By Frank Cody
The Newpark housing estate, when I was a boy, was surrounded by fields. This safe environment granted freedom to frolic and play. Paddy Phelan, John ‘Sundown’ Phelan and Danny McEvoy owned these swards. The Phelan brothers used good farm husbandry to rotate crops of cereals and vegetables. This practice allowed the corncrake and the cuckoo, now absent friends, to prosper
The potato crop was a boon to young males since it offered opportunity for picking ‘spuds’. If hard and tedious work, the accumulation of three or four half-crowns eased aching backs.
Danny Mac’s was left to nature. Wild flowers and thistles flourished. Cattle, horses, greyhounds freely roamed. Rabbits and hares proliferated. Naturally, children from Newpark and the surrounding estates of Johnswell Road, Ossory Park, Assumption Place and Ballybought Street traversed the field in search of adventure. Likewise, it was a bonus to GAA supporters, who used the route as a shortcut to Nowlan Park.
Going through the field, you might meet Danny or his sibling Mickey. The McEvoy’s were intelligent, knowledgeable men. If you were willing to listen, they would enlighten you on aspects of nature and the animal kingdom. Alas, we were young and paid scant attention. There was only one rule to be observed when accessing their domain. If you opened a gate, you were expected to close it. We were unaffected by this stipulation since we clambered over barred gates and wire fencing,
Crossing Mac’s, heading to the Park, was a regular occurrence. Here the hurling heroes of our age were on view. Having attended the 1963 All Ireland Final, with my father and my brother Joe, I considered myself a connoisseur. Youthful arrogance defies comprehension.
That time, most club matches took place in the Park. Since the gates were manned by adult neighbours such as John Bergin, Martin Mulhall and Seán Phelan, free access was assured. The games enthralled and intrigued and, if I struggled with the nuances, nonetheless I reveled in the excitement.
The Park had one other major attraction: intercounty training. Supporters gathered to witness the Stripy Men prepare for battle. The Stand resounded with banter, cheers and applause. I like to think players appreciated the efforts of supporters, many of whom had travelled long distances from North and South of the county. Equally, coach Fr Tommy Maher did not subscribe to the theory that his words had to be guarded like hurling’s ‘Third Secret of Fatima’.
Therefore, as players in a ring listened to Fr Tommy or played a practice game, a collection of children patrolled the playing surface. One night, as Ollie Walsh stood on the goal line waiting for colleagues to test his reflexes, with a bombardment of sliotars, there was a delay. Throwing sliotars to a group of us, he said: “See can ye score.”
I was first. Taking aim, I unleashed a thunderous shot. Heading towards the corner, it looked destined to hit the net.
Suddenly, Ollie sprang, dived full length, and turned the sliotar around the post. Getting to his feet, he smiled: “Be God, young lad, I thought you had me.”
Before we concluded, two of my friends had struck wide while the other one scored a goal. His moment of fame was dismissed out of hand. All agreed Ollie had deliberately let him score. The glory was all mine, the chap that made ‘The Prince of Goalkeepers’ dive to save.
Over many years the escapade was refined, allowing me to regale acquaintances. Hindsight’s honesty revealed a different tale. The thunderous shot was a tame effort. The great custodian could have reached out and caught it, comfortably. Yet Ollie, to brighten the life of a child, delivered the spectacular.
Prince of goalkeepers, prince of men.
At functions, after copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed, someone is sure to say: “Did you ever hurl yourself?’’
I look at them intently, smile, and unblushingly reply: “Did I ever tell you about the night I almost scored on Ollie?”
*Ollie Walsh (13 July 1937 – 9 March 1996) After beginning his career at club level with Thomastown, Walsh joined the Kilkenny minor team as a 15-year-old in 1953 and won a Leinster Minor Championship in 1955. After a brief stint with the junior side, he was promoted to the Kilkenny senior team in 1956. From his debut, Walsh was ever-present as a goalkeeper and made a total of 42 championship appearances in a career that ended with his last game in 1972. During that time he was part of five All-Ireland Championship-winning teams – in 1957, 1963, 1967, 1969 and 1972. Walsh also secured 10 Leinster Championship medals and two National Hurling League medals. He was the Caltex player of the year
And managed Kilkenny to two Senior All Ireland Titles ‘92 & ‘93