The Oxford Dictionary defines unique as being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else. There was definitely only one Mackey Keogh, a character on and off the field. When God created Mackey he broke the mould and threw it away. Mackey didn’t pick his hurling up off the road. His father Jim was an outstanding player on parish teams for over a quarter of a century from 1914 to 1939. Mackey’s brothers Connie, Johnny and Bunny all played for Kilruane MacDonaghs and none of them ever took a step backwards while wearing the black and white jersey.
Mackey first came to prominence on the 1964 U15 Juvenile team that won two North championships and the County Rural final. He lined out in the forwards on a side that also included Mackey’s older brother Johnny, a teak tough full-back who took no prisoners. Mackey progressed on to the minor and U21 teams but Kilruane MacDonaghs were not among the honours in those years. Many will be surprised to learn that his next medal was in football. Mackey was centre-field on the U21 football team that won the club’s first title in that grade in 1970. Sadly, three of that team Mackey, Johnny Peters and John Sheppard have passed to their eternal reward in 2021. Mackey was no Jack O’Shea and his football career was short and sweet. His last appearance as footballer was on the U21 team that lost the North final in 1971.
Mackey made his debut for the Kilruane MacDonaghs seniors in 1970 and he was ever present on the side until his retirement at the end of the 1984 season. 1973 saw MacDonaghs begin to emerge as championship contenders. 5,040 spectators witnessed the North final which saw Kilruane suffer an agonising one-point loss to Borris-Ileigh while an experienced Roscrea side proved too good in the County Final. Mackey was in his familiar midfield role in both finals. In 1975 neighbours Moneygall prevailed in the replayed County final so Mackey’s wait for a senior medal went on. 1977 was to see a change in fortune for Mackey and his colleagues with those never-to-be-forgotten victories over Borris-Ileigh in the North and County finals.
Mackey had a brief spell in the Tipperary jersey — a very brief spell. After the 1977 County final victory he was selected at centre-field on the Tipp team to play Clare in the National League. Mackey actually captained the side that day in Tulla but all did not go according to plan as this excerpt from the Nenagh Guardian match report illustrates: “Newcomer Mackey Keogh had the look about him of a player whose celebrations of Kilruane’s County final victory the previous Sunday had taken precedence over preparation for wearing the Tipperary jersey.” I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Mackey had his priorities in order for after all if you couldn’t celebrate after a 75 year wait when could you celebrate? You won’t be shocked to hear that Mackey didn’t’ get the call-up for the second round against Wexford.
Mackey and Seamus Hennessy formed a formidable midfield partnership on the Kilruane MacDonaghs team that went on to capture a hattrick of North and County titles. Mackey and Seamus were the ideal pair in the middle of the park. Some would say that it was a combination of brawn and brain but I think an effective fusion of power and precision might be a more apt description. As a pair of club midfielders there were not many as good and certainly none better.
In 1980 a last minute goal by Roger Ryan saw Roscrea deprive Kilruane MacDonaghs of what would have been a famous four-in-a-row. Mackey continued playing until 1984 without further reward. He had played for fifteen consecutive seasons as a senior player. Mackey was involved in some memorable games in Nenagh and Semple Stadium particularly against Roscrea and Borris-Ileigh who were our great rivals at that time. He relished the physical exchanges. Mackey was a fearless competitor, giving little quarter and expecting less. He could dish out the punishment and could take it as well without complaint. Mackey suffered a broken nose at one stage and when asked if he had gone to hospital he replied that there was no point as the nose is all gristle. No self-pity there. Mackey had few peers as a ground hurler, whipping the ball like an Exocet missile first time into the forwards. Direct hurling was his forte. I don’t think Mackey would have much time for the modern style of play where A passes the sliotar to B, who moves it on to C, who returns it to A to deliver it into the forwards.
Mackey was as a strong as an ox. Hard work built that strength. There was no need for him to pump iron in the gym. Mackey used that strength to great effect under the dropping ball. He could bat the ball as far as most players could hit it. Liam Sheedy paid this witty compliment to him on Twitter: “Have great memories of watching Mackey in MacDonagh Park, Nenagh in his prime. The best man I have ever seen on the overhead pull. He always connected with something.” Mackey’s power was a huge asset to us. Very seldom did ball or man get past him and never both at the same time. Any opposition player that was causing us trouble in the middle third of the pitch was likely to be upended by Mackey and have the wind taken out of their sails. Those of you who were at the drawn 1977 County final will remember a timely tackle from Mackey which helped change the complexion of the game.
Mackey was a great character to have on the team. He was full of devilment and always up to mischief. I remember an U21 match in 1970 that was played in the sweltering heat in Nenagh. Mackey took off the jersey and continued playing bare-chested for a few minutes until he was ordered to put in back on by the referee Johnny O’Meara from Lorrha. Despite Mackey’s pleas that the jersey was stuck to his back he had to comply with the referee’s instructions. The same year we were playing a senior match in Borrisokane and at that time we togged out in Ger Kelly’s Bar on the Main Street because there were no dressing rooms at the field. On this occasion Mackey was one of a number of players who couldn’t resist the temptation and perched themselves on a high stool to sample a few half ones before heading down to the field. Unsurprisingly, we lost that particular game by a whopping sixteen points.
I remember an incident that occurred against Toomevara in Nenagh in the North championship. A row or as Micheál Ó hEithir would say a bit of a shemozzle broke out. In all fairness, I have to point out that a row in a Kilruane and Toomevara game was a very, very rare occurrence. The referee Johnny O’Meara thought the best way to end the row was to throw in the ball. Seamus Hennessy and Liam McGrath lined up for the throw-in. Mackey grabbed Seamus by the collar, threw him out of the way and set himself for the pull. In his haste Mackey lined up on the wrong side, won the pull and sent the sliotar whizzing past Tony Sheppard’s post. The umpire assumed that a Toomevara player had hit the ball and waved it wide. There was no Hawkeye in operation then and despite Toome kicking up a fuss no 65 was given. It was a good job that the ball didn’t go over the bar as Mackey would never have lived it down had he scored for Toomevara.
We travelled far and wide to play in tournaments and in Ferns, County Wexford we took on the Rower Inistioge from Kilkenny — Eddie Keher’s team. The game was played in a dense fog and you couldn’t see from one end of the field to the other. In the course of the game Len Gaynor got a belt and Mackey arrived on the scene to sort out the situation. However, the presence of the referee prevented immediate action being taken. As the players returned to their positions Mackey issued this warning to the guilty party: “Hey, you sir. Watch yourself for the rest of the match. You won’t see me coming in the fog – and neither will the referee.” I don’t know if Mackey followed up on his threat but we can assume that the culprit kept socially distanced from Mackey until the final whistle.
I recall the 1975 County Final against Moneygall where the dressing room was full of nerves. There was a constant flow of players in and out of the toilet. Fingers fidgeted, hands trembled and a few were a whiter shade of pale. Mackey, however, remained oblivious to the mounting tension and sat down nice and relaxed, puffing away like a steam train on a fag. He was his own man and did things his own way. When we wore white togs Mackey was one of three players who wore black togs. The other two rebels were Dinny and Jim O’Meara. Eventually, in 1978 the club decided to change to black togs and we all fell in line with the gang of three.
Mackey took his hurling seriously but didn’t let it dominate his life. Win or lose he liked to socialise after the match. Little surprise to find him sharing a few beers with the Roscrea players in their clubhouse the night of our galling loss in the 1980 County final. Mackey liked to take a drink or two but never let drink take hold of him. He was always in the thick of the banter and the slagging in the pub. Mackey revelled in it and like on the playing field he gave as good as he got.
Today, we bid farewell to Mackey, the lionhearted hurler, the larger than life character, a legend.
I would like to extend the sympathy of the Kilruane MacDonaghs Club to his wife Ann, his daughters Hazel and Marcella, his son Kevin, his brothers Connie, Johnny & Bunny and extended family.
Thanks for the memories Mackey. Ní fheicimid a leithéid arís ann. We won’t see his like again.Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.