Sunday 15 December 2019

Billy Keane: The happy warrior who played it hard and fair

Moss Keane watching his old rugby club Lansdowne in action in an all-Ireland league match at Lansdowne Road
Moss Keane watching his old rugby club Lansdowne in action in an all-Ireland league match at Lansdowne Road
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Moss Keane died at home in Portarlington with those he loved most by his side. He had a peaceful send-off. If any man deserved to go softly it was that ferocious warrior Moss Keane, for he was the gentlest and kindest of men.

I was lucky enough to spend nine months in his company when I helped with his autobiography. They were the happiest and funniest of times, just as these last few days have been the saddest.

I'd say he was dreading me writing this. When the cancer snuck up on him we did an interview, but he pulled it just before publication. Moss was right. The cancer was private but there was more to it than that. Moss didn't want to be seen to be elevating himself over anyone else. There were thousands out there in the same boat and Moss didn't feel any more important.

I pushed for him to do the piece and it wasn't in his nature to refuse anything to anyone, ever. I apologised when the black-type fever abated. Moss was lovely to me. It wasn't one of my finer moments, yet he forgave me in an instant.

If he was reading this now he'd ask: "What are you going on about all that stuff for?''

Moss hated to talk about the glory days for fear of being branded big-headed. I had to drag it out of him that he won a Triple Crown back when he was a god in our eyes.

He'd hide the ball in the bodies in front of him and lean against a side of the ruck as if it was keeping him from falling down. There was that quick peep above the top of the trenches like a fella looking out over a ditch to see if there was a car coming before he drove the cows across. Then the charge and he didn't bother to wait for the rest of the team.

He had the crowd with him, didn't he? Moss with the ball clamped under his oxter, every giant stride bringing him into a new townland, squeezing the air out of the leather as if it was as soft as the udder of an uileann pipe. Half the English team hanging off him and the other half keeping out of his way. It was a one-bull stampede.

We'd look at each other up on the terraces at the back of the goalposts and just say, "Moss", throw our heads back and get a fit of laughing in delight at his exuberance, strength and courage. He was one of us, a country boy. Wore jumpers with nobbly bits, lived in flats where the delf was never washed, kept his accent pure, drove a banger from the back seat, spoke of home often and wore green and gold when Kerry were in town. He was the man who made it okay for us GAA lads to go to rugby and feel part of it.

He had a word for all of us. ''Well, oul' stock'', he'd say when he couldn't remember a name.The northern boys had great time for him. Moss famously said, when the Troubles were at their worst: ''There's no border in an Irish dressing room.'' Somehow you felt there was hope.

On the run-up to his first cap, Ulster's Stuart Mc Kinney was in the showers with Moss and noticed a piece of grass wedged between the cheeks of Moss's ass. "I see you were down home for the weekend," remarked McKinney.

Moss could always laugh at himself, but he never laughed at others. He was a very intelligent fella who could read you in a second and he could feel instinctively if you were out of sorts.

He dropped his tone and there was no hugging or any of that kind of stuff as was the way with our generation, but a genuine concern in his voice that put you at ease with yourself and the world. Somehow, you felt that if Moss Keane gave you the time of day, you couldn't be such a bad lad after all.

Moss beat the All Blacks with Munster, won a Triple Crown and shared a Five Nations. He didn't like to say too much about the games but he loved hanging out with the lads who played with him. I was his biographer but he always held something back for himself. We got on well but I think he was closest to the men he played with at Lansdowne, UCC, Ireland and Munster. And the lads he grew up with in Killarney and Currow.

Moss loved to return to Currow where there was always a welcome for him on the home farm. He loved his brothers, who are all a bit like himself -- gramhair, wise and not given to panic.

Moss played for the village and then U-21 and junior for Kerry, won counties and Sigersons with UCC but he always felt he was too big for football. He told a pal in UCC that he felt like an articulated lorry trying to turn in a bathroom.

Moss came out from his shyness in college.

When UCC won a county champioship he arranged for the team to visit Dr Con Murphy and Dr Brendan Lynch, interns in the Mercy Hospital who were forced to miss the celebrations due to work. Moss, an Ag student, found a doctor's coat and a stethoscope. He did the ward 'rounds'. One of the patients was from Currow. The following week he told Moss's mother that her son had a lovely bedside manner and that he was very much the better of the visit by 'Dr Keane'. The patient paid for two pints for Moss in a local pub.

There was drinking and carousing, but in 11 seasons he never missed a game for Ireland. Moss was very dedicated. He had too much respect for the jersey to go out half-ready, but he did whoop it up afterwards.

Sometimes it must have been hard to be Moss, to be funny and live up to the caricature of the boisterous Kerryman, but he always gave of himself. Fame can be a hard game, especially when you try to be nice to everyone. It took its toll. Yes he was fond of the drink, but he didn't touch a drop for years. He could stop when he had to. And he did it for his family.

You have no idea how much he loved his four girls. His daughters Sarah and Anne Marie and his granddaughter Ellie will miss him so much. I'm told they did all in their power to help him through his final months. Moss told me he'd love to see Ellie growing up. But that was not to be and that's the saddest part. It's so unfair, isn't it?

He was a great dad. Anything but strict, and his children adored him but not in a reverential way. More like friends.

His widow Anne will miss him terribly. She knew the real Moss. He had only just retired and it's very sad they didn't get more time together. Anne and himself had no secrets and they talked everything out.

I loved that man. He always tried to make you feel good about yourself and at times he hid that brilliant mind of his so as to allow those in his company to be seen at their best. He was a big man who could make himself small so as to help others appear big.

I hope I'm not making him into some sort of saint. He was a wild man in his youth, but he grew out of it. In some ways he was a saint and sinner too, but they were all venial sins. Moss was spiritual and he said his prayers. He'll go through the turnstiles without so much as his ticket being checked.

I can't imagine he's gone. We thought he was indestructible. And in a way he is. The spirit lives on. Somewhere. I'm sure of that. It cannot be that it's over now for Moss. It cannot be.

The starting stone of a cairn will be placed reverentially on Currow Hill today. Tomorrow he will be laid to rest in Portarlington, his other home.

I can see him outside the cricket club in Cardiff on a sunny day before a Heineken Cup final surrounded by his acolytes, telling yarns and everyone apparently knowing him well, even though most had never met him before. Or high up on Currow Hill with Fenton the sheep dog, the name he took as an alias during the old GAA ban. Wellingtons on, a stick in hand marking his beat as he looked down on the valley of the meandering Brown Flesk where he fished as a small boy with his brothers.

He was larger than life and now I think, in a way, he's even larger than death. I can hear him now. ''Will you cut out that oul stuff.''

Don't you worry, Maurice, I'm done now. Sorry 'bout that, pal.

Irish Independent

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