Tuesday 26 September 2017

Dermot Crowe: Long list of legends lost to our game

Remembering some colourful characters who made a lasting impact in the GAA

The late Jack Boothman, then president of the GAA, watching the Railway Cup game between Leinster and Munster at Newbridge in 1995. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
The late Jack Boothman, then president of the GAA, watching the Railway Cup game between Leinster and Munster at Newbridge in 1995. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

The year was nearly complete when Mick Roche died. Those of us who didn't know Mick Roche personally, nor had the opportunity to see him hurl in the flesh, still found he'd left a mark on our consciousness. He was deeply admired as a stylist in places outside of Tipperary. Within the county, as various tributes before and after his death made clear, he was revered.

Mick was the last, on December 7, of a number of high-profile names from different walks of GAA life to pass on in 2016. You can see what made him unique on YouTube, which has, among its myriad offerings, full coverage of 1968 All-Ireland hurling final. It's not the best-quality footage, but enough to give you a better appreciation of what the fuss was about. This was one of his virtuoso displays.

The result went Wexford's way, due in no small part to the heroics of Tony Doran, then in the full bombast of youth, who inspired a dramatic turnaround in the second half.

Despite the outcome, one of the enduring legacies of that match is the performance of Roche, who suffused the furious play with a kind of tranquillity. Over the years his name came to be mentioned frequently when Tipperary were looking in increasing exasperation for a centre-back with the authority the position demanded. They have a real prospect now, in young Ronan Maher, but Roche was seen as someone who stood head and shoulders over a litany that followed him, good as many of them were, even though he didn't favour the position - moving there from midfield after Tony Wall retired following the 1967 All-Ireland loss to Kilkenny.

One of the more evocatively-titled players from the same county left life's stage on October 16 at the age of 93, 20 years older than Roche. In 15 years hurling with the county, Mick 'The Rattler' Byrne won five All-Irelands and eight National League medals, finishing his inter-county career in 1960.

He became renowned for colourful recollections of those days which he delighted in relating to audiences who marvelled at the exchanges he lifted from memory. Byrne was rated highly enough among his own to make corner-back on the Tipperary Team of the Century in 2000. He won 14 county championships with Thurles Sarsfields, who devoted their latest county win this year to his memory. Rattler espoused different elements of the human condition to Roche; he was emblematic of a more uncompromising form of defence. Until his death the Rattler was also, notably, the last surviving member of the All-Ireland three-in-a-row team of 1949-'51.

Mick Roche left behind three All-Ireland medals and three National Leagues. Helped largely by his contributions, Carrick Davins won their only two senior hurling championships with him on board in the late 1960s. Rattler came from club hurling royalty at Thurles Sars; Davins were paupers by comparison. But those twin wins earned Roche captaincy of the county in the All-Ireland finals of 1967 and '68, though he lost on both occasions. Named man of the match in '68, he declined to accept the award, but gained some consolation when winning his last All-Ireland in 1971.

From the GAA's broad family, two former presidents also passed away in 2016, just over a week separating each funeral. The choreography mirrored their time in office - for Jack Boothman beat Joe McDonagh to the presidency in 1994, before McDonagh took over from him three years later. Ten days after Boothman died in May, McDonagh passed on at just 62. Those images from Galway's win over Limerick in September 1980 which ended their long famine - with Joe Connolly's speech, the cheer for Iggy Clarke and then McDonagh's emotional rendition of The West's Awake - never grow old and rank high among the most emotional scenes to greet an All-Ireland win ever recorded.

In administration after he retired from playing, McDonagh was a break from formality who gave the GAA office something new and refreshing, a warmth and vibrancy and easy accessibility which matched his true nature.

A beautiful and inspiring orator, in recent years he made an important intervention when speaking in favour of the black card during Congress in Derry. He captained the Galway team beaten in the 1979 All-Ireland final by Kilkenny, won a National League medal in '75 and was also an All-Star recipient.

Jack Boothman had the distinction of being the first Protestant GAA president. He differed to McDonagh in policy, being more of a traditionalist, notably opposed to the opening up of Croke Park to other sports, even though he played rugby during his time at school in The King's Hospital in Dublin. Regarding the interest that his Church of Ireland background aroused, he pointed out that he was also the first vet to become president - while realising it did not attract as much attention.

Later in the year Danny Murphy and Joe Lennon, both Down men, died after making huge impacts in their respective fields. Murphy was a formidable and forceful administrator on the Ulster Council. Lennon made his name as a footballer in the Down revolution of the 1960s, a team that changed the way football was played. Lennon's obsession with the game led to a number of written contributions including two books covering aspects of fitness and technique. At the time Roche was winning All-Irelands, Lennon and a few others were instrumental in setting up the first organised coaching seminars held in Gormanston.

And along the way, at just 50, Michael 'Ducksie' Walsh, whose exploits in a handball alley were unrivalled, joined the great majority too. Ducksie had a name that was instantly recognisable and even those with only a passing interest in handball were aware of who he was and his status. He was still an active player, having competed in a tournament in Cavan shortly before he took ill.

Final mention goes to John Horgan who died in June. I only met him once, in 2001, at the All-Stars. I had a special interest in John because of the lasting memory of those long-range points from corner-back, with the Cork attack malfunctioning, that helped bail out his county in the Munster final of 1978 against Clare. That day John was not a popular man in our house. He was instantly recognisable with his long blond hair and when I met him 15 years ago he still had the same locks, looking remarkably well preserved and healthy. Hearing that he had died this year at 66 brought a different sorrow to that which was felt on hearing him end Clare's hopes on the radio in '78.

There is a story told from the day Horgan made his senior debut for Passage (his original club before he moved to Blackrock). Aged only 16, he was marking Christy Ring, then 46. Ring, it's claimed, advised the young man to get a haircut, to be told in response that he might find use for some of the young man's shorn locks. He was undoubtedly prodigious. In 1966 he played at centre-back for Cork minors against Wexford in the All-Ireland final. He went on to have a decorated career with Blackrock and Cork.

In 2001, Blackrock reached the Munster club final and I had a chance to speak to him on the phone before that game. It was on the basis of this conversation that I approached him at the All-Stars a short time later, just after the dinner and formalities had concluded. Invited there along with all previous All-Star winners, he spoke of how delighted he was to be present and to get the chance to meet so many old hurling friends. He seemed genuinely happy. The band was about to start when, nodding to the stage, he added, "And sure we're all great fans of Red Hurley".

With that, our conversation ended as Red launched into his first number of the evening, The Hucklebuck. If it was good enough for Horgan, it was good enough for me.

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