Sunday 26 January 2020

Everything changed in an instant. The memory of it will never leave him

Everything changed in an instant. The memory of it will never leave him

LATE last year, October 4 to be precise, Eamon Larkin was getting ready to train with the James Stephens senior hurlers ahead of their county semi-final with Ballyhale Shamrocks.

Before setting off, he sent a text to manager Richie Manogue asking to borrow a helmet. 'It would be just my luck to get a slap,' he thought.

Like many on the club scene, he could take or leave the helmet, even if his father was always nagging him to wear one, especially after his brother lost his front teeth in 2000. For a while, both he and his brother obliged, but it was never a constant for either.

"Ah Philly would get thick in games and he'd just throw it away with a big scowl," he laughs. "I tried the old Cooper with no face mask but some lad would always tip it over your eyes or pull it down."

As his surname suggests, Larkin's is a life steeped in hurling. His grandfather Paddy played in seven All-Ireland finals, winning three. His dad Philip, better known as 'Fan', won five All-Ireland medals, four All Stars and was one of the best the game ever produced. Philly is also part of the golden lineage: he won three All-Irelands under Brian Cody. And the line extends to cousin Eoin too, a former Hurler of the Year who is currently chasing the five-in-a-row with Cody's side.

From day one Eamon knew he belonged to a hurling dynasty but there were times when he felt confined to the periphery. His career at club level passed in the shadows of his family members' rich feats. Sometimes it got to him.

"You'd be out and about and people would be chatting and they might turn around after praising the lads and ask if you played with Kilkenny too. You'd tell them you didn't and they'd go 'Ah'. They might turn around or walk away without meaning anything by it," he says.

"It can be hard when your family has so much success, I suppose, but I admire the lads and love hurling myself anyway, so I just got on with it. I've won stuff from underage up to junior, but training with your friends and playing games is the most important thing. It's what I looked forward to."

Leaving home that morning, Manogue's reply beeped through. No luck. His sister-in-law had borrowed it for a camogie match. 'No bother,' Larkin replied and he drove to St Kieran's College for an internal squad game.

"I'd spent years playing junior and intermediate but never broke through to the seniors," he explained. "But I was just glad to be involved and it kept me fit during the winter too."

He played away and held his own until everything changed in an instant. The memory of it will never leave him.

"I tried blocking down one of the lads, Keith Ryan, with my head bowed and arms out," he recollects. "It was completely accidental but the ball hit me flush at its hardest point, right in the side of my head."

Dazed and stunned, he fell. There was a searing pain in his head. He stayed down until stubbornness pulled him up and shoved him back into play. "Yeah, madness," he shrugs. "But there was no avoiding the pain in the dressing room. It was cruel."

Larkin is also a hurling referee and after training he had a game to do at 2.0, so he changed into his strip. En route he called home. His folks were leaving for the afternoon and he reassured them he was fine. He wasn't. "The pain was getting worse so I went down to St Luke's hospital, just to get it checked out."

Once there, he vomited in the hospital car park and couldn't even speak by the time he reached the reception desk. They examined him immediately and hinted at a possible fractured skull. Senior doctors then sent him for a CT scan, much to the relief of his girlfriend Lorraine Cummins who had arrived on the scene. "She saw how bad my speech was and knew I wasn't right. My mouth had dropped too, it was like I was having a stroke."

The results of the scan brought harrowing news: he'd suffered a brain haemorrhage. Larkin was quickly transferred to Dublin's Beaumont Hospital and on the journey there the medics kept asking him what day and year it was. "I only got it wrong once," he smiles. "Said it was 2010 instead of 2009."

He was directed straight to theatre and for the first time he felt really scared. A surgeon called Martin Murphy came over and said he was married to a Kilkenny woman. He reassured Larkin he was in safe hands. "Martin said he'd have me back hurling within 12 weeks, but warned me to wear a helmet next time. Then the anaesthetic kicked in."

The operation to reduce the swelling and bleeding was due to take an hour and a half but lasted four hours. Meanwhile, Larkin's mother and girlfriend waited frantically in the corridors. When they eventually saw him wheeled out of theatre their spirits lifted. The doctors instantly tested his brain with a question that, in hindsight, may not have been all that penetrating.

"One of them asked who had won the All-Ireland just gone," he laughs. "Kilkenny," he mumbled, and with that six marker safely in the bag, he drifted back to sleep. Outside, family and friends, like Richie Manogue, sat in the waiting room. Every two hours the nurses and doctors woke him for blood pressure checks and each time he responded with assuredness. He was over the worst of it.

He took up residency in the Richmond Ward where most of the other patients had brain tumours. "Young men just like me," he sighs quietly. "You wouldn't give even one second feeling sorry for yourself."

Sitting now in An Post's sorting office in Kilkenny, Larkin assesses life since the operation. There have been negatives, obviously. For a while he couldn't even eat properly, but now he's put on a stone and a half simply because he can't exercise.

An avid reader, he struggled to read one page of a book in 15 minutes during the early stages of his recovery and couldn't find the co-ordination to send text messages either. Speech was slow and there was a buzzing sensation around his head.

"I had 44 staples inserted from my temple to the base of my neck in a half moon shape. So there were pins and needles at night and I didn't really sleep well for ages. But it's improving all the time."

He was out of work for four months but says that James Stephens and An Post could not have treated him any better. To while the time away, he'd take off for a walk but even a trudge down the road was a test and after 15 minutes he was usually goosed.

But it will all come right. The bottom line is not a day passes when he doesn't acknowledge that he is lucky to still be around. "I was steeped. Extremely lucky that I didn't go to sleep that night without getting it checked out."

He's telling his story because he's read lately about players and pundits criticising the new rule on wearing helmets. "Tomás Mulcahy spoke recently in the Sunday Independent of the minority of incidents without helmets and he's right. What happened to me was only a freak accident so I don't get annoyed at people criticising the GAA for compulsory helmets.

"I believe that players like Seán óg ó hAilpín, who have reached this stage without one, should play on as they choose. Realistically, at that level, they'll find it very hard to adjust to wearing one. In a couple of years all the U21 players will come through, replace these guys and helmets will be automatically worn anyway.

"But I'm saying these few words so that when people see what happened me they might think twice before they complain. I hated the bloody things but they would definitely have saved me last October.

"Not long after my accident one of the lads in the club lost it at training with those who weren't wearing helmets. He said they should all be wearing one by now and he's right. The next time people complain about compulsory helmets maybe this story will help them realise it's all for the best."

Will he go back playing? "I'm heading down to the field in a few weeks to see how I feel about it," he replies. "I'll only really know when I'm down there. But if I feel right I'm going back. Hurling is my life and life is too short. It's not just playing for your club, I love the social side of it too. And I never thought I'd say this but with the helmet on I'll feel much safer."

Tea break over, Larkin gets back to work. Beneath the mask of uncertainty that has covered the past four months another smile breaks out as he talks about pulling on the green and red jersey again one day.

On Christmas Day, he received his presents from Lorraine. One gift stood out: a brand new Mycro helmet.

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