Saturday 21 October 2017

Dermot Crowe: Old-school gentleman whose deeds will endure

August 1990; Tony Keady, Galway, hurling. Picture credit; Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
August 1990; Tony Keady, Galway, hurling. Picture credit; Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Dermot Crowe

At the end of the 1990 All-Ireland hurling final the main television camera is pointed on the area of the pitch patrolled by Tony Keady. Galway have been beaten in a match they really ought to have won and Keady has just played his last All-Ireland final. His first response is to turn to Mark Foley, his marker for much of the game, and shake his hand.

He then sees his marker for the last part of the game, a player who gave him some trouble if we're to be fair, Tomás Mulcahy. At one point in the match the two had a difference of opinion. Mulcahy was bearing down on goal but got crowded out and the ball went wide. Keady may have said something to irk him. Mulcahy scored a goal off Keady during the period when Cork got back into the match from seven points down. But at the final whistle Keady's first instinct is to embrace him.

By now there are Cork supporters invading from every angle, milling about in celebration. Keady sees his old comrade, Gerry McInerney. He puts his arm across him in a gesture of consolation and the two walk a few steps like that, brotherly and inseparable. Maybe they knew that their best days were over. Who knows what the future may bring, as the events of last week demonstrate so forcefully in the shock of Tony Keady's untimely death, staggering to those who knew him in all the different ways.

Not everyone knew him as intimately as his grieving family did, nor as the players he soldiered with did, notably McInerney and Pete Finnerty, who were part of a half-back line that you'd imagine all half-back lines could be modelled on. It had everything and it was of a time when hurling was an uncompromisingly tough game - the belts they took and routinely brushed off would probably cause an outcry now. But those moments at the end of the final, even though it wasn't Keady's best day in the jersey, captured the kind of man he was and the time he lived in.

He was a powerful figure, a beautiful hurler, a maverick of sorts. He was an old-world gentleman and sportsman and where the modern equivalent might sink to his knees and resort to self-pity, Keady took defeat and victory in equal stride. It gave him a kind of nobility and grace. It also gave him the ideal match-day temperament, the way he would rise majestically on the big days that mattered, and vex and riddle his manager Cyril Farrell who might see him below form in some lead-up game, wondering if Keady was right, and ready. And of course he would be.

That match between Cork and Galway, the first All-Ireland of the 1990s, was shown last Tuesday night. I came across it in a random flick of the channels, by which stage it was in the final 10 minutes. I was unaware that by then Tony Keady was gravely ill. For some reason it was him I watched at the final whistle. We have become accustomed in this age to much public emoting to the point where it has become almost meaningless. And all I could see here was a man shaking hands, embracing his adversary, comforting his colleague.

Tony Keady connected to many people grateful to have seen him play because of the splendour of his hurling but there was a definite element of personality that went with the package. People saw the rogue but the humour and wisecracking always had the critical absence of malice. He was a kind of entertainer, a giver. He had a lot more to give too, which is the real tragedy of his passing.

A few years ago, in discussing the rivalry between Galway and Cork, he recounted a time when Jim Cashman, his centre-back counterpart in 1990, turned up with some friends to the pub Keady and Brendan Lynskey jointly managed for a while in Athenry. "They ended up staying the night," said Keady. "God knows where they were sleeping, everywhere and anywhere, on the couch, in the bath, anywhere they got. They slept only for an hour anyway; it was late when we closed."

He was an intrinsic part of the Ireland of the 1980s. The rain, unstinting. The hope. The tears. The dizzy love of hurling. The innocence, really. That day he played for the first time for Farrell and Galway in the senior championship, when they ambushed the reigning champions Cork in the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final, he was part of a reawakening that would lead, after some heartbreak, to the All-Ireland wins in '87 and '88. A young lad, he was placed on the indestructible Timmy Crowley. One of the day's highlights is seeing him boldly go hip-to-hip with Crowley in the early stages, both men swinging madly on a ball stuck in the heavy ground. The rain fell relentlessly that day and only 8,200 turned up in Croke Park. But Galway's performance lifted the gloom.

I viewed it on television from a family function which included some very engaged Galway uncles and in-laws who, we soon gathered, had a few pound on the team to beat Cork. They always placed a few pound on them, no matter what. They worked and lived in London for years and they always came home to see Galway hurl. The excitement as Galway took control of the match is the part of the day I remember most.

And it was only five years since Joe Connolly brought home, if it were needed, how the GAA has some unbreakable connection to its people and their life story. That beautiful winning speech and those scenes will never grow old but shall remain eternal and be watched by generations to come, sure as the deeds and legacy of someone like Tony Keady will also endure. Connolly, then a studio analyst, became tearful eight years later when Keady was on the team that defeated Tipperary to retain the All-Ireland for the first time ever in the county's history.

That's how the chain works, adding and adding. Tony Keady was in Croke Park last Sunday to witness Gearóid McInerney, son of his old comrade Gerry, put in a performance that was a throwback to the time he played himself. Gearóid manned Keady's old position and plucked those balls out of the sky in the second half with Tipp threatening. It must have brought the watching Keady back to his own playing days. It must have made him feel proud coming out of Croke Park with his family after a show like that.

Earlier in the summer he was involved in the Legends Tour series in Croke Park. Each year six 'legends' are invited to give a talk and lead a tour of the ground where a limited number of tickets go on sale to any members of the public interested in coming along and sharing in the nostalgia.

The stadium Keady took his group around is much different from the one he graced. The old tunnel he sprinted out of between the former Canal End and Hogan Stand is no longer there. But the place still has those memories and timeless connections.

The GAA was more old school and pious back then before the massive redevelopment that put Croke Park among the finest grounds in the world. Keady was old school too but he was not overtly pious. He was a whole compendium of things: loyal, irreverent, hard, good-hearted, stylish and carefree. He was good to be around. On the pitch and off it.

I spoke to someone who attended the recent Croke Park tour with Keady as guide. What did he remember of it? "Just how vivid and engaging he was," he said, "and how genuinely thrilled he was to be there."

Tom Ryan is the tour MC and he recalled the story Keady told of the time he and Lynskey shared an exceedingly modest living quarters in Phibsboro in the 1980s. Keady explained how on the morning of an All-Ireland final he would be cooking breakfast while Lynskey would be puking somewhere else from the nerves.

"He was cool," says Tom Ryan. He sure was. There were few cooler.

A long week that started with Galway celebrating a great victory ends today with them laying to rest one of their most cherished and accomplished players. May he rest in peace.

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