The first presumption to be knocked when approaching Enda McEvoy’s excellent biography of Fr. Tommy Maher is that it’s a Kilkenny hurling story. It’s not. It’s much, much more. In fact it’s the story of hurling and how it has developed over the past half century or so with Fr. Tommy playing a leading role in the evolution. As such it’s a book that will engross all hurling followers, not least those of us with a blue and gold tinge.
I mentioned to someone recently that I was reviewing a book on Fr. Tommy Maher and his reaction was ‘Tommy who?’ Indeed. To a younger generation the name doesn’t register – certainly not in the way that, I suspect, Brian Cody’s will echo through future decades. Part of the reason, of course, is that Fr. Tommy operated in an era when the personality cult of managers was unknown. Micko Dwyer and Kevin Heffernan had still to arrive on the stage. For much of the time Fr. Maher wasn’t even a selector on the teams that he coached – even that word ‘coach’ had a difficult birth in a GAA world where it smacked of the garrison code.
Yet part of Enda McEvoy’s fine achievement in this book is that he convincingly establishes the central role played by Fr. Maher in the development of the game, not just in Kilkenny but throughout the hurling world. Like a forensic scientist he detects Fr. Tommy’s finger prints all over the modern game – and that’s quite apart from his role in bringing Kilkenny from the perennial losers of the fifties to the juggernaut that it is today.
The central thesis of the book is that Fr. Maher was a man ahead of his time, a man who brought detailed analysis to the game and deconstructed every element to see how it could be bettered. There’s a telling depiction of the cleric back in the fifties coaching players how to hand pass the ‘sliotar’ while others in the background are giggling at the absurdity of it all. This, remember, was an era of little interface between hand and ball; it was a time of hip-and-whip where you let fly on anything that moved. Yet Fr. Maher saw other possibilities of doing things better so you can see the evolutionary line that eventually gave us Johnny Flaherty hand passing Offaly into history in 1981 or the Cork game of the noughties. (Mind you there are some who won’t thank the good Father for what Cork did to our grand game but that’s another story entirely).
From the fifties through to the mid seventies Fr. Maher was the guiding spirit behind Kilkenny’s hurling development. 1957 was a breakthrough year for the stripy brigade but ’67 was surely a golden moment too when they finally beat Tipperary in an All Ireland final. It’s consoling to remember that there was a time when Tipperary dominated Kilkenny so we can take comfort that these things tend to be cyclic. ‘Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipp for the men’ became something of a chant, apparently having its origin in an exchange between Johnny Leahy and Sim Walton of Tullaroan following the 1917 final. ‘We were better hurlers, Leahy’, said Walton. ‘But we were better men, Sim’, came the reply.
The sixties rivalry between Tipp and Kilkenny, of course, had a toxic climax in the National League Home Final of 1968. Tipp won the game but it’s more remembered for the nastiness of the second quarter. Donie Nealon has since declared that ‘It was the only day in my career I felt a little bit afraid on the field’. Enda McEvoy gives a detailed description of who struck whom, including the Kilkenny doctor who took umbrage at yet another blow on Eddie Kehir. Afterwards there was media outrage, led by John D. Hickey, and eventually John Flanagan and Ollie Walsh were suspended. Kilkenny fumed at the perceived injustice to their goalie while Tipp County Board railed at the media.
That poisonous encounter came after the 1967 All Ireland decider where there was redemption at last for Kilkenny but the event turned sour with that horrible injury to Tommy Walsh who lost an eye. Enda takes up the story: “Paddy Moran was taking a lineball just inside the 50-yard line under the Cusack Stand when, in Walsh’s phrase ‘the hit came’. He knew immediately he’d been hurt. ‘I put my hand up to my eye and saw blood and said, ‘Jasus I’m in trouble’. Kieran Cuddihy came on to have a look. I asked him could he put a patch on it. He started waving his arms and I knew it was serious. The first aid people came on. I walked off to the Cusack Stand side and into the dressing room”.
It’s an event that over the years has often resurfaced, especially when Tipp\Kilkenny rivalry reaches boiling point. Tony Wall was Tommy Walsh’s marker that time and his character has often been impugned so once again it’s reassuring to read Tommy Walsh’s comment on what was simply an horrific accident: ‘There was no malicious intent to knock my eye out – I’m fairly comfortable about that’.
There was one last hurrah for Tipperary in 1971 before that damned famine set in. Tipperary won a high-scoring one that day when Eddie Kehir set a scoring record despite being on the losing side. Ollie Walsh, recovering from appendicitis, probably shouldn’t have played. He let in a few soft ones and Tipp got over the line. But it was very much a dying kick from Tipperary’s golden era and thereafter we’d spend almost two decades spectating while Cork challenged Kilkenny and the likes of Galway and Offaly emerged as contenders.
Enda McEvoy has done our hurling world a major service with this book. The research was clearly extensive with source material drawn from far and wide. Enda knows his Shakespeare too so I’m sure he won’t mind if I link him to the words the bard gave to Caesar by way of comment on his arch foe: ‘He reads much, he is a great observer and he looks quite through the deeds of men’. Enda has read extensively to bring us this gripping narrative. Besides his observations are incisive and his analysis of men and their methods intuitive.
One of the great appeals of this book is the anecdotal style where story after story embellishes the narrative. It’s quite simply a page turner where dry statistics rarely intrude, except perhaps when he begs our indulgence as he lists the achievements of the Cody era. Indulgence granted.
The front page, incidentally, has a photograph of Fr. Tommy instructing a group of players among them a fresh-faced Brian Cody watching the master intently. It’s a snap that graphically illustrates the central thesis of the book: Maher the godfather passing on his years of wisdom to the student.
The wisdom, of course, wasn’t confined to Kilkenny and this is what gives the book its broad appeal. In the seventies there was a move started by Association president Alf O Muiri to ‘bring hurling back’. Who was enlisted for the job? Fr. Maher, accompanied by Des Ferguson and Donie Nealon began the summer sessions in Gormanston College in Meath where coaching finally took its place in the hurling universe. Thinking men were analysing hurling and developing a coaching syllabus. In the past hurlers found by trial and error what worked and what didn’t; in future they’d be coached on the dos and don’ts.
There’s an ever-expanding library of GAA books out there from histories to biographies/ memoirs etc. Some are trite and some play to a popular celebrity culture but once in a while a work of real value arrives. The John Doyle book last year fits the latter category and I have no problem in placing ‘The Godfather of Modern Hurling’ on the same shelf. If you’ve ever thought about hurling instead of just watching it then this work will make compelling reading. It will also revive memories of those battles long ago. It’s the hurling man’s Christmas gift for sure.
P.S. My alter ego, ‘Westside’ even gets a mention in the book following a 1988 junior final between Tipp and Kilkenny. “Kilkenny have among their supporters an element that would do better to cheer rather than sneer. Give me Cork any day, in victory or defeat”. Ouch! I have no recollection of the context but knowing Enda I trust the reference is accurate.