Déise Review: The Unconquerable Keane – John Keane and the Rise of Waterford Hurling

(Update: further observations about the book from the author, David Smith, can be found below in the Comments.)

There never was, nor never will be, a greater hurler than John Keane of Waterford

Mick Mackey

At no stage in my life did my parents or anyone belonging to me say “John Keane, he was the greatest Waterford hurler who ever lived”. We didn’t read GAA books or periodicals or watch documentaries, not that such things existed to any great extent. And discussion of the GAA in our household tended to consist of when we needed transportation to training or a match. It wasn’t as if Waterford gave us much to talk about in the bleak ’80’s. And yet, we knew that John Keane was the greatest Waterford hurler who ever lived. In an era when not being stuffed in a Munster final or a League semi-final would have been something to aspire to, here was a man who was being mentioned in the same figurative breath as Christy Ring, Mick Mackey, Eddie Keher and John Doyle on the GAA’s Team of the Century. Names that stilled your childish play, and John Keane ensured that a Waterford man would stand among them. It scarcely seemed credible that such a colossus could have existed.

It is into this breach that David Smith has attempted to step with his biography of the great man, who also happens have been his uncle. The title, The Unconquerable Keane – John Keane and the Rise of Waterford Hurling, does not lack for modesty, and at times it threatens to mushroom into a sweeping social history of Waterford city and county with the GAA at its heart. In the end though it settles for a detailed account of the great man and his pivotal role in the GAA of his day. There are officially two parts to the book, although it might be more usefully split into three parts:

  • a prologue with potted histories of hurling in Waterford, the Keane clan in general and John Keane’s family – pronounced ‘Cane’, it seems, something anyone from Waterford city and its environs wouldn’t find hard to believe – in particular;
  • John Keane’s career as a player with Waterford, and;
  • his entire career with Mount Sion, and training the great Waterford team of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s

Given the primary interest for most readers from Waterford is going to be in the county team, this split might not have been advisable. Who other than those who follow the Evil Empire will want to read about its rise to power? It is to Smith’s credit that this does not turn out to be the case. For a self-published book, presumably without the critical eye of an editor, his writing style is splendidly sparse, never using ten words where one will do. Some bloggers could learn a thing or two from him (ahem). His use of footnotes is comprehensive giving the book the heft of a proper scholar – referring to one tall tale of a young John rescuing someone from the Suir then going back for their hat is referenced as ‘Keane family lore’, an refreshingly honest attitude which allows the reader to treat the story with the appropriate scepticism.

To really appreciate this book, you have to be willing to accept a lot of stories of Herculean endeavour. Some folk will read the book and raise an eyebrow at the improbability of the tales. Is it really plausible that a random Kerryman, encountered wandering the mountains around Killarney while the Munster football final was on in Fitzgerald Stadium, would claim to have given up on football having seen John Keane take on the entire Limerick team in the same ground over thirty years earlier, all the while unaware that he was talking to Keane’s nephew? It would be fair to assume that someone’s memory is faulty somewhere along the line, but that would be to miss the point. Recording these stories for posterity is important. They tell us so much more about the times that John Keane lived in and his place in that time. Several stories in the book are from the point of view of Pat Fanning and Andy Fleming, giants of the game who are no longer with us. By interviewing them David Smith has done a valuable service to posterity, and it is thrilling to be able to get their insight into an era when Waterford went from being whipping boys to contenders – and helps to explain, with the ridiculous infighting and parish pump politics – why we went back to being whipping boys again. A warning from history if ever there was one.

The centrality of John Keane to that rise is convincingly spelt out. This was a era when the Railway Cup mattered because the public wanted to see John Keane, Mick Mackey and Christy Ring as much as they wanted to see Waterford, Limerick and Cork. He is clearly worthy of such lavish treatment. So many Waterford people must have picked up hurleys because of having a giant in their midst, yet Smith never loses sight of the man behind the myth, the one who was accessible to all and sundry. Keane clearly deserves the lavish treatment, but the eagerness to snap back to Keane’s life can frustrate when you want more of that social history. It was probably sensible to stay true to that central story, and it’s no harm to leave the punters yearning for more.

There’s a gap in the market for a monumental social history of the GAA, a synthesis of the countless club and county histories that dot the landscape. With his lean writing style and scholarly ways, David Smith could be that man. In the meantime, reading about the man who took on the counties around us that like nothing more than grinding us under their heel, and earned their undying respect, will more than suffice.

You can order this book from originalwriting.ie

5 thoughts on “Déise Review: The Unconquerable Keane – John Keane and the Rise of Waterford Hurling

  1. David Smith

    Thanks for your comments. They are appreciated. Believe me when I say that all the stories in the book (including the family lore) are indeed true.

    You must remember that the book is a biography of John Keane and is not, and doesn’t claim to be, a history of Waterford GAA, although his life and that history were intimately linked. I had thought of writing a history of hurling in Waterford and to that end, whilst researching my book, I contacted several of our hurling clubs regarding access to their clubs’ minutes. To my disbelief, however, only one club (Mount Sion) had ANY minutes – and those were an almost complete set with only the first three years missing. Without such a resource it would be difficult to write the TRUE story of Waterford hurling although a decent job could be done from newspapers and magazines. The personal touch of those involved would be missing, of course, because all of the men from the early (and middle) years are long gone.

    I’m sure that someone will undertake the task some day but it won’t be me. I don’t have enough years left to me to complete such a monumental endeavour.

  2. deiseach Post author

    David, thanks for the comment. As I said, the book left me yearning for more. It briefly had me pondering whether to step up the plate to write The History, but I (happily) don’t have the time any more. Forgive my scepticism about the stories. I wasn’t saying they were made up, just that they seemed too good to be true 🙂 As it is, whether you meant to or not, you’ve made a great contribution to my understanding of the era. Thanks again for a great read.

  3. David Smith

    Hi, again. I have no wish to prolong this correspondence but as you quoted the piece about Nicky Rackard at John’s graveside I thought you might like to read of the high esteem that Rackard felt for John. This is taken from a series of articles that Rackard wrote for the IRISH PRESS newspaper. This article appeared on 1 June 1956.

    Rackard wrote – There is, of course, a great temptation for a young player in any county, to get a bit big for his boots when he suddenly finds himself in the limelight. A young fellow who is inclined to be ambitious is naturally anxious to burn up the playing fields and, when he starts to make a name for himself, he sometimes begins to show in his talk and mannerisms that he’s more than well aware of his own abilities.
    I have seen it happen many a time and, maybe – I don’t know now – I was just as full of my own importance in the days when, just out of my teens, I was the only Rathnure man on the Wexford team and the only Wexford player on the Leinster line-out. But if ever I was inclined to overestimate myself, I was quickly cured the first time I played for Leinster.
    That was in 1943 and I was at centre-forward against Munster. My opponent was John Keane of Waterford who gave me a hurling lesson, for John’s craft and experience were far more than I was able to cope with.

    Best wishes

  4. deiseach Post author

    I wouldn’t mind prolonging the conversation 🙂 You can get a sense of the continuing impact the book had on me here and here.

  5. David Smith

    OK! One more. Your uncle Billy Shanahan was THE great hurler for De La Salle College when I was playing (badly) for Mount Sion in Waterford & Munster colleges hurling. Billy was a big, strong, skilled hurler and being big and strong really cuts it in under-age hurling. However, having said all that, we usually had the beating of DLS (but then we had some great hurlers – Martin Og Morrissey and Frankie Walsh to name just two). During my time in Mount Sion we won the Cohalan, Hackett and Harty cups and reached the final of the Dean Ryan cup where we were beaten by a Jimmy Doyle inspired Thurles CBS. I had the pleasure (?) of marking the great Doyle in one game. He was a fabulous player – even then.

    To get back to John Keane. The previous quotation from Nicky Rackard was found by me just a week too late to go into the book. That was unfortunate because a player’s greatness can best be appreciated when one sees what his peers thought of him and also how he performs against them.Which brings me to Martin Kennedy.

    John was very close to my mother. Of all his siblings she was closest to him in age and, of course, hurling was a further bond as she was a Waterford inter-county camogie player. John spent a lot of time in our house talking to her about things in general, mostly about family but also about hurling. It was during one of those visits that I heard the following story about Martin Kennedy. Not many people, nowadays, can tell you anything about him but when John was starting his career the greatest forward in hurling was Martin Kennedy (born 1899) of Tuaim-uí-Mheara and Tipperary.

    At the inauguration of the Railway Cup competition in 1927 Kennedy was selected at full-forward for Munster and until his retirement in 1935 he was a regular choice – nine years in succession. Garrett Howard said of him that he never scored the same goal twice. He was renowned for his incredible record of goal-scoring and in one match he scored ten goals. His trademark goal was when he raced out to an incoming ball, grabbed it in his huge hand and then, with his back to the goal lashed it into the net from almost impossible angles. He seemed to have eyes in the back of his head – but the truth was very different, of course. Kennedy had a trick up his sleeve and that was where John comes in.

    In 1935, Kennedy’s last year of inter-county hurling, he had destroyed Waterford in the Munster championship game at Carrick when he scored four goals and humiliated Charlie Ware (see page 33 of the book). When the Erin’s Own club was suspended and withdrew all its players from the county team John was drafted in as full back to replace Ware for the National League match against Tipperary and faced the daunting prospect of trying to contain the all-conquering Kennedy. Kennedy was 36 years old and with all his experience must surely have relished the thought of playing against this young newcomer but John confounded the hurling world (and Kennedy) by limiting the great full-forward to just three points.

    This is what happened. When the defenders took their positions for the start of the match all the midfielders and forwards lined up at centre-field for the throw-in. As the start-whistle blew the forwards raced into position and Kennedy came running towards the Waterford goal where John was standing on the edge of the square. Kennedy stopped however at the 21 yard line, leaned on his hurley and looked in at John. He then began walking back and forward across the line. John was wondering what Kennedy was at – and decided to watch him closely. After the match had proceeded for a while (the two players had still not met) he saw Kennedy bend down to tie his boot laces. Kennedy then walked across the line, bent down again and did the same to the other boot. John thought this very strange because the last thing a player did before leaving the dressing room was to ensure that the boots were properly laced and tied. Kennedy’s actions obviously needed more scrutiny. When the opportunity arose John sauntered out and had had a good look at the 21 yard line where he noticed two white feathers stuck in the ground but directly in line with the goal-posts. Kennedy had marked the exact position of the posts – but on the 21 yard line.

    “I suppose”, said my mother to John, “you kicked away the feathers.”
    “Oh no” said John. “I moved them!”

    John was only 18 years of age.

    Slán ‘s Beannacht

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