Shem Downey

Shem Downey: FinestWanderer

Ballyragget, Conahy, Knocktopher, Lisdowney, Tullaroan:

With no ‘parish rule’ in operation,Shem Downey (like many others) played for a plethora of teams throughout the county. He jokes about having more clubs than Arnold Palmer.

He is proud of the fact that it took the legendary Lory Meagher to entice him to Tullaroan. Yet it would be wrong to think of Shem as a journeyman hurler. The fact that he was a fast, fearless, athletic and skilful player made him much sought after by clubs eager for success.

He showed his versatility when called from the Kilkenny Junior

side to the Seniors to play in the All-Ireland Final of 1946 in direct opposition to Christy Ring. Although Shem Downey had never previously played centre-back, he was undaunted by the onerous task.

He held Ring fairly well until just before halftime, when the Cork star managed to escape, soloing towards the Kilkenny goal. Shem is still irate that none of the full-back line came to meet Ring since this decision opened a clear avenue to goal. At the end of his run Ring batted to the net. Shem is adamant on this score’s nature: “It wasn’t the classic goal that Ring often described.” For the second half, the selectors moved Dan Kennedy to centre back. Shem Downey went to midfield. He laughs as he recalls what transpired: “Ring got a few scores off Dan and that kept me on the team for another year.”

Shem claims his main role was that of “a mullocker” whose job

was getting the ball to Jim Langton. Contemporary records disprove this disparaging self-assessment. Shem’s outstanding performance in the 1950 National League Final (Home) against Tipperary is said to be one of the greatest individual displays of skill ever witnessed in Croke Park.

Also consider the 2-1 he notched to finish leading scorer in 1948’s Leinster Final and you have a very different picture altogether. Indeed Billy O’Sullivan, that veteran of man Kilkenny dressing rooms, insists on his assessment: “Shem Downey was one of the finest hurlers that ever played for the county.”.

Joe Hennessy: The Life of Hurling

Joe Hennessy played hurling the same way he lives his life: with verve and enthusiasm. He epitomizes all that is great about our noble game: honest endeavour, the commitment to fight for victory, the grace when required to accept defeat. Under the guidance of his late father Paddy he learned the skills of the game.

He perfected these attributes on the playing fields of The Waterbarracks and the Fair Green and in solo sessions within the confines of The Butts handball alley. The lessons learned at this time were of vital importance to his development as a hurler.

When Joe joined the James Stephens club, he came under the influence of Bill Cody and Georgie Leahy. Enthusing about their contribution to TheVillage and Kilkenny, he declares: “They loved and lived for hurling.” He also credits these two men with ensuring that his boyhood dreams turned into sporting reality.

Joe had a glittering career, one embellished with three Celtic Crosses and five All-Star awards. Yet his two Club All-Ireland titles hold a special place in his heart. He rattles off the related statistics with relish: “We were the first Leinster team to win the title — indeed the first team outside Munster. We beat a brilliant Blackrock team in 1976 and a great Mount Sion team in 1981.We had two outstanding captains, Fan Larkin and Jimmy O’Brien. We had a fantastic team and we’re all still friends. That’s important.” In reflective mood, Joe admits that sometimes in the lonely hours of the night he lets his mind wander back through the years until he is standing again on the Waterbarracks pitch. Through the mists of time comes that well remembered voice urging: “On your left, Joe, lift and strike, lift and strike.” The voice has been with him all his life. It’s that of his beloved father, Paddy.

Tommy Murphy: A League of His Own

Having played in four All-Ireland finals — 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1969 — Tommy Murphy has the unique record of never playing a league game for Kilkenny. His absence from league hurling was all down to the regulations governing seminarians and clergy in force at that time. Essentially, this context meant that Tommy could only represent the county during his holidays from St Kieran’s College. Although, when the rule impinged on a prospective championship appearance, he circumvented it by not reporting back until after he had played in the 1964 All-Ireland Final… He laughs as he recalls that nobody seemed to notice his absence. “It must have been a clerical error,” he says drily. Tommy is remarkably philosophical when reflecting on this period. “I never thought too much about it really,” he muses. “That’s the way things were and I just accepted it.” O tempora, O mores.

The young Tommy Murphy regularly travelled, as he puts it, “down the road to Ross” to see the Wexford team of the 1950s. “A mighty team and mighty men,” he recalls. He continues: “One of the only Kilkenny hurlers we ever saw was Ollie Walsh. He was driving a milk lorry at that time and when he came to the village we’d gather around and watch him hurl milk churns all over the place.” In 1963, after impressing in an Intermediate match against Kildare, he received the call to join the Senior panel (also getting the nod after that game was Tom Walsh of Thomastown). Tommy makes clear that going to train with the Seniors was a nervous time for him: “I was the first man from my end of the parish, The Rower, to make the team and I was in awe of all these stars. But I decided to do my best and see where that got me.” His best must have been sufficient, for later in the year he played a vital role when he scored 2-1 in Kilkenny’s All-Ireland victory over Waterford.

It was indicative of his innate ability that Tommy Murphy, despite the restrictions placed on him, continued to thrive locally and nationally. While extremely modest about his achievements, he is recognized by his contemporaries as one of the foremost scoring forwards of that era.

Liam ‘Chunky’O’Brien: The Natural

Liam ‘Chunky’O’Brien holds a special place in the heart of all Gaels. He played the game with extraordinary freedom of expression. His flamboyant and inspiring performances often

enriched and enlivened a Sunday afternoon. Thankfully for Kilkenny, many of these performances took place on September Sundays in Croke Park. Chunky (surely a misnomer) loved the big stage. His performances in All-Ireland finals state the one truth. The mesmerising solo runs with the

sliotar balanced precariously on the bás of his hurl, as he dodged his way through despairing opponents, is one of the 1970s’ enduring sporting memories. If Chunky gave the impression of being as vulnerable as a street urchin, underneath that façade was a teak tough athlete. He was deceptively resilient, could take harsh punishment, could come smiling through.

This trait would be of invaluable service after his retirement when he had to fight another battle against a far more dangerous opponent. Showing the courage of old, this battle too was won. And even though the hard knocks did not cease, he still has come smiling through.

Maith an fear, Liam.

Noel Skehan: Bás of the Moss

For almost a quarter of a century, Noel Skehan has stood alone at the top of the All- Ireland Senior table with nine Celtic Crosses to his name. From 1963, when he came on to the Kilkenny Senior panel, until his retirement in 1985 he displayed a single minded determination that would take him to the zenith of his chosen sporting career. During the nine years he spent as substitute to the legendary Ollie Walsh he remained focused on his aims. He watched the master at work, made the cameo appearances when required, and learned the trade. Now, as Noel reflects on those days, he says: “It was no hardship to sit on the bench because I knew I was a sub to the best goalkeeper in Ireland.” Having served a long apprenticeship, his patience was rewarded when the call came in 1972 to replace Ollie, his friend and mentor. It turned out, after all the waiting, to be a defining year in his career since he captained his county to All-Ireland success. Noel is modest about the achievement: “I only got the job because all the good hurlers in the club had already done it, and sure really all it meant was going up for the toss.” On a more serious note, he does admit that he was always aware of the great honour bestowed: “Today, as I think about the great men who captained Kilkenny to an All-Ireland, I feel privileged and fortunate to be a part of that elite band.” Reflecting on an honour-laden career, Noel is reluctant to single out any team-mate. He holds to a simple opinion: “To be chosen to represent Kilkenny meant you had to be a good hurler.” That said, he does reserve special praise for Pat Henderson. Noel believes Henderson as coach/manager never got enough credit for dragging “a desperately poor team” from the depths of Division 1B to achieve the so-called ‘double double’ in 1982-83.

Following retirement as a player, Noel successfully managed the Leinster interprovincial side as well as the Kilkenny Juniors and Intermediates. He also had a productive tenure alongside Brian Cody as selector with the Senior panel. Even now, he is not content to sit on the sidelines and ruminate about ‘the good old days’. Instead, in his role as coach to the Development Squad, you will find him in St Kieran’s College or in some of the club grounds around the county, passing on his experience to the young stars of the future. Noel Skehan is still driven by idealism and a youthful exuberancefor the game of hurling.

Jim Treacy: Artful Defender

All tenacity and intelligence, Jim Treacy turned the much maligned role of defending into an art form. He set and maintained consistently high standards throughout his illustrious career. He was a fearless competitor, brave in the tackle and assured on the ball. With the minimum of fuss Jim dominated opponents and demolished many an inflated ego in the process. The complete team player, he often sacrificed his own instincts for the greater glory of the county unit. Not renowned as the fastest of players, his reading of the game

allowed him time and space to affect clearances. He adhered to the Fr Maher mantra of defending: ‘Get it out of the danger area.’ You rarely saw Jim Treacy send raking clearances. Usually it was the deft flick or the short puck to a well placed team-mate. Jim firmly believes that hurling is a game of inches: those between the two ears. Although he played in an era when the physical demands of defending were immense, this redoubtable Bennettsbridge man never flinched. In the fiercest of battles Jim Treacy was unflappable, always hurling with assurance and composure. There is no doubt that his performances for the Kilkenny bear favourable comparison with players from any era. Indeed, after consultations inside and outside the county, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Jim Treacy is the best left full-back that ever played the game.

MartinWhite: Shining On

It says a lot for Martin White’s credentials as a hurler that he shone brightly during the 1930s, the decade that many commentators consider to be the most competitive in hurling. He added further lustre to his impressive CV by being a consistent scorer at the highest level of the game. As well as these distinctions, Martin’s accumulation of three All-Ireland medals further underlines his outstanding achievements during a glittering career. He was a fast, skilful, stylish player, one who used these attributes to torment some of the most formidable defenders in the game. Martin, during an era when defending was euphemistically referred to as ‘no nonsense’, proved himself a fearless competitor, a hurler whose ability to find space in the most congested of areas allowed him to be the fulcrum of the Kilkenny attack. Also, his remarkable hand-eye coordination enabled him to score countless goals with his well developed overhead stroke. To round off his talents, Martin had a mighty puck on a ball, with the leftsided drop shot the favourite one in his repertoire. “The drop shot generated immense power and was almost impossible to stop,” he explains. However, things were not always easy during this time. Martin’s work commitments saw him domiciled in Waterford and so getting to training in Kilkenny was occasionally an adventure. Indeed, prior to the 1933 Final, he remembers being collected by car in Waterford and going over to Mooncoin to collect Eddie Doyle. He laughs as he recalls that, when they eventually got to Nowlan Park, Paddy Larkin and Podge Byrne had finished and were already gone home. He still has a great interest in the game and is ‘au fait’ with all the current players and with the minutiae of all GAA affairs. Of the great players he saw, he is adamant that his clubmate Lory Meagher was the greatest of them all. Martin remarked: “Without labouring the point, all I’ll say is that Lory was a genius.” In an era bedecked with stars MartinWhite shone brightly. He was widely recognized as one of the game’s most skilful exponents in one of the game’s most skilful eras.

( Taken from The Stripy Men by Joe Cody 2008)


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