Ken McGrath ~ My Hurling Hero

Ken McGrath is best known as one of the greatest hurlers who has ever played for Co. Waterford. He is undeniably one of the absolute greats and has been an inspiration to a whole generation of kids, including my son, who grew up with the height of admiration for a Waterford Team who served up some of the most inspired and magical sporting moments we will ever know.

Ken McGrath Celebrating Victory in the 2004 Munster Hurling Championship Source: INPHO
Ken McGrath Celebrating Victory in the 2002 Munster Hurling Final Victory
Source: INPHO

Ken was a true leader, battler, fighter and talent alongside Co. Waterford greats including, Paul Flynn, John Mullane, Tony Browne ….. the list goes on and on.

BUT, for me, Ken McGrath will always be associated with altruism, pure heart and two astonishing meetings associated with my late mother.

I wasn’t able to attend my mother’s cremation in June 2009 and decided to go swimming instead at one of the off-the-beaten coves along the Co. Waterford Coast with my fourteen year-old son. I was still half dressed in funeral attire when I bumped into Ken McGrath who had just been for a swim in preparation for a big Inter-County Match a few days later.

We were passing acquaintances but he seemed to recognise that I wasn’t quite myself and stopped and asked how I was. I told him that Mother had died and was being cremated as we spoke. His sympathy was overwhelming and he stayed talking for some time, noting how all that had been on his mind was his ‘knees.’

By amazing coincidence, I met him in the exact same spot the following year on Mother’s anniversary and he remembered everything about the previous meeting. Again, we stopped and talked and his supreme kindness and obvious concern for others was palpable.

Over Christmas, Ken was struck down by a very serious illness that has led to open heart surgery and the prospect of very lengthy rehabilitation.  My heart goes out to him ~ as one of Ireland’s greatest sportsmen of our time. It comes as absolutely no surprise whatever that the hurling world has united to support this man of supreme talent and heart and tomorrow evening Walshe Park in Waterford City will host a fundraising game between the legends of  Munster and Leinster hurling in his honour.

Ken McGrath: All Star Challenge Ticket
Ken McGrath: All Star Challenge Ticket

I have my ticket safely tucked away and I can’t even begin to imagine the depths of emotion that that will be unleashed as the greatest hurlers that I have ever known take to the field to honour a man who has been such a servant to Co. Waterford.

More than anything, I want to wish Ken well and thank him for being such  comfort on days when I needed comforting. Now, the roles are reversed and, yes, I’ll be there cheering my heart out for a man who is an absolute hero.


Co. Waterford ABC ~ H is for Hurling

Co. Waterford ABC is a feature here on Social Bridge where I am identifying my highlights of  this diverse county in Ireland where I was born and which has been ‘home’ for the last 26 years. There will be just 26 posts ~ one for each letter of the alphabet and I hope you will join me in discussing your views about the places, people,  events, things that I select. Would you have chosen differently? In a county with such natural beauty and diversity in terms of history and heritage, one could quite easily identify 26+  highlights for each letter! 

See all previous posts in this series

Map of Co. Waterford (Click to Zoom)
Map of Co. Waterford
(Click to Zoom)

Championship Hurling is arguably the most unifying force in Co. Waterford and it evokes extraordinary pride, passion and sense of ‘belonging.’

I grew up hearing  all about the great Waterford Teams of 1948 and 1959 from my father who was working in Waterford City at that time. These were the years when Waterford won the All-Ireland Championship and the legendary  John Keane is the name that is very much associated with that golden era. It is so fitting that  Walsh Park in Waterford, which is the main hurling ground in the county, is situated on Keane’s Road.

The next golden era in Co. Waterford hurling started in 2002, the year that I happened to introduce my young son of 7 to the game here in Tramore.  So many great names and players including, Paul Flynn, Ken McGrath, John Mullane Eoin Kelly, Tony Browne …..

Hurling 2

The Waterford Team, under the management of Davy Fitzgerald, reached the final of the All-Ireland Championship in 2008.  The whole county was in a frenzy of excitement as our hurling heroes squared up to the might of neighbouring Kilkenny.  Even though Waterford lost, the homecoming for the team in Waterford was a night that will live long in the collective memory with Don’t Stop Believin’ echoing right along the Quay as the open top bus made its way through the thousands of supporters who turned out for the momentous occasion.

Hopes are again running very high in Co. Waterford at as our Minor Team is getting ready to play in the All-Ireland Final in Croke Park this coming Sunday.

Co. Waterford ABC ~ E is for Essence

Co. Waterford ABC is a feature here on Social Bridge where I am identifying my highlights of  this diverse county in Ireland where I was born and which has been ‘home’ for the last 26 years. There will be just 26 posts ~ one for each letter of the alphabet and I hope you will join me in discussing your views about the places, people,  events, things that I select. Would you have chosen differently? In a county with such natural beauty and diversity in terms of history and heritage, one could quite easily identify 26+  highlights for each letter!  (  See All Posts in this Series:

Map of Co. Waterford(Click on Map to Zoom)
Map of Co. Waterford
(Click on Map to Zoom)

I have been wondering for  a while if I dare write about the ‘Essence’ of  Co. Waterford; what are the fundamental features of this ‘home’ county of  mine?  Yes, I do dare and I truly hope that others will add to this bubbling pot of words that have danced off all my senses. 

On February 1, I took off before sunrise to walk around Tramore Beach and Backstrand to celebrate the move into spring. So much of the essence of my Co. Waterford engulfed me in those three delicious hours. Huge waves crashed onto the shore spraying me with the salty invigorating air that I have so long associated with Co. Waterford. The grasses on the dunes glinted as the breeze combed the flowing locks of  the waking beauty.

As the sun rose, my mind was drawn around Brownstown Head, passed Dunmore East and up the Estuary to Waterford City. I had sat in the Tower Hotel , late the night before, just across from historic Reginald’s Tower.  I had been transfixed with thoughts of the history associated with Waterford City, the oldest city in Ireland, as I watched the traffic coming along the Quay and rounding the corner at Reginald’s Tower.  Thoughts of the centrality of Reginald’s Tower to the defence of Waterford; a fleeting glimpse of my late father running towards his ‘digs’ on the Mall in the  1940s; eyes caught by the imposing statue of Thomas Francis Meagher and fascination with his connections to such places as France, Fredericksburg and Montana which have come to have meaning for me too through life’s weavings.

Reginald's Tower, Waterford
Reginald’s Tower, Waterford

A glance back along Tramore Beach before rounding the bend at the channel and the whole coast presented itself ~ the magic of the Copper Coast, Dungarvan, the Ring Penninsula, Ardmore ~ a wondrous stretch of coastline, each place with its uniqueness, history and colour. I wondered if  Pride and Joy was safely moored at Boatstrand. Its name has long captured my imagination in a beautiful harbour that exudes Co. Waterford for me.

Walking along the Backstrand, the mountains of Co. Waterford come into view. Thoughts of Mahon Falls; the stunning scenery of the Nire Valley; West Waterford and the Blackwater Valley. Anticipation  of this years Immrama Travel Writers’ Festival in Lismore; stolen visits to Lismore Castle, Mount Melleray, the old world beauty of Cappoquin.

As I near Tramore, the town that is ‘home’ is lit by the morning sun. I meet Mark Roper and Paddy Dwan, who have such passion for the Backstrand and Co. Waterford generally.  Tramore continues to look down; the Racecourse stands out with its long history and at the other side of the town, above the Doneraile walk, is Tramore Tennis Club, which has such personal meaning for me and which is now the proud club of so many of Ireland’s young tennis stars.

Back on the Prom, I watch the surfers enjoying the waves and totally immersed in the very essence of this sporting county. Only the day before, I had a chance meeting with Ken McGrath, undoubtedly one of the greatest hurlers Waterford will ever see.  Here’s a man who knows the full meaning of Rudyard Kipling’s words in his great poem  If:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch…

Ken McGrath has no airs and graces and is an essential part of the passion that Waterford hurling engenders.

To those who know me, it will probably come as no surprise that I was drawn out to the lay-by between Boatstrand and Kilmurrin to write this piece. Sea beneath me; mountains behind; gulls overhead; Ardkeen Stores in Waterford, which is my treasure trove for sourcing Co. Waterford produce, calling; and happy thoughts of my beloved Mount Congreve Gardens after recently seeing  Tony Gunning’s Exhibition of colourful paintings at Greyfriar’s Church in Waterford.

As I write, I am surrounded  by immense natural beauty and a silvery sheen on the horizon symbolises the hope, colour and buoyancy that I associate with Co. Waterford ~ past, present and future.

All-Ireland Hurling Final 2012 ~ A Social Bridge

The final chapter of this year’s All Ireland Hurling Championship is almost upon us. Tomorrow, Kilkenny and Galway will battle it out in Croke Park  in a match of  passions that will be watched by hundreds of thousands all around the world.

Yesterday, by chance I found myself with an hour of so to spare in Thurles, Co. Tipperary and it was like the pages of hurling history, both national and personal, were being blown open in a mix of vibrant county colours.  Sitting in Hayes Hotel, I was back to the famous meeting there  on November 1, 1884, when the Gaelic  Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of our National Pastimes  was was founded by seven men whose names are now carved deeply into hurling.

Hayes Hotel, Thurles, Co. Tipperary

For me, Michael Cusack, is the name that stood  out most as I thought of  my first visit to his native Carron in Co. Clare a couple of years ago. Way up in the wilds of the beautiful Burren, I was awestruck by the idea that a young man from that isolated area could possibly have left such an indelible mark on Irish sport.  The Michael Cusack Centre which has been built to honour this man is an absolute must for anyone who would even think about taking a seat in the Cusack Stand tomorrow.

Another highlight of that visit to to the West in 2010 was talking with Ivan Canning while he was making a hurl for my son. That afternoon, I could feel the extent to which hurling runs in the blood of Galwaymen and especially through the veins of the Canning family who have been so siginficant in Portumna and Galway hurling in recent years. Ivan Canning talked of ‘brothers’ that day and he wasn’t just referring to his own brothers including Galway star, Joe Canning, (‘Joseph’ to Ivan!) but to the brotherhood that is involved in making a great hurling team.

Yesterday also brought me to Lar na Pairce in Thurles, which is an interpretive centre about the GAA. So much to see, so little time, but I felt the true hands of hurling history through the evocative collection of hurls from the greats of the 1930s onwards. These worn hurls have so many stories to tell of big days in Semple Stadium, Croke Park but also training grounds right around the country ~ clash of ash, blood, sweat, tears of victory, defeat, injury retirement, goals scored and saved, penalties, extra time, personal, family, club and county memories.

Collection of Hurleys at Lar na Pairce, Thurles, Co. Tipperary

The towering figure of Henry Shefflin ran into my mind as I thought of Waterford. That emotional homecoming on the Quay in Waterford after our defeat to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland in 2008; and just a couple of days later watching Henry Shefflin walking along the very same ground where we had sung ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ for our greats like Ken McGrath, John Mullane, Brick Walshe ….. While King Henry was stepping on our collective Waterford wounds that sunny September day, I couldn’t but think how fortunate I was to be to living in the same era as arguably the greatest player of them all.

So may the best team win tomorrow as yet more history is made and memories created.

Co. Waterford Ahead of the Munster Hurling Final

Co. Waterford is my native heath and the place where I have now lived for the last 21 years.  I often write about aspects of the county which has incredible natural beauty and a depth of history and heritage that is a sociologist’s dream.

The time that I feel most able to think and write about Co. Waterford as a whole is when the hurlers are doing well in the All-Ireland Championship and that moment is right now!  In just over a week’s time, July 15th, Co. Waterford takes on the might of Co. Tipperary in the Munster Final.  Nothing galvanises Co. Waterford more, as an entity, than when the hurlers are  leading the way. We move from thoughts of  Waterford City as opposed to the rest of the county (as the Census defines us) or from the East/West Waterford divide to Co. Waterford as one – all waving the same blue and white flag.  There is great awareness and banter about Waterford’s county boundaries and for these weeks no one is in any doubt where the lines are.

I got great insight into how hurling  passions can really bring county blood to a boil when my father, at the age of 76, made his way from Waterford to Croke Park  in 1995 to see his beloved Co. Clare win the All-Ireland for the first time in his life. I swear that the tears of joy he shed over that victory were blue and saffron.

Last  night I headed for Walsh Park in Waterford City to see the team prepare for the ‘big day.’  I knew that I was surrounded by people from all over the county and the players hailed from clubs from the length and breath of  The Deise (Co. Waterford’s nickname).  The Senior Team had a practice game again the Waterford Under 21 players and there was an air of quiet, determined focus among  the players, management  and spectators.

Michael Ryan (Manager) with Ken McGrath and Sean Cullinane

No one was getting too excited;  it’s like we are in a valley between the gut-wrenching tension of the last five minutes of the semi-final against Co. Clare a few weeks ago and what we know will be an adrenalin-pumper against Co. Tipperary on sunday week.

As I was leaving Walsh Park, I couldn’t but notice a colourful board hanging just inside the turnstiles. It captured in a picture what I have been feeling for years now since Waterford have been having glorious hurling years.  Here was a big Waterford crest and the crests of the 55 clubs from all around the county. This was like a pack of  55 cards but, for now, they are all in the same Blue and White Box of Co. Waterford which sings Don’t Stop Believing!

Co. Waterford Crest and Club Crests at Walsh Park