Knitting the threads of Kilkenny’s hurling history

In November, the man widely regarded as more important to Kilkenny hurling than Brian Cody stepped down.

  Mooncoin’s Ned Quinn retired as County Chairman after 23 years of service in various roles, with 11 Senior All-Ireland titles won in that time. Quinn regards Cody as the most selfless man he’s met. But if the Cats’ success story appears seamless, Quinn knows where the stitches might have unravelled, during Cody’s time and before. 

Kilkenny hurling, for Ned Quinn, became a human chain, a quiet parade of faces met and voices heard.

Met all the way back to the start, a facet near unique at this stage. Kilkenny’s march began with 1904’s Senior Final, Cork defeated by a point. Mooncoin provided four clubmen for that 17 a side team, with Dick ‘Droog’ Walsh the lynchpin at centre-back.

Quinn retired as County Board Chairman before Christmas, feeling a keen privilege at having known someone on every champion side. He sketches life in Mooncoin, where his parents had a shop and the post office, during the 1950s: “Naturally, I got to know the boy next door. He was Claus Dunne, a little bit older than me, and he went on to hurl for Kilkenny in several senior finals.”

He continues: “Next door to Claus lived Droog Walsh, with all seven of the All Ireland medals won between 1904 and 1913. He was captain for three of them, which is still a record for a Kilkenny man.

“We used to just ramble in and out. Droog was a bachelor. History lay at hand, close and intimate: “Droog told me he didn’t hurl the three years they didn’t win, because of disputes between Tullaroan and Mooncoin. On one occasion, he said, they solved a dispute by agreeing to take the photograph in the Mooncoin jersey and to play the match in the Tullaroan jersey.”

Dick Doherty made the county team for their third win in 1907 and stayed there until 1913. “Dick lived a few doors further down,” Quinn elaborates. “He had a pub. Claus and myself used to love going in chatting to Droog and Dick.

“They both had an awful lot of memorabilia, hurleys and balls that had been used, press cuttings. They’d take stuff out and show it to us. I’d love to know where all their memorabilia went.”

Four Mooncoin natives featured in 1922, Kilkenny’s eighth success. Wattie Dunphy was centre back and captain. Eddie Dunphy, a brother, hurled at centre forward, with Mark McDonald on goal and Tommy Carroll at right half back.

Quinn’s youth likewise included these men: “Eddie Dunphy was a busy man, a farmer in Luffany. Never spoke about himself as a hurler.

“Tommy Carroll was out in Polerone, a farmer, another bachelor. He used to come up to the village three or four nights in the week, buy a few things and chat, my father and himself. Tommy was a really lovely man. Talk about unassuming…”

Circumstance had set about preparing him for dealing with unprecedented success. “All those former hurlers were modest men,” Quinn notes. “I’d refer back to the period, the 1950s. They were tough times, financially, for everyone, even for the farming community. Everything was modest. The whole way of life was modest.

“The old hurlers were revered, but that’s as far as it went. They weren’t people looking down on anyone else, or people who flaunted themselves as stars.”

Ned Quinn appeared with a talented Mooncoin group at U16 and Minor in the early to mid 1960s. There would still be regret in the parish that the club harvested but one Senior title, in 1965, from this crop.

Secondary school meant De La Salle College in Waterford. “We were the first team to make a Harty Cup final,” he recalls. “I was on goal for it. Unfortunately we lost to Limerick CBS [in 1965].

“Liam Griffin, the future Wexford manager, hurled on that team. So did Brendan O’Sullivan from Thomastown, a great friend of mine, along with another Mooncoin man, Tommy Grant.”

His voice creases with remembered delight when he speaks of lads from the village taking on lads from a particular townland, Luffany or Clogga. This dynamic spirals back to hurling’s 19th-century roots, before the GAA was founded, when townland rivalries saved the game from extinction in South Kilkenny.

“Those matches were fierce occasions,” he emphasises. “That was as far as we could go on our bikes, out to a townland. Two goalposts and a twine between them as a crossbar, and murder over whether a shot had gone over or under.”

This stripling became the figure who oversaw an unprecedented haul in the 21st century. Ger Loughnane glossed Kilkenny’s dominance as “a three-legged stool”: Brian Cody, Ned Quinn and Henry Shefflin. What were the prompts?

Quinn is clear: “My father was much involved, especially at underage, and a former Chairman of the club. I believe when you’re growing up, and immersed in something, you take on all sorts of influences, unknowingly.

“I attended my first Convention when Nicholas Purcell was County Board Chairman, and he stepped down in 1968. So the interest came on me early, as a teenager. As a young man, I always thought Mick O’Neill carried himself brilliantly, representing the county, when he came in as Chairman.”

He elaborates: “Getting to know Paddy Grace well, and the way he carried himself and looked after players, was important. I observed many instances where former Kilkenny players had fallen on hard times, or had even died, when Paddy’s first thought went to that player’s wife and children.

“Then I was very much influenced by Pat Henderson, who had been on the fantastic Kilkenny teams of the 1960s and ’70s. I became hugely friendly with Pat. He has been a tremendous worker for the County Board, in the background. He is a man of brilliant judgement.

“It’s Pat’s own decision to be behind the scenes. We’d prefer him out front, but he doesn’t want that. Pat’s story would make some book, but he will never tell it.”

These encounters honed perspective: “Pat had been influenced himself, as a player, by Paddy Grace’s approach. Then Pat was winning manager in 1982 and ’83, when Paddy was still Secretary. That was a lot of experience together, from all the angles, on and off the field.”

Paddy Grace, part of Ned Quinn’s human chain, hurled on the Kilkenny teams that won in 1939 and 1947. Later the chain included Martin White of Tullaroan, a forward in 1932, 1933 and 1935.

“A nice aspect of being an administrator is getting to know former players,” Quinn notes. “Martin was a pleasure to meet. Not every former player retains an interest in hurling or in their native county. But Martin did, right up until the end.

“Being able to bring him the Liam MacCarthy Cup on his 100th birthday is one of the best memories.”

Ned Quinn found a groove. Secretary of Mooncoin in 1976, he was a selector for the victorious 1981 Kilkenny Minor team. 1988 saw him both Mooncoin’s Chairman and the first Chairman of Cumann na mBunscoileanna not a religious figure or a teacher.

He laughs at the memory: “Brendan O’Sullivan, my old friend, proposed me for the schools job, quite unexpectedly. Anyway, I took it on.”

There are human factors in all careers. Quinn states: “People might have thought it a bit strange that I moved out of administration in Mooncoin. But my own son, Billy, was coming up. I had been involved a lot at underage and thought maybe it was better to step aside and not be involved while Billy was a juvenile.”

The groove deepened. Ned Quinn sat as South Board Chairman between 1992 and 1994. The following year, he moved to County Board Vice Chairman. 1999 brought the top job, a daunting vista.

He is succinct: “I remember having conversations with Pat Henderson during the mid to late 1990s and saying: ‘What are we going to have to do to get back up again?’ The wins in 1982 and ’83 happened, and then there was a vacuum. The same vacuum happened after the wins in 1992 and ’93.”

Ned Quinn instances the key man’s nature: “The good fortune for me was coming on the scene at the same time as Brian Cody. I’ve never met a more selfless man. There is no ego. He is focused completely on our Senior hurling panel.

Knitting the threads of Kilkenny’s hurling history

“Brian has always had the intelligence and the humility to say: ‘Right, I need to change here now.’ He did it after defeat to Galway in 2001 and he did it after defeat to Cork in 2004. He got tremendous service from his first three selectors, Ger Henderson, Johnny Walsh and Noel Skehan. But he took the decision to bring in Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty, who had just delivered two U21 All Irelands, for 2005.”

His county’s recent achievements might now appear a seamless garment. Ned Quinn knows otherwise and can point to the joins: “Brian said to me in 2004: ‘I’m thinking of going after those guys. But what about the U21 three in a row?’

“I said back: ‘The Senior team is the Senior team. We’ll find someone for the U21 team.’

“So Brian brought in Michael and Martin, one of his best decisions ever.”

Quinn is unstinting in praise: “I don’t know what term would do justice to Michael Dempsey’s contribution. It’s too glib to say he’s the team trainer, really. He has put in untold hours with individual players, one on one, to get them right.

“Martin Fogarty is very intellectual and very articulate, excellent speaker, excellent with analysis. I’d give Brian huge credit for seeing the potential in those two men. Who else would have seen it?

“Brian was the boss. But they all got on well, socially and personally.”

Ned Quinn’s voice quickens, outlining the Kilkenny manager’s gifts: “There was a remarkable crop of players coming through, a mixture of good lads and outstanding lads, but they had to be moulded. Brian developed leaders. Players might have had that potential but Brian brought it out in them.

“He can also, consistently, get people to hurl above themselves. We saw that last weekend, in the Walsh Cup Final against Wexford.”

Cody’s ability to think on his feet, under the severest pressure, constantly struck Quinn: “One of his best interventions, funny enough, came in a defeat, the day we lost the 2012 Leinster final to Galway. We came in at half-time 14 points down. Brian went and said to the players: ‘We need to win this second half now, to show them we’re not going away this season.’

“And they did win the second half, by four points, and we did go on to win the 2012 All Ireland, in the end, against Galway. Would we have done that if they had beaten us in the Leinster final by 20 or more points?”

Cody’s decisiveness took various forms: “It was totally Brian’s decision, after we drew the All Ireland final in 2012 and again in 2014, to head home to Kilkenny that night. We were booked into the hotel, but that didn’t matter. It turned out that Brian, both times, made the correct decision.

“The man has no interest whatsoever in any of the add-ons, the nights, the banquets, staying in hotels. There was never even a semblance of a question from him to the County Board about going for warm weather training.”

He reflects: “When I replaced John Healy, a tremendous individual, as Chairman, my ambition was to create the right environment while Brian Cody created the right team.

“Same as Paddy Grace, I was determined that no Kilkenny player would want for anything. Food wise, gear wise, expenses wise. We didn’t go overboard but the players were looked after.”

The new Chairman drove redevelopment of Nowlan Park and the creation of development squads in 2001. This decade, he drove construction of a training centre at Dunmore. He trusts arithmetic as best articulation: “We played 43 All-Irelands at four levels over the 19 years and won 25 of them. So, not too bad.

“And we paid our way. 15 foreign holidays. Ten big concerts in Nowlan Park. The new training centre and Nowlan Park are debt free at this point.”

Kilkenny’s immediate future? Is another vacuum inevitable after so much silverware?

Ned Quinn demurs: “If you take your eye off the ball, because you’re enjoying Senior success, then you will have a fallow period. But Kilkenny didn’t take their eye off the ball. During the period we were in 15 Senior Finals, we were also in eight U21 Finals and seven Minor Finals. That rate, at underage, compares well with any other county.”

He marshals facts: “We were competitive at Minor the last three years, though we didn’t manage to win. The U21s got to their All-Ireland Final. Then you had St Kieran’s College nearly winning four in a row last year.

“I’m certain that if we have a combination of patience and confidence in ourselves, and with Brian in charge, we will be contending at Senior.

“He is blessed again to have quality selectors in Derek Lyng and James McGarry, former multiple All-Ireland winners themselves.

“Contending even this year, but definitely in the next couple of years. That’s all you can ever say: contending.”

Few enough administrators are keen students of history. Again, Ned Quinn is an exception. He is all too aware that Kilkenny’s hurling heritage could easily have been different: “You have a one-point All-Ireland win in 1935, in 1939, in 1947, in 1957. So 1940 to 1956 we got just one in 16 years.”

To him, Dick ‘Droog’ Walsh and colleagues found a second importance: “If we hadn’t got those seven early All-Irelands close together, I think the game in Kilkenny might have suffered during that 16-year spell.

“But we had enough people still walking around who remembered the early days and kept up a love of hurling.”

While times change, while boys no longer hurl out in townlands with twine for a crossbar, key rivalries endure. This evening, Cork host Kilkenny in the NHL’s first round.

“To me, Cork are a wonderful GAA county,” Quinn states. “Genuinely great people, across the board.” He salutes their new venue: “The redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh is an absolutely magnificent achievement for Cork GAA. Páirc Uí Chaoimh will become a landmark in the city. It’s fitting that Cork, as our biggest county, should have that landmark.

“Hopefully this fantastic new stadium will lead to a renewed rivalry with Kilkenny’s oldest opponent, from all the way back in 1904.”

We gather ourselves up as early evening light is bruising itself outside. I wish him a safe journey.

Ned Quinn snorts amiably at my naivety. “Safe home?” he says.

“I have two more meetings to see before any hope of seeing Mooncoin.”

======================Travel advice for big match

Bus Éireann will operate a shuttle bus from Lapps Quay (opposite City Hall, Cork) to Paírc Uí Chaoimh from 4.30pm today.

Standard City Fare/Leap card and free travel passes will be accepted.

A limited shuttle bus service will also operate from Paírc Uí Chaoimh (Monahan Road) after the match to City Hall. Standard bus service No.202 will run from Parnell Place/Merchants Quay to Ballintemple, adjacent to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and from Mahon to Ballintemple.

There is free parking at Midleton, Little Island, Carrigtwohill and Glounthaune railway stations; to pre-purchase tickets from these stations to Kent Station go to www.irishrail.ie or call 1-850-366222.

Further information:

www.paircuichaoimh.ie


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