JIMMY SMYTH, Clare hurler extraordinaire, witnessed the spectacle of All-Ireland finals from a perspective he never experienced as a player — after joining the staff in Croke Park as an executive officer.
That was near the end of a glittering inter-county career which saw him acquit himself in the company of some of the greatest names in the game but which was largely unproductive in terms of title wins other than in the inter-provincial series.
However, it’s not as if he feels cheated by the Banner’s failure to win even a Munster championship during a career which last 19 years from 1948, when he made his senior debut in the National League as a 17 year-old.
It’s not something he would boast about, but more than four decades on from his retirement, he enjoys a reputation as one of the legends of hurling.
And, at 80, that’s something to be proud of.
What he does treasure are the friendships he made — with the late Christy Ring and the recently deceased John Doyle holding a special place in his affections.
“All-Ireland medals… all you can do is look at them,’’ he says.
“The friends are with you all the time.’’
Anyone who was around to watch him win Dr Harty Cup and All-Ireland colleges medals (three in each case) with St. Flannan’s would have felt the Ruan native was destined for greatness.
He was a county minor for five years (during which time he won a juvenile medal with his club) and his graduation on to senior ranks in 1948 was swift.
He played in two Munster finals, one in his last year in 1967 and the first in 1955, when Limerick beat them by ten points.
Two years earlier Clare defeated them 10-8 to 1-1 in a first-round game in which he contributed a whopping 6-4.
In 1952, he won the first of eight Railway Cup medals and his involvement in the competition helped to consolidate his reputation as a forward and competitor of outstanding ability.
While pointing out that Clare suffered championship defeats by small margins in many games during his time, they were still regarded as one of the ‘weak’ counties.
The problem, as he perceived it, was they were nearly always missing ‘four or five’ quality players. “We always had 11 or 12 very good hurlers. It was a shame that we didn’t have the others.”
For him and other Clare players of his generation, the Railway Cups provided a platform to perform on the big stage.
Still it piqued him that ‘weaker county’ players were ‘not recognised.’
He mentioned the name of Laois forward Christy O’Brien, commenting: “I regarded him as one of the best full-forwards of my time. It’s important that fellows like him are mentioned because he was a great hurler. And Des Foley, whom I reckon to be the best midfielder of all-time, was another great.
“I was recognised for the simple reason that fellows like Ring and John Doyle gave me publicity for my hurling. The inter-provincials were there and the weaker counties could get into them. But, if you didn’t have them, the weaker counties had nothing.”
Playing with the ‘greats’ was one thing. The other side of the coin was that it increased the desire to be successful with Clare.
“You’d have liked to win something with your own county. You realised there were people ‘at home’ who were starving for a win at All-Ireland level, even Munster level, but they never had it.’’
And they didn’t ‘have it’ until Ger Loughnane in 1995 helped deliver the first All-Ireland tile in 81 years. There was no other person that could have done it, except Loughnane,’’ he said.
“He had that kind of a personality. He didn’t please everybody, but he certainly brought an awful lot of happiness to Clare people at home and abroad.”
Smyth was never short of confidence — “you might say I had a swelled head, but I hadn’t” — which meant that he never felt inferior to the top players who had the opportunity to parade their skills on All-Ireland final day.
His philosophy was that a player ‘either knows he is good enough or he doesn’t’.
“If you have any lack of confidence in yourself going out playing you won’t produce the goods. I just felt I was on an equal footing, with the exception of Ring of course.
“He was the greatest of all time, the ‘best’ man I saw. With Mick Mackey, I saw him playing, but not at his best. A lot of people I met back in Clare always reckoned that Mackey was the best. But, you can’t decide. They were totally different people, personality-wise and hurling-wise. I met two great hurling heroes in my lifetime and they were Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard. In any field of activity, there is always someone within your own group that you look up to.
“And as I continued on hurling, all my heroes were dropping before me because I was getting better myself — until the very end when they had all ‘dropped away’ and I was only left with Ring and Rackard. These were the two men that I really looked up to.’’ When he left Croke Park after 23 years service (he was the long-time Secretary of what was known then as the Activities Committee, now the CCCC), he pursued third-level education when he went to Trinity College to study philosophy.
“I had to do something and I did more than what I did while I was in Croke Park, or before it,’’ he explained. After Trinity, he studied in UL, where he did a Masters on GAA ballads — producing three books on ‘The Ballads’ of Clare, Cork and Tipperary.
He has another book to his credit “In Praise of Heroes, Ballads and Poems of the GAA.’ “I enjoyed that. It was a different way of looking at the GAA — on the hurling fields and in the parishes…’’
While naturally keeping an eye on Clare’s progress — “they have a fair team at present if they could ‘rattle it out of them, but it will take some doing” — being resident in Dublin means he takes a special interest in the progress of their hurlers under Anthony Daly.
“I was delighted when they won the National League because they have been trying for over 70 years. You can ‘see’ Daly in the team the way they play.”
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