The Kieran Shannon Interview: Tommy Guilfoyle - The previous captain

Who is Tommy Guilfoyle? Told by a doctor he’d never hurl, he hit 2-3 against Cork in the 1986 Munster final and played with Feakle until he was 49. He has suffered personal pain. ‘He was virtually unstoppable,’ declares Anthony Daly. That’s Tommy Guilfoyle

The week before the 1992 championship, Tommy Guilfoyle had a run in with a lawnmower. I don’t know if Tommy thought he was Robocop with metal hands or whether the lawnmower wouldn’t do what Tommy wanted it to. Either way, Tommy nearly lost a couple of fingers which meant he couldn’t lead the team out. Len Gaynor offered the captaincy to John Russell. Rooskey wasn’t interested. “Give it to one of the young fellas,” he said. Five days before the match, Gaynor came to me. - Anthony Daly, Dalo: My Autobiography

Two weeks ago at the qualifier double-header in Thurles, Anthony Daly bumped into Tommy Guilfoyle, and with the two of them now doing a bit in the media game, they took up a spot together at the back of the stand next to the press box.

Over the evening they’d share plenty of insights, plenty of laughs, and meet plenty of people. All of them, naturally, knew Daly. Not all of them, understandably, knew Guilfoyle. One Kilkenny woman, upon learning of his surname, asked by any chance was he Lauren Guilfoyle’s dad. Daly burst out laughing. “God, you’re finished, Tommy!”

Yes, the bould Tommy was indeed the father of Lauren Guilfoyle, youngest sitting member of Central Council, chartered physiotherapist, Pundit Arena presenter, and former Miss Clare. But if only the woman knew who Tommy Guilfoyle was in his own right! Except, thought Daly, where would you start?

By saying how he was your hero when you were 16, down in Killarney that mad weekend of the ’86 Munster final, when he took Cork for 2-3?

Or how about his famous fight with the lawnmower, when it wasn’t the proverbial haircut but his fingers that got cut? Or the time in ’94 he hobbled into a casualty ward in Limerick and the hospital staff were sure he had been shot, such was the gaping hole in his thigh sustained out training on his own? Or that a few months after that mishap, he’d make it back to stun Tipp for two goals in the Gaelic Grounds and send them and Babs packing?

Or that while he was the hero that day in ’94 he wasn’t around to be one of the heroes in ’95? That the day you became the first Clare man to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup and spoke about the players and teams that had come before, Tommy Guilfoyle was foremost in your mind?

Or that for all his setbacks and misfortune, his passion for the game remains as fierce as it was back when he was out practising with Davy every lunchtime in De Beers or running in the dark trying to get back to face Tipp in ’94?

Actually, there’s only one place where the legend of Lauren Guilfoyle’s father can start. Feakle.

THE OVER-WORRIED IRISH MOTHER’S KID

Though this is largely a story about Feakle, it could well have been a Bronx tale. Tommy Guilfoyle spent the first six years of his life over there before his father Paddy decided that as much as he loved New York GAA and helping out as chairman of the Clare club, there was no place like his own home. No sooner had he his family back in Feakle when young Tommy’s new residence was essentially a hospital in Croom.

“My mother had noticed in America that I was limping, so she brought me to a specialist there. We would have thought that they’d have been ahead of their time but they told her she was an over-worried Irish mother and the limp would go away.

“But then when we moved home my uncle Ned out in Croom fell off a horse and broke his shoulder. I was in the hospital with my mother and while we were there she availed of the opportunity to talk to one of the specialists. Within weeks they had diagnosed that I had Perthes disease, a condition that softens the hip joint. I ended up in Croom for the best part of 12 months on the flat of my back. I was in plaster from my neck down to my ankles.”

Even when he returned home to Feakle he was severely restricted. He couldn’t go upstairs. He couldn’t go to school, at least not for that first year; the neighbours’ daughter, Amy Murphy, kindly taught him from home. And he couldn’t hurl. The doctors had told him he could never play sport. Until, when the lad was about 13, Paddy Guilfoyle figured that maybe here in Ireland the doctors were the ones that were over-worried about Tommy. First he tried him in goals. Then, between being stuck for numbers in a small village and himself and the young fella feeling that bit more emboldened, they chanced him at full-back. By the time he was 15, Tommy was playing full-forward for the seniors in a county semi-final with two thirty-somethings either side of him.

He was that physically strong and, thanks to a certain coach he’d had at U14, that technically good. Ger Loughnane was in the prime of his Clare career — an All Star, winning national leagues, playing in Munster finals — and teaching and living in Shannon, yet still made time to take an underage team back home. His first year with them, they’d play U14B. His second year with them, they’d reach the U14A final.

“He wasn’t a lot different from the Loughnane you’d know now. Very demanding. Yet very positive. He’d tell you that you were better than you would have thought you actually were. Lads who had been holding the hurley the wrong way, he’d convert them to the proper grip. Lads who were one-sided, he’d have made us able to hit it off both sides.”

That crop of players would go on to win at U16, minor, four U21 county titles, and eventually, in 1988, a senior county title. They were a true force in Clare hurling, in no small part because Guilfoyle himself was such a force of nature.

“Sure he was virtually unstoppable,” says Anthony Daly. “A giant of a man and a flaking hurler. Four goals in a minor match wouldn’t have been uncommon for him. He had a hand on him that was incredible. In Clarecastle a huge thing in the lead-up to any game against Feakle would be to stop Tommy Guilfoyle catching the ball. Because if he caught it, sure it was game over.”

The over-worried Irish mother’s son could put that kind of fear into you.

THE NIGHT THEY THOUGHT THEY’D SHOT OLD TOMMY DOWN

From the very start of his senior inter-county career on it would be fair to say Tommy Guilfoyle was a bit accident prone.

He made his championship debut in 1984, aged just 18. Just before half-time Guilfoyle collided with Waterford’s Pat Ryan and Pat McGrath. Looking back on it now, he was clearly concussed. What was the concussion protocol back then? “The lads just put me under the cold showers and then sent me back out for the second half.”

The next day out against Tipp, he nearly lost his eye. Whatever way the ball deflected off John McIntyre’s hurley, it left Guilfoyle in hospital for two weeks. Only for the contact lens in that eye, he’d have been blinded.

Then there was that scrap with the lawnmower a week out from another championship clash with Waterford.

“The grass had got a bit high but all we had in the garage was a push mower so I decided to borrow the hurling club’s ride-on. As I was going around a corner one of the wheels got jammed. I didn’t turn off the mower, put my hand under and it took the top of my two fingers right off. I tell you, I cut the grass last night and going around that corner I still had flashbacks!”

The lawnmower would have been in ’92. In ’93 his old hip and back problem had flared up again; in trying to compensate for missing out on so much of the previous year, he’d trained too hard and too often. He didn’t feature in that year’s championship. He couldn’t even play senior with the club. Instead he dropped back to play junior B and the only reason the county board allowed him to be regraded was on the understanding that he’d play nowhere else but in goal.

That other great son of Feakle, Fr Harry Bohan, had sent him the way of some of the top team doctors in the country but the verdict was unanimous: his playing days, at least out the field, were over. But then Bohan called on another one of his great contacts: Séan Boylan, Meath manager and renowned herbalist.

Guilfoyle still doesn’t know what concoction Boylan prescribed for him to drink three times a day. All he knows is that jungle juice smelt vile and tasted even worse but it worked. The way Boylan described it to him, the jungle juice was like drops of water decrystallising a bowl of sugar. The new fluid had helped loosen his hip joint.

That on its own wouldn’t have been enough. Boylan also sent him to Dan O’Neill, owner of Danoli and renowned bonesetter. So one day Guilfoyle found himself pulling his car into a farmyard on Mount Leinster, Co Carlow. “There were people, horses, greyhounds, and all sorts of other animals there. But Dan had this gift and whatever way he manipulated my back and whatever Sean had put in that jungle juice, it freed me to go back training.”

Shortly after that he met Loughnane at a funeral in Feakle. Loughnane had just gone in as a selector to Len Gaynor with Clare. Well, he asked, will you give it a go with Clare again? At first Guilfoyle thought Loughnane was only joking. Guilfoyle’s last game had been the junior B county championship final, as a goalkeeper; it would be an achievement just to play out the field again for the club seniors. But no, Loughnane was serious. He knew how serious Guilfoyle took his hurling. Never smoked, never drank, lived for hurling: That’s precisely the kind of player he wanted for Clare. So Guilfoyle said right, he’d keep pushing hard at the training on his own for a few more weeks and update Loughnane on his progress.

So, propelled by a dream and goal in mind and probably, deep down, a desire to please and prove something to his old U14 coach, he trained like a demon. Looking back, some of it was lunacy. All those laps, running himself into the ground, which probably caused the injury in the first place. And definitely the night he ran around the club field in the dark was absolute madness.

“It would have been a Monday night. Leeds United would have been on Sky. I’m a Leeds fan for my sins so I’d have watched it, but then I wanted to get in my run. So I headed down to the hurling field. There were some renovations being done to the field but I thought no more about it. So I was running around the field. No floodlights. The street lights I thought would be enough for me. I was coming near the end of my session and said I’d try to run as fast as I could.”

Tommy Guilfoyle with his son Gary in 1998 after taking time out from a coaching session. Picture: Denis Minihane

Straight into a boxed iron fence someone had taken down.

What followed was like something from the movies. First, a bit of Rambo: First Blood as he ripped off his jersey to tie it around the gaping hole in his thigh and stem the bleeding. The rest then was like something from a farce. When he dragged himself to his parents’ home 150 yards away from the field and they summoned a neighbour who was a nurse, she initially suggested that they go back to the field and look for some of his missing flesh. Guilfoyle, though, insisted there wasn’t time for that. Hospital! Now!

“So my father drove me into the Regional in Limerick. When I went into casualty and told them what had happened, they didn’t believe me. They thought someone had shot me so they sent me off to get an x-ray to see where the bullet was! To this day there’s still a hole in that leg.”

About a month later, Loughnane called him in for a game against the U21s. Frank Lohan on him but Guilfoyle played well, “though,” he adds, “with Loughnane you’d never know if he told Frank to allow me a few balls”.

Afterwards Loughnane told him to bring his gear to the league quarter-final against Antrim in Croke Park. Guilfoyle hardly expected to feature but about 20 minutes in he got the call: He was in.

“First ball that came my way must have hopped 10 yards on the sideline under the Hogan Stand. Killed it, turned, and shot it over my shoulder and over the bar.”

Before he knew it, the Feakle junior B goalie from the previous year was playing full forward for Clare against a Tipperary team that had humiliated them in the previous year’s Munster final. Clare were absolutely psyched, with the memory of Nicky English and the way he might laugh at you and all that.

Guilfoyle especially was inspired. Twelve minutes into the second half, he’d double on a handpass from Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin to fire past Jodie Grace. Then with a couple of minutes to go, he’d double on another ball, this time a free landing around the square, and again he’d find the net. And with that, Babs was gone and Tommy was back.

“The smile on Tommy Guilfoyle’s face after the game told it all,” Joe Ó Muircheartaigh would later write in The Time Of Our Lives, an account of Clare GAA in the 1990s.

Soon though, that smile would disappear.

KELLY

A week out from Clare’s next game, a Munster semi-final against Kerry, Jackie Guilfoyle gave birth to her and Tommy’s second child. Kelly they called her. Then it dawned on them something was off. Wrong. Kelly was stillborn. Two days out from the Kerry game, she passed away.

“On the way back from Tralee the panel called into the hospital. I remember Bishop Willie Walsh [a selector] spoke and said a few prayers and all the lads being there, only no one could find Len Gaynor. But then when all the players and Loughnane and Bishop Willie had left, Len came back into the room, held my hand, and broke down bawling.”

Turned out, Gaynor had been there. Three times. His wife was a patron with the Irish Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society. Seeing one of his players suffer a devastating loss had brought all the old pain back up and nearly 20 years later Guilfoyle would experience something similar. A few years ago another former Clare player also lost a child in similar circumstances. Guilfoyle was at the funeral and after seeing the little white coffin being carried out of the church, Guilfoyle bolted for his car and broke down uncontrollably.

“I would say it changed me, what happened to little Kelly. Something in me dulled after that. You look forward so much to the birth of a child and then to suddenly have it taken away... It must have been worse for Jackie.

“At least I had the distraction of hurling; I’d play in the Munster final [against Limerick] but I did nothing only get a shitty goal near the end when it didn’t matter. I’d say I never dealt with it properly. But back then you didn’t know how to deal with it. You didn’t really talk about it.”

Over the years, that changed. People would approach him, seeking his counsel. One day he was getting his car serviced when the garage guy said would he meet a friend of his out the back. The man had just been through the same thing as Tommy and Jackie had years ago with Kelly.

“The one thing a parent in that situation will always ask themselves is: Did we do something wrong? I remember Jackie fell and she was putting it down to that. But it had nothing to do with that. So that’s what I tell people. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t your fault.

“You’ll never forget it and what could have been but in time you’ll look at what else you have and can have. Lauren was our next child. We were probably overprotective of her, but again, you can’t blame yourself for that either.”

ANOTHER TYPE OF GOODBYE

Six months after little Kelly had passed away, Tommy Guilfoyle attended a meeting of the Clare panel at the West County Hotel. Ger Loughnane, his old clubmate, was now the team manager. Guilfoyle had trained with the panel that autumn of ’94; in fact in their last game, an Oireachtas game against Kerry, he had been team captain. But when Loughnane handed out the players individually their training programme for the new year, Guilfoyle discovered there wasn’t any for him.

“I said to Ger, ‘Where’s mine?’ He said, ‘You’re not part of it.’ I asked him why but he never gave me an answer.

“Looking at it from a purely selfish point of view, I remember thinking, ‘Fuck you, Ger. I busted my bollix to get back in ’94 and now you’re letting me go?’

“I’ll be brutally honest, ’95 was a hard, hard time. I was going to Clare matches and a part of me wanted Clare to lose. I was mad about the players but I was angry with Ger. I probably felt he took away everything I’d strived for.”

What compounded the agony was not knowing why he’d been let go, leaving him to speculate instead. Eventually in the winter of 2001, he got a clearer idea with the publication of Loughnane’s autobiography.

Guilfoyle can now see the merits of Loughnane’s decision. Back then everyone on the panel had to train in order for them to feel Clare were fitter and training harder than everyone else. Loughnane could have no exceptions.

They’re fine now. Things were cool enough for a good few years and even cooler again after Loughnane’s extraordinary comments about Fr Harry Bohan and guns and all that.

“Then,” says Guilfoyle, “I heard Loughnane got sick and I said, ‘Tommy, life is too short.’ So I got his number and rang up in hospital and we’ve been grand since.”

AND THEN

So what became of Tommy Guilfoyle after ’95? Well, thanks to Sean Boylan’s jungle juice, among other things, he’d keep on playing for Feakle until he was 49. “I’m not sure,” he smiles once again, “that there are too many guys who can claim to have won three junior B championships and one junior C championship.”

And more, rate them up there with the senior county championship. Seriously.

“For me it was never a case of ‘Oh, I played inter-county, inter-county hurlers don’t play junior.’ It was never about that. I was going to play until I fell down. When we played Clooney-Quin in a junior B final below in Shannon there were 10 of the team that had won the senior championship in ’88 involved. We were playing alongside our own sons. And it was more than winning the junior championship. It was stopping in John Minogue’s [in Tulla] on the way home, boys maybe having a few drinks and John bringing the big bottles of Coke and Tayto into the backroom for the children.”

A few years ago Lauren Guilfoyle would say she and her sister and brother were reared on the side of a hurling field. Tommy Guilfoyle won’t dispute it. Maybe he overdid the coaching at first. Maybe he was just running away from the pain of Kelly and missing out on ’95. He certainly cringes at how he used to coach. But now? Well, Lauren, Gary, and Jodie didn’t turn out too bad while as a coach he’d eventually cop himself on.

“When I’m a tutor giving a foundation course, I’ll sometimes ask, ‘Hands up in the room, who has put myself before the team? Winning before the child?’ I’ll be the first to put my hand up. It took me a while to realise it wasn’t about putting the U8 trophy on the counter in the local pub at the end of the year, that success was more about getting 20, 30 kids at the start of the year and to have them all still hurling at the end of it.”

He’s coached every team in Feakle, many times over, including the team that won the intermediate title in 2014 after 25 years out of the senior grade. The last few years he’s been coaching in Tipperary, Dundrum, and now, this year, Portroe, while still helping out at underage in Feakle. And doing co-commentary on Clare FM. His friends at work in Element Six tell him that it’s perfect for him; what’s better than knowing little about hurling than going on the radio and proving it?!

Loving hurling, actually.

That’s why he’s perfect for it.



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