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An appreciation:                              

By Seamus Ó’Braonáin

Since the strength of the hurling game anywhere lies at least partly in the collective wisdom, experience and enthusiasm of the past generations of the great exponents of the game, there is no doubt at all that Munster in general, and Waterford, in particular, are weaker and poorer for the death of John Keane.

We heard the news, rough and ready, when we went to buy the morning paper on an early October Tuesday. The newsagent gave it out straight from the shoulder: “Did you hear that John Keane is dead?: He had taken ill the previous evening…..at Tarbert.. (was) then rushed to Limerick Hospital but he died on the way.

John’s sentiment which we had several times heard him express, “If I couldn’t
live in Waterford, then Limerick is where I would chose,” had proven true in death rather than in life.  We, too, died a little that grey October morning.

For John Keane was not only a valued and a dear friend for a number of years: not only one of the most marvellously exciting men to spend hours in conversation with, listening to his analysis, thesis and synthesis on hurling and hurlers: not only one of the greatest (many say THE greatest!) hurlers of all time who could play anywhere with equal magnificence: not only a great trainer, teacher, motivator of younger hurlers: not only a kindly and sensitive gentleman: he was also our original boyhood hero, the sandy-blond, clean-cut, classicist for whom we would have fought, with tooth and nail, anyone who dared cast the slightest aspersion on his perfection.  And heroes ought not grow old.  And heroes simply should not die. So we died a little as the lost youth still hidden out of sight within us died at last. We were not alone: it was easy to see at the massive homecoming funeral in the rain and at the burial overlooking the broad sands of Tramore.

There is an inherent danger in making the acquaintance of one’s boyhood heroes: they tend, on closer contact, to have feet of clay. Idolatry does not suit human beings for they are by nature unable to sustain the ideals which little boys build about them. It was, therefore, many a long day before we met and spoke to John Keane on any basis of friendship. It has been a cause of deep regret ever since that we did not seek out his company earlier, for no man lived up to what one’s boyhood ideal made him as did John. He had an insatiable thirst for hurling, so he never, never tired of talking with total absorption to even the most repetitious bores. He could leave one after an hour of enthusiastic discussion and meet another as he walked away and would still greet him as a long lost friend and begin to talk all over again. And it wasn’t diplomacy, tact or advantage. It was simply that John Keane loved hurling so much and knew and understood, deep in his heart, the way the people felt about hurling and how they wanted to touch the edge of the garment of the man who made them feel so proud.

There are many stories that illustrate this. One of the best is probably that of the man who had cycled the thirty or so miles to one of those epics in the late thirties at Clonmel, which Waterford lost. Steering along the street after the game, he suddenly spotted Keane in his ordinary clothes walking to the team’s hotel. In his excitement at recognising him and never having seen him except in hurling togs, he lost all his bearings and shouting out: “Poor John Keane, it wasn’t your fault, anyway,” he cycled straight up on the pavement and crashed into a shop-front, his eyes still on his hero.  Keane went to his rescue with the others nearby. [The man] was patched up and brought home. But John went to the trouble of finding out who the man was, where he lived, and from that day until he died used to drop in to the home of that man to say a few words when he was in the area.

You see, it doesn’t matter at all whether they put Keane up at No. 1 or 2 or 3 on the All-Time-Greats, or whether he is put, undeservedly, lower down. Hurling alone did not make the man. As the modern phrase goes: he was a great human being, apart from the hurling.  Yet, the hurling is important for those who did not know him personally or for the record of history. And in this regard we remember once questioning him about Mick Mackey, and how it was that he managed to subdue him – the only man to do so, it is said.

“Well,” he said, “I was a terribly long time thinking about it. God forgive me, even at Mass it used to come into my head. But, in the end I decided that there was only one possible way

to beat Mackey – get out in front of him for every ball and never let it reach him at all.”
“But, John,” we said, “weren’t you taking a terrible risk.  Supposing you missed the ball, Mackey would be through on his own.”
“Ah, but that’s the thing, you see,” said John as though speaking to a rather dense child, 

“I wouldn’t miss.”

The above was first published in Gaelic Sport, November 1975 edition.

The following is an extract from the book, Giants of the Ash by Brendan Fullam.

There are occasions in life when certain strange forces converge and combine to urge people onwards to special missions. Such was the case with John Keane. He was unwell. He journeyed to Kilkenny; back to his native Waterford; onward to Cork; thence to Tralee to his former Limerick rival and Munster colleague (Jackie Power); and more than likely he had planned to come back through Tipperary to Waterford.  Pat Fanning told me the rest of the story when I visited him in 1990.

John Keane died in October 1975 and to the day of his death on a lonely road between Tralee and Limerick, he loved and breathed the spirit of hurling and [he] remained the happiest of men in the company of hurling men. John knew that he was ill and one suspected that he knew he was not long for this world. But the courage, allied to a great natural skill, that had made him one of the hurling giants, sustained him in that last illness, an illness with pain that might have withered a lesser man. The story of his last few days deserves telling, if only to illustrate his love of hurling and of the hurling rivals whose friendship he treasured.

He was ill and he travelled to Kilkenny where he spent a night with Jim Langton, recalling past encounters. Back to Waterford, a fitful nights rest and off to Kinsale in Co. Cork, there to rake up old memories with great-hearted Jack Barrett. Then on to Tralee, where he met and talked with a man he admired greatly, Jackie Power of Limerick. The following morning he took off for Limerick, anxious to meet old enemies and great friends like Mick Mackey and Paddy Clohessy and Timmy Ryan and the rest of them. He had a particular grádh for the Limerick men of that era. He never reached Limerick: he died by the wayside, his journey incomplete. They took him to Limerick, where all Munster honoured him, before he was taken home to his beloved Waterford and Mount Sion.

I chose to regard John’s last journey as the pilgrimage of a man who knew his days were numbered and who wished to meet again some of the men with whom he had given so much of himself on the fields of Ireland. John Keane couldn’t have had, nor would he have wished for, a more fitting end’. 

The following appreciation is by Tom Browne, Evening Press.

We all died a little last weekend when the news reached us that John Keane had died quite suddenly at the ridiculously early age of 58. John seemed so full of life, because he was always so full of enthusiasm for his favourite subject - hurling. …A great hurler. No more needs to be said, for it hardly matters now whether you rank him No. 1 or 2 or 3 in the list of all-time greats. Those who saw him play cherish the experience as one that will never be repeated or copied. Centre-back, fullback, centre-forward: it wouldn’t matter to Keane for he could be and was among the greats in all those positions. … He is irreplaceable, for he was unique. That uniqueness was not only because of his hurling – though that was unparalleled – but also because of his special human qualities. Since his death several hundred people have told me that they themselves or their fathers, uncles or other relatives were great personal friends of John. They were. He made them feel so. No sportsman I have known gave so much of himself to his fans.  Somehow he had an innate understanding of what it meant to ordinary people to be able to say they had a chat with John Keane the other day.

‘What John Keane?’

‘There is only one John Keane. 

John Keane  - The great hurler, of course’.                             

The following is by Tom Morrison, Evening Echo, 10/10/1975

John Keane – Hurler Supreme And Outstanding Sportsman

The Gaelic Athletic Association lost another outstanding figure last week when the immortal John Keane died unexpectedly at an early age of 58. The late Waterford-born star was one of the greatest hurlers ever to wear the "white and blue" colours and graced the inter-county scene for eighteen years during which he crossed camans with such great stalwarts as the Mackey's, Jackie Power, Mick Kennedy and Paddy Clohessy (Limerick), Jim Young, Jack Lynch and Jack Barrett of Cork, Dublin's Harry Gray, Mick Gill, Seán Óg O'Callaghan and Jim Prior, and John Maher, Tommy Purcell, "Mutt" Ryan and Tony Brennan from the Premier county including many more brilliant top-class players at club and county level.

John Keane's inter-county county career began in 1934 when playing at full-back, he won an All-Ireland junior hurling medal when Waterford beat Kildare and London respectively to bring the second title in this grade to the county and he played such a major role in that victory that the senior selectors called him into action towards the close of the same season for a league game.  So at the tender age of 17 John Keane made his debut in senior ranks. A couple of lean years passed before Waterford gave warning that they were about to make the big breakthrough when they ran Limerickto two points 3-4 to 3-2 in the 1937 championship. That day John was marking the brilliant Mick Mackey and gave an outstanding individual performance in containing the Ahane man.

The following season he again starred in the centre-back position and under Mick Hickey's captaincy, the Decies thundered through the Munster championship only to fail at the final obstacle when it seemed that the first All-Ireland senior crown was within their grasp. In the final they faced Dublin and in a low-scoring game the Metropolitans came out on top to win by 2-5 to 1-6 before 37,129 spectators. The war came and went and Cork won the historic four-in-a-row before Tipperary recovered to win out the 1945 championship. Cork led by the famous Christy Ring won their sixteenth national title in '46 and along came Kilkenny to turn the tables on tile Corkmen with a brilliant display to take the 1947 Liam McCarthy Cup.

For John Keane, Christy Moylan and Mick Hickey the year 1948 must have been the! greatest in their entire careers. Ten years and one day previously they had been beaten by Dublin before some frustrating years followed. Years Waterford might have won it out and didn't. It was John and his comrades who had carried the Decies into the front-ranks of hurling through that '48 season and saw their efforts crowned when Dublin fell before 61,472 spectators on September 5, at Headquarters.

The one-time peerless centre-back finished a wonderful inter-county career by winning that long-awaited All-Ireland medal at centre forward and scored a grand total of three goals and two points in Waterford's 6-7 to 4-2 victory. But great though the jubilation was that the senior title had been won at last, those who looked to the future of hurling in Waterford were more pleased with the county's minor victory on the same afternoon. Led by Mick Flannelly, the new Munster champions beat Kilkenny to win the country's second under-age title.
John retired from inter-county competition in 1952 after a long and wonderful career during which he won nearly every honour in the game including thirteen senior hurling championship medals with his club Mount Sion.  A totally dedicated G.A.A. man, he was also treasurer of the County Board and selector, trainer and coach to the Waterford team between 1957 and 1963 when they won three Munster championships, one All-Ireland and League and Oireachtas competitions.

At his funeral, in Tramore last Saturday, which was one of the largest seen for many a long time, a number of past and present stars paid their last respect to a wonderful gael. Among the many were Mr. Jack Lynch leader of the Opposition: Mr. Seán Ó Síocháin, General Secretary of the G.A.A. and the former President Mr. Pat Fanning who is of course the Waterford County Board chairman.

To his wife, sons, daughters and many relatives -- we wish our deepest sympathy.

John Keane: The Complete Hurler


John Keane was, for me, the greatest hurler the City of Waterford ever produced, and I say that with due respect to such talented performers as old friend Charlie Ware, Philly Grimes, Frankie Walsh and the late Sonny Wyse.

But there was only one John Keane. I first met him when he was a tall stripling with all his fame before him. He was cheering on the sideline in Willie Walsh's old Waterford Sportsfield for the South Kilkenny parish of Mooncoin, which was playing a Cork club in a tournament game. But there was good reason for the young Keane's temporary support of the Kilkenny men. Another Waterford-born hurler, the late and still lamented Loughlin Byrne, was then in the green and white Mooncoin jersey. I suspect the same "Locky" Byrne was by way of being Keane's hurling hero in those long-gone days. That evening in the Sportsfield must be all of 40 years ago now, but I count it a great honour to have remained a friend of Keane's ever since then until his unexpected passing last week

Keane at centre half-back was the complete hurler. On the ground or in the air, whether the game was hard and close or fast and open, on a soft sod or an iron-hard pitch, he was equally skilled, equally masterful.

He was the only man I ever saw out-hurl Mick Mackey in a Munster championship game when Tyler's great son was at his peak, and I count Mackey in his prime the best man I have ever seen on a hurling field.

I felt a sense of personal satisfaction when Keane at last won that elusive All-Ireland medal in 1948, although, by then, to those who remembered the epic years of his youthful glory, he already, at centre forward now, was slightly reminiscent of Oisín in ndhiaidh na Féinne.

Our meetings in recent years had been all too few and all too far between; he always remained the same quiet, friendly, humorous and utterly modest man I had first met when he was an eager boy by Suirside long ago. For nearly 20 years, Keane's was a name to conjure with on the hurling fields of Waterford, of Munster and of Ireland. He lived and died a credit to his club, his city, his county, and to the game he loved. Ní bheidh a shamháil le fághail again.

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