Family ties Kilkenny's hurling tradition
By PM O'Sullivan
Three men are joking about what their joint memoir should be called.
“Up Johnstown!” JJ Delaney offers. Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty comes back: “Up North Kilkenny!”
Billy Fitzpatrick gets best. “The Farrell family line,” he says. His wryness and warmth concludes a quick revealing discussion. Three men, three serious hurlers. Between them lie 22 Senior All Irelands and a bloodline.
Billy Fitzpatrick operated as an artist forward between the mid 1970s and the mid 1980s. Kilkenny stylists seem to have this long back and a lope. Fitzpatrick had it all, club days with The Fenians, county days. He captained Kilkenny, at 21, to win 1975’s Senior Final. His fifth victorious All Ireland fell in 1983, when he was the star performer against Cork in a drenched and gusting Croke Park. Along the way, there were two All Star awards.
JJ Delaney came to Senior stage at 19, this sticky corner back in 2001. He moved out to left half back and became Hurler of the Year for 2003. One of the game’s finest ever defenders, Delaney acquired his ninth Celtic Cross in 2015. Preternatural fetching and anticipation notched him as something else, quality recognized by seven All Stars.
Aidan Fogarty arrived as a panellist in 2003. He became a match winner at left corner forward in 2006, when his goal and overall contribution rocked Cork in that Senior Final. Lightning quick over the ground, a model for defending from the front, Fogarty ended up with eight Celtic Crosses. He retired, along with Delaney, after 2014’s triumph.
Family connections are always an intrigue. Yet one of Kilkenny hurling’s most intimate bloodlines is scarcely known. The core is the Farrells of Clinstown, a farming family in the parish of Freshford. The nearest link is Billy Fitzpatrick being JJ Delaney’s uncle. The latter’s mother, Joan, was Billy’s sister.
Not much known is that Billy Fitzpatrick was Pa Dillon’s first cousin. Their two mothers were Clinstown sisters. Bridget Fitzpatrick had been a Farrell, same as Catherine Dillon, mother of Pa Dillon. Another sister, Kitty Dillon, married Phil Fogarty of The Islands in Urlingford. Aidan Fogarty is their son (and Pa Dillon’s nephew).
Delaney and Fogarty are second cousins. Fogarty is a first cousin of Jillian Dillon who won three camogie All Irelands with Kilkenny. James Maher, her son, may well feature with Kilkenny on Sunday afternoon.
Cousins all, at various levels of remove. This line is on to its third generation hurling Senior with their county. Could anyone bet against a fourth one?
So here are these three men, sitting in a hotel, a few days to go before another spin of the Kilkenny-Tipperary wheel. They are in good humour, enjoying being together, curious as to what this weekend holds.
Nowhere in the county is cool about this rivalry but these men are conscripts by geography as well as by ability. Tipperary is close. Delaney and Fitzpatrick are from Johnstown, hard by the Moyne-Templetuohy club. Fogarty is from Urlingford, hard by the Gortnahoe-Glengoole club. Local ground up there is a series of braided colours. Quite often, two distinct loyalties co-exist in the one house, parents and children at odds in match day loyalties. Smiling but not entirely joking, Fitzpatrick once described the area as “hurling’s Gaza Strip”.
Born in 1954, he grew up with the other side of the dynamic. Tipperary were close ― and dominant. “We were brought up with an absolute fear of Tipp,” Fitzpatrick outlines. “None of our fathers had ever seen them beaten, nearly. I didn’t know anyone, growing up, who had seen the 1922 All Ireland Final. That was the last time Kilkenny had beaten Tipperary. But I never heard anyone talking about it. There was never a Kilkenny win, so far as I could make out.”
He remembers his 13 year old self watching the 1967 Senior Final, when the longed for day arrived: “It’s easy remember where I was, because there weren’t too many televisions around at the time. Frank Tynan’s house, up the Spa Hill. He was a great GAA man and a great greyhounds man, a dog breeder. I remember watching the game with a sister of mine up there. She was babysitting the Tynan kids.”
He asks Delaney and Fogarty: “Did ye ever watch it on YouTube? The 1967 Final must have been the dirtiest match ever played.”
The two men shake their head and smile. They have been too busy creating hurling history, until recently, to map hurling’s past.
Fitzpatrick continues: “There was a massive sense of relief afterwards. 45 years is an awful long time. A lot of the older people thought it might never happen. The 1964 All Ireland Final with Tipp had been a disaster altogether. They were hammered. That was a good Tipp team, though.”
I mention that era’s debate about whether some players from South Kilkenny were strenuous enough for Tipperary’s cut. They all laugh, bonded another way. Delaney interjects: “That was the team of the ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ full back line?”
Fitzpatrick smiles before reply: “It was. Growing up, we had the idea that you needed the likes of Pa Dillon to stand up to what Tipp brought. You had Pat Henderson as well, no slouch in the physical stakes. Pat went to Thurles CBS, which made it interesting. The idea was that you needed a bit of toughness, and maybe lads from the border area up in North Kilkenny had it.
“I think Tipperary people ― and I know the two lads would say the same ― are the soundest people you could ever meet. They really are. Except maybe for hurling…”
Urlingford is every bit as intimate in this regard as Johnstown. “We’d have land in Tipperary,” Fogarty relates. “We’ve land in Inchrourke, in Gortnahoe. The sister has a house built there. We call it ‘soft land’. Not the best of acreage over there!
“Ah no… But the whole thing is a criss-cross. I went to Thurles CBS, just for convenience. It’s only 15 minutes away on the bus. A lot of fellas from Galmoy and Johnstown went into Thurles CBS in my time.”
He spools: “I remember the ’91 Final. That was when Michael Cleary mishit the free and got the key goal?” “It was,” I reply. “Went in off Liam Walsh’s hurl. Another South man…”
Delaney again, with a big laugh: “Are we establishing a theme here?”
Born in 1982, Delaney and Fogarty both felt different about the rivalry. Tipperary was close but not oppressive. Delaney segues into his generation’s take: “Growing up, we didn’t see Kilkenny and Tipperary cross paths too much. I suppose, in 2002 and 2003, when Kilkenny beat Tipp twice in a row, it wasn’t as big a deal as later on. It was more relief at the time than anything. We naturally had a big rivalry. But that fear of playing Tipp… We never had that. It was just another game to us, in a good sense.
“Then it developed, in the late 2000s, from 2009 on. Obviously there was a huge rivalry then, two teams on a par. Either of them could win. Start of my career, it didn’t bother me playing Tipp. End of my career, it had gone massive. End of the day, if you were picking someone to play in the morning, you’d always pick Tipp, above anyone else. Whereas, when I started off, you’d have taken anyone.”
Another county dominated the first half of Delaney’s career: “I suppose Tipp went away for a few years after the early 2000s, and didn’t come back to us until the late 2000s. The edgy relationship, during the early days, was with Cork. They were seen to be bringing the game of hurling to a new level, with their professionalism and diets and all this kind of stuff you were hearing at the time. You had the two best teams, going at it, head to head, for a few years. Then Cork came and went. And then Tipp came again.”
Each career has its own contour. Fogarty was initially focused simply on becoming a Senior hurler. “I came into things in the summer of 2003,” he recalls. “Was called in after the Leinster Final. So I wasn’t long on the panel before the All Ireland semi final with Tipperary. There was a lot about it, along the borders. But, for me, I wasn’t even thinking about the bigger sense. I was just trying to find my feet in there.”
Still, he could never be oblivious to the local picture: “There was a kind of folklore around playing Tipp. My father would have spoken about it. Then Pa [Dillon] would be over in the house and always spoke about it. He hated them, really…
“Ah no… Not as people. Not at all. But hurling was different. Pa would always be saying: ‘Don’t be letting those Tipp boys get anything.’ Even if it was only a league match or whatever. He felt there should be no let up. Even my mother would always be wary of Tipp. She’d grown up, like him, with the old story.”
Fitzpatrick’s career had what now looks an odd contour. He never hurled championship against Tipperary at any level. “The time I started Senior with Kilkenny was late 1973,” he details. “And Tipp were out of it in my time. They never got out of Munster. Then I retired after 1986, and Tipp won Munster the following year.”
Delaney’s curiosity is roused: “Who was dominating Munster? Cork, was it?”
Fitzpatrick affirms: “Cork, mainly. Waterford came up for a small bit, but Cork had too much for them. You’d think Kilkenny would have met Tipp once or twice over 13 seasons. But no…I’d liked to have played them. Of course I would. But it wasn’t our fault. It was theirs!”
His nephew enjoys this perspective: “You did your bit, Billy! You weren’t afraid of it, anyway.”
His uncle reiterates: “They are the soundest of all time. Just the hurling…”
Fogarty is mordant: “They always think they’re the best, no matter what. It’s a Tipperary thing.” Delaney agrees: “They see their own. That’s all.”
Jackie Tyrrell wrote in ‘The Warrior’s Code: My Autobiography’ (2017): “JJ Delaney and PJ Ryan would always say very little in the group but coming up to a big game against Tipperary, they were far more vocal.” Delaney and Fogarty nod in recognition.
The Johnstown native remembers this dynamic: “Coming up to big Tipp matches, you were more conscious of the situation. My father had a butchery in Johnstown and Billy, my uncle, had a pub. You’d be very conscious that if you do lose they’d have to listen to a lot as well. You know that kind of way? Because, in the shop or in the pub, the Tipp lads would let you know fairly quick if they beat you.
“After 2010, when Tipp won and stopped the five in a row, you had that. There were lads who you wouldn’t even think were Tipperary, because they’d been so quiet beforehand, coming out of the woodwork. Now here they were, talking about the glory of Tipperary hurling.
“You’d be very conscious of that stuff, how it affects your family’s day to day. It kind of means a bit more to you, keeping those lads quiet, because it keeps the father and the uncle from having to listen to it.”
Fogarty likewise battens on 2010’s aftermath: “They all came into Urlingford to drink, after that All Ireland Final. Came into Urlingford rather than staying to drink and celebrate in their own town or village. Bragging and trying to annoy people…
“I suppose there are a lot of Tipp people living in Urlingford. And the lads just love their hurling. There’s so much talk coming up to the big games. It’s just so intense. It’s in your stomach. It’s getting one over on Tipperary. Or vice versa. You know it’s going to affect how you meet people for a good while.”
2009 in Urlingford held sweet. “The lads all came out on a bus and we went into Doyle’s pub,” Fogarty remembers. “That was great for Derek [Lyng] and myself, everyone coming to our parish, which hadn’t been heard of for a long time. Urlingford wouldn’t be classed as one of Kilkenny’s natural Senior clubs. So it was great for the locals to have two clubmen involved in the four in a row.
“The lads all signed the window inside the pub. Signed it with a black marker. They didn’t wash that window for two or three years!”
Fitzpatrick picks up on the issue of representation: “It was terrific for Johnstown to have someone involved on those big days. Just terrific altogether. Didn’t matter that he was my nephew. Just that he was Johnstown. We had PJ [Ryan] there as well.
“It means a lot around the place, to the ordinary people, to have at least one representative on the team. During those years, you had some of the best hurlers of all time featuring with Kilkenny, and it was great to have your own club represented. We were proud. There has generally been a decent Johnstown contribution, from about the early 1960s onwards, especially after The Fenians started up.
“You’d like to have someone there all the time. We have no one at the minute. You’d miss that end of it, to be honest.”
Delaney encountered a man from that Urlingford pub in a somewhat unusual context: “After the final whistle in 2013, after the qualifier in Nowlan Park, I remember Michael Doyle. He was the first lad I saw, when I turned around after the whistle, and I was on the 21. He sprinted onto the field straight away. It meant so much to him…
"I didn’t see any player. I just saw Michael Doyle. It was like I was marking him! It meant so much to him, because Kilkenny were meant to be finished.”
Fogarty develops this facet: “I suppose we were meant to be in a downward spiral. And Tipp were going to finish off that certain Kilkenny team. And if they beat us that day, maybe the mental side of it would have changed. They would have said: ‘Right, we can take this Kilkenny team. That we beat them, in their home patch, in Nowlan Park, last year.’
“So it would have been a huge psychological thing for Tipperary, I think, the fact that we were kind of on the way down and maybe not going as well as before. Found it hard to get over Offaly that year, drew with Dublin, lost to Dublin. Then beat Tipp with pure heart and emotion and intensity. They probably said afterwards: ‘What do we have to do to beat these lads?’ Would we have beaten them in 2014 if we hadn’t won in 2013? You’d wonder.
Fogarty knows Tipperary were well aware of this dynamic: “You’d be talking about the border thing…There was a sign up on Fennor Hill, a sign with a hammer, a nail and a coffin. Tipp were going to drive in that nail, the final nail in the Kilkenny coffin.”
Kilkenny met Tipperary in four Senior Finals between 2009 and 2014, winning three of them. Those contests are 21st century hurling’s most famous occasions (and are likely to remain so). Yet their imagination was most seized by that 2013 qualifier tie.
“It was a truly phenomenal occasion,” Fitzpatrick emphasizes. “I remember going up the town, up along John Street. Just the best summer’s day. A carnival…The biggest crowd you could ever get in Kilkenny, in Nowlan Park. The same as a packed house in Croke Park…Unreal atmosphere.”
Gratitude still suffuses Delaney’s voice: “The tension that day was phenomenal. I never experienced anything like it. There were lads in the Park two hours beforehand, to get their seat. They were just there to support you, to get you over the line. They did their part that day, in all fairness to them.
“Kilkenny were gone, for argument’s sake, and Tipp were coming down to finish us off, more than anything. That was the narrative of the whole thing. But obviously we had different plans ourselves.”
These three men are level but optimistic about Kilkenny’s prospects at the weekend. “There are probably question marks over both teams,” Delaney summarizes. “Tipp’s three stalwarts are still probably the Mahers in defence. Will Rónan Maher go in full back on Colin [Fennelly]? Will Pádraic [Maher] go on Walter [Walsh]? And will Brendan [Maher] take up TJ [Reid]? Will they go for a man to man job? What exactly will the Tipp backs do?
“Full back is still an issue. They haven’t replaced full back since Paul Curran was there, realistically. And centre forward is an issue for Tipp. They have plenty to think about.”
For Delaney, the longer season has benefited Kilkenny’s chances: “I think this team is after getting stronger, game on game, and they’re after learning how to actually play their own game, game on game. The first half against Cork, they were very loose. The second half, they shut down the whole thing.
“Against Limerick, then, they did the same thing. The half back line were staying back against Limerick. They weren’t following up the field. And they’re going to have to do that again, against Tipperary. If you give them space, they have the forwards to beat anyone.”
He elaborates: “I think Kilkenny found a template in the second half against Cork. They took over. And they used that template from minute one against Limerick. Our half backs just stayed put. But, in 2016 [All Ireland Final], our half backs went rambling. And that led to space in front of Paul Murphy, Joey Holden, Shane Prendergast. There were looking out at 30 or 40 yards of space. You can’t defend that.
“I think the Kilkenny backs are happier playing that style. And the Kilkenny forwards are probably the best workers in the country. So let them do that work and keep your half back line at home.”
For Fogarty, the situation changed markedly in a few weeks: “They’re really after getting momentum. Brian [Cody] is finding a settled team, and getting a game-plan together. So I think Kilkenny are coming and coming, and getting better and better. Tipperary started the championship fierce well and then they had a bit of a lull. Whether they have it in the legs again to pull it back in an All Ireland Final with Kilkenny, needs be… I’d imagine Kilkenny are going to hit them pretty hard.
“Even the Cody-Sheedy factor…Like, Sheedy left in 2010, after beating Cody. That kind of thing. Cody, I’d say, would be mad to get one back over Sheedy. Of course there are tactics and the game changes and all that. But tactics, if you haven’t got the ball, aren’t going to give you the ball. The intensity Kilkenny brought to Limerick upset their tactics, and they weren’t able to hurl in the first half.”
Fitzpatrick keeps a clear eye on tendencies in the game: “If it’s changed, it’s changed. You can’t change it back. That’s the way hurling is played now. It’ll advance on again. Someone is going to come up with another theory, and the game will push on again.
“Even someone of my age, even with club games, you’d find it hard to figure it all out. There’s strategy and there’s a man dropping back and everything else. But that’s the way it is now. Cody does it too. Don’t say Kilkenny don’t use sweepers. It mightn’t be an out and out sweeper but lads do drop back.”
A great pleasure of talking to former players is their understanding of psychological development. Winning your first All Ireland medal is every hurler’s biggest boost. Fitzpatrick stresses this truth: “Yes, once that happens, a lot of the pressure goes. It’s massive, the first medal.”
Fogarty nods: “it’s all about playing. Your first day, no matter what happens, just playing on the day and winning that medal. I think when you go back in January, after winning, it’s January with a difference. You know you have a right chance of getting to the All Ireland Final again, because you have been in the most recent final. You now know you have the capability of getting back there. It doesn’t have to be a once off sort of thing.”
Delaney also nods: “It surely is, the first medal. Puts a lot of stuff to bed… And then they can go off into their own careers, wherever they go. It was the same for us in 2002. There is a snowball effect. Confidence is a huge issue for any hurler.
“It would be a great for this team to win on Sunday. And then the comparisons to our team should be stopped straight away, because they’re their own team. Because there’s just this talk out there that they’re not as good as us. They don’t have to be. If they win the All Ireland this year, they’re good enough. They’re the best team in the country, and that’s it. It’s idle talk, all the comparisons, to be honest with you.”
Billy Fitzpatrick is a natural publican, observant and wise. His closing insight rings true: “Why wouldn’t you get better from winning? And the same thing with getting worse from losing. I mean, losing wouldn’t augur too well for the future. Winning is great. But a beating, maybe a substantial beating, shoves you back a fair bit.
“All you have, going home, is doubt. People think they’re vulnerable then.”
Kilkenny and Tipperary return to this moral on Sunday afternoon, as three men wait on a day they knew so well.