Michael Carey and Tommy Ronan play for St Kieran’s College against Our Lady’s Secondary School, Templemore in the Croke Cup final this afternoon. Their fathers, DJ and Adrian, won the competition with Kieran’s in 1988 and plenty more besides. Two great hurlers met to reminisce and fill in that generation gap, writes PM O’Sullivan.
Once were warriors, in famed black and white hoops.
They remain a study in contrasts, DJ Carey and Adrian Ronan, but came up the same road. These two men won an All-Ireland with St Kieran’s College in 1988. Carey landed another one the following year.
Having hurled together with Kilkenny at minor (All-Ireland winners in 1988) and U21 (All-Ireland winners in 1990), they graduated to senior and took All-Irelands at this level in 1992 and ’93. Carey’s career proved long enough to include further wins in 2000, 2002 and 2003. He was awarded nine All Stars.
As Michael Carey and Tommy Ronan prepare to line out this afternoon for St Kieran’s College against Our Lady’s Secondary School, Templemore, their fathers met up for reminiscences, the opium of middle age.
PMO’S: What sort of an experience is it having a son on a team that is preparing to play an All-Ireland final? Although it’s not unknown in Kilkenny for a son to contest an All-Ireland with Kieran’s after his father did it, neither is it common.
AR: For sure, it’s a new thing that Tommy is playing at this level, but I’ve had him for the last 17 years, hurling away, at the same time… Of course, my lad is at the age when the father is not cool.
To talk about your father, or to have your father talking about you, just isn’t cool. Most 17- and 18-year-olds are a law unto themselves, just in general. Young lads don’t communicate wonderful at that age, not like they did when they were 15.
One to 15, they’re the apple of your eye and they think their daddy is a great fella. From 16 on, it changes for a while, before they come back to you.
The unusual scenario with our two lads is that both of them are playing in the backs, when we were both a forward. I have two girls as well, and they’re forwards!
DJC: Have I to say the hurling is coming from the mother’s side?
AR: Well, I think there is actually a funny thing about Kilkenny’s glory years under Brian Cody: the amount of headline forwards we’re producing. We produced two of the finest ever backs, in Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney. Every young chap growing up over the last 15 years could want to be a back because Tommy and JJ made it so attractive. As great as he was, Henry [Shefflin] wasn’t everything to the crowd the way Tommy was.
Another funny aspect is that my lad is called Tommy. All of a sudden, he wanted to hurl right half back. He wanted to be bought a red helmet. And he grew up wanting to be Tommy Walsh.
We’ve been given a lot of star backs in Kilkenny in recent years. Jackie Tyrrell, Paul Murphy, Kieran Joyce, Cillian Buckley… From an underage hurling point of view, we haven’t seen star forwards at the same rate, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid aside. I think it’s had an effect.
DJC: With Mikey, it’s all still a bit strange. For the Kieran’s College juvenile team, he was asked to play in goal. He wasn’t considered good enough for that team outfield. So he hurled on goal. Tom Hogan [current senior manager] probably remembered Mikey this year for not letting him down as a goalkeeper. Now he’s a full back, which wasn’t necessarily what we expected.
Then again, Mikey never played U16 with Kieran’s. Didn’t make that team at all and was more or less a bit player with a B team. And he was very unfit, and he was playing off 4 or 5 in the golf. He was much more into the golf, previously.
Really and truly, it’s only in the last 12 months, maybe the last 18 months, he is coming back to the hurling
AR: They need to enjoy it. To be fair, they are enjoying it now. See, this is where our lads are coming in under a lovely umbrella. They’re coming under an umbrella of no exposure because of who they are or because of their surname. Obviously being a Carey carries more magic than being a Ronan!
But the fact is that my lad enjoys hurling but doesn’t love it to the point of death. It doesn’t consume him all out. They were lucky in a way in not making Kilkenny’s U14 panel for the Tony Forristal. Nor were they stars at U16. They’re still far from stars… So the two boys have seen the hardship, if that’s the word. They’ve seen 14, 15, 16 not making it. And they both have their weaknesses, like any young lad. Tommy’s not the biggest man in the world.
So he’s worked hard on any assets. I’m sure Michael is exactly the same.
DJC: Mikey wouldn’t be the fastest guy in the world… He has worked awful hard on his fitness.
PMO’S: Tommy Shefflin was on the 1988 Kieran’s team with ye. His son Evan, who’s hurling with Michael and Tommy, is in the same category: did not make the Forristal panel but has improved a ton since.
AR: Yes, that’s a crucial point. I worked with the Kilkenny minors for two years [2011-12]. Both years, if there were 20 lads togged for the Tony Forristal panel four years earlier, only seven to 10 went on to feature at minor. So there was 50 or 60% of a falloff over just four years. It would make you think… That early exposure can cut both ways.
PMO’S: How is being 18 in 2017 different from being 18 in 1988?
AR: Is it significant neither of us went to college, to third level? Most young lads now do go. A Leaving Cert has become well beyond a must. You nearly have to have a degree from college to get a job.
In our time, your Leaving Cert was nearly sanction. You could get a job straight away. You were targeted, coming out of school, by employers. The Leaving Cert was enough for them, back in the 1980s.
Whereas now they’re not targeting the Leaving Cert student. They’re targeting the young fellas coming out of college, the lad who’s in UL or UCD or wherever. The employers, you could say, are going to Fitzgibbon Cup matches.
DJC: You see, I wanted to hurl with Kilkenny. It was in my mind from a young age. So I had to be in Kilkenny, or near it. I gave up a scholarship to Wake Forest University, a handball scholarship in America. I had a route there, through the handball. And everyone around Gowran was saying: ‘He’ll end up working for a big oil company in America.’ But I wanted to hurl with Kilkenny. So I stayed put.
PMO’S: Adrian, you once described St Kieran’s College in the 1980s as “a farmer’s clique”, mentioning you were never made a captain while there. Could you add to that memorable description?
AR: It’s only when I finished up that a few things clicked. We had a teacher called Jimmy Carew, for French. And Jimmy used say to me (and he was a great character outside of school): “Ronnie, after all the years you went there, I was the only one who gave you the captaincy.” Which was true, because Jimmy made me captain of the senior soccer team.
So I reflected and said to myself: ‘God, I never did captain a hurling team in there, for all the hurling I’d done in so called good years.’ Don’t get me wrong: that thought didn’t affect me at the time. Jimmy’s comment just pointed there was in society, at that time, a bit of a divide.
I was from a working class family, which maybe wasn’t quite the thing back then… I mean, you had to pay quite a bit to be a boarder. But the class element is largely gone out of it, and maybe because the boarding has been gone over ten years at this stage.
DJC: Two of my brothers, who weren’t put down in time, actually went in as boarders. Or else they didn’t get in at all. We, even as a farming family, certainly couldn’t afford to pay for boarders. So they came out after a term or two. But that was the way it used to be. At that time, if 120 young lads went into first year, was it 50 or 60 who had to be boarders?
For me, the whole thing was quite simple. I went to St Kieran’s College to hurl. I think education was secondary to the matter. We played in a Leinster juvenile final in first year, when I was out sick with tonsillitis. I can remember us getting a phonecall at home in Gowran, checking to make sure I’d be at the final, able to hurl. And if I was still sick afterwards, okay.
AR: Your man here would breeze in with his mother around twenty past three, for training! He wouldn’t have been in school earlier in the day…
DJC [laughing]: Ah, I went in a bit… To be fair, I suffered a lot from tonsillitis at the time.
AR: Especially on days when there was no hurling!
DJC: But I used to bring in sandwiches for ye, didn’t I? Yourself and Pat O’Neill wouldn’t be long polishing them off…
AR: Those Sudocrem sandwiches…
DJC: Do you remember that?
AR: How could I forget? Aren’t I still looking down at them?
DJC: They ate my sandwiches. No wonder I was small…
AR: Some lads, to this day, don’t know they had a can of Coke and beef sandwiches on a Monday! That day was the great day to rob a locker, because you had the afters of the Sunday dinner. I know for a fact there’s a man from a shop out in North Kilkenny who never knew he had a can of Coke every Monday morning… We got it, about ten past nine.
’Twas Tommy Shefflin who started putting Sudocrem on his sandwiches. Tommy caught us in the act. We thought the white stuff was mayonnaise… That cured us of May Shefflin’s sandwiches!
DJC: You can look back but nearly everything is so different now. You know, if you go into the school at present, you’d see a lad crossing to somewhere and he’s hitting a sliotar off a wall as he’s walking. Nearly every lad in the place… They all have a hurl and a ball non-stop.
When we were playing, did 30 of the 120 lads who went into first year go for trials? 40, at the very most. I heard that more or less 100 guys went for senior trials this year. We didn’t bring a hurl around with us in school as a matter of course, like now.
AR: It wasn’t part of our anatomy like it is now.
DJC: Hurling has got sexier, everything about it.
AR: The hurlers are better looking now, as well!
DJC: Even down to the togs and the jersey…
AR: As DJ said, it’s sexy to play hurling in Kilkenny. Equally, up in Tipp, it’s the same. They were in the shadow of that great Kilkenny team for a good few years but maybe now they are ready to take over the mantle. There was a little bump in Thurles last Saturday night week but Tipp still look the team to beat for the next few seasons.
To be fair to Tipp, they really love the game. Be they bad, good or indifferent, they still always think they’re from the home of hurling. They’re dynamite that way. Actually, I was up in Templemore for work the other day and they have great colour and bunting out.
DJC: There’s a great loyalty to Tipp in Tipp. Not in any bad sense…
AR: They just love their hurling up there. Let football be as strong as it is at the minute but you’d still fill Semple Stadium 10 times quicker for a hurling match than for football.
PMO’S: DJ, Paddy Phelan, Kilkenny star of the 1930s, was your granduncle. Did anyone ever speak to you about him? Elderly people who’d seen him hurl?
DJC: Lots of people told me he was a fabulous wing back. Martin White, who played with Paddy, said the same to me many times. But the way I see it is that everyone is good in their time. You can only hurl in your own era. The two of us were considered good in our time, which is gone. But we wouldn’t come near a Kilkenny senior panel now.
PMO’S: Ah now, that’s a bit strong…
AR: I think this is a very good point. Go to minor level alone. Back in 1988, people said DJ, Charlie [Carter] and myself were an exceptional full-forward line in the grade. But I don’t think any of us would make the Kilkenny minor team at present, considering the physique we had. We were three small men.
DJC: I’d go to say we wouldn’t have come near the Kilkenny minors of 2016.
AR: If look at the way teams are picked now, you go back to the Tony Forristal U14 thing. If you’re involved with an U14 development squad, you tend to choose size over skill, which to me is wrong. I still think the day you take the small man out of hurling is the day hurling is gone.
Richie Hogan, Tommy Walsh, Cha [Fitzpatrick]… All small men and all absolutely brilliant men. I joust hope we’re not manufacturing a standard sort of hurler, six foot tall and more athletic than skilful.
I was delighted to see Clare win a senior All-Ireland in 2013, with Podge Collins, Shane O’Donnell, Tony Kelly doing so well.
Clare decided something back in 2010, under [Dónal] Moloney and [Gerry] O’Connor, the current senior managers. They decided something after they didn’t manage to beat Kilkenny in that All-Ireland minor final. Their group decided they’d head a different way at U21, that there was no point in taking on the likes of Kilkenny in the physical stakes.
They won three U21 All-Irelands in a row, going that way. And I still think Clare will win at least one more at senior.
PMO’S: Anything ye would have like to have known at 18 that later life taught ye?
AR: I think life, as it happens, is so fast and furious that you nearly have to go with it. Would I change anything? Not really.
I usually can see behind any disappointment to some sort of plus. And I’m still as immersed in hurling as I ever was, training some team or other nearly every evening of the week.
DJC: I’d probably change a few things alright! But I won’t get into all that now… You’ve got to experience life, whatever that is. I made decisions in my early life, not to drink or smoke, not to go to discos.
AR: I don’t know did you miss out so much on discos…
DJC [laughing]: Well, I wonder about all that now, to be honest. You did the opposite, Ronnie, and maybe missed out on a longer career with Kilkenny.
AR: Your recovery session was different to my one!
DJC: It surely was. But my social life, to this day, is going home and sitting on the couch and looking at whatever is on. Whereas you had friends and went out. I was friendly with everyone but I’m not sure I had friends in the same sense.
So do we have room for regrets? You see, I went home after matches. I didn’t mix as such. There was an impression out there that I was on bad terms with people, which was never true in the slightest.
AR: Look, people are just different. Simple as. You got everything possible out of being a hurler. I didn’t. But did I get more out of certain sides of life? Possibly…
DJC: I would nearly regard myself, even though I can talk away to ye, as socially inadequate. If there were 200 people over there, and if I was asked to go up and give them a talk, I could get up there and give that spiff on the spot. I could do it. But if there was a single individual over there, in the lobby, I’d be a very shy person in general. I’d still have that feeling of inadequacy, in a way.
When we were growing up, you couldn’t have a girl as a friend. It didn’t happen. It was probably easier to have a girl as a friend at third level.
AR: In our time, that was absolutely out… It’s all very different with the present generation.
DJC: We took different paths in life, the two of us. Maybe we could both have gone more in the middle.
AR: True point… The one thing I’d say to DJ is that he has only sons. I have daughters as well. Different story… We don’t know what’s going on, because we’re not on Snapchat!
They can be friends now, boys and girls, but you would still be keeping an eye on them.
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