The GAA Gene - The McGraths
The GAA is built on tradition, and there is nothing more traditional in Gaelic Games than great family dynasties.
Trace the history of any county team in Gaelic Football or Hurling and you’ll see the same surnames consistently reappearing as you move back through the decades.
In our series – The GAA Gene – we profile the families that have given outstanding service through the generations.
This week we focus on the McGraths of Loughmore-Castleiney and speak to current Tipperary county hurler Noel McGrath and his father Pat who himself played for the Premier County.
By John Harrington
Sunday will be a special day for Pat and Mary McGrath.
They’ll sit in Croke Park on All-Ireland Hurling Final day and watch their three sons, Noel, John, and Brian wear the blue and gold of Tipperary.
Brian will captain the Tipperary minor team in their Final against Limerick, while Noel and John will be key men for the seniors as they bid to dethrone Kilkenny.
It’s an incredible achievement for the family, but the McGraths have always been high achievers. Pat himself won an All-Ireland senior hurling medal in 1989 with Tipperary, so he is no stranger to the big day, though he admits he’ll be a little more tense for this one than any other.
“It's a nerve-wracking day, if you want to know the truth of it,” he told GAA.ie. “You're concerned about them all being okay. The thing about if one wins and the other loses, how would they feel, that kind of thing.
“You try not to think too much about it because you want the house to stay calm and as normal as possible with them coming up to the match. You don't want too much hassle.
“Once the matches are on, I'm not too bad. Once I get to Dublin on Sunday I'd be okay that way. I don't like the Saturday. Once you get out and get going on Sunday morning, I'd be happy out. I'd know that the lads are ready to go.
“What we'd probably do is drop Brian to the bus when we're going, the minors would obviously be going earlier, so we'd drop him and stay going at that stage.
"The two boys (Noel and John) will lock up on the way out then. We'll be gone ahead of them. Someone will bring them, there mightn't anyone wait for us!”
The McGrath brothers already enjoyed a memorable moment together this year when they celebrated as a trio on the field after Tipperary beat Waterford in the Munster Senior Final.
A couple of hours earlier, Brian had captained the minors to provincial success too, and as soon as the final whistle blew in the senior game he made a bee-line for his brothers Noel and John.
A nearby photographer captured their moment of embrace for posterity, and the picture will surely become a McGrath family heirloom.
“Yeah, it was a special moment,” says Noel. “It's not something that happens too often. With Brian being captain and then us winning the senior. Just for it to happen there and then was special.
“It's a nice photo to have, I'm sure the mother will dig it out and put it up on a wall somewhere at home.”
As a family, the McGraths are extremely humble and understated and would never be the types to shout about their achievements from the roof-tops. They take plenty of pride in them though, and the triumphs of preceding generations of the family has always been a source of inspiration for those that came after them.
Pat McGrath’s father Mick won a County Football Championship with Loughmore-Castleiney in 1955 along with his three brothers, and landmark moments like that always fired Pat’s own ambition to achieve all he could as both a hurler and a footballer.
“Daddy had two county football medals,” says Pat. “I don't know what he had between everything, 15 or 16 different medals in his life playing for various titles. You'd pull out this box and you'd look at the medals every now and again.
“I always admired county medals. I always thought it would be lovely to have them, I suppose. And the lads would be the same with mine. They'd have an odd look or see different pieces that you won from time to time.
“There would be photos going around then from time to time and all that kind of thing probably gets the blood going in fellas a bit too.
“I know when I was a young fella going up you'd hear the matches on the radio and once the match was over you'd go out to the yard and you'd want to be Jimmy Doyle or Babs Keating. That's kind of where it comes from really.”
It’s easy enough to recreate those matches heard on radio when you’re one of nine siblings, all of whom are fanatical about Gaelic Games. Pat came fifth in the hierarchy after Tom, Marion, Michael, and Catherine and before Frankie, Anne, and the twins Richard and Theresa.
On a dry day they’d play together in a field where they had posts with a twine strung between them for a cross-bar. If it rained, they’d simply play out their matches in the yard instead.
Youthful endeavour led to adult achievement as Pat McGrath went on to win four County Senior Football Championships and one Senior Hurling Championship with Loughmore-Castliney when he scored the winning goal. Three of his brothers also played in that '88 County Hurling Final victory, the club's first.
Pat’s achievements in turn would inspire his sons the same way his father inspired him. It helped that he hung around long enough to play a game of club Junior football with Noel, who well before then had grown up watching his father represent the club in stalwart fashion.
“I think he played up until around 2003 or 2004 with Loughmore Castliney so I would remember him hurling and I've seen videos of all of their matches,” says Noel.
“They won the County Final in '88 and they had great matches with Sarsfields in the Mid Championship in the early nineties as well. So I've seen plenty of videos of them playing over the years.
“I suppose coming from where we come from, Loughmore-Castleiney, it's a small place and GAA is the heartbeat of everything. Our house was no different. You'd be going with Daddy when he was going senior training to watch him, or you'd be going training yourself on Saturday morning over in the field.
“And as regards coaching, he'd always be there for a helping hand or a word. There was loads of days and evenings we were out there pucking in the back yard late into the night. I suppose that's where you learn a lot of stuff when you're younger.”
The way Pat remembers it, Noel didn’t really need that much of a guiding hand at all because he was always so singularly driven to be the best hurler he could possibly be.
“I'd say since Noel was three years of age he was going to the field with me to training,” recalls Pat. “He'd come over there and he'd be there while we'd be training and he'd be pucking around and all that kind of thing. Once he was able to mind himself at all down in the field he was going there and he always had the hurley, tipping around with it.
“Noel would have had a hurley in his hand, much moreso than John. John was keen on football as well, whereas Noel just didn't play the football because he was hellbent on the hurling at county level.
"He was in with the county minors at 16 years of age and wouldn't have dreamed of playing minor football, whereas John won a minor football All-Ireland as well as a minor hurling All-Ireland.
“I suppose like everything, if there's something you're doing day in, day out, every day, you're going to be good enough at it anyway. Noel played in an U-12 'B' County Final when I'd say he was still U-8 and he scored an unbelievable free from a very narrow angle to help them go on to win it.
“John would have played U-12 when he was U-9 I'd say and he and Noel would have won an U-12 double together that year.
“And then in John's last year U-12, Brian would have played U-12 as well, and they won a football county final. And the following year Brian was too young to play U-12 because they bought in the new rule about having to be a certain age. But they all won county titles at a young age.”
What’s impressive about the McGrath boys is that despite being lauded as special talents from a very young age, they’ve all kept their feet very much planted on the ground.
Winning a Munster Club Championship with Loughmore-Castleiney as a 16-year-old and becoming a Tipp senior by the age of 18 didn’t seem to knock a beat out of Noel. And when John spoke to the media after his starring role in this year’s Munster Final, he made it sound as if scoring 3-2 was the most normal thing in the world to do in your first ever senior provincial Final.
“Yeah, that is John, he is cool,” says Pat. “He always seems relaxed and easy-going, if you like. Sometimes you'd say he'd need a bit of a push, but he always seems to get to where he wants to go at the same time.
“Noel would be a little bit more tense about it, I suppose. And maybe that's coming a bit from the fact that he's been there a number of times and the success didn't come their way. They've lost a few All-Irelands I suppose, and big games against Kilkenny in particular.
“So he feels the tension a bit more, maybe. I think that's often the case that younger lads don't feel pressure as much as older lads. There's more expected of the older lads. Young fellas go in and are just bursting with energy and mistakes don't cross their mind.
“Whereas the older lads, I know in my case you'd always be thinking of if this goes wrong or that goes wrong. You're kind of thinking of things that never would happen anyway, like. You'd be a little bit negative about it.
"John is certainly very cool, and Brian would be sort of in between the two of them, really. He'd be a little bit tetchy, but you can have a good auld joke with him at the same time and he'd laugh it off. Noel would be more serious when it would come to big-match days. You just don't annoy him, as the fella says!”
A feature of Tipperary’s progress to Sunday’s All-Ireland Final has been the interplay between Noel and John on the left flank of their attack. Playing together from a young age has clearly fostered an instinctive understanding between the pair.
“Ah it does,” admits Noel. “I suppose it's like anything. The more you're around someone, the more you're with someone, I suppose the more you understand them. That just leads then on to the field with us. From playing together for 10 or 12 years now, coming up through with Loughmore-Castleiney, and now with Tipp as well, that just comes from time.
“I think it's through the whole Tipp team, though. Lads are getting a lot more used to each other now. And I suppose with myself and John, it's great.”
The current generation of McGraths doesn’t start and finish with Noel, John and Brian. Their elder sister Patricia is also a higher achiever, winning a number of county camogie titles as well as a Munster club championship with Drom-Inch.
The current Loughmore-Castliney senior hurling and football sides also features a few other McGraths. Liam, Ciaran, and Aidan would be first-cousins of Noel, while Tomás and Brian would be second cousins.
“It's from four different families,” says Noel. “It just happens to be a bunch of us at this stage that are all playing on the senior team and there are a few younger that aren't at senior level yet. Over the next few years a few of them might join us as well.”
A family like the McGrath’s reinforces the argument that there is such a thing as a GAA gene, but it’s also done them all no harm either to grow up in a parish like Loughmore-Castleiney where Gaelic Games has always been at the heart of the community.
“I suppose it's a bit of both,” says Noel. “Obviously natural talent comes into it, but you have to have people looking after you and you have to be willing to work hard and put in the work as well.
“I think it all binds in together and it all comes to one at the end. If you're going to work hard and you have that bit of talent it can make you that bit better. I suppose you just have to keep working and working on it, no matter what age you are.”
Noel proved beyond all doubt the has the work-ethic and mental strength to complement his natural skill by the manner in which he overcame a diagnosis of testicular cancer last year.
Just four months after undergoing surgery, he came on as a sub for Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway and received a standing ovation from both sets of supporters.
“It was a huge moment, really, considering what had gone before it,” admits Pat. “It was very emotional for us, I suppose, that particular moment. At the same time, that's in the past now and that's where he wants it left. He doesn't want these things brought up again and again.
“It has nothing to do with this year. It's gone and it's over. He dealt with it all very well, and in fairness to the County Board they dealt with it well too and didn't leave it to us to look after it.
“And the fact that he was diagnosed and the operation was over so quick that it was nearly all over and done with before we really knew the ins and the outs of it.
“But it was a tough few weeks, I suppose, really. And then you'd be wondering would he get back playing or would he get back the same level of form or would he have the same interest.
“He'd be more philosophical about life now, I suppose, but he still loves the hurling and didn't show any signs that he wanted to forget about hurling or football.
“He got back to business and he wants to be treated as equal as anyone else. He would feel he deserves no extra rights or anything like that, you know. He's the same as anyone else, a normal person, and that's the way he wants it to be now.”
Normalcy for a McGrath is sporting success. They have two All-Ireland senior hurling medals in the family as things stand, but could double that haul if things go their way on Sunday.
“Look it, it's all about this year really,” says Pat. “If the three of them come home with All-Ireland medals next Monday evening, we'll be over the moon. We won't be measuring one against the other or saying which one was the best one to win.
“We'll be just pure delighted that Tipperary have beaten Kilkenny in an All-Ireland Final, and as far as the minors go, you always love to see young lads winning because it gives them the appetite to go on for more.
“For the whole county, Tipp needs a win, especially over Kilkenny. If they won this one it would be nicely set up for them because Kilkenny have to be going down some bit. They can't stay at the top forever.
“Now is as good an opportunity for any team to take over from them. You'd hate to see them gone next June and that you wouldn't have had the privilege of beating them.”