The hurling world at large mourns the sad and unexpected death of Tipperary hurler extraordinaire Jimmy Doyle, but for the multitudes of people who knew him — team-mates and opponents at club, county and provincial level, friends, acquaintances — the grief is personal.
To have known Jimmy off the field was to have been touched by the innate decency and humility of a wonderful human being, who made little of the fame and greatness which surrounded his lengthy and successful playing career.
I was privileged to know him as a friend, having first got to know him over 40 years ago — in America — and, since I heard the shocking news just a few hours after returning home from a daughter’s wedding in Dubrovnik, I have been reflecting on the many times we met over the years.
That first, initial meeting was on the inaugural Carrolls GAA All Star tour to San Francisco in 1972. This included the Tipperary team which had won the All-Ireland championship the previous year, along with the first ever All Stars hurling team. That 1971 final marked the last of his six winning appearances in a final (losing in three others). While he captained Tipperary in their 1962 and 1965 triumphs, he didn’t lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup the first year because he was injured 11 minutes into the second half. On that occasion, the cup was accepted by Tony Wall.
In San Francisco, the players were hosted by Irish families and Jimmy shared an apartment owned by Cork native Don Cummins, with former Cork star Tony Maher and I travelling with them to Lake Tahoe in the adjoining state of Nevada.
En route, we made several stops, with Jimmy coming out of a shop and regaling us with a story that the shop assistant didn’t know what he meant when he asked for “a packet of crisps”. After a while, the message got through that he wanted potato chips.
Jimmy’s last final was the first All-Ireland final that I reported, but I was well aware of his prowess as a hurler and the reputation he had made for himself over the course of 38 senior championship appearances and the added success he enjoyed in the league and Railway Cup competitions.
On that American trip, I got to know Jimmy the person, who was kind, considerate and humble. I would say that there was what I might describe as an old-world innocence about him, in the sense that it would be alien to be brash or pushy in any form. That view was enhanced over the course of numerous meetings.
Tony Maher and Jimmy became friends for life, as the former St Finbarr’s star outlined for me yesterday.
“Jimmy was such a modest, brilliant person. I was talking to him only last Friday. Two weeks ago he rang to say he had a book coming out on July 21 and he wanted to make sure I would attend the launch.
“Any time Tipperary played a game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, he would come over to the house for a cup of tea or whatever and I often met him off the train. We were great friends. Every year, I would get a Christmas card from him with the comment: Old friends are best...
“Before the All Stars game in 1972 [Maher was an All Star], he asked me where I was playing and I told him I was right corner-back. He said he would play in the right corner so we wouldn’t be on each other. There was great rivalry between Cork and Tipperary, but after games there was great camaraderie between the players.”
I last spoke with Jimmy four years ago. It was the day after the Donegal-Antrim game in the Ulster championship when Patrick McBrearty played for the last quarter after having earlier lined out in the minor match before it. I was researching the number of minor/senior appearances by players on the same day and former Tipperary Star colleague Michael Dundon, who played with Thurles Sarsfields, put me in touch with Jimmy.
His story was especially interesting. He did a “double act” in the Gaelic Grounds in 1957 (the background to which is his unique achievement —then — of playing in four All-Ireland minor finals, starting in 1954 when he played in goal and Tipp lost to Dublin.
Interestingly, while he was captain of the minor team in 1957, he was selected on the senior team for the provincial semi-final against Cork (having made his senior debut the previous year in the National League). Accordingly, the minor team went without his services, but he was allowed to come in as a sub for the last 10 minutes. With the seniors bowing out that day and the minors winning, he returned to the team for the Munster final. Tipp defeated Limerick in Thurles and later went on to beat Kilkenny for the second year in a row.
Remarkably, he was picked in goal for Tipperary’s Munster championship game against Waterford in the 1973 Munster championship, prior to which I interviewed him.
“I am not a bit worried,” he said. “Actually, I like the idea of being back in action with Tipperary. And I can only do my best...”
I wrote that “his steadiness in goal” was a key factor in Tipp winning and that it would guarantee him a perfect place.
However, it turned out to be his last appearance.
I have a cutting from December 1974, a report of a tournament final between Sarsfields and Bennettsbridge, with the headline: “Jimmy Doyle bows out in fine style.” Another, from September 1975, recalls “another comeback”, when he scored a winning goal against Moyne-Templetuohy in the Mid final.
In praise of his vast array of skills, Tipperary County Board, in a statement, referred to “his unerring eye and wrists of a craftsman”, while board chairman Michael Bourke referred to him as “the ultimate sticks-man”, adding that he was “a master of his craft, not alone of his own age, but for all ages”.
I imagine that anybody who was fortunate to see him play would totally concur with the latter comment. I certainly do. Without question, he was one of hurling’s greatest ever — and he had the personality to match.
Gone but never forgotten.
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