a lot of the men involved have passed away, but there are still some great sources around, like Tony Reddin.

“He’s 92 now but I’ve never met someone as sharp, or such a font of knowledge. Not only has he recall of every game he played in, he can reenact the saves. Jimmy Finn and Mickey ‘Rattler’ Byrne are still around as well, so there are some contemporaries from the 1949 period.

“With the 60s team a lot more are around, John himself and Kieran Carey would have been the first to pass away from that team. Meeting all those men and going down memory lane with them was hugely entertaining — even if some of the stories would rise the hair on the back of your neck even now. If some of those incidents happened now they’d be on the front page, never mind the back pages.”

The sheer excitement of the time is at odds with our perception of the middle of the century, Harrington noted.

“We think of the‘50s as a drab decade dominated by the Church, but take the 1950 Munster final, Cork v Tipp in Killarney. The gates were broken down and another 15,000-20,000 got in for the game; there was crowd trouble, missiles thrown and the pitch was invaded; Tony Reddin was attacked and had to stay on the field for a couple of hours after the game. These were games you had to queue for four hours to get to see.”

Harrington also pointed out that some easy assumptions about the era didn’t survive the writing of the book.

“People think of Hell’s Kitchen and might dismiss Doyle as a dirty hurler, but the likes of Eddie Keher said while he was strong, he was probably the fairest player he ever marked.

“The passing of time maybe hasn’t been kind in giving him credit as a hurler, but his opponents certainly didn’t have that opinion.”

The memories of Doyle’s widow Anne provide other highlights: “Her recollections of life at that time are very interesting — for instance, she’d never been in Doyle’s house before she married him, so when she got there she didn’t realise there was no running water — no cooker, even, everything was cooked over an open fire. It’s a real snapshot of a different Ireland.”

So it is. Readers will learn of the death of Doyle’s mother when he was only six weeks old, and how he was taken in by an aunt in Dungarvan; how he ploughed the fields in his bare feet to build up his leg strength; and how he worked on his fitness by running the fields by torchlight, so people wouldn’t know he was doing extra training.

They’ll also learn a lot about Tipperary and hurling. Always a recommendation.

*Doyle — The Greatest Hurling Story Ever Told by John Harrington (Irish Sports Publishing) will be launched next Thursday evening at 7pm in the Anner Hotel, Thurles, Co Tipperary.


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