Theo English

KILLINAN END -Remembering John D Hickey

Most names are, at best, only generational in significance because of the fleeting nature of memory. Names which tower over a particular era often pale into the background in the long run and remain significant only to those who take a specialist interest in heritage. One name that could reasonably be called a household name back in the day was that of John D. Hickey, a Templemore man who was a long time GAA correspondent of the Irish Independent.

It is generally acknowledged that reportage of Gaelic Games and sport in general got a major shot in the arm in this country with the arrival of the Irish Press newspaper in 1931. It was a publication which was a long time in gestation but the timing of its birth – the eve of an All-Ireland hurling final which took three days to decide – was a coincidental nod to the impact it would have on GAA and sports reporting.

In 1931 a 20-year old John D. Hickey was a junior presence in the Tipperary Star. In time he made his way to the Irish Press before becoming GAA correspondent of the Irish Independent in 1947, where he would remain until his retirement in 1975.

When there was no television and only unreliable radio coverage the word of the national newspapers carried huge weight. For a not inconsiderable number of people it was often their first knowledge of the result of a match. The need to cater for this constituency is evident in the great level of detail given in reports in those days. In the modern day matches will have been parsed and dissected on the Sunday Game, radio programmes, and even on-line and match reports reflect this prior-knowledge.

For John D. Hickey and people of his time, there was the challenge of knowing that not only were you the voice of authority upon which people relied the following morning, but you had to do it all in real time. There was no checking of television replays to make sure that you were accurate so an acute sense of concentration was necessary no matter what the excitement or stress. On one occasion John D Hickey noted that in the throes of an electrifying finish to an All-Ireland Final between Tipperary and Wexford (1962), that he found himself furiously trying to light a match with a cigarette. Unflappability was necessary but not always guaranteed.

One can but wonder how he was affected by watching his native county in a final. It was an experience he enjoyed or endured on many occasions, and he reflected in the mid-70s as his era came to an end, that he had seen 13 teams from the county win an All-Ireland Senior hurling title between 1925 and 1971. This outcome of this reflection took the most contentious form of all when he chose the best 15 or ‘Super Tipperary team’ of his lifetime.

He noted that he had done this previously back in 1965 and came up with this 15: Tony Reddin; John Doyle; Mick Maher; Jim Lanigan; Jimmy Finn; Tony Wall; Phil Purcell; Theo English; Tommy Treacy; Jimmy Doyle; Mick Ryan; Phil Cahill; Paddy Kenny; Martin Kennedy; Séamus Bannon.

Six years on, what had changed? Everybody is capable of wallowing in nostalgia in the same way that so-called recency bias can have an impact on how people think. Rose-tinted memories of the past can elevate impressions of players above maybe what they actually were at the time, while immediate judgements can lack the perspective that only time brings. On balance, picking such a team is an impossible task yet ten years on he set about revising this who’s who of Tipperary hurling greats of the twentieth-century.

The original team contained four All-Ireland winning captains – Jim Lanigan; Jimmy Finn; Tony Wall; Jimmy Doyle – all survived re-evaluation. So, indeed did the entire forward line, goalkeeper and full-back-line. Ultimately mature reflection pored over just two positions, centre-back and midfield.

In 1965, Hickey had described Tony Wall as the best centre-back of the previous 40 years. At that point, Wall was surely in a position of incredible credit having won five All-Ireland medals in the position in the previous eight seasons. Yet, on review Hickey went back just a few years in time to favour Wall’s predecessor in the number six jersey, Pat Stakelum. The Holycross man seems to have been one for the purists, and though Hickey said “I bow to no man in my esteem of Wall”, he was ‘aghast’ when he realised that Stakelum was not included in the original selection.

Another victim of re-assessment was Theo English, also a member of the all-conquering 1965 team. Like Wall, his stock was sky-high at that stage, and as Hickey explained, he certainly had the longest service at midfield. By 1975, however, he was leaning back to “two typical Tipperary hurlers” at midfield with Seán Kenny partnering an original choice, Tommy Treacy.

Kenny, in his view, was - like the Killea he was chosen to partner - a man you wanted in the trenches against Cork when you needed someone with “an in-built defiance of opposition”. No bad epitaph. It is notable that eight of the final fifteen he finally came up with were on the 1949-51 teams: Tony Reddin (Lorrha); John Doyle (Holycross); Mick Maher (Holycross); Jim Lanigan (Sarsfields); Jimmy Finn (Borris-Ileigh); Pat Stakelum (Holycross); Phil Purcell (Moycarkey); Seán Kenny (Borris-Ileigh); Tommy Treacy (Killea); Jimmy Doyle (Sarsfields); Mick Ryan (Roscrea); Phil Cahill (Holycross); Paddy Kenny (Borris-Ileigh); Martin Kennedy (Kiladangan & Toomevara); Séamus Bannon (Drom & InCH). John D Hickey died on 16 June 1977.