Westside column – December 10th 2011

With those long winter nights closing in it’s the time of year to cosy-up at the fireside and enjoy the many sports books that have hit the shelves with seasonal timing. As ever there’s a rich supply of material to select from and in these straitened times I suspect people will be choosing judiciously. Well, may I suggest the pick of the crop? ‘Doyle’ by John Harrington is a gem of the genre. A gripping three-hundred page read, this one has it all.
Ostensibly this book is about the legendary John Doyle but don’t let that kid you. Doyle is there of course in all his magnificence, that towering presence who, more than anyone else embodied the spirit of Tipperary’s golden age. But this book has much more. John Harrington successfully captures the mood of an era. For those who lived through the period it will be hugely evocative; for those of a younger vintage the tale will simply enthral.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that the Doyle story would be chronicled in print but we hardly expected that, within a year of his death this book would appear. The sheer breadth of the research that John Harrington distilled into such a riveting tale is astounding. His enquiries were extensive both within and without the county and he managed to mould the material into a narrative that makes for compulsive reading.

Many of these books are ‘dry’ by nature. There is so much statistical information to be assimilated that there’s always the risk of producing a type of copy-and-paste version of history. It could easily become a catalogue of games won and games lost but John Harrington has gone behind the statistics and takes the reader into the training sessions, the dressing rooms, the very homes even of the main protagonists. It’s a fly-on-the-wall, behind-the-scenes view of the greatest era in Tipperary hurling.
The endless anecdotes are part of the enduring charm of this book and it doesn’t matter that many of them have been replayed endlessly over the years. A good story never tires from re-telling. By now I’ve heard several versions of little Jimmy Maher and his clash with Jack Lynch. The Tipp goalie took unkindly to a dunt from the Cork man and followed him out the field to remind him that if there was a repeat there’d be a by-election in Cork. John Harrington has embellished the story even further with a few expletives added for colour.
Speaking about expletives there’s the one about Christy Ring and his pep talk in the Cork dressing room ahead of a championship clash with Tipperary. A priest checked Ring on his foul language reminding him that you wouldn’t find such terms in the Bible, to which Ring replied, ‘The fellow who wrote the Bible never had to face Tipperary’.
Such anecdotes litter this narrative and make it hugely appealing. There’s plenty of dialogue too in a bid to capture the mood at crucial times or illustrate a personality trait. Inevitably there’s a lot of writer’s licence here but it’s part of the brilliance of this book that events are brought to life in this way.

While John Doyle may be the star of the show, John Harrington moves beyond his main man to embrace the supporting players also, something which gives great breadth to this book. Doyle himself was always very generous in suggesting that while Christy Ring won the eight All Irelands for Cork it was Tipperary who won the eight for him. This sense of a bigger picture comes across very strongly in John Harrington’s narrative where there are large tracts of the story devoted to other personalities. Inevitably Paddy Leahy looms larger than life as the maestro behind it all, the man who was ahead of his time in terms of tactics and psychology. His central role in Doyle’s career is obvious.
I love the story about Paddy Leahy the night before the 1961 All Ireland. The team was safely tucked away in bed at Barry’s Hotel when a panicking Jim Stapleton, a selector with Leahy from Solohead, approached the Toberadora man with a problem. “That young goalkeeper of ours has a big woman inside in the room with him. What are we going to do at all? We have no sub-goalkeeper or anything”. Leahy, himself a bachelor, considered the situation and duly delivered his verdict without the trace of a grin. “Well, Jim, I’d say the only thing we can do is get down on our knees, say a Hail Mary, maybe throw in an Our Father too, and hope that young lad doesn’t hurt himself during the night”. Later we’re told that the young lad in question had ‘woken up that morning in fine fettle by making a series of confident saves’.

Through it all though the Doyle story is the central focus of what is a beautifully crafted narrative. I had only a vague notion of Doyle’s early life so I found the opening sections of the book fascinating. He spent the first few years of his life with an aunt in Dungarvan when his mother died shortly after his birth. He was then brought home but being too young for primary school was sent to the Sacred Heart College for Little Boys in Thurles, which in reality appears to have been an orphanage. When he was ready for primary school he returned to Glenbane in Holycross where he grew up as an only child with his father, Tim.
That somewhat unorthodox childhood may in part have shaped the grimly determined adult who was to become such an indestructible presence on Tipperary teams for almost two decades. People today marvel at Tony Browne who plans on playing his twentieth season of inter-county hurling with Waterford in 2012. Doyle played nineteen seasons with Tipperary stretching from ’49 to ’67. At a time of greater physical attrition in the game it was an extraordinary innings. There’s the added footnote that he never missed a game through injury during that period.

The impression that emerges from the book, and I’ve no doubt it is very accurate, is of a man who was fiercely competitive and fanatical about the game of hurling. There’s a Seamus Leahy story about coming across Doyle when he was a county minor. He was ploughing a field with a draught-horse and on approaching the young Leahy noticed that he was barefooted. On being asked why he wasn’t wearing boots Doyle replied ‘It makes the ankles stronger for the hurling’.
There’s evidence from a whole host of contributors to support the impression of a man who hated losing, even at training. He loved the physical battle and as someone suggested would probably frown at the modern drills that have become such a part of preparation these days. It struck me on reading the book that he’d relish the modern Kilkenny regime where the match is the key element of every training session and where they train as they play in key championship ties.
Speaking of Kilkenny, of course, their rivalry with Tipperary during the sixties was one of the most bitter in the history of the game. John Harrington details the growth of this raw hatred that developed at that time as Kilkenny lived in the shadow of that great Tipperary side. For Doyle Kilkenny would eventually be the ones to stop his bid for the ninth All Ireland and even that 1967 final added to the bitterness when Tom Walsh lost his eye.

Through it all there is the abiding memory of Doyle as a colossus. Friends and foes alike testify to his athleticism, his thundering surges from defence where he’d go through people rather than around him but all of them underline his cleanliness as a player. Eddie Kehir says he was ‘a very fair man to hurl against because I never got a dirty belt off him’. Sean McLoughlin describes him as ‘a hard hurler but he wasn’t a bit dirty at all’. For Jimmy Grey of Dublin he ‘was never a dirty player’. Tom Walsh, Kilkenny, is quoted as saying ‘I certainly would never have considered him a dirty player’. This is the evidence of those who knew him at close quarters and it’s coupled with a unanimous view that, contrary to the myth in some quarters, he was an outstanding stickman.
John Harrington has done an incredible job in capturing the personality of the man, warts and all. He’s depicted as being dour at times and not the most sociable. He comes across as a blunt man too on occasions. As a hurling enforcer he had few peers but the off-field personality didn’t always endear him to some people, which probably helps explain his lack of success in politics. His most passionate love, of course, was Holycross and he throve on the local rivalry against such as Sarsfields, Moycarkey and Boherlahan.

From his club career there’s an interesting case from 1966 when Holycross beat Lorrha by a controversial point in the county semi-final. Lorrha wanted a replay and when Holycross refused they objected to one of their players, Roger Ryan, who was originally from Waterford and, according to Lorrha, was living in Thurles. Holycross claimed that Ryan and his wife were living with John Doyle. The case went to Munster Council where Cork’s Con Murphy famously out-witted Doyle by asking him the name of Ryan’s wife. Doyle was stumped and Lorrha won the appeal.
Anyway it’s just one of the many fascinating stories narrated in this exceptional book. It’s an absolute page-turner, which will engross anyone with even a passing interest in hurling or John Doyle. ‘The Greatest Hurling Story Ever Told’ is the sub-title of this book. Liam Hayes at the launch apparently described it as the greatest of its kind ever written. That sounds like lavish praise until you read the work. I haven’t read better.

On a more prosaic note the relegation affair rumbles on. Ballybacon it seems have backed off their intended appeal to the Central Hearings Committee. Perhaps there was a feeling that they were chasing a losing cause. There’s also some suggestion that the cost of such an appeal was prohibitive. I don’t know. Either way the CCC it seems have now fixed their game with Cashel K.C. for next Sunday at Clonmel. Will Ballybacon fulfil the appointment? Again I’ve no inside tract so we’ll just have to await developments during the coming week. It could be quite a tense game if it goes ahead.
Otherwise the convention circuit goes into top gear this week. The West assembly goes ahead at Cappawhite on Wednesday night. There’s some possibility of a contest for the vice-chair but otherwise it all looks quite routine. Incidentally Clonoulty completed a major triple crown in the West last weekend when adding the U21 hurling title to the senior and minor versions won earlier in the season. They were pushed very close by Arravale Rvs. and now face Burgess in the county semi this weekend. Loughmore and Ballingarry will eventually play the other semi. Once more this U21 grade occupies the butt end of the season. Some things never change.

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