Sport GAA

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'The Big Show could drink Boris Yeltsin under the table'

Pat Delaney and Fan Larkin catch up on old times
Pat Delaney and Fan Larkin catch up on old times
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

We had an extraordinary celebration of hurling in the packed Kevin Lynch's club recently. It took the form of a This is Your Life for Liam Hinphey, the James Stephen's man who settled in the town more than 50 years ago and set about making it a hurling oasis in North Derry.

Hinphey arrived into my grandmother's tiny scullery in 1965, all six feet five of him, sporting a handlebar moustache and sunglasses, looking every inch the Colombian Godfather. "I have a wayward daughter," said my grandmother, "not easily controlled." "Does the little lady drive?" he said. She did, and the rest is history.

Brian Cody on stage during the recent celebration of hurling in Dungiven
Brian Cody on stage during the recent celebration of hurling in Dungiven

Hinphey has gone through more chauffeurs than President Trump. He never learned to drive, fearing it would curb his supreme social instincts. When he settled in the town first, Terrence McMackin became his constant sidekick: Translator (Dungiven has a patois of its own), cultural attaché, assistant manager. Terrence soon found himself immersed in the world of this charismatic, flamboyant Kilkenny man, one of those unusual men who never compromise or even see the need for compromise.

As Terrence put it: "I knew nothing about hurling, but I went everywhere with Big Hinphey. Soon, I was the assistant manager of the Dungiven hurlers. Then, assistant manager of the Derry hurlers. Once, when we were due to play Louth, he asked me to pick the team. I was keen to put my own stamp on it, so I picked a new full-back and moved other players around. Things didn't go well and we were well beaten. Afterwards, Hinphey glowered down at me, took a long drag on his cigarette, and said, 'McMackin, you know fuck all about hurling.' It took me years to realise that the essential qualification I had was a clean driving licence. Even so, they were the best years of my life."

One of the ways that Hinphey stimulated hurling was to bring legendary club teams from all over Ireland to the town, all through the Troubles. In October 1971, Moneygall and James Stephen's travelled for a weekend tournament. After the first round of games on the Saturday, there was a big night of music and fun in the clubhouse. The place was packed. At around midnight, a bomb went off on the Main Street, destroying the Ministry of Agriculture offices just behind the club. The walls of the clubhouse shook and the guests were showered with dust. A few of the lads went out to take a look. "It's all right, it's only the ministry offices." Whereupon, to the shock of our southern visitors, the revelry resumed as though nothing had happened.

Those weekends were of great importance because they reminded us we were not alone. Fan Larkin, Brian Cody, Pat Delaney, Sylvie Linnane, Eddie Keher and the like became honorary residents of the village over the next 20 years. On one trip, Cody fell for my cousin Shiela Burke. He was due to head out on an All Star tour on the Monday morning and missed the bus to the airport. I was compering the night and said to Brian, "Imagine how that might have changed the course of history?" He said, "I'd rather not."

When I was interviewing Fan - who still looks fantastic at 78 - our PRO Seán Owens played a clip from the 1975 League final. Fan - all 5ft 3in of him - is marking Galway's Páraic Fahy. Marking being the operative word. As Fahy wins possession, Fan welts him with the hurl across the middle a couple of times. The referee eventually awards a free and as he does so, Fan walks away with his back to him and the disgruntled Galway man throws the sliotar at him. It misses the Kilkenny man and flies over his shoulder. Fan turns, enraged, marches towards him and knocks him out with a ferocious right hook. As the Galway man goes down, the only thing missing is Michael O'Hehir saying "timberrrrrrrrrrrr".

Me: You not think you over-reacted slightly Fan? The sliotar didn't even hit you.

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Fan: It wasn't the fact he threw the sliotar. (crowd laughing)

Me: Did he say something?

Fan: He did.

Me: What was it?

Fan: I'd rather not say.

Me: Go on, you're among friends here.

Fan: He called me . . . 'a fucking leprechaun' (place explodes)

Afterwards, over a pint, Fan said: "That punch won us the Liam MacCarthy a few months later. Fahy was great in that league final, but he never went near the ball come the All-Ireland."

Some great clips of those early Dungiven hurling teams were played. "None of the boys wore helmets?" I said to Hinphey. "Young Joseph," he said, "in those days, helmets were considered somewhat effeminate."

Pat Delaney, the Offaly legend, took the mic and said: "Hinphey had a driver in every county and I was his designated driver in Offaly. There wasn't a pub in the county I didn't bring that man to. He actually invited himself to my wedding. We got him a seat at the top table beside the priest. Everybody loved him."

Twin Tracey (one of 21 siblings) took the thirds for a few years and he told a great story on the night. They were in a huge battle against Slaughtneil in the 2017 thirds final that went into extra time. By the second period the Dungiven lads were dropping like flies. Twin said to his second in command, Seamus O'Hara, "We need fresh legs, Seamus. We need to bring somebody on." Seamus walked over to the subs' bench, then back. "I'm after looking into the subs' bench Twin and it's like my fridge on a Thursday night: There is very little left in it."

Seán O'Neill, the greatest ever Northern footballer, was also in the crowd, pristine as always in his Down blazer and tie. He spoke with his usual humility about that team and its impact on the country.

Me: You have three All-Ireland medals and you were the Texaco player of the year in 1968.

Seán: I was very fortunate.

Me: You were man of the match and top scorer in that year's final against Kerry.

Seán: I was lucky to be part of that team.

Me: You are the right half-forward on the Team of the Millennium.

Seán: I have to thank my team-mates for that. I was lucky to be born in that era.

Me: You must be the only player in history to win six lucky All Stars.

Hinphey also somehow managed to become the assistant manager of the great Derry team of the 1970s, a group that was good enough to make the breakthrough at All-Ireland level but came up short. That Derry team won back-to-back Ulster titles in 1975 and 1976, with Hinphey going on to bestride the sideline in Croke Park as a colossus.

He was congenitally suspicious of teetotalers. Several of that 1970s team came to the night and as the captain Larry Diamond said, "Before Hinphey, there were clear rules about drinking. After he arrived, you couldn't get on the panel unless you drank." Everybody laughed but this was not, strictly speaking, a joke. For Liam, drinking together after games was an essential part of life. Woe betide the panellist who didn't appear in Jim McReynolds' after a championship game, showered and ready for action.

The Big Show (as he is affectionately known in the village) was the leader on and off the field, and never shirked his after-match responsibilities. Once, in Jim McReynolds' (he refers to Jim's as 'The Office') on the day of an Irish rugby international, Jim decided to count the pints of stout. By closing time, he had drunk 31 pints, or as Warty Kelly put it, "one short of a United Ireland". Such prodigious amounts of alcohol had no apparent effect on him. The man could drink Boris Yeltsin under the table.

The night ended with Brian Cody presenting Hinphey with one of his Cody caps, pulling it down over his head to the great amusement of the crowd. The James Stephen's chairman then gave him a one-off jersey combining the James Stephen's and Lynch's colours, and Cody rounded things off by presenting him with a very special Kilkenny jersey, signed by all the winning captains from his 11 All-Irelands as manager. As club chairman Kieran McKeever and me sipped our pints afterwards, he gestured across the crowded hall and said "Brolly, this is Ireland."

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