Carnew and Wicklow GAA lost a true legend last week with the passing of former dual star for club and county Willie Hilliard.
Regarded as the best dual player of his generation, the very popular and highly regarded Willie passed away peacefully at St. Colman's Hospital in Rathdrum on Wednesday, June 17.
To give you a flavour of the achievements and talent of the man, he won an All-Ireland Junior hurling title in 1967, All-lreland Junior football crown in 1969, an All-Ireland Intermediate runners up medal in 1971, four Leinster medals, a National Hurling League Division 3 title in 1971, and four Wicklow Senior hurling crowns from 1965 to 1969 and brought IHC glory to HWH Bunclody.
Former Wicklow and Glenealy star Tommy Glynn described the Carnew man on social media as 'arguably the best Wicklow dual player of his generation.'
Willie's close friend from their playing days, Rory O'Shea, spoke warmly and sincerely at Willie's funeral in Tomacork last week and he has kindly penned some heartfelt words to his dear colleague.
Willie Hilliard of Carnew was the original GAA legend in his own lifetime, both for his beloved club and for Wicklow.
He played Minor for Wicklow when aged 16 and one year later won a Wicklow Junior title with Carnew under the guidance of Willie Barron (Waterford player who played in the 1938 All-Ireland hurling final). Barron would have a great influence on Willie and, indirectly, on future generations of hurlers in the town.
Hilliard starred with Carnew and Wicklow over the next decade (to 1964) with little success as there was a shortage of young talent which was a pity as he was at the peak of his career.
Carnew hit a purple patch starting in 1965 when they won the first of many Wicklow Senior hurling titles. Willie was now joined amongst others by his great friend and neighbour Jack Kilbride and a host of outstanding young players from Minor teams of the early 1960s who themselves would become household names.
Though Willie was now in his late 20s and a lot of miles in his legs he commenced a run of success unparalleled in Wicklow GAA history.
He won All-Ireland Junior hurling title in 1967, All-lreland Junior football crown in 1969, an All-Ireland Intermediate runners up medal in 1971, four Leinster medals, a National Hurling League Division 3 title in 1971, and four Wicklow Senior hurling crowns from 1965 to 1969, as well as a host of other wins too numerous to list here. Perhaps the Rathnure Gold Watch Tournament in the late 1960s is an exception as it included teams from Wexford and Kilkenny. Some of his team mates came close but Willie had the ultimate collection.
Despite his glittering haul, Willie had no great measure on trophies, often giving them away and it is generally agreed that his greatest legacy was the example and encouragement he gave to the younger players coming through in his wake. To say he was idolised is an understatement and the positive affect he had on club and county will be felt for generations to come.
He was such an exemplary sportsman that nobody can remember him being sent off or even yellow carded.
He had a great following over the border in North Wexford though on the odd occasion that Wicklow played Wexford (Intermediate hurling) he delighted in beating the 'Yellowbellies'.
In 1964 Wicklow beat Kildare in a Leinster Junior hurling final and Willie was thrilled to learn that his immediate opponent (a cadet in the military) had been a Wexford Minor the previous year. Unsurprisingly, Willie was man of the match!
He was a lovely dancer and would often go with friends on Sunday nights to the Tara Ballroom in Courtown. He would often not venture onto the dance floor, but would be found at the back of the hall analysing the day's matches with other icons (Buffers Alley). Nevertheless, the night would be classified as 'a great dance'.
A memorable experience shared with his friends and teammates was a trip for Wicklow to play London in the old Wembly Stadium - a photo exists of Willie in the Royal Box (along with his teammates).
Man of the match awards did not exist in those times, if they did Willie would have had to get a bigger house to accommodate his accumulations.
A final memory is Wicklow versus Kildare in a double header (hurling and football) in the late 1960s. Willie played in both matches half an hour apart. His immediate opponent, one Pa Connolly, was famous for being the biggest intercounty player in the country at 20 stone weight. Willie, who was sometimes described as 'burly', said afterwards that it was the only time he felt really slim!
If the lockdown did not exist his funeral would have been a sight to behold, the book of condolences is testimony to the breadth of his followers who loved the man both as a player and a human being, who always gave of his very best both on and off the field.
He left us with many happy memories that will last forever.