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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

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