Michael Dundun remembers Tipperary full-back Michael Maher, a five-time All-Ireland winner.
It’s 1957 — an intense Munster senior hurling semi-final clash between Tipperary and Cork at Limerick. Cork’s Christy Ring is racing through on the Tipperary goal.
He is confronted by Tipp’s fullback, Michael Maher. They collide and Ring falls to the ground, breaking his wrist in the fall. A famous hurling photograph records the Cloyne maestro leaving the pitch, his hand in a sling, exchanging some words with Limerick legend Mick Mackey who was umpiring on the day.
The incident was recalled last week as the GAA family gathered to say farewell to the Tipperary colossus Michael Maher who passed away, aged 87, but there is a wonderful tailpiece to the story.
On the day after that semi-final which Cork won, Maher wrote to Ring to wish him a speedy recovery. It was a gesture greatly appreciated by the Corkman and a lifelong friendship was formed.
Ring was later to say of the Tipperary full-back of the 50s and 60s: “You got no change out of Maher.”
That episode typified the life of Michael Maher, hurler, administrator, and gentleman. Fierce and uncompromising in his full-back duties, he always saw the bigger picture, and throughout a distinguished career which saw him win five senior All-Ireland medals, eight National Leagues, four Railway Cup medals with Munster, five Oireachtas medals, and three Tipperary senior championship medals with his native Holycross- Ballycahill, happenings on the field stayed on the field.
Michael Maher was a big man anyway you took him. Exceptionally strong and fearless, he answered all the requirements of a full-back at a time when hurling in the vicinity of the goal was not for the fainthearted. Flanked by his clubmate John Doyle and Roscrea’s Kieran Carey, they enjoyed the sobriquet ‘Hell’s Kitchen’.
John O’Grady was Tipperary goalkeeper in the 1958 All-Ireland win over Galway, which Maher described as his sweetest, his first win at the age of 28. He declared the ’62 win over Wexford as his most memorable.
O’Grady said of Maher: “He was a natural defender who seldom went beyond the basics of protection and prevention — the first of his ‘keeper, the second of hostile attackers. No goalie had to shout at him to get back, he was there already. The ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ tag inevitably surfaces, but if the temperature of the battle was warm, he was not one to lose his cool or concentration.”
Len Gaynor was a young wing-back in his first final when Tipperary beat Wexford in 1965. Before the game he sought Michael Maher’s advice as to what to expect. “Just play your usual game, clear your ball, and keep it simple,” Maher counselled.
Maher was never one for flamboyance in his play.
In the 1962 final against Wexford, Donal O’Brien, the Tipperary goalie, came off his line, side-stepping Maher and his opponent, to make a spectacular catch and clearance. On his way back to the goal, he received a chastening kick in the pants from Maher, reminding him to keep things simple — no showboating.
After one hectic championship battle, as the Tipperary players sat drained in the dressing room, county secretary, the late Tommy Barrett, went over to Maher, shook his hand and congratulated him on a great game. “Sure I didn’t puck a ball all day,” he modestly replied. “I know,” said Barrett, ”but neither did your man, and our goalie never had to worry — a great display of how to play full-back.”
Maher’s tussles with Wexford’s Ned Wheeler are part of the folklore of the game. Wheeler, a powerfully athletic midfielder was moved on to the edge of the square in the 1962 All-Ireland final to unsettle Maher and his colleagues, but the Holycross man prevailed.
Maher’s clubmate, the late Bob Stakelum, writing in his book Gaelic Games in Holycross-Ballycahill, says: “His tussles with Ned Wheeler of Wexford must have reminded many of the famous battle between Cúchulainn and Ferdia. Neither man flinched and spectators wondered how flesh and bone could bear so much. Bodies and hurleys clashed, but there was not a foul stroke.”
Maher’s hurling pedigree was impeccable. His uncle, Big Mikey Maher, captained Tubberadora (Boherlahan) to three All-Irelands and won two more besides. His older brother Francis captained Holycross-Ballycahill to three county titles, 48,51 and 54, teams that included three Maher brothers, Francis, Michael, and Philip, a golden era in Holycross-Ballycahill hurling. Michael also won a minor All-Ireland in ’47.
His 15-year inter-county career began in the 1951/52 league campaign, but it wasn’t until 1956 that he claimed the full-back spot as his own, having shadowed Anthony Brennan and Jimmy Finn earlier. His tenure ended with the defeat by Limerick in 1966 but administration afforded him a continued outlet for his passion for the games.
He served as club chairman and board delegate, Mid board chairman, county board chairman (‘79-‘82), and chairman of the Munster Council (‘89-‘92).
He was also Tipp’s Central Council delegate for a number of years. In 1994, he unsuccessfully stood for the presidency of the association, a contest won by the late Jack Boothman. He was chairman of the Semple Stadium management committee for a number of years and continued to act on that body until ill-health intervened.
He conducted GAA business with the same calm assurance he deployed at the edge of the square in his hurling days. He was meticulous in his preparation for meetings and in his attention to detail, and he insisted on punctuality.
When he assumed chairmanship of the Munster Council he started his first meeting exactly on time. Delegates were drifting in as the meeting progressed and one county’s representatives who arrived 30 minutes late sought to revisit matters already dealt with. They were not entertained by the new chairman. Subsequently, all meeting started on time, with all counties present.
In a short few years, ‘the Grim Reaper’ has succeeded where so many others failed, in dismantling ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, but their legend lives on forever in the history of hurling. Con Hogan, former Chairman of Tipperary Board and current chairman of the Semple Stadium Committee said in his graveside oration at Michael Maher’s interment in Holycross cemetery:
“Whenever we think of a life of extraordinary service to the GAA, we will think of him. Whenever we stand on the famed sod of Semple Stadium which he graced and worked so hard for, we will think of him. Whenever we visit the pantheon of Tipperary’s greats, it is there we will find Mick Maher.”
Sympathy to his wife Margaret, son Kevin, daughters Edel, Claire, and Eimear, his brother Francis, sister Nancy, grandchildren and extended family on their sad loss.
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