From Luke Kelly to Simply Red ... all in harmony
In the latest instalment of his column about vibrant places in Ireland outside Dublin, Barry Egan takes the trip to Tipp and meets some local legends in Thurles
Fiona O'Sullivan, the somewhat pulchritudinous presenter of Tipperary County Matters on TV, belies Tommy Tiernan's theory of Tipperary women ("There's a few tall ones but in the main they're short, powerfully built and very fast over flat surfaces").
She eats her main course of salmon at a regally slow pace as I wolf down mine in quick mouthfuls beside her at this table of umpteen local legends - gathered at a swish table for lunch in the Anner hotel in Thurles.
Independent TD Michael Lowry appears positively transfixed by Princess Fiona.
I ask everyone to describe what the women in Tipperary are like.
"There is only one Tipperary girl at this table," laughs Fiona.
"They are the most beautiful in the land," answers Michael Maher, who married lovely Anne Callinan in 1989 in Thurles.
Michael Lowry: "I think what you'll notice and you'll see it beside you there" - Fiona is sitting directly to my right - "young women of this generation they certainly take care of themselves better. They present themselves better. They dress better.
"When I meet foreign people who come to Thurles on business, they are always amazed at how attractive our women are," he adds, as my mind goes to thoughts of a certain former PR adviser to Lowry - Valerie O'Reilly.
"I concur," laughs Fiona of Lowry's theory on Tipperary women and their all-round magnificence.
"I daren't concur," laughs James Collins, head of sport, LIT Tipperary. "My wife is a divorce lawyer back in Limerick. So I have no comment on anything."
Lowry, pointing at Greg Broderick - recent star performer of the Irish Aga Khan-winning show jumping team: "You have more experience of that," he says, meaning Tipp beauties.
I ask Greg is this true.
"They're more into their hurlers than their showjumpers unfortunately," he protests, unconvincingly.
"That's not true," says Fiona of Greg's claim that Tipp cailini are more inclined to throw their eye towards a fit fella with a hurley stick than a man in chic and immaculately pressed riding get-up.
"I've never seen Greg without a nice one," laughs Michael Bourke, chairman of Tipperary GAA.
"God loves a trier," laughs Greg.
Are you looking for a woman at the moment? "I'm always on the look out, yeah," laughs Greg. I ask Greg where would he go dancing at the weekends in Thurles."Haye's," comes the answer. "I go there," laughs Fiona. I try to match-make Fiona with Greg. "I have a boyfriend," protests Fiona.
Yes, but has your boyfriend won the Aga Khan, Fiona?
There is universal laughter at the table.
Lowry asks Greg has he any chance . . . not with Fiona but with Olympic Equestrian Jumping events at Rio 2016.
"We're working on it," says Greg. "We are going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It could be next March before we know. It is going to drag on a bit. We missed out on Olympic Qualification in the Europeans by only 0.3 of a fault. Cian O'Connor was on course and a guy ran out in front of him.
"He knocked the fence over. We took an action but the ground jury declined it. So then it went to the governing body. I'd say if we went to the Olympics we would have a very strong chance. It would be a shame not to go to the Olympics."
It is a long way to Tipperary. Yet it is worth it when the stories, the craic - and food - are this good. Our illustrious group has barely touched their starters of goat's cheese with crushed walnuts, when the chairman of Tipperary GAA has a revelation: "Brian Cowen did a lot of socialising in his younger life here in this very hotel," says Bourke. "I know guys that were his age group that used to meet Brian Cowen here."
Michael Maher, the dapper owner of the Anner hotel, says many, many years before he and his brother Seamus bought the hotel in April 2014, a well-known Irish singer jumped out the window of the establishment the worse for drink. "He was misbehaving. He was only a young lad."
Seamus has another local, possibly apocryphal folktale. "Luke Kelly got married and he got a present of a song," he says referring to The Travelling People given to him specially by the songwriter Ewan McColl.
"Des Hanafin and Luke practised it here. They left to go Dublin to record it. They stopped at the first pub on the road, Bannon's Lounge in Two Mile Borris, and they spent the whole day drinking and they never got to record the song." [The Johnsons got there first and set the song to vinyl.]
The energy at the table last Wednesday in Thurles reminded me of that famous, possibly apocryphal quote about the Tipperary v Cork All-Ireland game 70 years ago: 'The toughest match I ever heard of was the 1935 All-Ireland semi-final. After six minutes, the ball ricocheted off a post and went into the stand. The pulling continued relentlessly and it was 22 minutes before any of the players noticed the ball was missing." I know the feeling.
On this gloriously sunny afternoon in this gorgeous part of Ireland, all seems good with the world - and, in particular, Thurles.
As the fizzy water sparkles in our glasses, so does the talk of the greatness of their town. "It is a great town," says Michael Maher, who has a permanent twinkle in his eye. "We have Semple Stadium," says that other Michael, not Lowry, but Bourke. "We have Thurles racecourse, which is renowned for one of the best tracks in the country. We have Thurles greyhound stadium. Then you have the third-level institute. Come back along and you have the golf club here in Thurles, a fantastic golf club. We have brilliant schools. . ."
"So the balance is back again in Thurles. We suffered for some time, but there is now a lot of promise. It has been rejuvenated," says the other Michael, Mr Lowry.
"What we need, like every other town, is employment. Employment is the big issue. I think we have realised at this stage that there is nobody going to ride in on a white horse," adds Lowry.
He told me earlier in the garden, before lunch, that in 1991 he danced at the side of the stage with Mick Hucknall, of Simply Red, at Feile in Semple Stadium and that next year he and MCD concert promotions are going to put on a 25th anniversary of The Trip To Tipp.
"It has to be led from the ground up with local entrepreneurs and local initiative - and that is actually happening. It is happening out of necessity and because people here have that flair."
"We might mention the new Enterprise Centre in LIT in conjunction with the local Chamber of Commerce," says Collins.
"It was opened about two years ago," says Seamus Hanafin, chairman of the new combined Tipperary County Council - and nephew of Senator Des Hanafin and first cousin of Mary Hanafin.
"I was very involved with it myself. It is probably one of the most successful enterprise centres in the country. They are 70 people working it. The building is full, which is unique; most enterprise centres are struggling to fill it. And you know what? They are really good businesses coming out of it because it is tapping into that entrepreneurial spirit that we have in Thurles, where local people are going out and providing the jobs for themselves."
"Something we haven't talked about is the food in Tipperary," pipes up Princess Fiona.
"We are actually known for our food. Cooleeney Cheese. Cashel Blue. We have Crossogue Preserves"
At this point, as if on cue, one of the many fine staff at the equally fine Anner Hotel arrives with some of the aforesaid super-tasty Cooleeney Cheese, Cashel Blue and Crossogue Preserves from Ballycahill in Thurles for all of us to enjoy.
"There is an incredible local shop on Friar Street here in Thurles - The Green Sheep," says Mary McDonagh, trainer with Munster HR. "And they sell all artisan food. It has all Tipperary producers and it is fantastic."
What are the hip restaurants to go to in Tipperary?
"The Mitchel House here in town," says Mary. "It is very good." "That is country-wide renowned," explains Seamus Maher. "Inch House Country House & Restaurant," says fab Fiona. "Chez Hans in Cashel," says Seamus.
Do they think Enda Kenny would be a different, or maybe a better Taoiseach if he was from Tipperary? Michael Lowry: "Would he improve if he had a Fianna Fail badge on him?"
Michael Bourke: "Move the Dail to Thurles."
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