Sport Hurling

Sunday 18 February 2018

'He pulled as hard as he could and nearly cut the head off him'

A new book on a Limerick hurling legend doesn't flinch from the gory details, writes Dermot Crowe

MICK Mackey was a colossus, but a recently published book on his life sees him overshadowed by an incident he bore witness to in 1949, a few years after he last played for his county. Could one incident, admittedly an extremely serious one, influence a county's downfall so much as is being claimed here?

There are varying opinions on the blow that nearly killed Mick Herbert, struck by a fellow county man during a heated and fractious local match between Ahane and Croom/Young Irelands, but no haggling over its gravity. It led to a prison sentence for the man accused, Joe Cregan, after a court case in which Mackey was among the witnesses to give evidence.

Details of this incident, cloaked in silence for many years, resurface in Henry Martin's latest offering to the Limerick hurling literary shelf. Two years ago, he published Unlimited Heartbreak, which read like a series of frank depositions to a Truth Commission. His new work is on Mackey, whose birth centenary falls next year, but much emphasis is also placed on the "troubled county" to which he swore allegiance.

The Herbert incident is not ignored in Unlimited Heartbreak, but that book deals primarily with more modern Limerick hurling afflictions. In Mick Mackey, Martin takes the opportunity to go into much greater detail and runs extracts from the trial which followed. The man convicted of striking Herbert, who played in the same full-back line for Limerick, received a jail sentence of 12 months. Herbert was exceedingly fortunate to survive given the impact of the blow which caused a skull fracture.

Herbert was a highly-regarded full-back and while he never hurled again he later became a Fianna Fáil TD for Limerick East and lived a productive life. He died in 2006. One of his sons, Turlough, hurled for Limerick in the 1990s and featured in the '96 All-Ireland defeat to Wexford.

The Herbert incident is truly shocking but in a way it comes as no surprise. As Martin's book illustrates, careless and dangerous use of the hurl was commonplace and even celebrated in recollections. Even Herbert himself, the book attests, from accounts given, was a man not known to spare the ash. It is noted how, on this particular day, he was focusing purely on hurling and giving a fine demonstration of his capabilities.

The use of aggression and timber must be seen in the context of the time -- yet the ambiguity and indifference that seemed prevalent made an incident like Herbert's misfortune almost inevitable. Players did not seem fully cognisant of the damage they could wreak with the weapon in their hands. And it took something extraordinary, a close-call with tragedy, to call them to their senses. Through this book there are accounts of hurlers who used the hurl for activities that you might, at your most charitable, term extra-curricular. There is a case made that the Herbert incident finished Limerick as a hurling force for 20 years or more. Eamonn Cregan tells how it was Jackie Power's view that the Munster final defeat to Tipperary a couple of weeks before that notorious club game had more of a lasting effect. Limerick were narrowly denied victory and they

would go through the 1950s and 1960s mostly starved of success and lacking direction. After the surprise Munster win with Mackey's greyhounds in 1955 they didn't win the province again until the seminal summer of 1973. In 1953, Clare beat them by a cricket score, netting ten goals as Jimmy Smyth chalked up 6-4.

A plausible argument is made for the Herbert incident being the more persuasive influence, however. The following year only five of Limerick's 1949 team were hurling for their county. It created a profound disillusionment with the way the game had gone and how it was being controlled, with accusations flying of various agendas within the county board, ruled with an iron fist at the time by Canon Punch. The Canon, depicted as a formidable and intractable figure, was to the forefront of an attempt to break the dominance of Mackey's Ahane, who had enjoyed a virtual monopoly.

In the 1930s they won seven county titles in a row and landed 15 out of 18 stretching from then into the next decade. They were able to draw from surrounding junior clubs but that practice was ended, weakening their hand. The amalgamation of Young Irelands and Croom, a major rival, was seen as a deliberate attempt to undermine Ahane. That was the backdrop to the Herbert incident -- Herbert was an Ahane hurler -- but there was a culture of casual violence permeating through hurling that fanned the flames.

This remembrance of times past, replete with the gorier details which traditionally tended not to be discussed, considered better off "left alone", is valuable and necessary because it is part of the history of the game, informing us of the place from where it has evolved. And Martin, to his credit, does not waver or flinch. There is repetition, sometimes word-for-word, for those already familiar with his previous work, and he is in danger of being typecast as an indefatigable chronicler of doom. The linear narrative and the structure -- a series of testimonies mostly -- can grate but there is compensation in the research and the detail.

Mackey was not, in the view of his contemporaries, including Kilkenny's Martin White who died last week at the grand age of 102, a dirty hurler. His brother John is rated by some as a better hurler, more technically skilled than Mick, but not having the same range and influence. And John was regarded as being more prone to dishing it out, referred to as "vicious" by the late Andy Fleming. Andy, by his own admission, was no shrinking violet as he used to recount in various encounters including one with Mackey who, on exacting some retribution, is reputed to have said to him, "tit-for-tat, you black-haired bastard".

The Munster final replay of 1940, in which Limerick defeated Cork, and went on to win the All-Ireland, is an example of the lawlessness. There was a mass pitch invasion during which a Tipp umpire was struck. He followed his assailant and "nailed him before giving him an awful beating". Mackey and a Limerick team-mate pulled on one another in the drawn match after having an exchange of words.

Tony Herbert made his debut at 18 in the first round against Waterford. He was greeted by his opponent to whom he pleaded not to try anything dangerous as he was due to sit his Leaving Cert in the morning. "I put my hand up for the first ball and next thing I got a belt in the ribs. That was his style. Mackey poleaxed him soon afterwards with a shoulder."

Herbert recounts retaliation by Jackie Power in the replay win over Waterford that year, after he had been struck from behind. The man was identified and later when the culprit fell, "Power saw his chance and pulled as hard as he could and nearly cut the head off him".

Even Mick Mackey doesn't escape with his reputation entirely unscathed, one recollection citing him for a "lousy" belt on a Cork opponent's head earlier that year which forced his substitution.

And then someone nearly got killed. "I saw Mick Mackey play on that terrible day of the assault on Mick Herbert in 1949 and he always said that the incident finished him and hurling. He played on for two years afterwards but he was only going through the motions," Fr Liam Kelly, a former Limerick hurler, is quoted in the Martin book. He reveals his vivid recollection of Mackey leaving the field, face covered in blood, having been hit several times and split down across the head.

"It was savagery," Kelly said. In the court case Herbert's injuries were outlined. During an operation at Barrington's Hospital in Limerick, doctors discovered a large blood clot on the left side of his skull and a very large fracture extending right around the skull and "in the middle of this, a big bone driven into his brain, right under the tissue".

Joe Cregan protested his innocence. By the time of the trial, Tipperary were All-Ireland champions, pulverising Laois in the final. Limerick realised how near they had been but in the space of two weeks they had seen the dethroning of Ahane -- the Croom/Young Irelands combination managed to win the match -- come at an enormous price. With Ahane's decline came Limerick's too. Far from strengthening the game in Limerick, it drove it back years.

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