Nicholas Teehan: A hurling life less ordinary
Time spent in the company of the late Nicholas Teehan was time to treasure
Nicholas Teehan was a Kilkenny man with an almost saintly disposition and a lifelong passion for hurling.
Unusually for a man of his origins, he had a fascination with football too. His love of Gaelic games was never polluted by prejudice and self-aggrandisement; it remained unconditional and boyish into old age, even when he was no longer able to travel to matches in the final months, rendered virtually house-bound by a respiratory ailment.
In better health he travelled far and wide to matches over his 79 years, embarking from his home, Shipton House in Kilmanagh, a beautifully set residence in sweeping lush acreage seven miles outside Kilkenny city in the parish of Ballycallan. He was president of Graigue-Ballycallan at the time of his death just over three weeks ago and his family had an inextricable link to all the key events in the club's history. The territory and surrounding hinterland are steeped in hurling lore: Tullaroan is a close neighbour; the Tipperary border lies only a few miles away to the west.
This was the tranquil rural landscape he grew up in and where mourners converged in huge numbers three weeks ago for his funeral, long queues forming on a warm summer's evening to pay their respects. He had thoughtfully asked his wife that he be laid out downstairs so that visitors wouldn't be inconvenienced by having to climb the stairs. For many years he went from here to matches with the late Tom Ryall, a former Kilkenny county board PRO, historian and a close friend and parish colleague who died in December 2000. Had Teehan been alive today, and fit enough, he would be in Tullamore to see Kilkenny's opening championship match against Offaly. He was familiar among the regular match-goers at fixtures like this, smartly dressed and silver-haired.
There was never any risk of him being confused for a celebrity or attracting notoriety. But he was someone worth celebrating, part of a fading generation, old school and gentlemanly. There is always the tendency to sentimentalise the past to the detriment of the present. Still. He belonged to an oral tradition which thrived in the days before television started to dull the imagination. This doubtlessly coloured his depictions of matches and players he'd seen. Language had a vibrancy and quirkiness that fitted the task at hand. Nicholas's generation did not tweet or text; they talked to one another. So the recollections were exhibitions in themselves. If the deed had been captivating, the telling of the deed had to be too.
He always made pleasant company. My first introduction came in April 2001, as Graigue-Ballycallan prepared for the All-Ireland club final against Athenry. He took me around the parish, a perfect host: informative, kind and sincere. He had hurling royalty in his blood, being a relation of Lory Meagher, but this was not something he broadcast loudly. Another cousin, John Teehan, won an All-Ireland with Kilkenny against Tipperary in 1967. That day 12 years ago he took me to see people who talked about the club's approaching All-Ireland date; he was happy to stay in the background. He had a vivid recollection of the Graigue senior hurling championship win of 1949 when aged 16, their lone senior title until Graigue-Ballycallan triumphed in the late 1990s. Tullaroan
were their county final victims. "It really broke their (Tullaroan's) hearts," he explained. "Lory (Meagher) came to the reception afterwards and said, 'Well, I'll have to admit – it was a bombshell'. One of our local lads, who wouldn't know one end of a hurl from the other, shouted back: 'By God, you can say that again'. To Lory Meagher!"
In '49, he won a minor championship with his club; Graigue's feat of capturing minor and senior in one year has never been emulated. He didn't go on to have a flourishing playing career but he was good enough to play for Kilkenny at minor level in 1951 and he turned out for the seniors on a number of occasions, most memorably in the Wembley Tournament where he played with hurlers like Paddy Buggy, Tom Walsh and Johnny McGovern. He formed a long friendship with Buggy, the Slieverue man who would be GAA president in centenary year. Buggy pre-deceased his friend by a couple of days.
Milo Hennessy hurled with Teehan for a short time and formed a close friendship with him for years afterwards. He also gave his graveside oration. "He was a very skilful hurler, he had a great belt of a ball," says Hennessy. "He was a great overhead striker."
Hennessy says Teehan carried on playing into his mid-40s, finishing up in goal for the second team. He played football too, appearing in a county final. Hennessy can't remember him serving any prominent officer roles in the club, strangely enough, but he was a constant on committees and a vibrant and influential presence. At matches he loved mixing with the crowd, and you had the impression that each person he came into contact with was treated equally.
There were many nights when phone conversations would stretch to a point where it would be alarming to see the time on your watch when the line went dead. A conversation with Nicholas Teehan had no time restriction and you had his full attention.
He might be talking about a kink in a hurler's game and moments later offering appraisal of a Kildare minor footballer he'd seen and pencilled into his mind for the future. He travelled to games of all grades and all over the country and only the pleas of his wife Statia stopped him from attending the recent league final between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Nowlan Park when he was quite ill.
She recalls: "He said to me, 'I wonder will I be able to go in? I will stay in the room upstairs'. But it was too cold and he wouldn't stay upstairs. He'd be down talking to others after the match. So I told him I'd set up a few pillows for him in the bed and he could watch it on TG4."
On another occasion I remember him talking about Mick Kenny, who was on the Graigue team in '49 and served both Kilkenny and Tipperary in a colourful career. "He had great nerve; the higher the stakes the more he liked it," he said. And then he added almost as an after-thought: "A smashing ballroom dancer, one of these fellas that could do anything."
Hurling was literally on his doorstep. Until Graigue-Ballycallan opened their own grounds in 1996, Tom Ryall Park, the local players trained and played matches at Teehan's Shipton farm, on a field in front of the house. The estate had once been owned by an English landlord and featured a lodge near the entrance where the players would tog. The lodge had four walls and little else. Some tall trees nearby served as a refuge for nature's call.
There, happily, they hurled for generations, from the 1940s to the 1990s, covering a great swathe of GAA history. When Graigue reached the county final in 1949, Nicholas's mother sewed miraculous medals on the inside of each shirt collar. They won with the last puck of the ball.
"A lot of people had actually left the pitch, had been on their way home," says Hennessy. "And they had passed the story round that the match had been lost. The final score was 3-12 to 2-14."
Farming also meant Nicholas Teehan was a familiar presence outside his parish and his wife remembers joining in All-Ireland celebrations in Meath as guests of Kepak when they were sponsors. "He was a very meticulous farmer; he had great dedication to it and a great family man," says Hennessy.
He helped rear seven children including three boys who all hurled. John played county minor in 1987, and was part of the club's intermediate title win in '87. He also captained the team that won a senior hurling league in 1995, the first senior title since the '49 championship. A second son, Edward, won an All-Ireland colleges title in 1988 with St Kieran's. Nicky junior played on a number of successful juvenile club teams.
Hennessy's abiding memory of his friend is his "great affection" for the club. "I remember when we were in that junior county final, in '85, he was so up for the match. I remember his young lads being there, and three of us were on the team, three Hennessys, and the Teehans had a little flag at the match that said: 'Callan has the Powers but Graigue-Ballycallan have more Hennessys'. The Powers were hurling with Callan. That gave him great pleasure to see the team trained in Shipton and winning that title, then winning the intermediate two years later. They were religious too, his wife especially. I remember meeting Statia in Kilkenny before the '85 final and she was going into the Black Abbey to pray for us. I was in buying a pair of socks for the match."
Nicholas Teehan and Statia were 49 years married. "As I used to say, he never grew up," she says. "I'd have to watch the matches, when he'd be at it, I'd watch it on telly and then we'd discuss it when he got home. 'What did you think of the ref?' he might say. And I'd say he made a few mistakes and he'd say, 'he certainly did, but you can't say anything bad about the referee'.
"He was very fair. That is what I liked about him. He wouldn't be cursing and swearing. You could discuss a match with him. And he would point out the good parts. And it didn't matter what teams they were. He would like our team to win of course."
Through life you may be transfixed by acts of wizardry on the field, courageous deeds and spectacular moments. Great players are hailed and in some cases statues erected in their honour or poems penned in tribute. Nicholas Teehan's legacy won't be cast in stone or bronze but set quietly in the hearts of the people fortunate enough to have met him.
He left his own unique footprint.