Sport Hurling

Monday 11 December 2017

Keepers of the flame

LAST Sunday, a week shy of Waterford's first All-Ireland final appearance in 45 years, Larry Fanning went to his final resting place in Ballinaneeshagh cemetery. He was part of the successful expedition of 1948, and his death was sudden and unexpected. He'd planned to be in Croke Park today and repair to Gaffney's of Fairview afterwards with relatives and friends to celebrate.

On the day of the funeral someone sang The Hurlers of Mount Sion, an old club anthem, while his brother Pat, the former GAA president, gave a graveside oration. Nobody saw this coming. The previous Monday he had celebrated Pat's 90th birthday in high spirits. He'd been to the All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary. He looked like he had a good few years left.

His passing leaves just two survivors from the 1948 championship winning side. Sixty years on Andy Fleming, the right corner-back, is 92, while Dungarvan's Johnny O'Connor, a dashing midfielder, is in his 80s and living in Cork. Both attended Larry's funeral. Andy will be at today's game if his son Dick can get his car close enough to the ground. He's mobile but can't walk the distances he used to.

Mobility is a factor too for Larry's brother, Pat, the patriarchal figure of Waterford hurling -- he isn't up to travelling to matches anymore. He attended his last game two years ago and needs a wheelchair to get around. The family considered an offer to bring him to Croke Park by helicopter but he'd not be up to a full day. There aren't many people in Waterford with the memory reach of Pat Fanning. In 1931, as a 13-year-old, he watched Waterford take a star-studded Cork team to a replay in the Munster final at Clonmel, seven years before they won their first Munster title. He's seen a lot since then. He will go to his daughter's house in Tramore and watch the match there.

Waterford hurling, Pat once said, had its own tradition -- one of never giving up. Even after Larry's demise, the stories he told and that were told about him will live on and keep the flame lit for all the hurling souls of his county. Larry and Pat were different personalities. When they were heading out to play, their mother would sprinkle holy water on them. She'd plead with Pat to take care of himself. To Larry, she'd say: "And you don't hit anyone today."

Andy Fleming met Larry at Pat's 90th birthday. "He was like a lark," he says of his old hurling comrade, "a couple of days later he was gone. Sixty years since we won the All-Ireland -- it feels like the other day. Nearly all (the players) gone. Sad when I think of it."

* * * * *

ANDY Fleming is the oldest Waterford All-Ireland medal holder alive and has lived in the same house in Ferrybank since 1936. The building was once divided by the boundary line with Kilkenny; literally split down the middle until the border was extended in the 1960s. "You ate in Waterford," he says, "and slept in Kilkenny."

He was born in Belmont, Co Offaly, to a Carlow father and Kildare mother. At the age of one, the family moved to Durrow in Waterford where his father became the local station master. Later they settled in Waterford city and Andy hurled for Mount Sion and the county team.

Last year he was on RTE's The Road to Croker with Larry, the latter slagging him about his age. He's asked how he thinks Waterford will cope. "They'll have to be hurling from the very start, because if Kilkenny get a run on them, they'll never stop scoring and if they're beating Waterford by 20 points, they'll not be happy; they'll want to beat them by 40 points -- the hoors never give up."

He cried, says his daughter Rosemary, when they were lowering Larry Fanning into the ground and someone started singing the old Mount Sion song. He doesn't cry too often but he also became tearful during the National Anthem before the Tipperary game.

The fire is still in his belly even though most of his old hurling friends are dead and the game has changed. "Hurling is different now, the rules, poking around, four or five fellas standing around the ball, fellas catching each other by the jerseys. That's the new fashion now. A fella falls down then, two knees each side of the ball. He wouldn't put his knees each side of the ball in our day -- he'd be looking for his knee."

There's a photograph in the house from his championship debut in 1939 against Limerick. The ball has dropped in the square and the scene is like an

unruly wrestling match, with arms, legs, even fists, flying everywhere. "I'll be paying you a visit Jim when the ball is coming down," said Mick Mackey threateningly to goalkeeper Jim Ware in a championship match once as they waited for a free to land. "You will," replied Ware, "but you'll have to get a passport from Andy."

Another day against Limerick he noticed Mackey selling a dummy to the outstanding Waterford centre-back John Keane. When he tried to repeat the stunt, Fleming made a heavy challenge and Mackey didn't strike a ball for ten minutes. Later Mackey got his retribution. As he passed by an injured Fleming, he said: "Tit-for-tat, you black-haired bastard."

He relates these tales affectionately, free of rancour. There is the famous one where he had subdued Ring for most of the match and then got creased by the Cloyne man under a dropping ball. While he was being attended to, Ring said, "hey Andy, I'm sorry I didn't do that to you an hour ago."

He laments the passing of the overhead pull. "You would double on the ball, that's all gone now. That craft is gone out of it. If you throw a ball to a young fella, what will he do? He'll pick it up; you don't get fellas meeting a ball. No one can double on a ball now."

There's a flood of memories and no regrets. "I'd love to live it all over again. I'd a wonderful life."

* * * * *

LIAM 'Chuck' O'Connor hurled for Mount Sion's fierce rivals, Erin's Own, before moving to James Stephens in Kilkenny in 1991. From 1984 to 1994, he played for Waterford and returned for a season in 1997 under Gerald McCarthy. He retired from club hurling in 2003 and now, at 42, he's a selector with the James Stephens senior hurling team, managed by Padraic Fanning, a grand nephew of Larry.

He knows how much Larry would have wanted to be in Croke Park today and he used to be part of the crew that would meet up in Gaffney's. As for his own career, he sampled plenty of bad days. "I made my debut in a Division 2 National League game in Athleague against Roscommon. They actually beat us that day and the grass was four or five inches tall. In fact, we were relegated that year to Division Three. I've a medal from Division Three, it's up on the wall there. It wouldn't be the proudest achievement.

"We'd have been beaten by Mayo hurlers. I was on the team beaten by Kerry in (the Munster Championship of) '93, the first game Paul Flynn played."

Kerry arrived at Walsh Park just in time to see their hosts posing for a sponsor's photo-shoot. "If you were from Kerry, what would you think? We were set up for a fall. They were bleak days, but we never ever gave up hope. The pride of wearing a county jersey is a tremendous honour. I think standing for the National Anthem and representing your county is one of the best feelings you can have as a player."

There were leaner times than that for Waterford. Between 1966 and 1982, they failed to reach a Munster final. When he began playing there were at least a few chinks of light. He was in the dressing room as a teenager before the ill-fated Munster finals against Cork in 1982 and '83 because his uncle was part of the backroom staff. Another uncle, Kevin, was on the 1948 team. In 1989, he got to hurl in a Munster final but they were well beaten by Tipperary. They travelled to Cork by car and some players got stuck in traffic and needed a Garda escort. Tipp arrived in full pomp, with military timing. "It was like the local pub team going out to play Man United," he says.

Chuck played with Tony Browne, Fergal Hartley and Tom Feeney and later, for his club, with the likes of Jackie Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin. The year after he retired, The Village won county, provincial and All-Ireland titles. But he had satisfaction in seeing some of the younger players he coached at U21 level enjoy success.

For two years he was a player-selector with Brian Cody before Cody moved on to the Kilkenny job. In 1996, they were part of the county final replay defeat to Gowran.

"Heartbreak all round. I remember after the match we were looking at DJ (Carey) lifting the cup and he (Cody) says, 'Jaysus, it's tough going' -- and I said we'll have to keep going. You have to lift the head. Look what has happened to him since."

Chuck will be shouting for Waterford, naturally, but he is close to some of the Kilkenny players. "I'd give the team a great chance. I qualify that by saying that Waterford need a very good start, and the momentum, the occasion, will bring them on. The second thing they need is to keep them at bay for goals. If we can do that, we have a great chance."

It won't be easy viewing. "No. Think about it; if I watch the game and let's say John Mullane is marking Jackie Tyrrell and scores a point, I am up on me feet shouting for Waterford, but a part of me is also hoping Jackie plays well. I would have tremendous regard for Brian (Cody) as well. But first and foremost I want Waterford to win. Because every county needs their time in the sun."

* * * * *

IN Martin óg Morrissey's house there rests the sliotar from the 1959 final, the drawn match. He caught the last puck-out, the whistle sounded, and his mother and sister ran on to the field to greet him. He stuck the ball in his mother's handbag and it has been in the house ever since. Morrissey was the team's centre-back and a Mount Sion man.

He finished playing in the mid-1960s just before the recession and is one of eight survivors from the team that beat Kilkenny in '59. In April, his close friend and former work colleague in Clover Meats, John Barron, died, the third member of the '59 team to pass away in the last year, following in the wake of Ned Power and Tom Cheasty.

Morrissey's parents were from Kilkenny and he was on Hill 16 in 1948 when Waterford won their first All-Ireland. He later had a spell managing Waterford and the Kilkenny clubs Glenmore and Ballyhale. His father, who worked in Waterford, saw him win an All-Ireland against the native county. "He was a Kilkenny man but when I was playing he was a Waterford man. If Waterford weren't playing Sunday, I'd be shouting for Kilkenny."

The reverse is the case for Chuck O'Connor, with the 19 years spent living in Kilkenny meaning his two daughters have grown up as local supporters. The garden has a mix of blue and white and black and amber. Despite his strong association with The Village, he coached the Waterford team that won the Tony Forristal for the first time last year and has the same players as U15s this season. "The success of the current (senior) team has made hurling look sexy in Waterford -- you find lads bursting to get onto the U15 squad."

He believes the three-in-a-row and chance to lead the roll of honour is a big incentive for Kilkenny. And yet. "People speak about hunger," he says, "we're ravenous, we have to be absolutely ravenous."

Chuck will probably be in Gaffney's today come what may but the place will feel a bit empty without Larry Fanning. When Larry retired, he got involved in a local theatre revival movement and had a love of grand opera. But he stayed close to Mount Sion. When the new clubhouse opened he became the obvious candidate for entertainments officer. "And he got some good acts," says Phil Fanning, his nephew. "Class singers and that, but this wasn't the place for class singers and it didn't last too long."

In Gaffney's today, they will tell stories about Larry even though they will have heard them all before. Perhaps the one about the time when his eyesight began failing towards the end of his hurling days with Mount Sion and he would count to three when a free or a 70 was being taken and expected to drop into the square. At the end of the count, he'd swing and hope to make a connection.

"His biggest thrill was to be able to bring his grandson Gavin to his first All-Ireland hurling final to see Waterford bring home the trophy," said Phil, outlining his last, unfulfilled, ambition.

Gavin will be there. And Larry, in essence, will be there too.

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