Willie John Daly was a ball of fire until the end

Michael Moynihan reflects on the life and career of Cork’s Willie John Daly.

Willie John Daly was a ball of fire until the end

How about the cast in this anecdote?

“It reminded me of the first round match we had against Tipp in 1949. With two minutes to go Cork were three points ahead and we were awarded a free about 21 yards out.

“Jack Lynch stood over the ball. Ring told him to put it over the bar. Don’t worry, said Jack. The ball went wide. l heard Pat Stakelum shout: ‘Come on lads, we have them.’ From the puck out the ball came up the field.

“Sonny Maher was at full forward for Tipp. Jim Young was at corner back for Cork. Would you believe it, Jim Young and myself went for the same ball with Maher. I went to take Sonny, feeling that Jim Young would clear it.

“But didn’t Sonny scoop the ball over to the unmarked Jimmy Kennedy. I could see his hand was shaking; he gathered, struck – goal. Extra time, and we lost.”

The speaker was Willie John Daly, who passed away before Christmas. The last survivor of the Cork team that won three All-Irelands in a row, from 1952 to 1954, the man from Carrigtwohill could sprinkle his conversation with the names of immortals because he was an immortal among them.

In those epochal clashes of the early 50s between Cork and Tipperary, games which defined hurling, and Munster hurling in particular, for decades to come, Daly — a fiery bantam — was one of the central figures.

Before that, however, he served his apprenticeship with his beloved Carrig. From an early age he was steeped in the game, born in the Main Street in 1925, son of Paddy and Mary (nee Savage).

His father was a well-known point-to-point jockey, but there was plenty of hurling from his mother’s side; her brother Mick had starred on the first Carrigtwohill team to win an intermediate title in 1909.

Daly himself was involved in the game from an early age, as he told Carrigtwohill club historians decades later: “The Economic War was on and money was very tight.

We hadn’t the price of a hurley so we made them ourselves. The playground was a very confined space, only about 40 or 50 yards long which meant you weren’t allowed to pick the ball, it was all first time ground hurling.

“You had eight teams of 10, the captains were picked and everyone brought along two pence a man. The leagues took place every day the whole year round and the excitement was fantastic.

“Every night in the summer we’d be down the Pond field watching the seniors training and following the balls. The senior team was a great thing at that time. When they were playing up in the Park there was never a shortage of spins.

“You’d be inside on the sideline then and there’d be a race to pick up the handle of a broken hurley — it was the same down at training. You‘d make a hurley for yourself out of it after. But you could have 10 or 12 racing to get it and you had to be tough to win.”

There were few tougher than Willie John Daly. A few years ago when this writer was working on a book about Gaelic games in Cork from 1950 on, a visit to Daly’s home in Cobh offered plenty of revelations about a game that, in his words, was very different when he made it to senior level with Cork and Carrig.

“Nowadays you see a player going in to mark someone and they shake each other’s hand, but when the ball is thrown in one of them could end up on the ground,” he told me on that occasion.

“In my time I never shook an opponent’s hand until the game was over. Also, the first ball that came in would see the hardest pull of the hour. That was to let him know, ‘if you want to play hurling, we’ll play hurling, but if you want the hard stuff, you can have the hard stuff.’ Then, when the game was over, you shook hands.

“Simple things. If he beat you for the first ball, and the second ball, you were running out of choices.”

He learned from the best. In 1937 some locals in Carrig decided to hit for Tipperary-Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling final, down for decision in Killarney as Croke Park was being refurbished.

They met the 12-year-old Daly on the street in Carrigtwohill. He jumped in the back of the car.

“That was Tommy Doyle’s year. He had a great Munster final and all the talk was about him as an 18-year-old starting out.

“The next time I was in Killarney was in 1950 playing for Cork against Tipperary and who was I on — Tommy Doyle.

“The crowd rushed the field twice that day — mostly Cork supporters. We were three points down that day with two or three minutes to go and Ringy was calling the crowd in hoping that they’d abandon the match.”

In the era before scientific preparation, let alone strength and conditioning, Daly’s wiry aggression was powered by hard work: he said later that he never knew what it was to be tired, as every morning he got on his bike in Carrig and cycled 13 miles to work in Kilbarry: “You‘d dig down six feet and it was only getting the circulation going. You came home then and went out training. I knew from work that I was stronger than any of them. I could knock a man 16 stone weight.

“My idea was, if you want to hurl I’ll hurl with you and if you want to play otherwise I’ll be there too. I remember playing in the Thomond Shield against Limerick in 1948.

“I scored four points in the first quarter of an hour and I went out centrefield after a ball and I fell awkwardly over this chap. I was on the ground and he caught the hurley and split me. I was being attended on the ground when Sean Power and Sean Herbert lifted him out of it — they gave him dog’s abuse. I played 11 years with Cork and nobody came near me apart from that. But I hit hard and took no quarter.”

After retiring he took up coaching and in the early 70s was Cork coach, leading the Leesiders to an Oireachtas title and a National League before stepping down early in 1975.

One of his brightest days, however, came when he marked Christy Ring as Carrigtwohill upset the odds with a famous victory over a star-studded Glen Rovers side in the 1952 Cork County Championship (the previous year they’d come close to a similar upset. Daly had 12 stitches in an eye wound for that game, but said: “They poured methylated spirits into it and it was alright.”).

When the east Cork side collected an against-all-odds senior title all of 59 years later Willie John Daly was club president, joining the team on the winning podium.

Still a ball of fire, over half a century later.

Willie John Daly, beloved husband of Teresa, dear father of Ann-Marie & loving granddad of Lauryn, passed away on November 29th, 2017.

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