In the week of the All-Ireland hurling final in 2017, Newstalk’s Off The Ball hosted a preview event of the game in a Galway hotel. Featuring Ollie Canning, Ken McGrath, Daithi Regan and Tommy Walsh, as well as a number of the double Galway All-Ireland winning side of 1987-1988, the show was a great success and a fantastic two hours of radio.
One of the most interesting aspects of the evening was the introduction of the guests on stage. Obviously Ollie Canning was a hometown hero, and Daithi Regan and Ken McGrath are heartily respected as players and pundits alike. But what of Tommy Walsh? At that time he had won 9 All-Ireland senior medals, 9 All-Stars in defence, midfield and attack, and was roundly recognized as one of the greatest hurlers of all time. But as Tommy was introduced on stage by Ger Gilroy at the start of the show that night, the audience jeered him.
In a sense, there was no surprise in that. For years Tommy Walsh was the pantomine villain of the hurling world: Kilkenny fans loved him, opposition fans loved to hate him. He was perhaps the most controversial member of the Cody side of the 00’s, and your opinion of him, seemed inextricably linked to your feelings towards that team. Skillwise, there was no doubting his ability. What may have irked rival supporters somewhat though, is that what he lacked in physique he made up for with a….ahem….”robust” playing style. Most days he played he teetered on the brink of refereeing sanction, being one of the few Kilkenny players to be sent off in the championship against Clare in 2004. He’s also probably the only person who has been known to physically assault a referee in an All-Ireland final (Brian Gavin in 2011) and, even more controversially, to get away with it.
There was a certain panache with which Tommy played the game that seemed to captivate Kilkenny supporters. Each game invariably featured a trademark catch, and an even more customary belted clearance of the ball high into the clouds. Every such occasion was a massive fillup to the Cats supporters, and a demoralizing blow for the opposition.
Other teams knew that. He became such a talismanic and divisive figure, that in the 2012 All-Ireland hurling semi-final the Tipperary management team, in their infinite wisdom, detailed Lar Corbett to man mark him. It seemed a crazy decision at the time, and it doesn’t look any better in hindsight. A star forward marking a back? It was one of the most ridiculous things we had seen in Croke Park.
Only two years previously Corbett had scored a hat trick in an All-Ireland final. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest forwards in the game. Yet when Walsh was booked in the first half of that semi-final Corbett celebrated more wildly than for any of the goals he had scored in the final two years earlier. It appeared as if he had achieved something greater than what he’d done before. Forget the goals, now Tipperary had got inside Tommy’s head. They were, or so they believed, breaking his concentration. And that’s what had to be done, in order to break Kilkenny.
Of course they didn’t break him. Nor did Waterford do so when they tried to rough house him in the opening stages of the final in 2008. Intimidation was not a tactic that worked. The harder they pulled, they better he liked it. No, the only way to really upset Tommy was to not let him play hurling. So after a fallow year on the sidelines in 2014 when Brian Cody decided that his presence was no longer necessary in the starting 15, Tommy decided to hang up his inter-county jersey. Once the announcement was made, the plaudits were immediate in arriving. Opponent upon opponent lined up to detail how great a player he was. But even on his date of departure, his chequered past wasn’t completely forgotten. Cork’s Diarmuid O’Sullivan, for example, couldn’t resist a little dig amongst the adulation.
The Kilkenny team of the late 00’s and early 10’s was never loved by the general populace. What team of serial winners is? But the notion that said side was a group of automatons, or as one notorious Sunday independent scribe deemed them prior to the 2006 All-Ireland hurling final, “A collection of helmets”, was one that never really rang true. It never fits the narrative that a team can be completely dominant AND have a laugh at the same time. Just like the Kerry team of the 80’s, Kilkenny had to stop being relentlessly successful, in order for the country to fully appreciate them.
Anyone who saw Tommy give his famous speech at the Ballyhale homecoming event after the All-Ireland final of 2009, will know that this was not an individual lacking in personality or humour. On the contrary, with such a performance, he could give Tommy Tiernan a run for his money. Yet prior to 2017, how many people outside Kilkenny, or at least inner hurling circles, really knew anything about Tommy Walsh as a person? Sure how could they? This was a guy who had pretty much never given a newspaper or television interview in the previous 15 years. He was as elusive to the media as he was to his opponents. But that year Newstalk decided to invite the man himself onto their GAA coverage for the summer. It didn’t take long for it to be revealed as an ingenious idea.
Within the space of a few weeks the public perception of Tommy Walsh had completely changed. He was no longer the “cheekly little bastard” who played for Kilkenny. They quickly realised what a breath of fresh air he was. They discovered a man who just lived and breathed hurling. A man who literally couldn’t contain his love for the game. The infectious enthusiasm of his commentary, could only be matched by the passion of his play. If anyone had any doubts about it, they only had to listen to his speech just before the teams took to the field for the All-Ireland final last year.
So by the summer of 2019, Tommy had achieved everything there was to achieve in the inter-county game. He was a happily married man with a young family. Now he had a thriving media career and was feted around the country as one of our greatest sporting broadcasters. In a sense, he seemed to have it all. But there was one thing in his life, that was still missing.
Tullaroan are the most successful club in Kilkenny history. They won the first ever Kilkenny county final in 1887 and have won 19 more since. From the days of Sim Walton and Jack Keoghan in the early part of the last century, to Padraig Walsh in the current one, the parish has been a byword for hurling within the county. They were one of only two teams, along with Glen Rovers of Cork, to have 2 players on the hurling team of the century, in the form of Lory Meagher and Paddy Phelan.
Tommy Walsh is undoubtedly one of the greatest hurlers Tullaroan has ever produced, and yet he had the misfortune to be born into one of the most fallow periods in the club’s history. For years, he toiled in the senior grade without so much as a county final appearance. As the years went by, the side seemed less preoccupied with challenging for honours, and more concerned with fighting for survival. In 2014, after a number of seasons flirting with danger, they were relegated to intermediate level for the first time since 1988. Not only that, but in 2018, when after 24 years the club finally reached another county final, they were defeated by their age old rivals Graigue Ballycallan. That dark day just seemed to emphasize the sharp contrast between the club and county elements of Tommy’s career. If his Kilkenny career was a perpetual feast, then all he had known as a club hurler was pure famine.
So coming into the Kilkenny Intermediate county final last October against Thomastown, there was a massive level of pressure attached to both Tullaroan and by extension, Tommy himself. Yes, the side had been tipped to reach the ultimate stage at the start of the year. Yes, they had a number of inter county stars in their ranks. But they were coming up against a young, hungry Thomastown side, that didn’t have the weight of a final defeat the previous year against their fiercest rivals. A side that didn’t have the pain of a senior relegation a few years previous. A side that wasn’t battling the weight of 25 years of hurt. And while the pressure that was upon Tullaron was clearly evident throughout the game, after a titanic battle, and with the help of a goal from the man himself, they just about managed to come out on top.
Tommy & Mickey Walsh, Father & Son, share a special moment after @TullaroanHurlin victory in the @KilkennyCLG intermediate hurling final. Putting away years of heartbreak, the pure joy on display is what club is all about. #croí&club #GAABEO #TG4 pic.twitter.com/iSKPGAkRLB
— GAA BEO TG4 (@GAA_BEO) October 29, 2019
What made the win even more special for Tommy was that it was a real family affair, with his brothers Martin, Shane and Padraig all featuring in the starting lineup. And, if it were possible, his family seem just as emotional and passionate as Tommy himself. One only had to witness he celebration of Tommy and his father Michael after the game, to realize that his enthusiasm and love for hurling was not licked off the stones. It could have brought a tear to a glass eye. It was sport in its purest form. This was a father, who had been full back on the last Tullaroan team to win a senior county title, hugging his first born son, who was full forward on the next side from the parish to win a county title, a quarter of a century later. In one fell swoop it epitomized what the GAA, and in particular, what the club, was all about.
So when the All-Ireland club intermediate hurling final took place last Saturday night, it could have passed many people by. But the presence of Tommy, and by extension, the Walsh family, propelled the game from being a humble shootout of two obscure clubs, to a national event. It helped that the game just happened to be one of the greatest club finals ever seen in Croke Park, with a level of drama that a Hollywood scriptwriter would scoff at. Eight goals were scored, and the lead swung back and forth like a pendulum before, with the last puck of the game, Tommy’s brother Shane swung over a beauty of a winning score to take the first ever All-Ireland adult club title back to the hills of Tullaroan.
The last time Tommy tasted All-Ireland success with the club, he was a 14 year old playing in a Feile na Gael final back in 1997. Now he was a man in his mid 30’s and yet he couldn’t have been more child-like in the joy he displayed at the final whistle. The excitement didn’t end there though. You think Kilkenny hurlers are lacking personality? Listen to Shane Walsh’s acceptance speech from last Saturday night and come back to me when you’ve done so. These boys can not only talk the talk, they can bloody well walk the walk as well.
"It's like being in Disney World for the last three months." 😂
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) January 18, 2020
So while the greatest of respect should be paid to the indomitable Fr O’Neills of Cork, who didn’t deserve to lose, few would begrudge Tommy the joy of this solitary, long awaited, club success. Indeed the only people who don’t seem swayed by the force of Tommy’s personality, were the stewards who wouldn’t allow him bring his family onto the pitch at the end of the game. They obviously aren’t hurling fans.
So what worlds does he have left to conquer? Media career? Check. All Ireland club? Check? All Ireland inter-county? Oh boy, was that checked. Maybe he’ll run for the Dail in a few weeks time. Given his popularity, I’m sure the major political parties are hoping he doesn’t. But what about that crowd in the Galway hotel at the All-Ireland hurling preview in 2017. They seemed pretty hostile towards Tommy didn’t they? Well what do you know? They were heartily cheering him by the end of that night too! Fancy that. On saying that though, sure how could they not? Sure everybody loves Tommy.