Saturday 20 April 2019

Billy Keane: 'Neighbour, mentor, friend: why Johnny Cahill personified all that is good about life in small places'

Keane's Kingdom

'When Johnny’s coffin left St Leonard’s church last Monday morning, his club gave him a guard of honour.' (stock photo)
'When Johnny’s coffin left St Leonard’s church last Monday morning, his club gave him a guard of honour.' (stock photo)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Sometimes when travellers describe small places, they say "blink and you'll miss it". They were never in Dunnamaggin and never met Johnny Cahill.

The daily deeds taking place in small places are the stories of our time, and of all time.

Johnny Cahill was a Kilkenny hero and he was laid to rest on Monday last, among his own in the old wooded cemetery 'neath Kilree Round Tower.

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Johnny was 93. He had a good run.

Andy Hickey, Johnny's neighbour and friend, was only 39 when he passed away.

His wife Anne looked after their eight children and the family farm with all of her considerable might.

Anne kept on working through her loss. She had to. A farm never sleeps. Anne won her battle. Her sons took over and Anne has "25 and a bit grandchildren now".

Noel Hickey, Anne's son, won nine senior All-Ireland medals for Kilkenny. Maybe Noel was the greatest defender of all time. He is as tough and strong as any man from the hard work. Like his mom, he kept on going, no matter what.

Anne spoke of how Johnny mentored Noel when he took over the family farm. "Johnny sat up in the tractor with Noel when he was ploughing, and if he was a quarter of an inch out Johnny would pull him up on it. If there was something to be done, it would be done right.

"My son Jim took over milking the cows and Johnny helped him too. He was always talking to them, reminding them - have you done this, have you done that - advising, and always out for their good."

Tomorrow Johnny's beloved Dunnamaggin will play Castleblayney in the All-Ireland Junior Hurling final in Croke Park. Dunnamaggin have never won an All-Ireland club title.

Jim is now the GAA club chairman. Noel and his seven brothers and sisters were always told to back up their own place by Anne. They are very much rooted in the community.

Think of all you miss when you blink through small places. There is a context to life in such places that is simple in its own way, and the local pub is the hub of the small place story. And the other day my brother John, or Seán as they call him in Kilkenny, tracked down the man who fell out of the ambulance outside our pub.

It was 1977 and an ambulance was speeding along Market Street in Listowel when the back door of the vehicle swung open. The patient inside came flying out and off he went free-wheeling down the road.

The flying patient was strapped into the stretcher and he survived.

We often spoke about the flying patient in our pub and recently the riddle of the man on the stretcher was solved. He was Seán Delaney from the village of Kells, which forms part of Dunnamaggin parish.

Seán claimed he got a dose of food poisoning, or some other gastric illness, and that the ejection out the back of the ambulance saved his life because it also dislodged everything he ate.

Seán was reloaded and a few minutes later he declared himself fit to go back in to the Listowel Races. He has made a full recovery.

The Delaney pub has been in the family for seven generations and Seán will be in Croke Park tomorrow, as will every man woman and child in Kells, Dunnamaggin and Kilmoganny, the three villages that make up the parish.

I wonder if Seán serves the new cocktail. It's called the Shane Ross, with one part orange and one part lemon.

The farming, the hurling, the neighbourliness, the post office and the pub are under threat as never before. Too many of us are blinking through.

Poor Johnny couldn't go to the pub in his later years as he was afraid of getting caught for being over the limit, even though the old man only ever had the few pints.

But there was a big party in his house every Christmas morning, for the men, while the women cooked the dinner. It was all hurling and farming, and a bit like a men's shed. Then the phone would ring and the neighbours would head for their own homes.

Anne laughs at the thought of all the men listening to Johnny on Christmas morning.

"He had the house and farmyard so neat and so tidy. He left nothing go to waste. I saw him in our yard scraping up the last little pieces of grain for Noel during the harvest. He gave my family a great education."

Anne called to see Johnny in the home before the semi-final against Cloughduv of Cork, back just a few weeks ago. "I thought he was turning the page. Johnny was dying several times but then you would see him at the match. Two days later, he was at the semi-final on the side-line down in Dungarvan. He got his niece to bring him. The lads were saying it was such a pity he couldn't make the final but then someone said "if we win he will surely be mentioned in Croke Park. Johnny would love that".

Good luck to Castleblayney whose achievement in reaching the final is truly a well-earned sporting miracle of our times.

We chatted about the loss of Andy in 1983 and Anne says "you have me going now", but she gathers herself, as she had to do, I'm sure, so many times over the years.

"Johnny was like a grandfather to my family. He travelled the country following the lads at the hurling. Visitors would come to see Noel from all over and then in would come Johnny and he would say 'ye better be going now' and the two would talk farming and hurling. Johnny kept it simple and lived a simple life."

Noel is still playing at 38. Now for the first time in his career, he will play a big game tomorrow without Johnny to advise and cheer him on.

When Johnny's coffin left St Leonard's church last Monday morning, his club gave him a guard of honour.

Noel Hickey, the holder of nine All-Ireland winner's medals, lovingly placed his four-in-a-row All-Ireland winning jersey on the coffin of his adviser.

Farming life goes on 365 days a year, come what may. There is no day off. It was back to work for Noel.

Noel's wife Elaine came in to see her mother-in-law. She told her about Noel.

Elaine said: "Noel is up on the tractor all morning long, keeping the yard clean and tidy."

Irish Independent

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