Syria experience left a lasting impression on Patrick 'Bonner' Maher
By John Harrington
Sitting in a lobby of a plush hotel in Singapore, Tipperary hurler Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher finds it easy to appreciate that life is being good to him.
An All-Star trip is a world away from his tour of duty earlier this year with the Irish army when he was stationed at a UN base on the Golan heights in war-torn Syria.
He and his fellow soldiers were very much stuck between a rock and a hard place in the zone of separation between Israel and Syria, neighbours who aren’t exactly all that fond of one another.
It was a challenging experience at times for Maher, but also one he found to be a fulfilling one.
“Yeah it's a fairly intense place to step into,” he told GAA.ie. “Going away from everything at home and all your comforts there and being thrown into a place that's in dire conflict.
“The first few weeks there you're very on edge because you're hearing explosives and you're hearing gunshots going off.
“The first week we were there a yoke pulled up fairly close to us and started firing back into Israel. And there were rockets and everything going off and you're just lying there in your bed.
“It’s not actually a building it's moreso prefab yokes and you're just sitting there like - the whole place is shaking - and you're saying 'what am I doing here?’
“You'd be seeing lads going around on mopeds with AK-47s hanging out the back. It's bananas.
“But it's such an interesting thing to do because it's something I always wanted to do, to serve overseas for my country.
“You come back with a different concept of what's going on out there and you're on the ground so you get to see an awful lot of what's actually going on out there.”
Maher didn’t return to Ireland until May which meant he was playing catch-up when he re-joined the Tipperary panel.
He’s one of the team’s most naturally fit players and had done as much ball-work as he could in his free-time in Syria to ensure his touch remained sharp, but he still felt way behind on others after coming home and was disappointed with how he hurled in the championship.
“We were interchanging through two different camps, so it was two weeks out in Syria and two in Israel, and we had a ball wall there and a few lads to puck about with…but match fitness is completely different,” he said.
“You can be the fittest man in the world coming back but it doesn't make a bit of difference until you get your eye in.
“I didn't come back full-time until May and while your fitness would be up to a certain level, your hurling, it obviously takes you a while to get back into it.
“And that would always be one thing that stands to me is the fitness, but the hurling is probably something I probably lacked this year. From my own point of view, I was fairly disappointed with how the year went for me personally.
“You put an awful lot of demand on yourself to try and get up to that level but it's hard when boys have five months on you from a hurling perspective.
“They're going to be an awful lot ahead of you and you're kind of catching up for the year.
“So I'm actually after taking a career break, so I'm up in DIT doing a course (Business management) and I think it'll stand to me a lot more because I'm hurling in the Fitzgibbon and I'm hurling at the minute playing a couple of practice matches and I think that's going to stand to me more in 2018.
“And I think I'll be that bit more sharp because of it.”
Maher is one of five Tipperary players on the All-Star trip to Singapore who won an All-Ireland U-21 title in 2010 along with Brendan Maher, Padraic Maher, Noel McGrath, and James Barry.
That talented generation of players are all now in their late twenties so their window of opportunity to add to the two All-Ireland senior titles most of them have won is starting to close.
They would have won more than that by now had they not been unlucky to come along at the same time as a great Kilkenny side.
But Maher believes they are still good enough to further burnish their own legacy in the coming years.
“Yeah, a good core of the Tipp team came through from that 2010 team, winning an under-21 and winning an All-Ireland senior in 2010,” he said.
“That’s just sport as well. We’ve been in some titanic battles up along and we probably feel that we should have more than we have.
“An awful lot of great teams came through and have nothing to show for it as well like. Over the next two years it’ll define us as a team. We’re just looking forward to that challenge, we’re looking forward to next year.
“We’ve had a group meeting and everyone is looking forward to it, looking forward to the year ahead.”
Tipperary came closer than any other team to Galway this year so you would imagine they’ll be leading contenders again for the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2018.
Maher knows though that the field of genuine contenders is a fairly packed one, and if he could even win just one more All-Ireland before he hangs up his hurley he’d be quite happy.
“I’d say I’d take it at the shoulder; I’d have it gone out of your hand fairly quick,” he said.
“It’s the Holy Grail. It’s what we all want to reach. It’s the pinnacle we want to get to. To have one is great, to have two is unreal, to add another one to that would be a dream come true.
“If you do look back, Kilkenny got on top for a long time and we came up against probably one of the best hurling teams there has been.
“Some titanic battles. A replay in 2014. There probably was chances of having a few more but, look, you’ve got to be happy with what you’ve achieved too when you’re coming up against the best.
“It’s funny you say the word ‘regret’, if you talk to any GAA player, hurling, football, and you ask him what games do they most remember, nine times out of 10 the ones they most remember and the ones they most regret are losses.
“You ask any player about looking back, you always look back more on the games you lost than the ones you win. That’s the way sport is. That’s the way GAA mentality is.”