Kilkenny hurling's unlikely supporter
By John Harrinton
It’s a slow summer day in Cornwall in the 1980s and Benjamin Neesham is fiddling with the medium wave dial on his radio in search of some sort of diversion.
The airwaves crackle and the room he's sitting in is suddenly filled with the mellifluous tones of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh commentating on a hurling match with typical verve.
Neesham has no idea what the sport being described even is, but he knows he likes the sound of it.
Ó Muircheartaigh’s poetic depiction of the action being regularly punctuated by explosions of noise from an animated crowd made his mind’s eye grow wide with fascination. He found himself rooting for a team with the exotic name of ‘Kilkenny’ that sounded like they were straining every sinew to turn what had seemed certain defeat into an unlikely victory.
He didn’t know it then, but Neesham was descending down a rabbit hole that twisted and turned and ultimately opened up a sporting wonderland he has happily inhabited ever since.
He might be now living on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the north coast of Scotland, but Neesham is very much plugged in to all things Kilkenny hurling.
Such is his knowledge on the subject, that when Nickey Brennan is looking for the answer to a tricky Kilkenny hurling related question on his Community Radio Kilkenny City show, he now expects a text from ‘his man in Scotland’ to come to the rescue.
Former President of the GAA, Brennan, won five All-Irelands with Kilkenny in his playing days and managed them too for a spell in the 1990s, so when he describes Neesham as a font of knowledge on all things to do with Kilkenny hurling it’s about as good an imprimatur as you can get.
Neesham admits that when he tries to talk hurling to most of his fellow islanders in the Outer Hebrides they tend to look at him a little funnily and wonder why he can’t be interested in soccer like a normal person.
But, the way he looks it, having a passion for a distant sport is hardly makes him that unusual.
“You have so many people in Ireland who wear Liverpool and Manchester United tops and so on and I suppose I'm just doing the reverse and following Kilkenny hurling from over here,” Neesham told GAA.ie.
“When I heard Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh commentating that day I just became hooked from that moment on.
“Kilkenny were playing in that match and although they lost I immediately became enamoured with their refusal to give in.
“It was that irrepressible spirit that captured my heart and I've followed them ever since.
“Shortly after listening to that match, Channel 4 started broadcasting 'The Sunday Game' in England.
“So I got to actually see the matches and I was immediately captivated with the skill, the commitment and the desire. The complete drive and determination and the way that players were be prepared to put their bodies on the line for the parish or county.”
Neesham’s growing interest in hurling and Kilkenny hurling in particular became more like an obsession when work brought him to live on the Isle of Lewis in 2004.
Now living around a thousand miles from family and friends, following the fortunes of a Kilkenny team in their pomp under Brian Cody was a source of comfort he was happy to sup from.
“It really brought brightness to those autumn and winter days looking back on fantastic All-Ireland wins such as the destruction of the Deise in 2008 and the four in a row in 2009 when I honestly didn’t think we were going to win and was a bag of nerves when Henry stood over that penalty,” says Neesham.
“I’m still not sure that was a 100 per cent a penalty, but we’ll take it! Martin Comerford getting the goal that day to seal the victory was absolutely tremendous.
“Then, in 2011, coming back after the bitter disappointment of 2010 when Tipperary stopped the drive, to have the character to come back the following year and win the championship again was probably the sweetest one of all.
“Once I moved here I would tune in every Sunday afternoon to RTE broadcasting Sunday Sport and follow what was happening, not just with Kilkenny, but with the rest of the Championship and all the other competitions.
“I didn't have as many distractions in terms of other things going on and that became the highlight of my week, listening to the Gaelic Games reaction. I loved RTE anyway, aside from the sports.
“I'd always be listening to Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny. I'd know far more about what was happening in Dáil Éireann than I would in Westminster. Sport was additional to my general like of Ireland.”
Neesham wasn’t just interested in following the current-day fortunes of Kilkenny hurling, he also devoted more and more time into delving deep into the history of hurling in the county and beyond.
He has collected the match-day programme of every All-Ireland Final that Kilkenny have won going back to 1963, every League Final going back to 2005, and also has an extensive library of Kilkenny hurling lore.
“It's absolutely fascinating the way hurling evolved going back to the foundation of the championship and the Gaelic Athletic Association itself in 1884 and everything that's happened since then,” he says.
“Once I became a Kilkenny supporter I wanted to read all about their history so I got Joe Cody's book 'The Stripey Men' which takes you back through the history of Kilkenny back in the day when counties would play under the banner of the club champions and that sort of thing.
“I then grew fascinated then by the Mooncoin teams of the early 1900s and ‘Droog’ Walsh and the Doyles and these sorts of players. That then linked in with the history of other counties so I started reading about the great Tipperary team of the 1950s and 1960s with Hell's Kitchen and the history of great players like Mick Mackey and Christy Ring, obviously.”
When it comes to hurling and Kilkenny hurling in particular, Neesham has one major box still to tick – watch a game live.
Up until now he has made do with watching or listening to matches from a distance, with the nearest he’s come to the real thing a flying visit to Kilkenny city that included a tour of Nowlan Park courtesy of Nickey Brennan.
“I'd love to see a Kilkenny match, but usually travel to Ireland in the autumn so I'll probably see a club match before I see a county game,” he says.
“I have an interest in the Bennettsbridge club so you can tell I'm not a glory-seeker!
“I'd love to see a club championship match in the near future if things return to anything like normality by September or October this year.”
In the mean-time, he’ll keep a close eye on proceedings from his outpost in the Outer Hebrides, though he’s not all that optimistic that Kilkenny will return to the top of the hurling pile in 2021.
“2019 gave me hope, beating the reigning champions as we did and beating Cork in a epic quarter-final,” he says.
“I'm sure we'd have lost to Tipp in the All-Ireland Final even if Richie Hogan hadn't been sent off. I know we dominated the beginning of the game but Tipp had gone in front by the time Hogan was dismissed.
“His departure extended the winning margin, but I felt Tipperary would have been the better team regardless.
"There was a lot of excitement then at the start of last season because so many teams seemed to have a realistic chance of winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup, but 2020 was a real disappointment in the end for Kilkenny.
“The fact we squandered a 15-point half-time lead against Dublin. Ok, we still crawled over the line but alarm bells were ringing after that.
“We won the Leinster Final but Galway were clearly the better team until we somehow managed to pull it out of the bag.
“And then the second-half collapse against Waterford was just so disappointing because it was similar to what happened against Dublin. It would concern me how easily Waterford just ran through us.
“I think we're probably a bit down the pecking order with Limerick being at number one followed by Galway and Tipp.
“So although we were semi-finalists in 2020, I realistically can't see us being in the top four in the country this year.
“But you absolutely never know what Kilkenny are capable of so you can't write them off, here’s hoping.”
Regardless how the 2021 hurling season goes, one thing is for sure. Benjamin Neesham will tuning in.