We need to talk about Fr Maher

Sorry, sorry, sorry. Sorry. Really.
Look, I know that many of you are all Kilkennyed out after events during the week. 

I’m likewise perfectly aware that most readers of a blood and bandage persuasion, having found it difficult enough to cope with the concept of a Cat with 10 All-Ireland medals, may have been a bit sniffy about the manner in which the nation seemed to come to a pause for a moment or two after midday on Wednesday.

But still.

A massively significant hurling figure departed the stage in Kilkenny three days ago and there are any number of reasons why he should be remembered.

Yes, we need to talk about Fr Tommy Maher. And about his biography. And about writing sports biographies. And about the pitfalls thereof.

Fr Tommy Maher. Gentle, decent man and hurling visionary. Won seven All-Irelands coaching Kilkenny between 1957 and ’75 (they’d won one in the 17 years before that).

Reckoned that players should spend their time practising the skills of the game. Didn’t reckon they should spend it running around pitches getting fit.

Co-authored a seminal coaching manual.

Died at the age of 92 on Wednesday night after a life well lived. As one hurling great left the stage at midday, eight hours later another took his departure only a couple of miles away. Splendid, almost spooky symmetry.

Henry Shefflin was the ultimate beneficiary of the Maher revolution.

Fr Maher’s biography is entitled The Godfather of Modern Hurling. Not my call; I simply wrote the damn thing.

The research took two years and entailed as many interviews as was practicable, most of them in person. I went to Dublin to meet Paddy Downey, former Gaelic games correspondent of The Irish Times. Not a huge cog in the Maher story, but he had a couple of yarns about All-Ireland press nights in Nowlan Park back in the day and some nice tangential stuff about Christy Ring and the Wexford team of the 1950s.

I went to Waterford and met Frankie Walsh, the 1959 All-Ireland-winning captain, in the Mount Sion clubhouse. He made me a mean cup of coffee and theorised that if Waterford had beaten Kilkenny in the 1957 final instead of losing by a point, they might have been a three-in-a-row team.

I got an address for Kevin Heffernan, who had a very small part in the tale, and wrote to him. He rang me and, audibly gratified to be pressed on a subject that — astonishingly — wasn’t the Dubs in the 1970s, spoke with clarity about the 1957 Leinster semi-final.

I tracked down sundry members of that 1957 Kilkenny team and grilled them, including Paddy Buggy, the former GAA president, whose wife gave me sweets for the trip home.

The book was published in June 2012. The following year, 2013, saw the demise of no fewer than nine — I think — people to whom I’d spoken to for it. Among them were Paddy Downey, Frankie Walsh, Kevin Heffernan, Paddy Buggy, and three other heroes of 1957.

Moral of the story? To any reader planning a sports book: Do it now. In the words of the Latin motto often seen on sundials, it’s later than you think.

Here’s another piece of advice while I’m at it, both for writers and aspiring sportswriters: Don’t take details on trust from old players. Always double-check.

Memories fade. Matches bleed into one, particularly where players with long careers are concerned. After a while they’re not completely sure of the details of matches any more, even though they played in them. Seriously.

They get the year wrong or the score wrong or the winning margin wrong, or the great goal they’ll describe turns out to be from a different game entirely.

I took my own advice on this count. I double-checked everything. At least I thought I did. Then somebody told me an anecdote about Fr Maher attending the 1950 All-Ireland final, cycling from Crumlin where he was a young curate and arriving after the minor match in which, they said, Dublin beat Tipperary.

Grand, I thought to myself, that’s a nice background item. I put it in as it was told to me. It wasn’t till two years later that someone pointed out that Kilkenny were minor champions in 1950. Ugh.

Still, all’s well that ends well. The book was published without too many further errors, while Fr Maher was alive and a corner of GAA lore that might otherwise have been lost forever was preserved.

Incidentally, sources differed on whether Ray Cummins scored two goals or three goals in the 1972 All-Ireland final. I went with three.

If you’re reading this, Ray, you might let me know which it was.

As one hurling great left the stage at midday, eight hours later another took his departure only a couple of miles away


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