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02 Oct 2023 by Gilbert Williams

The 30th October 2022 in Semple Stadium  was a memorable day for the Kilruane MacDonaghs Club, players and supporters as the senior team claimed the Dan Breen Cup for the first time in thirty-seven years.  There was no happier man in Tom Semple's field that day than Johnny Keogh. Nothing could wipe the smile off his face as he mingled with the players and supporters on the hallowed sod. He proudly clutched the Dan Breen in his grasp and posed for photos with the players. They knew how much this victory meant to Johnny and other faithful followers. Johnny had been a staunch supporter of  all Magpies teams through thick and thin. He had enjoyed the glory days of the seventies and eighties. He had seen the senior team relegated in 2000, get promoted in 2003, and overcome many disappointments to become the top team in Tipperary once again.  Johnny had followed MacDonaghs teams in all kinds of weather at venues near and far. Whether we were playing in Lorrha or Littleton, Borrisokane or Boherlahan, you could be sure to see Johnny there. A few years ago, I witnessed him defying doctor’s orders and probably family orders as well to attend a senior league game in MacDonagh Park.  He never lost the faith that our day would come once again.  

There were three topics of conversation with Johnny hurling, hurling & more hurling. Though Fr. John Sheary told me that when Johnny wasn’t talking hurling, he liked to talk about timber. In reminiscing, Johnny didn’t recount the superb scores, the stunning saves, nor the silky skills. He revelled in recalling the rows. Johnny had an encyclopaedic memory in relation to conflict and confrontation. He could describe every blow in minute detail. So vivid were his recollections you could feel the ferocity and fury of the combatants. Unsurprisingly, he attributed little blame to Kilruane. According to Johnny, the opposition were usually the instigators. The lads wearing black and white jerseys were forced to act in self-defence.  Johnny had selective amnesia when describing the brawls that occurred and chose his words carefully. The opposition pulled  dirty strokes and used the timber, while in contrast, our lads stood their ground and took no nonsense. Any ungentlemanly use of ash by our side was euphemistically described as getting your retaliation in first. There was no ambiguity with Johnny, You knew where you stood with him. It was black and white every time and all the time.  The Kilruane MacDonaghs flag flew defiantly at his home in Benedine, proclaiming to all and sundry that his allegiance lay with his native parish.

Johnny attended the old school beside the church and finished his primary education in the new school, which was officially opened and blessed on Tuesday, 9th  August 1960. The following week’s Guardian published photos, including one of the boys who had served Mass. On the front page, you can see an angelic looking Johnny Keogh dressed in the black and white server’s outfit. You would think butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He looked like a potential candidate for sainthood rather than one who would grow into  a nightmare for opposing forwards.

Growing up in the Keogh household in Ballygibbon, it came as no surprise that Johnny became passionate about hurling. His father Jim was one of the great parish hurlers, playing senior for  twenty-six years. Johnny and his brothers Connie, Mackey and Bunny all wore the black and white jersey. They were hardy boys, and you didn’t have to tell them twice to pull. Johnny first played juvenile hurling in 1963, and he was on the MacDonaghs team that lost the North U15 final to Borris-Ileigh in a replay. The following year, he was on one of the most successful juvenile teams that ever left the parish, a side that also included his brother Mackey. The 1964 team, captained by Billy O’Shea, won the North Rural & Urban Rural titles, and for good measure, added the County Rural title. They swept all before them in the Rural competition with convincing victories over Borris-Ileigh in the North final and Moyne Templetuohy in the County final. The Tipperary Star reported that Kilruane had an 8-3 to 6-2 victory over Nenagh in the Urban Rural final  in a game that “sizzled and sazzled.” Kilruane were beaten by a point by Thurles in the County Urban Rural final. The Guardian report stated that over 1,000 spectators attended this final in Nenagh. Admission was one shilling, and gate receipts were £50 7s. I assume it was all cash, and there was no Tap & Go in operation.  Johnny was one of the Kilruane players who  received honourable mention in the newspaper account of the Thurles game. He played at full-back on that team, following in the footsteps of his father, who also wore the number three jersey during his lengthy career. Beside Johnny in the corners were John Minogue and Miko Rohan. In fairness, I would like to put in on the record that John Minogue hurled the ball.  The other two boys would go at it hammer and thongs, and that was even before the throw-in. Any forward that soloed in their direction would be unrecognisable on his way out.  

In 1965, Johnny was corner-back on the minor team that lost the North final against Roscrea. He progressed on to the U21 team, and in 1970, he was full-back with Kevin Dwan and Dan O’Meara in the corners. There were no prisoners taken by this line. Sadly, all three have now passed to their eternal reward. Johnny moved on to play junior in 1971. Once again, he was playing in his favourite full-back position. On either side of him were Kevin Dwan and Dinny O’Meara. Any forward venturing into that area would need  their health insurance up to date. Johnny was also a member of the senior panel in 1971. He probably played junior hurling in 1972 and must have retired at the end of that season as he doesn’t appear on the radar the following year.

Hurling in the 1960s and early 1970s was very different. One of the primary tasks of the inside backline in general and the full-back in particular was to protect the goalkeeper in an era when the forwards could charge the netminder with the objective of causing him grievous bodily harm. A full-back needed certain attributes as the action around the goalmouth often resembled a cross between sumo wrestling and cage fighting. It was dog eat dog, and only the fittest survived.  Johnny more than held his own in an area of the field that has been  described as Hell’s Kitchen. In the modern game, a full-back might act as a sweeper, receive a short puckout, and occasionally venture up the field to score. Johnny and his colleagues rarely passed the twenty-one yard line, and if they did, they would probably get a nose bleed and need the assistance of Google Maps to get back to the goalmouth. Junior hurling was usually more attritional than senior. I remember a particular match in Borrisokane. Johnny was full-back, and the opposition introduced a substitute full-forward, a big hunk of a lad. As he moved into his position, he went to shake hands with Johnny, who was in no mood for niceties and promptly gave him the hurl into the ribs. In Johnny’s defence, it has to be said that this was the general céad mile fáilte that welcomed substitutes onto the field. As Johnny himself might say, it wasn’t a game of ping pong.

Johnny was not only a great follower of Kilruane teams but also a good supporter of our fundraisers. He was a regular member of the Tipperary Draw and every year appeared at my door with his €100. It was fitting that the club honoured Johnny with a Guard of Honour this morning as he had participated in many Guards of Honour over the years. You could depend on Johnny to turn up. It might be wrong to say that he enjoyed funerals, but he was one of the first to arrive on the scene for a Guard of Honour in his trademark  club jacket. You could hear his hearty laugh ring out, and the hands would gesticulate as he described some hurling incident, probably a row.

Johnny’s favourite watering hole in Nenagh was Rohan’s pub where Kilruane MacDonaghs teams togged out before the dressing rooms were built in MacDonagh Park. He headed there on Sunday evening and enjoyed the cut and thrust of the banter. With the help of former playing colleague Bill Kelly and Joe Gleeson, he defended Kilruane to the hilt. Johnny was a man of great wit and was always ready with a clever comeback. Like a good boxer, he was able to absorb punishment and timed his knockout blow to perfection.   Kilruane were struggling at one particular time, and the Eire Óg lads were giving it to him with both barrels. I believe one of the chief harassers was a man of the cloth, but I think it would be unfair of me to mention Fr. Sheary’s name. Johnny was on the ropes, and it appeared he was on the verge of  throwing in the towel. He took a long slug out of the pint and stood up to go to the toilet. He turned back to his tormentors and said, “Lads, when ye have the All-Ireland Club trophy for twelve months ye can talk to me.“ You could hear a pin drop. Game set and match to Johnny.

Rohan’s was a venue for post mortems where matches were parsed and analysed, and the performance of players and managers were dissected and bisected. Johnny was asked what advice he would give to players if he was the manager.  I would say, “Drive it into  them, spill some blood preferably the opposition’s and I’d say a prayer that nobody would get hurt.” Johnny had obviously graduated from the D’Unbelievables school of coaching.

In recent years, Johnny did the spraying of the weeds at our house. It generally took him about three hours to complete the task. He warmed up by spending an hour talking hurling. The spraying itself took another hour. He warmed down with another hour of hurling, which often went into extra time.  On the first occasion he came to us, I stayed with him while he was doing the spraying. Of course, Johnny kept talking hurling. He was describing a row and started swinging the hose to demonstrate. I got doused with the weedkiller, and thereafter, I was confined to barracks while the actual spraying was going on.

When a person dies, people like to recall events and incidents in the life of the deceased. I know from previous experience that you can be told truths, half-truths, untruths, or downright lies as I call them. This story concerning Johnny was related to me. I’m not sure whether it is fact or fiction. I can’t vouch for its veracity, but I tell it in good faith. A number of years ago, Johnny was attending the doctor.  It was suggested to Johnny that he should cut back on the drink as he had put on a few pounds. Johnny said that was out of the question as he would die of the thirst.  The doctor then suggested that he could cut back on the potatoes. To the doctor’s surprise, Johnny said that not only would he cut back but that he would give them up altogether.  A few months later, Johnny returned for his next appointment. When Johnny got up on the scales, it was clear that not only had he not lost a few pounds, he had gained a few. The doctor was puzzled and asked Johnny for an explanation. Johnny said that he hadn’t touched a spud for three months but had chips instead and wedgies once a week. All the doctor could do was laugh.   

Today, we lay to rest a  unique character,  a popular character,  a diehard Kilruane MacDonaghs man whose loyalty never wavered. If you cut him, he would bleed black and white. Though domiciled in Nenagh for many years, he was Kilruane through and through.  Johnny relished our county success last year. Next Sunday, we will miss his familiar presence in Dolla as the seniors face a difficult assignment. We know that Johnny will do his bit from above to help our cause, and hopefully, the boys will do the job on the field. It would be a fitting way to honour his memory.

On behalf of the Kilruane MacDonaghs Club, I would like to extend sympathy to Majella, Valerie, Ray, Connie, Bunny, all Johnny’s family and friends.   

May the green sod of his native Ballygibbon lay gently upon Johnny.