The passing of Denis Hickey has brought profound sadness to Knocknagree and surrounding areas. Denis was a good friend to Knocknagree GAA, an inspiration to any team, and a football colossus in his heyday.
Growing up along the county bounds, steeped in Gaelic tradition and in particular football, Denis excelled as a player and relied on to give his best. Not too many outright victories came the club’s way during his career but a change surfaced in 1966 when Knocknagree captured their first Duhallow Junior Football Championship title.
1966 proved a new dawning for Knocknagree GAA that laid the foundation for brighter days ahead. The quality of a free taker is often the deciding factor in a key gaelic games encounter and Knocknagree boasted one of the best in the business.
Man of the Match in the divisional decider, Denis Hickey delivered telling scores off frees enroute including a deciding goal in the final and he previously related of a welcome breakthrough for Gaelic games in the area.
“We had been making strides but competition was pretty intense, clubs fortunes would wane, players operated with other clubs. Likewise Knocknagree availed of players from outside the area such Ballydesmond and Cullen before matters settled and clubs grew,” said Denis.
The late Denis paid tribute to the impact of Seán Cooney at the Cullen Tech School with gaelic games promoted at every opportunity.
“The clubs in Western Duhallow owed so much to Seán, he allowed students to develop skills in football and that helped raise the standards in clubs. I had the opportunity of playing with the Cork Vocational Schools against Kerry, at that time there was no collective training for the county team and though, we lost, it was a learning experience,” Denis told The Corkman
“I made it onto the John A Woods team to play in the All Ireland Inter Firm Final, part of a side that included Humphrey Kelleher, Denny Long and Pat Casey from Spa and East Kerry,” he said.
With Castlemagner perennial contenders for Duhallow honours at that time, Knocknagree didn’t emerge until 1966 in a tough campaign that required two replays to determine new champions.
Knocknagree opened their campaign with a good win over Millstreet and they were entitled to be regarded as genuine contenders after disposing of the challenge of reigning holders Newmarket after a replay.
The outcome set up a novel meeting of Knocknagree and Castlemagner in the decider fixed for Newmarket. Castlemagner had experience to bank, six divisional and two county titles to their credit in a 14-year spell.
“The lead up to the final created excitement, the formalities much different than today, no dressing rooms nor fanfare yet there remained a determination to succeed in a bid to lift a first time title for Knocknagree,” Denis recalled.
At times, the 1966 Final looked to be following predicted lines, the alarm bells rang for Knocknagree, trailing by eleven points at half time but in the face of adversity, their response was huge. However the restart for the second half saw a transformed Knocknagree hit back, their policy of operating a more direct ball paid better dividends.
Crucially, Knocknagree nicked a green flag, they needed so badly, “Big” Jerry Sweeney initiated the move out of defence for namesake “Small” Jerry to bag a trademark opportunist goal. For the remainder of the contest, Knocknagree poured forward at every opportunity and three points from frees including a last ditch effort from long range by Denis Hickey was greeted by a thunderous cheer by Knocknagree supporters.
Right up to the current day, free takers are arguably one of the most valuable assets to any team operating from club to inter county and so it proved during the 1966 Duhallow JFC campaign.
“I had a liking to take long range frees, I always practised the art and thankfully, it paid off in a few games. Not an easy task, for a wet leather ball was always difficult to go the full distance,” said Denis,
Just a week before the replay, Cork had bridged 16 years to regain the All Ireland SHC , which created a buzz and a feel good factor right across the county. A change of venue saw the replay switched to Kanturk where Knocknagree came with a late run to snatch a narrow 1-5 to 0-7 victory. And when the opportunity presented itself, Knocknagree pilfered an all important goal, Denis Hickey’s effort from a 50 dipped viciously into the net for what proved the match winner.
At the full time, a tumultuous reception greeted the presentation of the JAFC trophy by Duhallow Board Chairman Dan Joe O’Connor to Knocknagree captain Pat Walsh. Sportingly, Castlemagner players and officials joined with neutrals to congratulate Knocknagree on adding a new name onto the roll of honour.
That historic Knocknagree side lined out as Phil O’Sullivan, Tim Joe Hickey, Noel Casey, Batt Rahilly, Timmie O’Connor, Denis Hickey, Connie O’Sullivan, Pat Casey, Frank O’Riordan, Pat Walsh, Michael Casey, Aenus Murphy, ‘Small’ Jerry McSweeney, Fr. Danny O’Connor, Fr. Michael Hurley, ‘Big’ Jerry McSweeney, Denny Rahilly, Liam Casey, Jack Casey, Eugene Casey, Dan Francis Murphy, Brendie O’Neill, Jack McSweeney, Michael O’Halloran. Team selectors were John P Bradley, Paddy Conway, Micheal O’Sullivan.
Over the subsequent years, the late Denis Hickey followed Knocknagree, Duhallow and Cork teams far and wide. Munster Final clashes between Cork and Kerry added to the occasion, Denis enjoying the banter in his employment in Killarney.
Given the close proximity of his home to Knocknagree GAA ground, it remained Denis’ pride and joy, always holding a warm greeting to teams and officials. Sympathy is extended to the Hickey family.
Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a ainm dílis.