(1951 - 2010)
Just over two weeks ago we gathered in this church to lay to rest the mortal remains of Jimmy Gibson one of Kilruane MacDonaghs best. Today, we assemble again in sadness as we bid farewell to Sean O Meara or as he was affectionately known to one and all Big Johnny. His unexpected and sudden passing has shocked the entire community and while it is natural that we mourn his death, it is only right and fitting that we celebrate his life, a life lived to the full. I played hurling and football with Johnny from juvenile up to senior and on behalf the Kilruane MacDonaghs club and all his former playing colleagues I would like to pay this tribute.
Johnny was born in 1951 and grew up in an era when Tipperary were the dominant force in hurling with players like Jimmy Doyle, John Doyle, Tony Wall and Donie Nealon the household names. Hurling was the only game played in Cloughjordan School and it was there in the tight confines of the playground that Johnny developed the skills that he would later display in the black and white colours on the playing fields of Tipperary and beyond. Thomas MacDonagh Park was not opened until 1966 so hurling was played after school in The Meadow, in the centre of the village, and in two local fields called The Grove and The Stickfield. Johnny played his first juvenile game with Kilruane MacDonaghs in 1965 but success eluded him until 1970 when he won a North U-21 football medal and he made his debut for the senior hurling team the same year. In 1972 he became the first MacDonaghs player to lift the Hugh Burke Cup when he captained the U-21 hurling team which defeated Roscrea in the divisional final. It may come as a surprise to some and as a shock to others to know that he captained the team from midfield. He didn’t have the speed of Ben O Connor or the engine of Shane McGrath but was economical in style, using his stickwork and positional sense to avoid any unnecessary waste of energy. In the same year he won the first of his six North senior football medals when Kilruane defeated Silvermines.
After his brief sojourn in the middle of the field Johnny relocated to the edge of the square for the remainder of his career where he proved to be the ideal target man. He never relied on his strength to make or take scores but on his considerable skill, quick hands and alert brain. Johnny could strike scores confidently off his left or right and was adept at laying off a deft pass to a better placed colleague at precisely the right moment. Although he was good in the air, he preferred the low ball and he was never hesitant in signaling to his colleagues that he wanted the sliotar delivered in chest high and nowhere else.
1975 was a memorable year for Johnny when he was a vital cog in the Kilruane MacDonaghs senior football team which created history by winning the county final for the first time. He had a magnificent campaign culminating in a fantastic display against Loughmore-Castleiney in the final. Early in the second half he soared high above the Loughmore defence to flick a centre to the net to score the goal that turned the tide in favour of Kilruane. With time ebbing away he laid on an astute pass for Sonny Killackey to score the winning goal. Although Johnny was in direct opposition to Tipperary and Munster footballer Eddie Webster, he finished top scorer with a tally of 1-4. His displays with the club brought county recognition and he wore the blue and gold in U-21 and senior football. His club colleague and great friend Jim Williams was also on both teams. They travelled together with Paddy Bourke, the hackney driver from Roscrea. Paddy was never in any danger of picking up penalty points for speeding and the journey in his Ford Zephyr to Clonmel, Killarney or Cork for an evening game often began well before lunch to make the starting time.
In 1977 Johnny was called on to the Tipperary senior hurling panel and he lined out in his customary number fourteen jersey in the championship against Clare. The game ended in a draw but a broken finger prevented Johnny from taking his place in the replay. He had better luck later in the year when MacDonaghs defeated Borris-Ileigh to win the North senior hurling final for the first time in twelve years. Things got better as the season progressed and on Sunday October 23rd, on that famous day in Semple Stadium, our supporters were saturated with the torrential rain as Kilruane won the county senior hurling championship for the first time in seventy five years, with the familiar presence of Big Johnny at full forward. His Uncle Billy was a selector and also there to witness that magnificent victory was Johnny’s grandmother Mrs. O Meara of Kyle. She had been present in 1902 when the parish team the De Wets lowered the colours of Carrick to win the first county title for the parish.
Johnny went on to win three successive North and county senior hurling medals. Success in the Munster club championship eluded Kilruane MacDonaghs in that period but many will remember the great clashes with South Liberties, Patrickswell and Sixmilebridge and few will forget the memorable match in MacDonagh Park against a star studded Blackrock side that included Ray Cummins, John Horgan, Tom Cashman and Dermot McCurtain. A fourteen man Kilruane side was deprived of victory when Blackrock goalie Timmy Murphy made an unbelievable save after Johnny had whipped a rasping shot towards the corner of the net. Johnny continued playing senior hurling with the club until 1982. In 1995 he served as a selector with the senior hurling team and the following year he was a mentor with the U-16 hurlers. Even in retirement hurling was generally the topic of conversation when you’d meet him. He loved discussing games involving Tipperary whether past or present. He was very knowledgeable on GAA facts and he would often have a query in relation to a player or a team. I met Johnny a few weeks ago in the Clough Inn and he wanted to know how many North senior football titles had Kilruane MacDonaghs won. I wasn’t absolutely sure so I told him I’d check it out. I found the information that night and wrote down the years on the back of a Kilruane Lotto ticket. Sadly I didn’t get the chance to give him the ticket and let him know that the answer was six.
This morning as his funeral came through the village the Kilruane MacDonaghs guard of honour was led by his colleagues from the successful seventies sides. We had marched many times together in prematch parades in MacDonagh Park Nenagh and in Semple Stadium Thurles, as MacDonaghs went in search of glory. Today we marched in sadness and in silence as we paid our final salute to Johnny, the first of that terrific three in a row team to pass to his eternal reward. We walked the village street where Johnny hurled as a boy, and broke a window or two in the process, the street which had witnessed the wonderful homecomings and the enthusiastic celebrations that greeted our North and county final victories, and Johnny could celebrate with the best. Those famous victories against Borris-Ileigh, Roscrea and Sarsfields only seem like yesterday. We walked the village street that has lost one its most recognizable characters Big Johnny O Meara, the Gentle giant. In a few minutes his colleagues from the three in a row side will carry Johnny to his final resting place. The next time we gather one larger than life character will be missing.
On behalf of the Kilruane MacDonaghs club, the club that Johnny supported as a boy, the club he played for in his prime, I would like to sympathise with his wife Marie, his daughters Patricia, Donna and Anne Marie, his parents Mick and Teasie, his sisters Marion and Claire and his extended family.
May the light of heaven shine on you Johnny agus in iothalain De go gcastar sinn. Gilbert Williams February 9th 2010
(By Gilbert Williams)