Monday 18 December 2017

Dublin close to their hearts but their blood runs blue and gold

Billy Quinn and his son Niall have strong ties to both counties in today's semi-final, writes John O'Brien

'Sure I'd go mad,' Billy Quinn laughs now. 'Niall would go off with the hurl, telling me he's off to Robert Emmets and half the time he was playing soccer.' Photo: Tony Gavin
'Sure I'd go mad,' Billy Quinn laughs now. 'Niall would go off with the hurl, telling me he's off to Robert Emmets and half the time he was playing soccer.' Photo: Tony Gavin

Things you didn't know

Part one:

They named him after his uncle with the Irish version of the name. To his family, he is "Neil" while the world knows him as Niall or, in his native Crumlin, a hard-bitten "Noyle." It bothered them enough that, when their son became famous, Billy Quinn approached Jimmy Magee one night and asked if the presenter could help them out. Jimmy said he'd see what he could do.

Despite his best efforts, though, Jimmy couldn't make the family name stick. He would be Big Niall forever more. "Billy," he said apologetically when their paths crossed a while later. "I've failed." Billy tells about the night he was in the Submarine watching an Ireland game on the telly, excited kids all around him, all Niall this and Niall that. Exasperated he turned to one of the barmen. "Less of the Niall," he said. "And more of the porter."

* * * * *

HIS low chuckle fills the corridor of the Horse & Jockey pub outside Thurles, a few miles from where he and Mary grew up and to where they have returned after more than four decades in Dublin. Down the road a Tipperary flag flutters outside the family home in Ballinure. Billy's grá for Dublin has to be more privately expressed. "You wouldn't be putting a flag up anyway," he laughs. "You'd be lynched if you did."

For all their years in the capital they never doubted their return. The pull was too strong. Family, hurling, the land, whatever. As Billy talks, his eye picks out Mick Roche, a '60s legend, stealing through a door at the far end of the bar. There's always someone about. Sometimes he might head into town to see what kind of devilment the 'Rattler' Byrne is getting up to. "A dangerous man," Billy smiles. "He could come out with anything."

Men he hurled with, supped pints with, fought and argued with, swapped stories long into the night with. He sees the current Tipp stars now, how loved and cherished they are by their public, but nothing like it was back in the day, he thinks. Too many distractions these days maybe. There is no moral context to this or note of censure in his voice. Not good nor bad. Just different times.

In all the richness of his hurling heritage, he picks out one important, precious detail. When Rockwell College won the first Harty Cup for Munster schools in 1918, one of his uncles was the captain and the men dined out on it for the rest of their lives. "Winning the Harty Cup was a huge thing back then," he says. "Bigger even than the All-Ireland in some ways. You were a hero then."

At the time Tipperary could boast a conveyor belt of talent that, no matter how hard they work, they can never hope to emulate. The town of Thurles alone housed three clubs -- Sarsfields, Kickhams and Billy's own Rahealty's -- who churned out inter-county hurlers with unfailing regularity. Between 1945 and 1962 the county would feature in 15 All-Ireland minor finals and, intriguingly, face Dublin in five of them.

He listened to the first of them among a crowd gathered in a yard on the family farm, necks craned towards the wireless and Micheál O'Hehir's commentary. "There's consternation in Dublin," he can still hear O'Hehir saying excitedly. The throng pushes closer to the set. "The famous Tipperary minors have been beaten." Lads retreat, shaking their heads despondently. Balls of moisture form in their eyes.

"You see we thought they were gods," Billy says. "And sure Dublin beat them. It was the biggest sensation ever. Sure the minor team was better than the senior team. There were rumours on the Wednesday before the All-Ireland that the seniors played the minors in a practice match and the minors beat them. Sure we gave the seniors no chance at all. And didn't they come out after and beat Kilkenny?"

In time he breezed naturally and effortlessly into his heritage. He was a sub on the minor team beaten by Kilkenny in the 1950 All-Ireland final when he was still 14. Two years later, he starred at midfield on the side that beat Dublin and captained them to victory the following year against Kilkenny. Afterwards they walked with Ring and the winning Cork seniors to Barry's Hotel, no airs or graces about any of them. Simple times. Good times.

The seniors came sniffing soon after. They pitched him in at full-forward in a league play-off against Laois, an assignment not for the faint-hearted. "Dog rough," he says. "You wouldn't be safe looking at it." He survived and when they threw him in against Paddy 'Diamond' Hayden in the final he took the legendary Kilkenny full-back for a scarcely credible three goals. To this day the Kilkenny crowd rib him about it. "Sure didn't the Diamond make you famous?"

So where was the storied career? The stack of All-Ireland medals? His place in the pantheon of Tipp hurling legends? He remembers the heartbreak of losing the 1956 Munster semi-final to Cork. A disallowed goal cost them the game. "The greatest injustice ever," he pleads. He was just 20 at the time, a great future for Tipperary already behind him. Even then he could see the curtain being drawn on his inter-county days.

It was a sad story of its time. Dev's Ireland. Mary was a qualified teacher and, once married, the state decreed that she had to give up her job. No court of appeal. So the law drove the Quinns to England where Mary taught and Billy became a McAlpine Fusilier, building oil tankers off the Kent coast, murderous labour that turned a shilling but, as Niall would explain, "squeezed the romance of hurling out of him."

Their England sojourn lasted just three years, when a chronic shortage of teachers in Ireland forced the government to do a U-turn on its ludicrously outdated policy, but it was too late to rescue the thread of Billy's Tipperary career. Between 1958 and 1965, the county would win five All-Irelands when Billy would have been coming into his prime. If there is a trace of regret or bitterness about it, it is kept deeper than the ocean floor.

"Ah sure, I lost the interest really. We went back to Dublin and I'd play a match every Sunday. But it was a different set-up altogether. I was working in Boland's Bakery, seven or eight in the morning till late at night. We'd a couple of girls by that time. If you had the heart you'd jump on a bus to the Phoenix Park to go training. People often say if only you'd stayed in Tipp, but who knows? I might have made a few teams. Maybe I'd have made the subs. I was always physical enough for it anyway."

And the Dubs? Well, that's another story entirely. He thinks of 1960. The year of the big breakthrough for Dublin hurling. Or so they supposed anyway. Waterford and Kilkenny had fought out the previous year's All-Ireland and were both despatched when they came to Croke Park to play Dublin in the league. The capital rippled with the possibilities. "We thought we were sure things for the All-Ireland," Billy says.

Then Wexford ambushed them in the Leinster semi-final. As was his custom, Billy had filched a couple of goals but the subsequent All-Ireland champions had too much strength for them. It hurt even more when they travelled to play a crunch league match in Cork, a prize outing against Tipp hinging on the outcome, and they spoiled their chances by hitting the town the night before the game. Billy never togged out for Dublin again.

"Sure they brought in a rule then and I got a bit of a hump over it. No more country players, only Dublin-born players. There were only two or three of us anyway. I'll tell you a good one. Mick Kennedy is a great friend of mine, hurled centrefield with me in '53, still up with the Faughs. He was a sub on the Dublin team and wasn't he picked for Leinster? Imagine that. The Railway Cup was as big as the All-Ireland then. Good enough for Leinster, but not for Dublin. If Mick had been playing in '61, they'd have won the All-Ireland. Tipp only beat them by a point."

And the course of GAA history in the capital? Who knows how it may have turned out?

* * * * *

Things you didn't know

Part two:

Mary had hoped he'd go to Kimmage Manor, a good school with an excellent academic reputation. But he'd failed the entrance exam and she could never understand why until, years later, the mystery was solved. He'd only sat one exam and finished in the top three in it. The saltier climes of Drimnagh Castle were more his thing. The school of Don Givens, Eamonn Coghlan, Kevin Moran, a list of heroes as long as your arm. She still has one of his earliest English essays at home. In it he is expounding on the joys of hurling and the sanctity of the playing pitch. It explains everything.

* * * * *

Think of a kid like Niall Quinn growing up in Dublin now. So tall and robust for his age that his passport is always at hand when the opposition question his age. Think of the almighty ruck that would ensue for his services. His hectic daily life as a dual star. The soccer boys casting covetous glances. The rugby lads eyeing up a potential second-row giant. Don't like rugby? Never mind. Think of the career you could have.

Dublin kids in the '80s didn't face those dilemmas, though. You ask Billy Quinn, in the heartland of hurling Tipp, how he'd have liked his son's sporting career to unfold. Would he swap the 90-odd caps for Ireland for an All-Ireland hurling medal and he pauses for a heartbeat before making a critical distinction. "Do you mean an All-Ireland for Tipp?" he asks. "Well, that might be a hard one."

He figures Niall was playing soccer fully two years before he had a notion of it, the growing interest of cross-channel scouts effectively blowing his cover. Mary had been part of the subterfuge, driving her son to training at Manortown United, happy enough he was playing a sport he loved, just relieved that he hadn't taken the option of staying in Australia when he'd gone there in 1983 with a Dublin colleges team.

"Sure I'd go mad," Billy laughs now. "He'd go off with the hurl, telling me he's off to Robert Emmets and half the time he was playing soccer."

It isn't that Billy had a fundamentalist outlook on what sport his son chose to play. He was a pure-bred hurling man, for sure, but half of it he thinks was just what passed for banter in the Arch Bar in Thurles or in O'Keeffe's of Laffansbridge on a Saturday night. "Sure we were all half-mad anyway," he says. "We were like a bunch of school kids really."

He knew anyway there wasn't much of a future for promising Dublin hurlers in the 1980s. In ways Niall was a chip off the old block. Rangier for sure, and not as powerfully built, but just as fiercely determined and adept at poaching goals. In the 1983 Leinster minor final, he'd taken Wexford for 3-5, evoking memories of Billy 30 years previously.

And what did they do then? "They put him in at corner-forward for the All-Ireland final against Galway. I couldn't understand it. He was a big loose hurler, completely lost in the corner. Then in the second half they brought him out to centre-field and I can remember everybody getting onto him. It was bad management really."

The following year he was eligible again but he'd already been to Arsenal and the club were keen to offer him a deal. Arsenal or the Dublin hurlers? In the 1980s it was as near to Hobson's Choice as you could find. And now? Well, Billy likes to think it wouldn't be such a done deal anymore. Today his heart will beat for Tipp, as it must of course, but Dublin hurling has a throbbing pulse again and who wouldn't feel a warm glow about that?

He thinks of all the good hurling men he knew in the capital. Lar and Des Foley, Paddy Croke, Tom Moore who ran the pub on Cathedral Street where all right-minded GAA folk gathered on match days. So many of them gone now. He wonders if they were around what they would make of it all. Tipp wheeling out the greats again, the Dubs sniping at their heels, throwing shapes.

Sure wasn't it the way they had always known? No sense of novelty about it at all.

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