Tag Archives: John Keane

Two degrees of separation

Having found myself with some time on my hands recently, I vowed to review most/all of the Waterford GAA books that have come out in recent times. Alas – not that there’s anything ‘alas’ about it, if you catch my drift – my circumstances have changed to the point where the time available for reading has diminished significantly.

This is a good thing, and not just because of the obvious reason. It was with a sense of dread that I surveyed some of the books. I don’t want to be vicious to people pouring their hearts out on paper, but if a book is cack then it’s the duty of the reviewer (sez he, donning his pomposity hat) to say it’s cack. Worse still, it would have been tempting to compare them to the first – and, by the looks of it, last – book I read, David Smith’s marvellous study of John Keane.

It’s the book that keeps on giving, as I found out when discussing locating his grave in Tramore with my father and brother. Not only did I find out that John Keane and my grandmother were on first-name terms, Keane being a regular visitor to the house to check up on my uncle in Keane’s role as a Waterford selector in the late 1950’s. I also found out that the tickle in my memory regarding the Jack Flavin mentioned regularly throughout the book in his capacity as chairman of Mount Sion was correct, i.e. that the man who was even more Mr Mount Sion than Pat Fanning was my mother’s next-door neighbour!

One of the battier thoughts I had during my Luvvie Darling-like period of rest was to write a book on the history of Waterford GAA – if Kilmacow GAA  can lend itself to the Senan Cooke-penned doorstop that I saw every day while doing research in Waterford library, then why not our entire county? It’s not going to happen for me this time around, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a gap in the market. Knowing Jack Flavin is gone, resting at a point roughly equidistant between my grandmother and John Keane in Tramore, and that my uncle who knew them all so intimately has been ravaged by the cigarette curse that took Keane so heartbreakingly early, it seems urgent that someone do this before the memories of a pre-digital era are lost forever. Will no-one step forth to perform this task for their county?

(Image: the 172 pupils of De La Salle College when it opened on 4th September 1949. My uncle Billy Shanahan – no relation to Dan or Maurice – is no 23, middle of second row from the front. The late John Barron of the 1959 All-Ireland winners is no 81, second last from left to right in row five.)

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The anti-Ozymandias

In his history of the first 100 years of the GAA, the late Marcus de Búrca had only one thing of note to say about Tramore and its place in GAA lore: Tramore had the honour of staging the first national championship. It’s no disrespect to the people beavering away with Mícheal MacCraith that that’s about the limit of Tramore’s place in overarching history of the GAA. In fact, I was so complacent about Tramore not turning up anywhere important in the GAA’s story that I almost missed the significance of a line on the second last page of The Unconquerable Keane where David Smith mentions  John Keane’s final resting place “overlooking the broad sands of Tramore”. Could it be possible that I have been paying my respects at my family plot all these years, unaware of the giant of the game so close by? I took the five minute stroll to the graveyard and after a systematic search found this:

And there he was. Where were the cherubim and seraphim? The Ionic columns? The pompous acclamation of the man of whom Mick Mackey said “there never was, nor never will be, a greater hurler”? The sheer modesty of the headstone was in itself moving. This was the spot where the following exchange took place on the 4th of October 1975:

Pat Fanning noticed a lone figure still standing at the graveside. He was a giant of a man but his head was bowed and his great frame was racked with tears as he struggled to control his emotions. Pat recognised the great Nicky Rackard and, approaching him, told him of the reception and that he was welcome to join the other hurlers. Rackard, his face streaked with tears, declined the invitation and said, ‘Pat, I came to bury John Keane, and all I want to do now is go home.’

It seems a shame that not enough is made of this location. Then again, that would run counter to the minimalist nature of the final resting place of John Keane.

One final personal observation. Speaking of this discovery to my father I mischievously noted that it was strange that my grandmother, who had a seam running through her consisting of pure antipathy towards Mount Sion, would thirty-three years later consent to be interred in the same ground as their greatest legend. “Sure, she liked him,” said my father. Truly a man like none other.

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

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.