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John Keane

Margaret Aylward Dr Edward Barron Philip Barron Denis Cashman Raymond Chandler Paddy Coad Patrick Comerford Donncha Ruadh Val Doonican Sean Dunne Frank Edwards Alfie Hale John M Hearne William Hobson Dr Thomas Hussey Charles Kean John Keane Edmund Leamy D. P. Moran Gen Dick Mulcahy James Nash Peter O'Connor Jas Louis O'Donnell Pádraig Ó Fainín Gilbert O'Sullivan John Redmond Edmund I Rice James Rice, Mayor Lord Roberts V. C. John Roberts Frank Ryan Thomas Sexton Archbishop Sheehan Susan Smith John Treacy Luke Wadding William V. Wallace Cardinal Wiseman Bullocks Wyse Lucien Bonaparte Wyse





Waterford’s Hurling Hercules

You’ve heard of Seán Óg’s Rockies,
Kilkenny’s Tullaroan,
You’ve heard of Limerick’s Éire Óg,
And Waterford’s Erins Own
They all can wield the ash, boys, but
Come on, come with us join,
For the best of all, both big and small,
Are the hurlers of Mount Sion

                                                                                   The above anthem has been sung by Mount Sion hurlers, in victory or defeat, since it was first composed in the 1930’s by Bro. A. S. Malone, one of the founders of the club. Composed originally as a rallying song for a team of young schoolboys it has now become the club anthem - the Mount Sion song. Although John Keane was not a member of the young team commemorated in the song, he was waiting in the wings, as it were, and very shortly afterwards he burst on the scene as one of the stars of the Waterford Minor hurling team – he was still only fifteen.  It would appear that his future career in hurling was already mapped out, but hurling has seen many false dawns. Not so with Keane. From the very earliest beginning many people suspected that here was one of the greatest in the making.

Growing up in Ireland in the 1930’s one had few opportunities to break out of life on the streets. We could not aspire to be great politicians, doctors, lawyers etc. but we could all dream of being great hurlers and thereby gain the adulation of people like ourselves. John Keane was THE HERO and he remained so all through his illustrious career and on through his retirement. In the 1930’s and on through the 1940’s John Keane of Mount Sion and Waterford was a hero to every boy who held a hurley and who dreamed of hurling glory for his team and county. He was our Hercules and Cuchulainn rolled into one. With his magnificent physique, his electrifying presence on the field of play, his graciousness towards opponents and his manly behaviour, he was the Corinthian ideal made flesh. As he walked the streets of Waterford he usually had a posse of young boys following him at a respectful distance, too much in awe of the great man to approach him. If only they had known! Donal Foley wrote of him, in the Irish Times

“…whenever hurling connoisseurs meet, his name is mentioned in the same breath as men such as Mick Mackey, Lory Meagher or Christy Ring, for John Keane was of that great mould of powerful athlete.  Indeed, for nearly twenty years the most reassuring sight in the Waterford team for supporters was that of John Keane’s towering figure at centre half back and later at centre forward.  He was a big handsome man, enormously skillful, fearless, fast and scrupulously fair.  John always played the ball and what a joy it was to see him jump into the air and bring the ball down to his hand.  His clearances of the ball were always lengthy and well placed, never haphazard.

John came from a family steeped in the tradition of Gaelic Ireland. His childhood years were spent among like-minded neighbours in the city’s Barrack Street and when it became time to attend school he was enrolled in Mount Sion, that cradle of all things Gaelic and Nationalist. He played hurling, of course and he took to the game as a duck takes to water. John first wore the Waterford colours when, on Sunday May 15, 1932 he played at centre field as Waterford defeated Cork in the Munster minor championship. He was only 15 years old.

The year 1934, marked our hero’s first emergence on to the national stage when, although still a minor, he starred at full-back as Waterford won the All-Ireland junior hurling title for only the second time. He made such an impression that the selectors called him up as a corner back to the senior team later in the same year and so, at seventeen years of age, John was started on his memorable career. He was still a schoolboy at this time, and a report in the Waterford News of 2/3/1935 on the Harty Cup game that Mount Sion won on a score of 11-6 to Newcastle West's 0-2 said that "Outstanding for Sion were Keane, and Fleming".  Both became legends of the game in Waterford and nationwide and were to go on to become All Ireland senior medal winners with Waterford in 1948.

John's name became a household word throughout the nation when, in 1937, against the mighty Limerick team that beat Waterford in the Munster championship by two points, 3-4 to 3-2, he gave an outstanding individual performance in holding scoreless the great Mick Mackey. The Waterford News of July 9th 1937 reported that "…A feature of the game was the manner in which John Keane suppressed Mick Mackey".

Green Flag, writing in the Irish Press of the following day, July 5th 1937 said…"The hero of the day was John Keane, the Waterford centre half-back who was the inspiration of his side and the master of the redoubtable Mick Mackey right through the hour." On the following day Green Flag again referred to the game and wrote of John"The fair-haired Mount Sion youth, John Keane, whom I admired a couple of years ago as a minor, was the spanner in the Shannonside scoring machine - he was like a man on springs - nimble and fast…" All those who saw his display that day will, surely, never forget the titanic struggle between the master and the young, 20 year old giant. That day we saw the full blossoming of a great centre half back, whose skill and daring and incomparable sportsmanship were to fire the blood and grip the imagination of all Ireland. To quote the old cliché, Waterford brought a boy to Clonmel - they brought back a star.

His first Railway Cup honour came his way that same year and, in all, he lined out nine times for Munster, winning seven medals. The following year, 1938, saw Waterford in the All-Ireland final with John, at 21 years of age and playing in his stockinged feet, starring at centre-half back as Waterford were beaten by Dublin, 2-5 to 1-6. John was Waterford's leading scorer with four points of Waterford’s total.                                                                                                    After Limerick won the All-Ireland title in 1940, their first game in the National League was against Waterford  in the Sportsfield, Waterford.  The Waterford News columnist, Gorm is Bán, wrote in his preview of the game, 

"It should be a great game and well worth going to see, if only for the clashes between the Limerick half-forwards and the Waterford half-back line - Mick Mackey will be 'all-out' to best the unconquerable Keane, but on current form John is more than able to hold his own with all-comers…"

In the 1940’s a brilliant Cork team won an historic four titles in a row, Tipperary won in 1945, Cork again were the winners in 1946 and Kilkenny won in 1947. The year 1948 was, for Waterford , the greatest up until then and the frustrating years when Waterford might have won it all, but didn’t, were all forgotten as they powered their way through Munster, hammered Galway and, finally, overwhelmed Dublin’s “greyhounds” on a score of 6-7 to 4-2. John was the engineer and master architect of that victory. Playing at centre forward he was again Waterford's leading scorer with two goals and two points and he “made” most of the other scores. His performance was that of a master craftsman who had learned all that there was to know about hurling and who, now, was giving a master-class on centre forward play.                                                           

John retired from playing inter-county hurling in 1951 but he remained on to play for and train and coach his club, Mount Sion, to further glory. In the next few years the Mount Sion forward line was referred to as "John Keane's scoring machine." John was the trainer when Waterford won the All-Ireland title in 1959 and so he joined that very select band of men who have won All-Ireland titles as a player and as a trainer.

The following is an extract from an article in An Déiseach, 1974 written by John’s great friend and colleague Pat Fanning, GAA President 1970-73.  

“He never spared himself.  He turned out in match after match, county and inter-county, championship, challenge and tournament, winter and summer, never counting the personal cost where the honour of his Club or his County was concerned.

Still the coveted All-Ireland medal evaded him.  For years the Waterford defence had defied the might of Munster, but a lack of decisiveness in attack could not command the victory a sterling defence deserved.  The advent of John Keane to the forty yards made all the difference.  He brought a new type of play to the attack and turned his great experience as a defender to good account in outwitting the best backs in Clare, Cork, Galway and, finally, Dublin in the great victorious All Ireland of 1948.

Looking back briefly in one final glance at the saga of one man’s herculean efforts in the cause of Gaeldom, memories come crowding in.  The writer recalls 1937 at Clonmel.  The strapping figure in blue and white thwarting the great Mick Mackey; the blonde, curly head bobbing as Keane threw back attack after attack in one of the truly great games of the Munster championship.

Then came the greatest display of courage and determination and, perhaps, his greatest personal triumph – his epic display at Dungarvan in 1943 against Tipperary, when with a badly injured ankle he stood at centre half and almost alone broke the back of every Tipperary attack.   Well do I remember cutting the boot from his swollen leg at the end of that excruciating hour.  And I recall, too, the old wizened man of Tipperary who pushed his way through the crowd to where John lay, to shake, as he said, ‘the hand of John Keane, the greatest man in Ireland’.  

In 1984 the Sunday Independent had a competition to select the greatest hurling team of the century and John was selected at centre half back. What is not generally known is that his vote was split between centre back and centre forward and it was said that he finished second in the poll for centre forward. In the year 2000, to mark the Millennium, the Cork Examiner asked a select panel of hurlers and journalists to select the greatest Munster team of all time and John was again selected at centre back. The ultimate honour came his way later in the year 2000 when a distinguished body of hurling men, comprising the Past Presidents of the GAA and hurling journalists selected the Hurling Team of the Millennium – and again John was selected at centre back copper-fastening his place as one of the all-time greats of the game.

John Keane died in October 1975 and there were many tributes paid to him in the National Press.

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