by Seamus Walsh
The death of Mick Mackey on 13th September, 1982 removed from the Irish scene one of the greatest figures that ever adorned it. We knew that he had been dying for some time, but when the news of his death became known, it came as a big shock to a lot of people in Limerick and countrywide.
Gaelic Games lost its most colourful ever personality with the passing of a man who became a legend in his own right because of his deeds on the hurling field. His was the outstanding figure in all the great games of the golden days of Limerick Hurling and his was the magnetism that drew hurling enthusiasts from every corner of the land just to see him play. He was not only one of the greatest hurlers ever to trod on the green sod of all the famed hurling arenas both in Ireland and across the seas, he was undoubtedly also the most notable character ever to grace the playing fields.
Often dubbed the “Playboy of Hurling” he had his own special approach to every situation and this, allied to his magnificent frame and powerful limbs made him a man apart from all others. It is not easy to describe the hold he had on the hurling public. His tactics were highly entertaining as well as most effective and many felt that his playboy approach and bustling assaults were carefully designed to mystify opponents and put them momentarily off their guard.
Mick Mackey won everything worth winning on the hurling field, and in addition to the many grand trophies to his name, he won the love, respect and admiration of the Gaels of Ireland as a true sportsman and one that was never in the slightest degree affected by the acclamation of his admirers. There were occasions, few in number, when Mick met his master, but he had a trick up his sleeve for the best of them, so any triumph they gained was of a very temporary nature. His deeds on the field gained for Mick Mackey the title “King of the Hurlers” and no crowned head had better credentials for this title than Mick. It is an undisputed fact that no other Mick Mackey, 1981, hurling hero had a background half so glamorous, half so appetising to the lovers of hurling tradition as that of the Ahane and Limerick star of the Thirties.
The popularity of Mick Mackey and the universal impact he made was well illustrated in the final tributes paid him by the huge attendances both at the removal of remains from Limerick Regional Hospital, and the following day at the Concelebrated Mass and Burial in his beloved Castleconnell. Scenes unprecedented in Limerick were witnessed as huge lines of mourners passed in a seemingly unending stream by the open coffin to pay their last respects to a man they really loved and respected. They came from every Irish county, people from all walks of life, and it was a real gathering of the Gaelic clans, as the old timers recalled memorable days in nostalgic fashion, and the young listened to the wonderful tales of the deeds of Mick Mackey and his men in those seeming far off days. In the vast throng were many of Mick’s contemporaries- old players from every hurling county, nearly from every parish in some instances. The G.A.A., from its President down to the most insignificant member was there to give evidence of the great love and affection in which Mick was held. The guard of honour comprised of old hurlers, Central and Provincial Council members, was the longest in extent many have ever seen, while the cortege, which was over three miles long, was saluted everywhere as it wended its way to Castleconnell through streets and roads lined with mourners, who have boasted since and will in the future, that they witnessed the last journey of the greatest hurler that ever was. At the O’Connell Monument, the members of the City Council in their robes and led by the Mayor, Councillor Tony Bromell, joined the great procession.
Castleconnell was packed as never before and a guard of honour drawn from the Ahane Club met the hearse and escorted it through the village to Saint Joseph’s Church, where the Parish Priest, Very Rev Fr. John Cooney headed the clergy awaiting the remains. Father Cooney said that Mick Mackey had returned to his home parish where he had learned his hurling skills, that later led him to ever increasing success in the Gaelic fields of Ireland. It was to Castleconnell that he returned with his medals and his prizes, won with such skill and accuracy. He had now come back to his own people, the people he loved and inspired. Every facet of Irish life, sporting, business and professional, was represented at the Concelebrated Mass in Castleconnell Church the following morning at which the Chief Celebrant was Rev. Liam Kelly, C.C.,(a championship winning hurler with Ahane in 1955 and who hurled in the Championship for Limerick in 1956.) who also delivered the inspiring Homily. The Bishop of Limerick, Most Rev. Jeremiah Newman presided, and read the concluding prayers. During the Mass Jackie O Connell, a member of the 1934 All-Ireland team gave one of the readings as the coffin stood in front of the altar surrounded by many impressive floral wreaths.
One of the outstanding memories of the day in Castleconnell was the manner in which Fr. Kelly caught the essential character of Mick Mackey in his tribute – his words being carried to the hundreds outside the Church who could not be accommodated inside because of the overflow attendance. In his Homily, Fr. Kelly said — “Mick has come home to his native and beloved Castleconnell to find his resting place. He was always a Castleconnell man and proud of his long association with the Ahane club. When we were youngsters over the road in Monaleen, Mick was our idol. We had that sense of reverence and awe for the name Mackey. A legend in our time, W.B. Yeats has it: “The names that stopped our childhood play”.
We had hurleys in our hands before we could walk, and our sole ambition was to emulate the feats of Mick and his men. Then the thrill of pulling on the green and gold jersey of Ahane for the first time. Then meeting the great man himself, to come under his direction and coaching, his inspirational talks before a game and at half-time. Something reminiscent of the war-cry “Cuimuigi ar Luimneach”. I remember Mick being full of admiration for a rising star and his ultimate accolade: “He’d put his head where another wouldn’t put his hurley”. If as scripture says “we are all here on earth to help others”, Mick surely deserves a high place in Heaven. His influence was felt throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and beyond, The turn-out last night at the removal and today was evidence of his popularity and the impact he made on the social life of the people. He meant an awful lot to a lot of people. There are so many anecdotes and stories told about Mick – people were swopping them until the late hours last night, most of the time some maybe a bit exaggerated or even apocraphy.
What was it that Mick had? Something we all know in our hearts but difficult to articulate. His dynamism, the sheer force of his personality, his leadership, courage, spirit of abandonment. All these and something more. Someone described it last night as “the old Duchas”. Something that is at the heart of our nation and at the heart of our faith. Mick cherished the things that we all hold dear, his faith, his county and his national pastimes. His team mates and his varying opponents can tell you that even in the heat of battle, in the midst of all the turmoil there was always a twinge of humour. He loved the bit of fun. He always gave of his best and led by example. He liked to win but it wasn’t everything. He didn’t mind whether he lost or was held scoreless.
One important aspect of Mick’s career which can be easily overlooked today was the impact he and his team had on the social life of the people in depressed times, and not just locally but countrywide. Everywhere people spoke of his exploits, relived the great moments and looked forward eagerly to the next big occasion. Mick was very conscious of this, he loved the supporters and often played to them, giving them a tremendous lift, benefitting them in a deeply spiritual way. It gave the people not only enjoyment but hope and encouragement, and helped them to rise above their anxieties and problems.
Off the field he was a quiet, gentle man bringing to his house the same noble qualities he exhibited on the playing fields of Ireland. He was a great family man and loved young people, especially small children. Those who knew him in the Army and his work-mates in the E. S.B. privileged to have known him personally, can all testify to his kindness, consideration and generosity. After his retirement Mick devoted many years to administration and coaching. He loved the gatherings of old hurlers and valued their friendships, where one could always sense that special atmosphere which makes hurlers a breed apart – fraternity – a man who shared so much with so many. Apart from his passion for the game he was a man of simple tastes – a game of 45 and an odd half-pint.
As the nation mourns one of its greatest sons we pray for Kitty and his family who will miss him most. There is a legitimate place for grief when we mourn our dead. Jesus wept when He was told that his friend Lazarus was dead. St. Paul in our second reading says “we must not grieve like those who have no life”. Our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ must sustain us. In our Mass today Mick’s death is united with the death of Our Saviour and by sharing in his death he also shares in his Resurrection. This is the sure hope our faith holds out for us. This was the faith and hope expressed by men like Mick Mackey which sustained the people of his time. Mick always had close links with the Church and was proud of the fact that he travelled all over the country playing in tournament games for the local churches. Many will recall some of the great games organised for the Retreat House. He said to me once “I suppose we should have a fair chance of getting into Heaven after playing all those matches. We never turned down any request.”
Mick has played the game of life and attained his glory. Now he makes a new beginning, he enters the new and even more glorious half where the Lord has selected a special position for him to occupy in his eternal home.
(“If we die with him, we will live with him; if we endure with him, we will live with him”. St. Paul).
We recall the words of the journalist, Grantland Rice: “And when the last great scorer comes to mark against your name, He’ll ask not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game”.
In times of change Mick is saying something to us all. Are we going to continue pursuing a comfortable and easy life? When we are in doubt do we just do nothing? Do we ask what everyone else is doing before committing ourselves? The dedication and self-sacrifice of Mick Mackey and his men is now folklore and can still serve as an inspiration to us all. He is saying especially to our young people – If you are inclined to settle for a colourless, selfish consumerism, remember Mick. He tells us what human beings are made for, what they are capable of. Mick and his men showed us that there is glory in life, the glory of God is man fully alive and fully
responsive to God’s power working in and through him. These men nourished and inspired so many thousands of people not only in their own day but down through the years. It is fitting that today we should recognise the glory in life that was Mick Mackey and thank God for it. Ta dia buioc do. Go ndeanaid Dia trocaire ar a Anam dhilis “.
The sky was overcast as we followed the remains of Mick Mackey to their final resting place in the quiet cemetery in Stradbally, Castleconnell – within sight of the grave of his father, ‘Tyler’ Mackey who had worn the
Limerick colours with distinction in the early part of the last century. The choir sang “Nearer My God To Thee” as the coffin, draped in the No. 11 jerseys of Ahane and Limerick, was carried from the Church of St. Joseph’s to the waiting hearse and John Mackey was one of the family members who shouldered the coffin.
Ahead of the hearse, as it began the journey to the cemetery, walked members of the under-age Ahane teams. On each side were members of great Ahane teams of the past and with them members of recent teams. Then came the men who had worn the Green and White of Limerick, including famous names of the thirties and team-mates of Mick Mackey on the 1940 team. The men of 1940 marched in line as they had marched in the parade at Croke Park on the day that Mackey won his last All-Ireland medal, men such as Jackie Power, Dr. Dick Stokes, Paddy McMahon, Timmy Ryan, Mick Hickey, Tony Herbert, Tommy Cooke, etc. And then players from the 1955 season, Fr. Liam Ryan, Paddy Enright, Dermot Kelly, Fr. Seamus Ryan and Sean Leonard among them – the team that because of the manner in which Clare were shattered by sheer speed in the burning heat of Munster Final Day in 1955 at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds became known as “Mackey’s Greyhounds”. The men of 1973 also, Eamon Grimes, Pat Hartigan, Sean Foley etc, men who had been inspired by traditions created by Mackey. Then came great names from different strongholds of the game – so many of them in the cortege that it would be impossible to name them all – names spanning the period from the thirties to the eighties. Underage members of the Ahane club carried the many beautiful floral tributes, including a touching flower bedecked hurley from his grandson, Mark.
The cortege moved along the stretch of road by the Castle and the Ferry, past the lovely quiet inlet of the River Shannon with the swans moving lazily on it and we reflected at that moment on Mackey’s childhood and youth in this village – the village where he had been born on July 12th, 1912, eldest son of John “Tyler” Mackey and the former Mary Carroll. We reflected on how he first learned to wield a caman in the local Old National School (as we passed it by) and then hoping some day to wear the colours of Ahane, which he did with some distinction.
Now the cortege, stretching way back deep and dense behind us, moves up Chapel Hill and into the cemetery, in which you see the grave of Paddy Scanlan, goalkeeper on the great Limerick teams with Mick. The cemetery could not accommodate the thousands who had walked behind the coffin from the Church. They spilled out on to the roadway, but the tribute of the G.A.A. President Paddy Buggy of Kilkenny was relayed on the public address system. As the coffin was lowered to its last resting place, prayers were recited by Very Rev. John Cooney P.P., and then, in the final parting, a graveside Oration was delivered by Paddy Buggy, President of the G.A.A.
In his oration, G.A.A. President Paddy Buggy said “It is with sadness that we gather here this morning to mourn the passing of Mick Mackey. There is a bond of friendship between all hurlers, and hurling people everywhere, and this great gathering is further evidence of the great affection that we hold in this country for our outstanding hurlers. As a hurler on the 40 yards mark, Munster’s pride, and Limerick’s glory, Mick Mackey had no equal, he was the greatest centre forward of all time. For a combination of skill and power, brains and strength. Mick, born in Castleconnell and of the Ahane club, had no peer, and those of us that had the privilege of seeing him play, can still visualise Mick in full flight, ball hopping on hurley, on one of his famous solo runs. Mick Mackey’s broad grin on our hurling fields was a sign of the enjoyment he got from the physical contact, from participation in our greatest field game, he was a crowd pleaser, he loved the roar of the crowd, and his every move would have the crowd humming. In his prime, nobody ever bested or marked Mick Mackey out of a game, although there was a few like the late John Keane of Waterford who did outhurl him. With his strength, courage, physique and determination, his straight burst up the middle was almost unstoppable, yet he could produce an amazingly elusive side-step when the need arose, and on occasion you could find Mick Mackey ranging out to midfield, and sending long range points sailing between the posts. Some of Mick Mackey’s greatest games were played in Munster finals, one when Limerick completely over-ran Cork in the Munster final of 1935, and another when in 1936 the Limerick team beat Tipperary in Thurles, Mick scoring an amazing total of 5 goals and 3 points.
From the early 30s to the late 40s, Mick Mackey was the star of the great Limerick team of that era, a team that won 5 Munster titles, 3 All-Irelands, 1934, 1936 and 1940, 5 National League titles in a row from 1934 to 1938, the Limerick team being unbeaten over a 22 months period from October 1933 to August 1935, in all playing a total of 31 games. Mick Mackey helped Munster to win 8 railway Cups from 1934 to 1945, and had a wonderful record as a clubman with Ahane, winning 15 Limerick Senior Hurling titles, 7 of them in a row on 2 occasions, 1933 to 1939 and 1942 to 1948. He also helped Ahane to win the Limerick Senior Football Championship 5 years running from 1935 to 1939, and in the Summer of 1939 Mick was a member of the Limerick Junior Football team that beat Kerry in Killarney in the Munster Final.
Mick’s greatest glory was probably in 1940 when he captained Limerick for the second time to an All-Ireland title. They had to play Waterford and Cork twice, and in the Semi-Final against Galway, Mick scored 2 – 4 out of Limericks total of 3 – 6. In the final Limerick had 2 goals to spare over Kilkenny, but according to Mick himself, his most enjoyable game of hurling was played in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny in a National League Final won by 2 points by Limerick, Mick Mackey scoring one and John Mackey the other in the closing minutes.
While we here today are saddened by his passing, I am sure that there is great joy up above with the teammates and opponents he has rejoined, with many a yarn being swapped, and many a bout of play or game being replayed. Mick was always happiest when in the company of hurling folk, and after his career ended he took to the administration, to help in every way possible with the promotion of our games, and was a member of the Munster Council for over 30 years. Limerick will be the poorer for his passing, not to mention his club and the followers of Gaelic games everywhere.
To his wife Kathleen, to his family and friends, we all extend our sincere sympathy, and of Mick it can truly be said, Ni beidh a leitheid ann aris, Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.”
We picked out in the rows of famous faces around the graveside Jim Regan of Cork and John Maher of Tipperary, two centre-backs who had opposed Mick Mackey in memorable Munster championship games and we also picked out John Quirke, most versatile of Cork hurlers who had some stirring duels with Mackey. The men from Tipperary present also included Dinny Gorman, Jimmy Butler Coffey (who is hale and hearty after celebrating his 101st birthday on the 26th of October last), Tommy Doyle, Mickey “The Rattler” Byrne, Jim Devitt, John Doyle, Sean and Paddy Kenny and Babs Keating. Also, there were “Fox” Collins, Dr. Jim Young and Con Murphy from Cork. From Kilkenny had come Jimmy Langton, Paddy Grace and Eddie Keher; from Wexford came Jim English, from Clare Jimmy Smith, from Dublin Des Ferguson and Christy Hayes; the Connolly brothers from Galway; Seamus Power and Philly Grimes from Waterford and Joe Keohane and Ger Power from Kerry. There were many more of course, but the cemetery was so packed that it was hard to see and recall everyone. They had all come to join in a deep, hurling men’s tribute to the passing of a legend. Jack Lynch was unable to attend as his wife Maureen had suffered a hand injury that morning, but he sent a telegram which was read out at the Mass.
As the crowds began to disperse from the cemetery, we saw many of the greats of Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny hurling – and from other strongholds of the national game – stepping quietly forward to shake the hand of John Mackey. It was as if they wanted to say in a silent gesture that nothing could call back the seasons of splendour when Mick bestrode the scene, and John, a flying forward himself on the wing, was – with his fair hair – one of the swashbuckling buccaneers of that era. The mourners lingered long, as if they did not want to leave and many old timers stood in tears by the graveside as they bid a last farewell to the heroic figure who had meant so much to so many.
It was an honour and privilege to have attended with my late father, Jimmy Walsh, the Removal, Funeral Mass and Burial of the late, great Mick Mackey, a man who had given so much enjoyment to so many thousands of
people on the hurling fields of Ireland and abroad, over a period of 20 years during the 1930s and 1940s. Mick died at the age of 70 years. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.