Legendary Kilkenny hurling coach, Seán ‘Georgie’ Leahy.
Séan ‘Georgie’ Leahy loomed large with remarkable benevolence.
While unmissable, being so tall, it was the man’s exceptionally genial personality that drew people to him.
Jackie Tyrrell, a clubmate in James Stephens, caught this aspect in a tribute after Georgie Leahy passed away in early June.
“He had the unique gift of making everyone feel important,” Tyrrell wrote.
I saw those qualities for myself, living in recent years near the Leahys’ home.
Georgie was a familiar and immensely popular figure around Loughboy Shopping Centre. He had a word for everyone and far more than a word if you were into hurling.
Pipe would be taken from mouth: “How are they all in Ballyhale?”
Then off it would go, the ins and the outs of who was in and who was out of form.
Georgie knew every hurler around, past and present. There never stood a shrewder or a better informed judge of the most beautiful game.
There was his family, first and foremost. Then James Stephens GAA Club and St Patrick’s Parish, centre of his life for nearly 80 years. He was a man of great faith, Christian in the truest sense of the word, someone with a real empathy for people broken by experience.
“Lads who worked with him in the Posts & Telegraphs often told me about his habits,” says Thomas Leahy, their third child.
“He might slip away for an hour to get mass somewhere. And he could never bear to pass a down and out on the street without giving him something, even when the five of us were young and money wouldn’t have been plentiful.”
Born in 1938, Georgie Leahy became a Village man, raised in a house on Patrick Street.
His father, Jack, was a native of Crosspatrick who came into town after finding work as a psychiatric nurse. His mother, Bridie, was from Conahy. Together, they gave the town one of its finest sons.
Life in that area was close and intimate, with school just up the road. Jack Leahy, tall and strong, got involved in the James Stephens club, becoming one of its central figures and chairman.
His son, first as a player, followed. Usually placed at full-forward, Georgie Leahy won a Junior final in 1955. He was on Kilkenny minor team well beaten by Tipperary in the following season’s All-Ireland final.
“I was a decent hurler,” Georgie once said to me. “But I was under no illusions about ever being a great one.”
Seán Leahy married Rita Hennessy from Tullaroan, an aunt of Bill Hennessy, a Kilkenny midfielder during the 1990s. Over the years, they raised four sons and a daughter. The husband forever stressed how the wife had enabled his immersion in hurling and hurling matters.
While there were lean times for James Stephens during the 1960s, the club recovered to take 1969’s senior title. Georgie Leahy scored the first goal in that emphatic win over The Fenians. He made Kilkenny’s senior panel in 1971, earning a Leinster medal as a sub.
1972 proved a hinge. Asked to become a senior selector, he stayed in this job until 1978, part of three All Ireland-winning set-ups. During this period, the man was likewise a selector (and successfully so) with the county’s minors and U21s. One season, he worked with all three panels.
For 1979, Georgie Leahy took on managing Laois. They fell by a point in the 1981 Leinster final to Offaly, who became All-Ireland champions. With Cork, Laois contested 1984’s Centenary Cup final, their first appearance in a national final since 1949.
This inter-county experience sequed into taking over Offaly for 1986. A raft of other counties later availed of his skills and wisdom, including Waterford, Wexford, Westmeath, Meath, and Carlow. The list is unparalleled.
People speak about Georgie Leahy with a kind of awe. A fellow native of Kilkenny, Noel ‘Lou’ Walsh was young in the 1960s. A St John’s Parish man, over the other side, he later became a founding member of O’Loughlins GAA Club. He stresses how raggedy juvenile hurling became in the town during that decade.
Noel insists: “You couldn’t overstate the importance of the work done by Georgie and people like Bill Cody, Brian’s father. Georgie was a one-man band for hurling in the town when it was far less popular than it is today. I’d say people would be amazed if they went back and discovered how precarious a state hurling was in.
“I often saw Georgie going into Nowlan Park with a bag of hurls over one shoulder and a bag of jerseys over the other shoulder.”
He became, in this capacity, chairman of Kilkenny’s Bord na nÓg for 13 years.
Almost hardly anyone is equally gifted as administrator and coach, Georgie Leahy managed these dual roles with aplomb.
However he did it, the same man found time to manage James Stephens to senior success 1975-76, a spell that included defeating Blackrock in the 1976 All-Ireland final.
Uniquely, Georgie was the sole mentor for that team.
He demonstrated grace under pressure in any number of ways. Thomas Leahy was a member of Kilkenny’s senior panel in 1987. That team reached the All-Ireland final, a route that involved overcoming Offaly in the Leinster final.
“I was living in the house with him at the time,” Thomas recalls. “Dad was managing Offaly, but there was never a word about it. The morning of the Leinster final, we went out the door together and said: ‘See you this evening.’ He was in one dugout and I was in the other dugout, as a sub.
“Remarkable thing, really, but I’m not sure anyone even realised it, then or now, which tells you everything about the way Dad went about his business.”
Georgie Leahy left every sort of positive legacy but maybe his finest one is the stories bestowed like wreaths when people came to pay their respects. Niall Tyrrell is James Stephens’ current senior manager. John Leahy, the eldest child, recalls an anecdote told by Tyrrell, who had Georgie as his U14 manager, at the post-funeral gathering.
“Niall said they hadn’t great numbers to begin with,” John explains. “Maybe only 12 or 13, which would be terrible going for a city club. Dad watched this happening for a week or two.
“Then he brought a tyre into training one evening. He set it up as a target by one of the goals, and said he’d give any youngster a sliotar who managed to drive a shot through the tyre.
“Well, there was some reaction, according to Niall. Lads beating sliotars at the tyre after training for ages. Couldn’t get them to go home.”
John continues: “The bush telegraph took over. Next night at training, they had 20.
Within a week, they had 30.
“Dad just had a way of getting around people.”
Thomas elaborates on this trait: “Dad really loved going out to work with a small rural club. He felt you nearly always got great drive and energy from that kind of place, a Conahy or a Paulstown or a Galmoy. Same as he got in Glenmore.
“He didn’t mind so much if they didn’t win anything per se. He always said he just wanted to leave a place better for hurling than he had found it. That was his motto.
“It was fantastic to win the All-Ireland with Glenmore in 1991. But it was the interaction with personalities he treasured, and the chance to keep working with good hurlers, which weren’t always, for him, the most skilful hurlers.”
John moves to nub: “He just wanted to see the same absolute commitment from everyone as he had on the sideline.”
There is that lovely line about the beauty of life as ‘the music of what happens’, day in and day out.
Georgie Leahy relished ordinariness and everyday exchanges. Wherever his travels, he left people feeling in better form.
For hurling people all over Ireland, 2017 will forever be the year in which a unique part of their music faded.
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