A Family Affair: Pat McGrath enters Hall of Fame
A Family Affair: Pat McGrath enters Hall of Fame
In an interview with GAA.ie last year, Ken McGrath was asked to select his childhood sporting hero. Without hesitation he said his father, Pat.
By Brian Murphy
Ken was used to following in his father's footsteps, first with Mount Sion and then, just like Pat, as one of the most celebrated hurlers of his generation with Waterford.
When Ken led the 'Legends' tour of the GAA Museum last July, he spoke fondly about the quiet influence his father had on his career, about the constant encouragement and support he could rely on from home.
It was apt then, less than a year on, that Pat was himself honoured when he was inducted into the GAA Museum's Hall of Fame, a fitting recognition for his own career on a less celebrated Déise side in the 1970s and '80s.
Kilkenny's nine-time All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Noel Skehan, a fellow Hall of Fame inductee on the day, remembers Pat McGrath well.
"I played against Pat several times. He was a stylish centre-back, a very good hurler, left and right. You see Ken and Eoin McGrath and you realise it didn't fall off a tree."
It wasn't just his hurling ability that he passed on to his famous sons; watching footage of Pat McGrath from the height of his career, it is hard to ignore the similarities with Ken, not only in their style of play but in their appearance. "It's like looking at Ken with a beard," someone quipped at his formal induction in the GAA Museum auditorium in Croke Park last week.
"For once, I am following in his footsteps," says Pat in an interview with GAA.ie. "Waterford had good times back then, but never won the big one in my time or Ken's.
"I didn't believe it to be honest, I thought it was a joke at first. It was Ken who rang me and said Joanne (Clarke, GAA Museum curator) rang from Croke Park. I said, 'You're codding me?'
"We didn't win much with Waterford when I was playing in the 1970s. But I was delighted for the family and the club and of course for Waterford."
While Ken won four Munster Championship medals with the Déise and many individual accolades, Pat toiled for 16 years (1971-86) in the blue and white jersey without much reward.
He captained the Déise to a Munster U21 title in 1974 but they were beaten by a point in the All-Ireland final by Kilkenny. The closest he ever came to winning Munster with the senior side was in 1982 and '83, but Cork beat them heavily in the final on both occasions.
"We don't want to think about them, they were disasters!" he says. "We were going well at the time and expected to do well and perform and we just never did. In fairness Cork had a good team, which they proved afterwards.
"The second game was up in Limerick and we did alright for a while but the goals went in and they would kill any team. Even now with Waterford in the league, goals go in against you and the confidence goes down with fellas."
With Munster, he won Railway Cup titles in 1976 and '78, while it was with his club Mount Sion that he enjoyed his greatest days on a hurling field, winning seven Waterford Senior Hurling Championships and a Munster Club title.
Back then, playing inter-county hurling for Waterford was far less glamorous than it is today. Pat was at his peak at a particularly bleak time for the senior side.
"We'd probably get 800 at a league game and way more at home than away," he recalls. "Now the players are known because there are a lot more people going to games and watching them on television over the last few years.
"You wouldn't get the recognition the lads (Ken and Eoin) got but you would still be known as a hurler in Waterford and in your area. But it was a different ball game then.
"But the hurling was always strong, especially club hurling. You could match anyone outside the county or in Ireland at club level and you'd give them a game or beat them.
"Hurling was always there and any time I put on a Waterford jersey I expected to win. That's the way you have to be. It doesn't always happen but that's the way you have to be. But there were a lot of fellas on the Waterford team when I was playing and they could get on any team.
"We often gave the likes of Cork a good game, but we might run out of steam in the last 10 minutes. Maybe they were doing more training than we were, but when the likes of Joe McGrath came in to Waterford in the late 1970s, early 1980s he brought it to a different level. Maybe fitness is where we fell down before that. We were as good hurling-wise as any other team, though."
Pat learned the game playing as a child on the warren of streets around Walsh Park in Waterford City, or 'the top of the town' as it is known locally. He crossed paths with famous names such as Larry Guinan, Dicky Roche, Frankie Walsh and Séamus Power in street leagues before making his way down to Mount Sion.
(Pat McGrath, left, pictured with his four sons in 1995. Photo courtesy of Mount Sion GAA Club)
It was in that hotbed of hurling, in a small area of Waterford City surrounded on all sides by the famous De La Salle, Roanmore and Mount Sion Clubs, that Pat reared his four young sons.
"They were always interested and I always brought them along to the matches. They were playing since they were four or five with Mount Sion. You might go up to the club at that time on a Saturday and there would be 150 young fellas hurling, which was great.
"They developed a love of the game over the years and they really enjoyed it. You have to enjoy it too. You can't have hardship the whole time, you have to go out and want to play which they did."
Both Ken and Eoin went on to follow in his footsteps, enjoying stellar inter-county careers at a time when, after years of heartache, success finally returned to the south-east and the Waterford public fell in love with their team.
In an interview with GAA.ie last year ahead of his Legends Tour , Ken spoke about the 2002 Munster final win over Tipperary and the bond that developed between the team and the Waterford public.
"We consider ourselves a hurling county and 39 years without winning one was a disaster really. From that day on, after beating Tipperary in the Munster final, the county really got behind the team because there were some good characters in our team and we played a good brand of hurling. I think when we opened our shoulders we played lovely hurling and that's what people enjoyed.
"In those days, a lot of that team were in our peak years, 25 or 26, full of confidence. We loved it. The bigger the crowd the better. We would relish the big games and embrace the experience.
"But we loved playing in front of the crowds and people didn't have to worry about work, everyone was working, doing well, and hurling was seen as something to go off and enjoy."
Watching his sons achieve what had eluded him gave Pat great joy. He went to every game during that golden period, pucked every ball.
"I was delighted for them. When they have the interest you are delighted when they achieve something," he says.
"I would always go to all their games. I would never tell them that they should be doing this or that because every individual is different and they all have their own way of playing.
"You would always encourage them and say, 'you did well today'. Even if they didn't you would tell them they did alright to give them a bit of confidence so they will go better the next day."
Ultimately, Pat's dream of watching one of his sons win an All-Ireland title remained unfulfilled. At the time he said he would 'die happy' if they beat Kilkenny in the 2008 final, but just like Ken, now he says he can look back on those days without resentment and with great fondness.
"I was disappointed because they were a good team, probably good enough to win it. They went close a lot of times, and I know Kilkenny hammered them in the All-Ireland final (in 2008) but I think if they had made it to an All-Ireland final they might have won one or two afterwards. But they never got there at that time. A few of the lads were getting on a bit when they played Kilkenny and the pity is that they didn't make it a few years earlier.
"There was a great buzz down in Waterford at the time and there were thousands following them. We had great days out. We had disappointing days too but the good days outweighed the bad. It was great for the lads to experience that."