The Unconquerable Keane – John Keane and the Rise of Waterford Hurling

In the wake of Conor Power’s book on Ned Power comes another biography of a Waterford hurling legend. John Keane is a man who long ago entered the realm of mythology, a figure on a stamp rather than a being of flesh and blood, so David Smith’s book will presumably bring the man down from the stratosphere. The title doesn’t lack for modesty, but researching Waterford’s results has really brought home the obstacles that Keane and his peers had to overcome to get Waterford to the hurling summit. By 1915, every county in Munster had won the All-Ireland except for Waterford. As recently as 1926 we were taking 12 goal hits from Cork, and we won precisely two Championship matches in the 1920’s. So to come into that setup and finish at the very top is worthy of the hyperbole.

The book will be officially launched by Christy Cooney at the Mount Sion Club Centre on Saturday 5 June 2010. If you’re the type who has to have the book in hardback, this will be the only time and place they will be available. Below is the preface of the book, h/t to Tom Keane.

Eddie Keher called him a legend of hurling; Jack O’Neill, a Waterford local historian, called him a great man. Those comments are two sides of the same coin. The great Kilkenny hurler’s comment alluded to John Keane’s position amongst the heroes of the game, and while it was, indeed, the hurling that defined John he would have been remarkable even if he had never played the game. O’Neill referred to his character as a man. When I interviewed Jack for this book his first words were: ‘That’s a book that’s long overdue. He was a remarkable man.’ Jack had first met John when both
were members of the Local Defence Force (LDF) during the Emergency and further contact in subsequent years had only reinforced his opinion that here was a man to be admired for his qualities as a human being – he was intelligent, moral, trustworthy, disciplined, friendly and modest, despite his great fame.

Keher’s comment had come during a chance meeting that I had in Tramore with the great Kilkenny hurler shortly after the Millennium hurling team had been announced. John’s name came up in the ensuing conversation and prompted the above mentioned comment from Keher, who also asked if I had ever seen John play? That question made me realise that time passes by, inexorably, and that even legendary figures can be forgotten. It also impressed on me how important it was to get the record of John’s life and career down on paper so that he would be properly celebrated for the contribution he made to Irish life and culture – and to hurling, the greatest game of all.

Here, then, is the story of John Keane, Waterford’s greatest hurler, and the era in which he played. Having already made his mark at minor level he played on the Waterford senior hurling team for seventeen years and was, in addition, the trainer/manager of the county’s greatest team – that which took the field between 1957 and 1963. His story, therefore, is also the story of Waterford hurling, from the 1930s to the early 1960s. While this book is by no means a definitive history of Waterford hurling during this period, that history unfolded in parallel with the story of John Keane, and forms the first part of this work. Before and after making his mark at inter-county, and interprovincial, level, however, John Keane was the quintessential club man and his name and that of the Mount Sion club were, for many years, virtually synonymous. He was present at its creation and was a central figure in its activities for the rest of his life, right up to his premature death in 1975. His story is the story of Mount Sion’s rise to greatness and the second part of the book is dedicated to this aspect of his life. You will read about the foundation of the club; its symbiotic relationship with Mount Sion school; how it nearly broke up over the ‘Paddy O’Connor’ case and how it became a parallel family with all the highs and lows associated with families – squabbles, rows and achievements; its great struggle for supremacy in the county with the clubs of Portlaw, Dungarvan, Tallow and especially Erin’s Own; and about its games with the champion clubs of Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny.

I will describe John’s great clashes and friendships with the stars of his era: men such as Mick Mackey, Jackie Power, Timmy Ryan and the others on the Limerick team he regarded as being the greatest ever; Jack Lynch and Christy Ring of Cork; and Jimmy Langton and Jimmy Walsh of Kilkenny. In keeping with many of these figures John has been regularly selected as a member of all the ‘greatest-ever’ hurling teams and, while the selection of such teams is essentially a diverting parlour-game, the consistency in the vote for John over a period of forty-one years indicates his position in the first-rank of hurlers and marks him as a legend of the game. Legends, by their very nature, have many stories told about them – some true, but most invented. There are quite a number of anecdotes in this book but all those who related them are given due acknowledgement and where I have found mention of John in books and articles I have endeavoured to check such references against the historical record, discarding those found to be deficient in this regard. I have also endeavoured to avoid any vague and uncorroborated quotes in an effort to keep the work accurate; each source is fully documented in either the general text or in footnotes. This book, therefore, will not be of the type epitomised by the Irish saying, Dúirt fear liom go ndúirt fear leis (A man told me that a man told him).

My primary sources were my own memories of John and the reminiscences of the wider Keane family. These consisted mainly of extended conversations with John’s wife and children, his sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces; minutes of the Mount Sion Hurling and Football club; national and local newspapers; discussions with former players and officials; and manuscript letters. My secondary sources were books, magazines, scrapbooks and match programmes. Two points should be noted, one relating to such sources, the other purely terminological. Firstly, the style of newspaper reporting for most of John’s early career meant that only rarely would one see comments about a hurler’s individual contribution to a match and this leaves gaps in my re-creation of his playing record. Secondly, the county ground in Waterford city, now known as Walsh Park, is referred to consistently in this book as the Gaelic Field because that was how it was known during John’s playing career.

This is the story of a great player’s love for hurling and for those who played it; of his loyalty to club and county; of heart-breaking defeat, frustration and, at one time, even disenchantment – and of his ultimate triumph. The story of an ordinary man who was at one with the people of his neighbourhood but who achieved greatness by extraordinary and heroic deeds on the hurling fields of Ireland and thereby made us all feel better about ourselves. He was a true hero, for despite all his fame John Keane remained to the end a friendly, quiet, humorous and utterly modest man.


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