Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Don't get me wrong, I'll give everything but there's been so much tragedy around us, it puts things in perspective'

Speaking before today's All-Ireland final Brendan Maher said that, between coping with heartache in his home place of Borrisoleigh and coping with troublesome injuries, he had a keen sense of what was really important

Bord Gáis Energy Ambassador Brendan Maher was still aboy when the rivalry between Kilkenny and Tipperary became nuclear #HurlingToTheCore. Photo: Sportsfile
Bord Gáis Energy Ambassador Brendan Maher was still aboy when the rivalry between Kilkenny and Tipperary became nuclear #HurlingToTheCore. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Hurling matters deeply to the people of Brendan Maher's home town, but it cannot mend what's broken.

He's been thinking about this, about how maybe the real reckoning everyone comes to isn't so much what they've done in life as what they end up understanding. Maher certainly knows what this story isn't.

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Eleven days ago, he stood in St Brigid's Cemetery, helping dig the grave of a young man he'd coached with Borrisoleigh's U-21s. Nicky Cooney's was the second tragic death in the group, following John Ryan's in May.

When he thinks of Borris these days, he is struck above all by the intense dignity of the town, the kindness of exhausted people. It feels like they've had a small eternity now of rosaries and guards of honour, of shuffling feet and stretched-out silences.

In one two-week stretch just as this hurling summer was cranking up, they lost three people far too young for the grief to feel anything but ungainly. Ryan, Amanda Stapleton and Maher's own cousin, Lorraine. A year ago last Saturday, another - Martin Hayes - was taken.

So Borris, a tight, congenial town, is still raw with unanswerable questions.

Brendan Maher in action against Podge Collins of Clare during the Munster SHC Round 4 match at Semple Stadium last year when he tore his cruciate ligament. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Maher in action against Podge Collins of Clare during the Munster SHC Round 4 match at Semple Stadium last year when he tore his cruciate ligament. Photo: Sportsfile

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But he feels prouder of the place than he's ever done. "It just seems to have been one after the other," Maher says flatly. "And the common link I suppose with it all has been the GAA club, whether it's been sons or daughters or siblings, we've done more guards of honour this year between youngsters and minors and U-21s.

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"I feel sorry for the younger generation in Borris at the moment, they're going through a real tough time. Because, you know, it's not natural. But the one thing I would say is that it's shown how close we are as a community.

"There's strength in that."

Brendan Maher lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Maher lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile

His love of home is palpable and threaded with easy gratitude. The last of four boys born to Johnny and Ann, there was a seven-year gap between him and the second youngest, Martin. "I was an admitted mistake!" he says now with a smile.

To this day, conversations with his father have a snatched quality, usually at night in the workshop and often unspooling to the clank of work coming from under the axle of a truck.

Johnny was an infant when his own dad went into hospital with gallstones and came out of it in a coffin. It meant that, by the age of 17, he was a carpenter and the family's main provider. Hurling became an early casualty, a singular regret of his now.

Johnny's mother May, a remarkable woman, had the resilience to stay untouched by self-pity. Armed with a love of music that has comfortably outlived her, May Maher saw to it that, if nothing else, all the grandsons could dance by the time she passed away in October of '09.

"I learned how to waltz in her kitchen," says Brendan smiling now.

Hurling was a more natural, organic inheritance. Borrisoleigh has delivered some of Tipperary's most charismatic hurlers, not least Bobby Ryan, captain for the All-Ireland win in 1989, the year Brendan Maher was born.

Bobby's career had begun to taper down by the time Brendan first got to see him hurl, but the fascination was indelible. With Borris competing in North Tipp finals through the mid-'90s, Maher recalls how "Bobby was still Bobby. One thing I remember is he never used a grip on the hurley.

"He was such a raw man, no helmet. Just strong and tough as nails."

Brendan's biggest heroes were always closer to home though. All three brothers, Seán, Declan and Martin hurled minor for Tipp while cousin, Philip - living just a field away - was full-back on the All-Ireland-winning team of '01. The games in the yard at home were often routinely salty then.

And there in the middle of them, from maybe the age of seven, ran the youngest of the Maher boys, his imagination forever vaulting towards big days in Croke Park.

He thinks now that maybe tomorrow will have the power to take Borris people away, however fleetingly. He certainly hopes so. But, when Maher takes his familiar berth on the Tipperary bus, three from the back, left-side, window-seat next to Seamus Kennedy, he will do so with an easy clarity about what lies ahead.

There was a time he could be tyrannised by these hours, but no longer. Chances are that he and Kennedy will chat about the Premier League; about anything and everything except the game now hurtling towards them. And, when there's a gap in the conversation, they won't feel a need to fill it.

This will be Brendan Maher's seventh senior All-Ireland final and, for every one of them, Brian Cody's Kilkenny have been waiting across the ring. He knows what's coming then. They all do.

If the edgy vernacular of Tipp-Kilkenny is endlessly shifting, re-arranging itself, there are no secrets here.

* * * * *

He was just 14 the first day Liam Sheedy hit him a dig in the chest and began teaching Maher the beauty of suffering.

A divisional Munster final in Bruff and North Tipp U-16s against South East Limerick. He remembers Sheedy commanding the dressing-room with amiable fury, that swinging stride of his ferrying him over and back towards any faces he could glimpse a flicker of doubt in. Every Sheedy sentence carried a punchline; every punchline came punctuated by that jabbing fist.

Sheedy saw something in him that day he's still seeing now.

But this is a reciprocal story. Brendan Maher was 16 when Sheedy brought him on for Tipp's minors in '05, a Munster semi-final defeat to Limerick in Kilmallock. One year later, they were All-Ireland winners together and, in '07, Maher was Declan Ryan's captain as Tipp held onto that under-age crown.

By October of '08, Sheedy came calling him into the senior squad, a Friday evening and Maher just boarding a bus at the time to go to his cousin, Philip's, stag in Athlone. And those next two seasons were convulsive for Tipp hurling, Sheedy building a team to chase down the Kilkenny juggernaut.

They did it too, only for the Portroe man to step away almost as soon as those blue and gold tassles were knotted around the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

For every member of that Tipp group, the date might as well have been burnt into their skin with a branding iron. October 5, 2010. Maher was standing outside Newport National School - about to bring the Cup inside with Conor O'Mahony and Shane McGrath - when the text came through.

"I remember thinking I just don't want to go in here now," remembers Maher, a Bord Gáis Energy ambassador. "It was just jaw-dropping stuff, a huge shock. I did go in, but you're just a ghost. There only in body. The phone was hopping with texts from different people because nobody had seen it coming.

"I can just remember feeling completely bewildered, I suppose. Just lots of questions. But we had such trust in Liam, you knew there was no point ringing him 'Will you change your mind?' It was clearly gone past the point of rescue.

"When he makes his mind up on something, that's it. He's a 100 per cent man."

Life and timing.

It took eight years for Liam Sheedy to step back into the Tipperary dressing-room and, in that time, his old pupils absorbed a multiple of lessons. Mostly, Kilkenny were the ones teaching. Tipp lost championship games to Cody's men for four seasons running after 2010, Maher captain in '14 when they got roped down in an All-Ireland final replay.

The circumstance of that defeat stung wickedly. Having played with beautiful expansion in the drawn game, Tipp returned three weeks later seemingly expecting a breezy reprise only for Kilkenny to all but put them in leg-chains. It left them nursing a familiar sense of carelessness.

The pain stayed with Maher through much of the looming winter. "I broke down at the banquet in the Louis Fitzgerald that night with my family," he says now. "Just sitting around the table and mam said something that triggered something in me.

"And I couldn't gather myself for what felt like an hour but was maybe five or 10 minutes. I was completely shattered. We'd put so much into that year and it felt like we were so close when it was just taken from us.

"And I can remember breaking down when we got back to Thurles on the Monday night. Myself and Pádraic (Maher). The two of us just talking about it and getting quite emotional.

"There were just so many 'what ifs' going through your head. You're nearly there and then it's back down to the bottom to start again. It probably didn't help that we had a poor year with Borris, finishing up I think with one game after that final.

"So it kind of festered for a while in me. I couldn't get rid of it."

He was pleasantly surprised by Michael Ryan's decision to retain him as captain for 2016 and describes the "huge sense of liberation" at finally getting to climb those Hogan Stand steps after a devastating Tipperary performance against Cody's men in that year's All-Ireland final.

Joe Canning took Tipp out 11 months later with an assassin's bullet and 2018 was, essentially, lost to injury and a penal pocket of four Munster Championship games in four weeks. Near the death of the last of those games, against Clare in Thurles, Maher blew out an ACL.

Ray Moran did the operation in Santry on July 20 and he was immersed in the deadening rigmarole of rehab when, almost exactly two months later, Sheedy made his return into Maher's life.

"Music to my ears," he admits now. "I just felt if anyone was going to put the trust in me to come back, Liam was that person. Like, when Mick Ryan stepped down, I was genuinely worried a new manager would come in and I wouldn't be a part of their plans. You know, turning 30 in January.

"But Liam rang and his message was, 'You're part of my plans for next year... I've no doubt you're going to get back!'"

There were bleak days, plenty of them. He remembers one night in particular, maybe nine or ten weeks post-surgery, doing a weights session in his brother's shed that he aborted after maybe ten minutes.

"I was close to breaking down," he remembers now. "Just thought, 'I can't stay doing this!' It was definitely mental because I had so much doubt, so many questions. You're questioning everything. I was thinking I'd be lucky to get back with Borris, never mind Tipp."

Glimpses of light came from different places, different people. From Seamie Callanan and the handful of sessions they did side-by-side in a friend's home-made gym at the bottom of Devil's Bit.

From Maher's girlfriend, Aoife, a physiotherapist with a Sports Science degree and the source of "not just good advice in general, but clinical advice too". From Tipp's strength and conditioning wizard, Cairbre ó Cairealláin.

And, maybe above all, from a Portroe man still throwing digs into young Tipperary chests.

* * * * *

So Kilkenny-Tipp again and he needs no educating on how thin the air becomes at this kind of altitude.

Maher was still a boy when this rivalry became nuclear. In March of '09, he played that day in Nowlan Park that Cody's men made mincemeat of them; remembers the cackles tumbling down out of the stand as they went to the old dressing-rooms, already a mortifying 20 points behind. Between March 9 and April 5 that year, Kilkenny beat Galway, Tipp, Clare and Cork by 11, 17, 13 and 24 points respectively. The previous September, they'd hosed Waterford by 23 in the All-Ireland final. They weren't so much separating themselves from the rest of hurling as inventing a new game.

But, on the first Sunday in May, Tipp came charging.

A furiously contested league final would end in an extra-time win for Kilkenny, but the energy between these teams had changed.

As Jackie Tyrrell recalls in his autobiography: "Although we won, we felt we lost it psychologically. We prided ourselves on bullying teams but they bullied us that day. They made a big statement.

Hammering

"After the hammering we gave them five weeks earlier, Tipp looked into the whites of our eyes and didn't see anything supernatural."

Five of the next eight hurling seasons would arc into Kilkenny-Tipp All-Ireland finals, the terms of engagement never less than elemental. Fitness levels, inevitably, soared to meet those terms and Maher remembers that year of '09, his first as a senior Tipp hurler, as "a turning point in the evolution of hurling".

He says: "The league final was probably the first game where we put it up to that Kilkenny team. Personally, I didn't really have the baggage some of the older lads had. But it felt a big year for hurling overall.

"Because we came along and challenged the powerhouse."

And now?

Little enough has changed really. Both these teams looked broken earlier this season, yet both dug deeper than anybody else out there could. Maher has been what Michael Ryan calls "Tipp's fireman" this summer, their man-marker for problematic opponents like Tony Kelly and Aaron Gillane.

TJ tomorrow maybe?

We'll have to wait and see, but he believes Tipp found something new within during that fulminating endgame against Wexford on July 28. Coming off the county's heaviest Munster final defeat since the 1940s, it was maybe - above all - an avowal of trust in one another.

Now the great prize feels touchable again and, if Tipp claim it, Maher doesn't doubt the faces and stories that will come crowding into his head.

He was hugely emotional after the round-robin Munster game against Cork, thinking back to childhood days traveling to Páirc Uí Chaoimh with cousin, Lorraine, and her husband, Jimmy.

The last few months have taught him much. Above all, maybe they've made him circumspect.

"I was probably guilty of over-thinking things in the past," he says now. "Always watching what other lads did and thinking I need to do the same. But, once the work is done, you need to hold your energy until it's needed.

"Don't get me wrong, there will be nerves. I'll give everything I can to this game. But there's been so much tragedy around us in Borris, so many families affected ... maybe it's a cliché ... but it puts things in perspective.

"Put it this way, if things don't go my way, I'm not going to feel sorry for myself."

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