Monday 10 December 2018

Tony Keady's final day: 'There was no sign, no ache... nothing'

A swirl of emotion surrounds the legacy of a husband, a father, a friend and a rebel who died before his time. This is an edited extract from One Hundred and Ten Percent Legend, the official biography of Tony Keady by Liam Hayes

Tony and Margaret with children Shannon, Anthony, Harry and
Jake
Tony and Margaret with children Shannon, Anthony, Harry and Jake

Liam Hayes

Monday, August 7, 2017, fought for all its might from earliest morning to be one of the happiest days in Tony Keady's life.

It was also his final day.

It was not a day for sleeping-in in the Keady family home in Oranmore, though everyone was still feeling the effects of the even longer, and truly exhilarating, maddeningly daft and fun-filled, day that came before it.

Tony certainly had no intention of lying-in, not on August 7 or any other day. He liked to size up every single day and quickly set about extracting the fullest value from it. Margaret, of course, as always, was going to be out of bed before him. She liked to get her household jobs out of the way before the others rose. That way, she would have all the time in the world to chat with Tony, and neither would she have to divide her time between chores and sitting down with the rest of them.

Joe Canning, the hero of Galway’s 2017 All Ireland win, enbraces Shannon Keady after the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Canning, the hero of Galway’s 2017 All Ireland win, enbraces Shannon Keady after the game. Photo: Sportsfile

Shannon had a full, busy day ahead of her that included a camogie blitz at St Thomas's GAA club.

The boys, Anthony, and the twins Harry and Jake, typically had a dozen or more things, in a great big jumble, that they would want to get up and running. This included sorting through all of the old golf balls that they had claimed for themselves the week before.

Tony had brought his boys 'fishing' in the local golf club.

There must have been over 100 balls in the bag, some of them dented and cracked, but lots of them brand new and as white and shiny as the day Titleist and Wilson had sent them off into the world to bring the joy of pars and birdies home for their smiling owners. Sorting through the bag of golf balls was high on the agenda for Tony and the boys, as was driving in to see Gerry McInerney, his old comrade in arms on the half-back line from the 1980s. Gerry's son, Gearoid, had been named Man of the Match the previous day. Gerry needed to be congratulated. Tony needed to look Gerry in the eye and rejoice with him in glories past and, more importantly, glories being dug up afresh in the late summer of 2017.

"He had started golfing with the boys, and the four of them couldn't wait to get back out on the golf course," Margaret remembers. "They were sitting there on the floor in the front room, and the four of them were sorting through the bag.

"The craic they were having!"

Tony and Margaret in 2010. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony and Margaret in 2010. Photo: Sportsfile

Margaret and Tony had decided to go for a walk. But Tony had to pick Shannon up from the blitz he had dropped her to earlier, so they decided to wait and talked about going to the cinema instead. It was just one of those days.

One that nobody wanted to see end, and one that needed to have so many delightful, memorable small events and memories packed into it. Galway were back in an All-Ireland final. Sunday, August 6, had seen to that.

Galway 0-22, Tipperary 1-18.

*****

Tony Keady on the pitch for Galway, 1990. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tony Keady on the pitch for Galway, 1990. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Tony wanted to do everything with his wife and children, but in the end Margaret and her husband realised that dinner needed to be put on the table. When the time came to prepare the dinner they would do so together, and Tony would hear no talk of Margaret dipping her arm into the freezer and retrieving a bag of frozen chips. Shannon would be starving after her long day, and he wanted his daughter and the boys to have proper potatoes. He started peeling the spuds and cutting them up. There would be no walk, no cinema.

Tony liked to take charge of his "special dinners", especially on Saturdays when he would be the chef on duty. If it was steak and chips, then the chips would be very exactly built into towers for everyone and presented with aplomb. He'd have cut up onions and have rings also just right. If not steak, then Tony would cut loose on his homemade curry. Saturday was Tony's day in charge - making sure the boys were showered before Mass, the twins' hair a perfect match.

But that Monday, Tony also wanted to go and see his brother who wasn't feeling all that well. There was a wedding coming up and Shannon had a county match hot on its heels, and Tony wanted to make sure that he would get to see his brother. Driving over to say hello to Bernard and chat with him about the game got priority.

They were with Bernard when they got a call to say that the dog was out. Tony and Margaret cut their visit short and came home to get Bingo, before they sat down to watch a movie. The whole family.

"He was laughing, and laughing," Margaret continues. "There was no sign... there was no ache, there was no pain...nothing.

"I'd have known with Tony if there was something wrong. He was in great form... wasn't he, Shannon?"

Margaret looks at her 15-year-old daughter as she asks the question. Because Tony Keady and his only daughter were a pair. And it was Shannon, and Shannon more than Margaret, whom Tony would turn to if he was feeling any way off form.

"He'd always say it to me," Shannon explains. "If he was chesty or something, he would rarely tell the rest of them, but he'd say it to me.

"I'd say to him... 'Dad, get something for it!'"

"And then I'd tell Mam... but it was rarely he was ever sick."

Margaret believes that if there was anything at all wrong with him, that Tony would have spoken up.

"There was absolutely nothing wrong... nothing. We were conscious of getting up early the next morning because he was going into the school early. There was a camp in the school.

"Our routine on weekend nights was to sit down and watch telly for an hour, just the two of us when they were all in bed. We'd all go up the stairs together, but then, sometimes, himself and myself would come back down for that hour. If they were all in bed by half nine, then we'd come back down, but that Monday night we didn't come back down.

"Tony wanted to be up early."

It was later than usual when the family went up the stairs. Half past 10, and all because of the day that was in it that so desperately needed to be filled with as much as possible. It was a day when all hands were on deck in the Keady household, almost every single hour, until half past 10.

Shannon and the boys had no school anyhow. What was the rush? There was a Pat Shortt movie on the telly. It was Tony who decided that the movie should be turned off. He also suggested to Margaret that they record the remainder of it, and watch it some other evening.

They were still on a high from the day before and the victory, but tiredness was settling in, boys were yawning, Tony was yawning, and even though none of them wanted the day after Galway's one point All-Ireland semi-final win over reigning champions Tipperary to come to an end, they all knew that Tuesday would be another day to feel so incredibly happy about life.

Sunday afternoon and the journey home that evening from Croke Park was not going to dim fast. Monday had lived up to everything asked of it. Tuesday was the next day that would have to deliver, but none of them had any doubts that every single day between the win over Tipperary and the All-Ireland final itself would fail them. How could one day dip into anonymity?

Not likely.

The journey home on Sunday evening had been slower than usual given the lines of traffic. When they got to the first toll on the motorway heading west, there was a small degree of mayhem.

Mayhem that Tony saw as fuel for some wild celebration.

It began when some others in queuing cars spotted Tony Keady, the hero of the '80s, the former Hurler of the Year, the man who followed up that same year with a whole summer that was christened 'The Tony Keady Affair' and a summer that saw Tony banned from lining out with Galway in pursuit of three All-Ireland titles in-a-row.

People started shouting at him.

Tony Keady, for once, was not in the mood for chatting. He wanted something wilder, and he started beeping the horn in his car. He soon lay his right hand on the horn.

"Tony started blowing," Margaret recalls with a big smile, "and then... everyone around us started blowing their horns. It was all a bit crazy, and I don't think anyone experienced it before trying to get through that toll.

"There was total noise... and people started putting flags out the windows and waving them. It went a little bit ballistic... and Tony had started the whole commotion.

"We were laughing and talking about it still the next day. And Tony was saying it was incredible, he'd never seen anything like it... and he was saying that we had to make sure we got six tickets in the same row for the All-Ireland final.

"He wanted us all together.

"I was saying to him... 'Tony, don't bother about me'... because I was thinking about the cost of the tickets.

"But he said... 'Don't worry, I won't go out for the next four weeks!' Even though all he ever had when he went out once a week was four or five pints anyway. But his big worry that Monday... his only concern in the world, was to get six tickets together for us all... so that we'd all be there.

Tony had a way of waking up his wife in the early morning, or even in the middle of the night, if he decided he wanted to have a word with her. He'd simply place his wrist watch next to her ear. Without fail, Margaret would always awaken.

That Monday night Margaret at first thought that Tony had placed his watch on her pillow, but that wasn't the case on this night.

She awoke, and told him that she was tired.

However, there was no watch next to her ear. "Something woke me up," she recalls.

Margaret looked at her husband. Something was wrong. She thought at first he was having a seizure. He was distressed. Margaret had no idea what was happening, though in time it would be explained to her that Tony had succumbed to what is commonly known as Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. However, because this affects infants and children too, it is formally known as Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome, a term used to describe the likely cause of death in someone when a post-mortem examination has not shown any other potential cause of death, and when a structural heart disease or coronary disease or a 'hardening of the arteries' have not been seen or are not considered sufficient to cause death.

In the nearby bedroom, Shannon woke up to her brother, Anthony.

"Shannon," he shouted, "... There's something wrong!"

Four children sleeping.

Four hurls at their feet.

''I don't know why I went into Mam and Dad's room... I should have run down the stairs after Mam... but I saw Dad and I thought he was asleep. Or I thought he got hurt... or something. But..."

Margaret was having difficulty talking to the emergency personnel on the phone. She was alarmed and shocked, and finally Shannon took over the conversation. Shannon took over that duty.

"Both Jake and myself had learned CPR at school.

"I tried it...and any time I went on the phone, Jake tried it.

"It felt like ages.'

It took 18 minutes, Margaret Keady now says with certainty, for the ambulance to arrive. Three vehicles arrived in total. Margaret tells Shannon that they could not have come to the house any faster.

Shannon Keady had always enjoyed a special bond with her father. She was Tony's only daughter.

Shannon says that she knows he loved his three sons just as much as her, but a special bond still developed between her and her Dad. She was the eldest in the family, and she was Tony's only girl.

"The boys were in primary school," explains Shannon, "so I was always with Dad at secondary school. I would travel to the school with him in the mornings. And I'd come home with him... and then at lunchtime we were together.

Tony Keady worked as a caretaker at Calasanctius College in Oranmore, where he also coached the school teams.

"My first year locker was the furthest away from his little office. Second year I got closer and then... for third year I had a locker right outside his door.

"Usually I'd have lunch with Dad. I'd sit with Dad and Pat... and I also stayed for study in third year. Himself and Pat took turns waiting to lock up after school hours.'

When Shannon began taking supervised study after school, Tony, when he came home, would tell Margaret that he could not eat his dinner.

"He was too lonesome coming home without her in the car,' Margaret adds, before Shannon explains just how serious her Dad was about feeding her and other students from the small fridge in his room.

"My favourite chocolate would be at the bottom of the fridge, and there'd be ham... if I didn't have food with me already before study."

Tony also had biscuits. Lots and lots of packets of biscuits in case anyone was hungry. He didn't want anyone going hungry, most especially the hurlers on the teams he was coaching.

*****

Margaret and Shannon and the boys made their way to Dublin the day before the All-Ireland final against Waterford.

As they always did with Tony.

And they stayed in the Regency Airport Hotel, which Tony always chose due to his long friendship with hotelier John Glynn. Before leaving Galway, however, they visited the grave.

Tony, at 53 years of age, had been laid to rest in Renville Cemetery in Oranmore, on the shores of Galway Bay, three weeks earlier. The previous day the Tipperary team and Babs Keating, their manager from those infamous battles in the 1980s, were among those who queued for several hours to pay their respects to Margaret and the family. They were welcomed and hugged by Cyril Farrell and his now older, grey-haired team who had once convinced themselves that Tipperary were the ultimate enemy.

Of course the Tipperary men, and hurlers from all over the country, had very quickly realised soon after each of them decided to call it a day and end their careers, that the fearsome figure of Tony Keady on the field was also a kind, gentle, extraordinarily friendly figure off the field.

Clare's giant of a midfielder Ollie Baker was there. Brian Whelehan, the wiry and brilliant defender from Offaly, and Cork's strong-running centre forward Tomas Mulcahy, who had spent so many of his days directly opposing Tony.

The Galway senior and minor teams, and their management teams, who had both qualified for their respective All-Ireland finals paid their respects. Tony Keady was a different generation but, through care and attention as a coach, and through his enormous love for the county teams, he had known all of them on those two teams. And all of them by first names, all of them the recipients of text messages from him before every game of importance.

Like everyone else in Galway and around the country, they had all waited for word after news broke that Tony Keady was seriously ill and was fighting for his life in University College Hospital. The safest estimate reached by the group of national newspaper reporters who attended the funeral was that 15,000 people filed past Tony's coffin.

After leaving their home for Dublin on the eve of the All-Ireland final, Margaret first drove her family to Renville Cemetery so they could all have a word with Tony. Then they got back into their car.

Margaret and Shannon. Anthony, and Harry and Jake. And Tony.

"We had Dad's picture with us," explains Shannon. "We bring that everywhere we go now."

The hardest part of the next 24 hours for Margaret was driving to Dublin. They always had so much to talk about when Tony was behind the wheel. "We went into Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, as we always did, when we got to the outskirts of Dublin," continues Margaret.

"I had to sit down...I thought I was going to pass out. "Everything was white..."

When they arrived at the hotel, Shannon checked in on behalf of the family. They took the same room they always took before a big game in Croke Park. There, they sought to pull themselves together, to prepare for a Saturday evening they knew by heart but an evening that might now be something completely new and potentially overwhelming.

"It took us a couple of hours to be able to come back down the stairs. But... when we came down... it was not as bad as I feared. The same faces were there, Tony's friends... and the usual fun was there waiting for us.

"Brendan Lynskey was there... Pete Finnerty... they were all staying over as they always did, all of Tony's great friends. Our great friends.

"All of the friends he would have arranged to meet if he had been with us... they were all there.'

"We had the same sing-song. They did it for us... and we did it for Tony.'

RTE kindly organised for Margaret and the family - who had also been guests on Up For The Match the previous evening - to be collected from their hotel the next morning. It was a large black mini van. With the family in the van was Pete Finnerty.

Margaret had asked Pete to be with them.

He was her first choice.

She had found out the day before the 2017 Leinster final, on July 1, when Tony gave a 'Legends Tour' in Croke Park to members of the public, that Pete Finnerty was also her husband's first choice.

"He was asked," Margaret remembers, 'who was his No.1?... who was his favourite team-mate? It was a difficult question, I thought, because Tony had a great love for that team. He had replied "Finnerty... Pete Finnerty!"

'That is why we asked Pete to come with us... and he was with us the whole day... he was the one we turned to.'

'We could not have faced that journey into Croke Park on our own... have no-one to talk to about the match.'

Margaret thought the whole afternoon went so agonisingly slowly, but Shannon thought the game a blur.

"It was difficult," says Shannon. "I could picture him sitting beside me, because for the semi-final... like we did for every match, we'd always argue to see who gets to sit beside Dad.

"At times that day... you'd think he was still there!

"At half-time I wanted to ask him how he thought things were going? Who's playing well... who's not?

"All of those little things.

"And all of the time, I was sitting there thinking... What would Dad have said about that?... And what would Dad have said about that?

"And Dad always had the Man of the Match picked before anyone else... and he was always right.'

Margaret was in a lounge in the Hogan Stand when she was approached by one of the officials on duty and asked if she would like to go out onto the pitch after the game?

If Galway won, and David Burke was receiving the Liam MacCarthy Cup, would they like to view the presentation from that precious vantage point?

Margaret knew it would mean everything to her three boys and Shannon.

She thought back to the 'Legends Tour' in the middle of the summer. On that afternoon, Anthony and Harry and Jake were dying to run out onto the field, that was out of bounds to visitors.

After the final whistle to the 2017 All-Ireland final, Margaret and Shannon and the boys were escorted down from their seats, and in a flash the Keady boys ran off with Galway manager Michael Donoghue's children across the sacred grass.

Shannon arrived down onto the pitch and found herself alone and upset for a moment. She was looking around at everything, engulfed by the noise and the drama, and then Joe Canning gave her a hug.

They started talking.

The presentation of the cup was under way in the stand in front of them, and Shannon was looking up and time passed, and she suddenly realised that Joe Canning was still standing by her side.

Canning and Michael Donoghue were in no rush to leave Margaret and her daughter. The Galway supporters on Hill 16 began to chant. Shannon began to tell Joe how well he had played and was congratulating him. He told her that he was still in shock, and that he could hardly believe Galway were All-Ireland champions, but then he changed the subject.

Joe told Shannon to turn around, and listen. He told her they were calling out her father's name.

"Keady...

"Keady... Keady."

Joe Canning, Galway's greatest hurler on the greatest day of his career, gave Shannon another hug as they listened to Tony's name echoing across the pitch and towards them both from the Hill.

In the sixth minute of the game the Galway supporters had been joined by everyone packed into the stadium in a round of applause; the sixth minute appropriately reminding everyone of the man who once wore the No.6 maroon shirt.

And at half-time, the GAA paid a further special tribute with a three-and-a-half-minute video of Tony's career that included tributes from Pat Malone, Pete Finnerty, Pearse Piggott and Eanna Ryan.

But the Galway supporters wanted to remember Tony once again during their celebrations.

Joe told Shannon... 'That's all for Tony... Everyone loved him!'

"He was not going up for the presentation," Shannon now recalls, revisiting the exact moment and experiencing the same amount of panic that visited her at the time.

"They were lifting up the cup. I told him... 'Go up Joe... You need to go up.'

"I kept telling him he should be up there with the rest of the team... 'Joe... Go up!'

"He kept saying "No"... that it was okay, that he wanted to stay where he was...

"... with us.'

The Canning family had lived close to Tony's workshop in Gortanumera, outside Portumna.

Tony was a maker of quality hurleys.

And a young Joe Canning, at a time when he struggled to stretch to Tony's chest - even when he stood on his tippy-toes - was a boy who wanted the very best stick Tony could make. In time, Tony would leave the business, and shortly after he did so the Canning family would become one of the most notable suppliers of sticks to teams in Ireland, and to hurlers all over the world.

Tony's workshop was in Gortanumera when he married Margaret, but when Shannon was on the way Tony told his wife that he felt the hurling season was too limited. Also, he was finding it more difficult to get his hands on good Irish ash. "He was not going to make someone a hurl from wood that came from Lithuania, as he said himself, or wherever... if it was not Irish ash it was no good for Tony," explains Margaret.

"Joe would always go down to his workshop," Margaret explains, "and Tony would come home for the dinner...and he'd say... 'That Joe Canning... I got nothing done today, because he was down with me the whole time.'

Margaret knew her husband was not complaining.

The young boy had something about him.

Already, there was a magical quality about how he talked about the hurley he wanted, and how fussy he was about having it just perfect.

"Dad would tell the story," Shannon continues, "about how he would drive past the school that Joe was in... and Joe would be looking out for him.

"Joe would be peering out from behind the big gates.

"And Dad would find himself beeping the horn... and Joe would get a lift home with him. Every time he turned the corner in his car, he told us he would always see that... 'blondie head of Joe Canning.' Dad always said Joe was so fussy."

Margaret nods her head.

And she smiles. "Joe was so particular about his hurls, even as a little kid... and I suppose he looked up to Tony as well as a famous hurler... as a Hurler of the Year... something Joe would also become.

"Tony made so many hurls for Joe, and Joe... he was always so fussy.'

"He might spend the whole day in the workshop with Tony... and he'd be picking the plank, and watching everything Tony was doing.

Joe Canning laughs at the same memory.

"Tony worked with Sean Nevin, his brother-in-law, and their place was only 200 or 300 yards from our school," Joe recalls.

"They made the hurleys together. Like back then, I always used their hurley... he was the only hurley maker as well as anything else around these parts.

"I'd go into them, and I'd be fussy alright... I have to admit to that.'

"I remember they would have a few nice ones left out for me... I suppose that way I'd only be getting in their way half the time."

Typically, Joe makes absolutely no big deal of spending possibly the most precious few minutes of his career with Tony's wife and daughter once the 2017 All-Ireland final had delivered everything it promised.

He explains that it happened... "naturally enough".

"Margaret and Shannon came onto the field... and they walked in behind Micheal Donoghue and myself. I had already met my own family in the stand, and when we saw Margaret and Shannon it was just a natural thing to do...

"And so we stood beside them.'

"It just happened, and it was good if it helped them."

Joe also reveals, with typical honesty, that he had no intention of walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand, and joining with his team-mates in a tribal celebration as the Liam MacCarthy Cup was finally handed over to them, and trusted in their possession once again after 29 long years.

He has always been one who prefers to stay on the field at times like that, and the aftermath of the 2017 All-Ireland final was no different.

'I don't know why I did not go up onto the Hogan Stand.

'I don't know if I ever went up those steps... maybe after our first All-Ireland club title, but ... to be honest, I like to get to see my family straight after the game and stuff like that.

"That is more important to me. Some people like to do it, and walk up those steps... and it's not that I don't want to do it, or wouldn't like it."

He remembers Shannon Keady telling him that he should leave her, and go join his team-mates.

"But my priority after a game has always been to stay with the people I know... my family and my friends.

"I can see how it is nice to be up there celebrating and receiving a trophy... but at a time like that everything can be a bit of a daze... and I like to hold onto the memories...

"It's nice to have a clear memory of watching it all happening in front of you. And get that chance to take it all in.

"At least try to take it all in!'

*****

Tony was a rebel with or without causes.

That was the popular theory during his days as one of the greatest Galway hurlers of all time, though it was without any credible foundation.

Of course, he liked to huff and puff as some sort of James Dean-type character in the famous movie of the '50s, Giant. But Tony had a deep respect for people, and he always valued knowledge, and learning.

His wife says he loved school as a boy.

And as a grown man, and a former hurler who had found fame in every county in Ireland, he never failed to greet one of his former teachers with the title 'Mr X' or 'Mrs Y'. In particular, he loved maths.

"One thing Tony never lost was respect for others," insists Margaret.

His daughter remembers how he would always tell her and her brothers how he was taught a particular subject. Usually maths.

"He'd be doing maths homework with us at the table, right here," Shannon adds, "and he'd say... 'Gerry Aherne taught it to me like this!'

"But then they changed the maths curriculum," says Shannon.

Tony hit a brick wall.

But he instantly decided to find a way around the same wall.

Whenever he came across one of the maths teachers in the school and he thought them free for a little while perhaps, he'd request some personal tuition.

"Tony would ask," explains Margaret, "and he'd say... 'Can I have ten minutes?'

"Tony wanted to get ahead of our own children."

It worked.

Whenever Shannon found herself stuck in her homework, her father would be on hand with his own copybook.

Tony Keady!

Yes, Tony Keady would produce his own copybook!

"He'd get his own copybook out,' says Shannon, "and make sure I got through it, and make sure I was a step ahead of the class the next day."

Rebel indeed.

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