Remembering John Keane’s rich heritage at Waterford Hurling
Tomás Ó Cinnéide remembers his uncle, Waterford howler John Keane, in a picture that flames through the past century.
“After my father died in 1941, we moved to the Barrack Street house. John still lived there and he took a particular interest in me as the only boy in my family, ”he told his cousin, David Smith.
“John married Aunt May in 1945, but he continued to take care of me and took me to games wherever he could. I vividly remember that 1948 game and coming back to Thurles from the pitch with John still in his arms, and the multitude of people cheering and kicking him on the back.
“But the memory that impressed me the most was the sight of both his hands covered in dried blood and his knuckles torn to rags. It made me realize that hurling was a man’s game and that there was a price to pay for all that cheering and slapping on the back.
John Keane is from a Extinct Ireland and has become one of the mythological creatures of an almost extinct game. All-Ireland champion Limerick heads to Waterford on Sunday amidst much worry and agony over the turning of the throw into a game that has become unrecognizable to his keepers. Keane’s stormy life is one of dense and pioneering accomplishments.
It is clear from the recollections of those who remember him that the man from Mount Zion was, in essence, an athletic freak. He excelled at it – swimming, gymnastics, Gaelic football, athletics. But screaming was his calling. Waterford was in the doldrums when he made his debut in 1935, aged 17 against Cork on a Sunday in February in the Mardyke.
Three years later, the county played its first senior All-Ireland final against Dublin. Keane was a veteran and established star when Waterford first won the Liam MacCarthy Cup a decade later in the 1948 final against Dublin. He retired two years later, but was back at Croke Park as the coach of the team that won Waterford’s next – and most recent – All-Ireland in 1959 against Kilkenny. His fingerprints are all over Mount Zion’s utter dominance of the local scene in the 1950s.
The story of her last days is remarkable, both deeply sad and wonderfully gallant. Gravely ill, Keane embarked on a private odyssey, traveling the country to visit rivals with whom he had developed lasting friendships. He was on his way to see Mick Mackey when he became weak on the Limerick Road and died shortly thereafter on October 1, 1975. Keane was only 58 years old.
“There has never been, and never will be, a bigger screamer than John Keane,” said a moving Mackey at his funeral.
And throughout his pitching career, Keane has been referred to in the superlative terms reserved for Christy Ring and Mackey. But in the 40 years since his untimely death, with precious little archive footage and the yellowing of newspaper clippings, he has sort of been erased from that equation.
“Personally, I think John is like Cúchulainn,” says David Smith.
“It’s as if it never existed but it is there in the consciousness of the people. Ah, the greatest howler, John Keane. That’s about all people know. That’s why I wanted to write this bloody book so badly.
In 2011, Smith published The Unconquerable Keane, an assiduously researched account of his uncle’s life that includes a plethora of interviews with family and friends. In Smith’s imagination, Keane always held a vivid place in which he could effortlessly transition from gargantuan howl to easygoing uncle.
“John was the second youngest in his house,” says Smith.
“My mom played camogie, so there was a strong bond between them. He was the youngest boy but he took care of everyone. He kept a close eye on the children of his siblings. For example, my father died at 44 from leukemia. My mother was left with six children and he was buried on his 40th birthday, October 9.
“John was in the background to make sure we were okay. He helped with money and to get things done for my mom. He had a group of children who always walked after him. I was one of those children. But it wasn’t John Keane the Great Howler. He was my uncle.
He also embodied Irish life after the Treaty, was intelligent and reduced his part-time schooling at the age of 15 so that he could work in the local lumber company and earn money for the family. He was physically striking, a born athlete able to walk along Barrack Street on his hands for pure good humor.
He was sociable by nature and well suited to be the publican he later became. Like many of his generation, he smoked relentlessly and became a pioneer after his marriage. But what has perhaps been forgotten, perhaps even in parts of Waterford, is the exalted esteem in which he was held. Here is a description in the Sunday Dispatch of his contribution to the Waterford Big Day in 1948.
“He inspired his colleagues to do their best all the time. He showcased his fellow attackers who benefited from Keane’s know-how and experience. . . He’s a net-conscious center-forward – a 31-year-old wizard whose opportunism, cunning, marksmanship and cooperation with his wingers combine to confuse the defense.
“In generations to come, when there is reference to Waterford breaking the ice by taking the 61st GAA Senior Hurling Championship, praise will be given to Keane’s great role in the 1948 decision maker.
“Not only was he the top scorer for the winners on September 5 – he waved five of Waterford’s thirteen flags, scoring three goals and two points out of a 6-7 total – but he was also the man of the match at first. ‘other respects. The sequel was that when the excitement really exploded, with the referee blowing full time and a glorious victory at Waterford, it was John Keane that most of the other players and thousands of supporters rushed to first. to congratulate him, hug him, kiss him. him, cry over him, wear him as a savage tribute all around Croke Park. . . it was the culmination of ten and a half years of athletic endeavor.
The hazy black and white film of the day survives, clear enough to give an impression of Keane’s strength and athleticism but not the quality of the hurling. At this point in his career, he was essentially in the moonlight as a forward, having originally established himself as a stellar center-back who stood out as Mackey’s main defensive opponent.
From their first exciting meeting, during the Munster Championship of 1937, they were linked: Waterford and Limerick were also for this generation of followers. It is for his defensive performances that the writer of the GAA Séamus Ó Bréanáin included Keane in the choice of the pitchers of a heightened era.
“It was a great age to be young and these great stars set our standards for us. . . It is difficult for the players we see today to achieve any eminence in our eyes: they inevitably have to stand the test in the face of a childhood vision of Ring, Mackey and Keane.
But time has obscured Keane from the public portrait of this triumvirate. Ring occupies a preeminent place in GAA folklore. Mick Mackey’s presence is linked to Limerick’s howl. Waterford, however, was a flickering presence on big racing days after Keane’s generation left the scene. Of the nine County Munster titles, Keane was directly involved in four.
From 1963 until the rebirth in 2002, Waterford remained untitled Munster: more time than enough for the legend of Keane to fade from mind and conversation.
Yet and all, he waltzed to the Century Hurling Team and was also picked, at number six, for the Millennium Hurling Team. Achievements are the gold standard even though Waterford is easy going with it.
“We’re called Gentle County,” Smith says. “We’re not raising our voices at all. Waterford is a small county and we are suffering from it. He was as good as the others but without the political influence that people who saw him play knew how good he was. There is no movie of them. Along with Shefflin, Carey and Ken McGrath, there is video evidence of what they did.
Pat Fanning, the former GAA chairman and longtime friend, told Smith they knew Keane was doing badly in the fall of 1975. He had circulation problems, especially in his legs, which resulted in pain. heart complications.
“John would have taken a lot of kicks to his legs while screaming. It probably didn’t help either, ”says Smith.
The idea of amputation had been discussed. Keane told Fanning, “I’d rather go whole.”
Whether despite his condition or because of his condition, he drove out the last week of September, heading first to see Jimmy Langton in Kilkenny for a night out. Then he walked over to Cork to meet Jack Barrett. From there he traveled to Tralee, where former Limerick player Jackie Power lived.
“They were wonderful friends,” says David Smith.
One can only guess at the conversations and what the other Howlers made of Keane’s impulsive visit. The family believe they probably guessed the reason.
“I think they must have known,” says Smith.
“Pat Fanning told me he was obviously dying. Pat was amazed he had made it as far as he did. He never questioned John about it, even though they were as close as brothers. John had to know. He was a very intelligent man.
Mick Mackey was supposed to be next on the tour, but he only made it to Tarbert. A few days later, many of the old men Keane had played against made their own pilgrimage to see him buried.
Long after their retirement, the sight of the swirling Limerick and Waterford colors still conjures up a vision of Keane and Mackey locked in competition. Time has diluted these images, but current conversations about what happened to the howl can be traced in the closeness and ferocity of these phosphorescent duels.
Their rivalry on the pitch rivaled a generation for whom distractions were rare – and their friendship continued to the very end. John Keane would sometimes say, “If I couldn’t live in Waterford, I would choose Limerick.”
No top compliments.
The Unconquerable Keane is available free in e-book format. Anyone wishing to receive a copy can contact the author at [email protected]