John Coffey is hurling’s oldest living holder of an All-Ireland medal, having turned 99 in January. He played corner forward for Tipperary in the 1945 final win over Kilkenny, scoring the opening goal, writes PM O’Sullivan.
John Coffey is not looking at Niagara Falls so much as listening to it.
He has known noise, Croke Park noise, but nothing like the pour of these waters. 1953, a honeymoon at the Falls, John and Kitty.
She is a Martin from Adamstown, County Wexford and was working as a civil servant in Dublin when they met. The couple have made a change well beyond getting married.
There comes a time for decisiveness, sport and life alike. By the standards of that period, her 30, him mid-30s, they are a late vocation for marriage. But John Coffey and Kitty Martin knew when they knew.
“Her own father commented one time, about her getting married,” Margaret Maher says. “He said: ‘I didn’t think anyone was going to take you off my hands.’ That was the way of those days. Nothing sentimental…”
Their daughter smiles as she elaborates, describing that departure for Canada, hardly a bare person told. They wrote a letter home to both sets of parents, stating they had been married out there.
John Coffey never liked fuss, then or later. For him, noise is only proper to Niagara Falls, to Semple Stadium, and Croke Park.
I am meeting the man, 99 last January, long since returned from Canada. He is hurling’s oldest holder of a Celtic Cross. The man resides now in Elm Green Nursing Home, following a stroke late last year.
Until this misfortune, he remained remarkably hale, forever immersed in hurling. He was anxious during the week to hear news of Tipperary’s selection for tomorrow’s All-Ireland quarter-final with Clare. The chosen midfielders are always a particular query, since he regards midfield as any team’s engine.
Last autumn, John Coffey derived immense joy and satisfaction from seeing his native Tipperary beat Kilkenny in the senior final, 71 years after he featured at right corner-forward on the team that beat the Cats by six points in the 1945 All-Ireland final, the county repeated the trick. Mick Murphy of Thurles Sarsfields, wing-back that day, is also alive.
Tom Maher, Margaret’s husband, adds a twist: “John used always say, after 2010 and a fair few disappointments: ‘I could die happy if Tipp got another All Ireland.’
“I’d be replying: ‘Well, I hope Tipp don’t get another one any time soon.’ But he got his wish, and he’s still around.”
That victory in 1945, Tipperary’s 13th senior title, was immediately regarded as a special one. Much to the county’s gall, Cork were striving for five in a row. Tipperary took them down by eight points after putting in a tremendous performance in their Munster semi-final. Beating Limerick by three points in the Munster final required another huge effort.
Kilkenny fell behind early in the All-Ireland final, down 4-3 to 0-3 at halftime. They rallied but Tipp held out. Now the Coffey brothers had matched the feat of their fellow parish men from Tubberadora.
Johnny, Mick, and Paddy Leahy were members of the Tipperary vintage that beat Kilkenny in the 1916 All-Ireland final.
Tom Maher mentions 1945. “I got the first goal,” John says, suddenly emphatic.
“Will we go out for a walk?” he asks. “It looks a lovely day outside.”
The man is still good, everything considered. “He’s always loved the sunshine,” Margaret notes. “He has good days and less good days. But he’s happy and content, which is everything to us.”
Margaret is the Coffeys’ fourth child. The 1950s in Ireland remains a byword for employment difficulties and emigration. John Coffey landed in this generation. Kitty Martin, to become Kitty Coffey, would have had to give up her post in the Civil Service under that era’s regulations.
The eldest three (Eleanor, John, and Brendan) were born over there. Kitty was expecting Margaret as they sailed back in the autumn of 1960, after a recession in that economy caused a change in plan. Margaret, Tina, and Colm were born in Dublin.
Nature finds a way. Ben Coffey of Lucan Sarsfields, Colm’s son, hurled centre-forward for the Dublin minors defeated by Kilkenny in 2017’s Leinster final. This week, his grandfather was likewise enquiring about Dublin’s prospects against the Antrim minors in their All-Ireland quarter-final, another of tomorrow’s fixtures.
Emigration severed hurling as well as Ireland. An excellent hurler from his mid-teens, John Coffey made, at 16, the Tipperary minor team that overcame Laois in the 1934 All-Ireland final. He was getting noticed, Coffey from Boherlahan.
A compelling family story contextualises this precocity. Mentors turned up at the farmhouse in Ballinree, looking for Jerry, an older brother, who was away working.
Ellen, their mother, remarked to the visitors: “John’s not too bad either. Why don’t ye take him?”
They took her at that word, launching the 16-year-old.
John Coffey had a 1930s youth, Ballytarsna NS, Cashel CBS and farm work. This world was compact and lacked horizons.
All his adult life, he liked to tell a story about a goat that retreated up a hay rick near Golden during a year the River Suir produced a massive flood. The Suir swept away the rick, with the goat never seen again.
Becoming a member of the Army Reserve during World War II was a big change.
His section got sent to South Kerry. One of their tasks during those ‘Emergency’ years? Ascending Mount Brandon in order to carry down the corpses of six German airmen.
“I often wondered about that time in his life,” says Tom Maher. “He was stationed near Portmagee, because of the weather station on Valentia. I often wondered whether looking across the Atlantic towards America put something in his mind for later on.”
Nobody knows the future, which is sport’s core attraction. The Coffeys of Boherlahan would end up a remarkable hurling story. Jerry, John, and younger brother Flor played together on the club team that won 1941’s senior final against Éire Óg Annacarthy-Donohill, a title not seen again until 1996.
John lined out for Tipperary between 1940 and 1948. Jerry captained Tipperary in 1942, when a Munster final with Cork was lost by 14 points.
Flor, who lined out in county colours between 1941 and 1950, played at left corner-back in 1945. He took another Celtic Cross in 1949, after Tipperary hammered Laois. Flor bagged another local senior title, appearing with Thurles Sarsfields in 1952. He passed away, at 93, in April 2014.
John Coffey moved to Dublin for work in 1948 and joined Young Ireland. This club was Tipperary orientated and overseen by Tommy Treacy, one of the county’s finest hurlers during the 1930s. John is forever proud of winning a senior title with Young Ireland in 1949, when they defeated Faughs.
Prompted by Tom, his mind runs back to that day: “I still don’t know how he missed that free. We always found it terrible difficult to beat Faughs.”
The reference, plucked from seven decades ago, is to Kilkenny’s Terry Leahy. A Faughs clubman during most of the 1940s, Leahy had an easy 21-yard free in the closing seconds but miscued his lift. The ball fell sideways and Young Ireland’s one-point lead stood.
We are moving around the complex on a glorious summer day. There is a room where residents are painting. Another room hosts a musician, entertaining a crowd of 20 or more with ‘Maggie’.
Residents salute John on his travels, admiring his hat. There is a kindliness and a likeability to him nothing can erase. We find a sun trap enjoyable from partial shade.
Settled, Margaret turns philosophical and offers an overview: “Dad worked very hard in Canada, doing everything and anything. They made great friends, though. He always said the Polish people were wonderful to work. Toronto was full of nationalities, Italians and Poles, the whole of Europe.
“There were times it was so cold that you couldn’t bring a child outside, because they would get into breathing difficulties. Yet one of Dad’s jobs was shovelling rubbish into a furnace. He had to take salt tablets out there, because he was sweating so much at that job. It might be however many degrees below outside and here he was, taking salt tablets…”
As Margaret appreciates, this life was further away from Boherlahan than mere miles. Nor were the early 1960s, on return, a simple affair. John Coffey gave a spell working in Luton, with Kitty down in Adamstown with the children. Yet the family found solid footing in the end, when he secured a job in the technical department of the Posts & Telegraphs.
Here was the crucial hinge. Margaret glosses: “When they came back from Canada, Dad was in his 40s with three kids (and another one on the way). He had to begin from scratch, yet again.
“He started in the Posts & Telegraphs as a labourer. I remember him studying right up into his 50s, studying to be a technician in the various grades. He went up as far as ‘Technician I’, which was as far as you could go without becoming an engineer. To become an engineer, Dad would have had to go to college. But he was well in his 50s at that stage.”
The nearby musician is now offering Any Dream Will Do. Corner of eye, I can see heads bobbing to the music.
Margaret says: “People talk now about ‘changing careers’, as if it is all a new thing. ‘Lifelong learning’, they call it. Dad knew all about that kind of learning, way before his time.”
Her husband interjects: “That will tell you the nature of the man, that he was not content to settle. He was always looking to better himself the whole time. He worked really hard until very recently, in fact.
“I remember he got some work down on the home house, a few years ago, when he was 95. He insisted on going up a ladder, to inspect the work. I was in the fear of my life… How do you explain a 95-year-old falling off a ladder? But you couldn’t tell John not to go up that ladder. No way…”
Like so many former sportsmen, John Coffey possessed remarkable drive. He settled on Dublin’s Northside, in Phibsboro, and made a close life there. He became a well-known figure in the community and lived in Shandon Park until recent months.
Once hurling took off in Dublin during the 2000s, local youngsters would call to the door, asking to see his All-Ireland medal. He always obliged.
Margaret relates part of this new life: “Dad ended up buying three houses, two of which he rented out in flats. He was always working. He ended up having to do an extra few years in the Posts & Telegraphs, so as to have enough years of service to get the full pension. He had to stay on a bit after retirement age because he had started later.
“As he often said himself: ‘If they knew then the risk assessment on that pension, would they have let me stay on that bit?’ He used love remarking he was far longer drawing the pension from Telecom than he was working there. He would say: ‘They’d never have given me that pension if they knew how long the Coffeys tend to live!’ It was a nice joke with him.”
Still, retirement involved new burdens. Margaret glosses again: “Unfortunately my mother died, before her time. Colm was only 15. Dad had to start again there, with a 15-year-old, cooking, and shopping.
“Now, he was always very hands on with us as kids, bathing us and everything like that, polishing shoes. But it was tough, and like always he rose to the challenge.”
The Coffey children were conscious of Tipperary roots. “We went down to Dualla a lot when we were young,” Margaret recalls. “Dad’s mother lived to a great age, although she was crippled with arthritis. He would go down to see Jerry and Flor and his eldest brother, Pat. Himself and his sister Eileen got on like a house on fire.
“Then, when we were teenagers, we didn’t want to go. But later on we started going again.”
Where John Coffey settled, Tipperary native and Phibsboro resident, granted hurling a doubled appeal. “He has a great grá for Dublin hurling,” Tom Maher stresses. “Dónal Burke, the young lad who hurls for the Dublin seniors now, is actually from Shandon Park, just across and down the road from the Coffeys’ house.
“John had Dónal spotted early. He’d say: ‘He’s promising, that young lad. Always has a hurl in his hand.’ If Tipp didn’t win, John liked to see Dublin do well. He was thrilled when they won Leinster in 2013.”
Margaret adds nuance to her father’s take on life: “When a lot of immigration into Ireland started happening in the 2000s, Phibsboro changed quite a bit fairly quickly. There were a lot of different faces around, which Dad liked. Some people complained about the changes but Dad saw it as a good thing. He had seen all different kinds of people mixing perfectly in Canada, and he didn’t see why Ireland should be any different.”
The musician is on to Joseph’s Coat. We listen for a moment, in a pause. All the while, here is John Coffey in 2017, sitting amid peals of sunshine in a cathedral of a day.
He is loved.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved