By Kilkenny People Sports Editor John Knox
Michael Walsh has turned 61 and he is having the time of his life.
The health is good. The family is good. And things are flying in the parish.
“We are all in powerful form, and sure why wouldn’t we be,” he shot back with enthusiasm dripping off every word to the query of how things were.
Mickey Walsh, as he is more popularly known, is a proud man from the GAA stronghold of Tullaroan.
He soldiered long and hard, until he was 42 actually, in the famous sash jersey and these times his gifted sons Tommy, Martin, Padraig and Shane do likewise.
Beyond that their cousins, Peter Walsh (corner-forward) and Tommy Walsh (full-back) are central figures in the effort too as Tullaroan hope to take their hurling cause to Croke Park.
On Saturday the Kilkenny intermediate club champions tackle Naomh Éanna (Antrim) in the All-Ireland semi-final (1.30pm) in Parnell Park.
A big day out in Croke Park two weeks later awaits the winners.
“That would be unreal,” Mickey said of the possibility. “That is what these boys are aiming for. They have this semi-final right in their view, and they intend to drive on into the final and Croke Park.”
A rich, golden history in Gaelic games casts the Tullaroan club in a different light to most others. The Graces’, Meagher and so on sowed the seeds. Others are adding to the history today. All in the area appreciate the value and importance of heritage.
The Walshs’ certainly do their bit. On top of the boys doing their duty, daughter Grace plays camogie with Kilkenny as does a niece of Michael’s, Miriam Walsh.
Nothing new really. In Michael’s time playing, there were three Walshs’ in the forwards and three of their first cousins in the backs.
“If we won or lost a match it was the Walshs’ in the back or forwards who were responsible,” he joked again. ”Now I just hope all the time that the lads will do well.”
The obvious question, with so many involved on so many fronts, was does Michael ever get a chance to sit back and relax at a match?
“Very few. Very few,” he said with laughter. “It is great though. It is wonderful to be involved. The club is in a powerful place at the moment. What is going on has united everyone in the parish.
“Everyone is talking about the game. The big thing was to win the intermediate championship in Kilkenny and get back senior. That was the real enjoyment.”
Getting their hands on the Hanrahan Cup wasn’t easy. There was the awful pain of defeat in the final against neighbours and fierce rivals, Graigue-Ballycallan in 2018, plus losses in two championship semi-finals.
Adding to the torture were defeats in four league finals. Tullaroan won the league final in 2016 when beating Carrickshock in Thomastown, but down the road that came at a cost.
A number of people from the parish were caught exceeding the speed limit on the way home and received penalty points on their driving licence…..Michael included.
“Even when we won something, there was a sting in the tail,” he joked when recalling that day.
The hardest pill to swallow, he admitted, was the defeat in last year’s championship final to neighbours and great rivals, Graigue-Ballycallan.
“That was devastating,” Michael offered. “We were in command and then we lost our grip on the game. We fell apart in the second half. There is no point in telling a lie. That defeat was very hurtful, especially the way we were beaten.
“We had already played them during the season and we beat them convincingly. People tried to console themselves by saying we were the better team, but the best team always wins the county final.”
Then 2019. Victory. Relief. Tears. Joy beyond belief.
“When we won this year it was very emotional,” Michael continued. “It was building up and building up and there was wonder how we would take it if we were beaten again. It was great, as good as anything you could think of it.”
He admitted to shedding a tear, or two.
He is a dad, a proud one, emotional too. Sometimes it feels like he is striking every ball, making every tackle with the lads.
“As it goes along, it is worse I am getting,” he conceded.
Tullaroan, he insisted, were beyond hurt in this championship. Winning Kilkenny was the thing, the result that fortified them against all hurt. Leinster, and now the All-Ireland series, represented bonus territory.
“Anything beyond winning the county final this year is a bonus,” Michael assured. “I would still be nervous before matches and during them, but to be beaten after winning the county final wouldn’t be as bad as if we had lost in Kilkenny.
“The county final was THE thing to win. Everything else was a bonus. I think that is why the team is enjoying things so much now. The pressure is not off completely, but the mood is different.”
The journey outside Kilkenny has been most enjoyable. Great hurling. Great results against Rosenallis (Laois), Naas (Kildare) and Seir Kieran (Offaly) in the Leinster final set-up the shot at the national title.
“This is a great challenge pitting yourself against the champions from other counties,” Michael said of a championship he would have liked to have sampled having experienced the joy of winning junior, intermediate and senior championships with Tullaroan, the latter as a flying 36-year-old in 1994.
“What makes it so good is everyone is united after it,” he said, putting things in context. “After the county final win, no one cares if it is a wet or cold night for training. We are all looking forward to it.”
The day we spoke he was preparing to travel with the squad to Borris-in-Ossory for a challenge game in preparation for the All-Ireland semi-final.
He will travel by bus with the panel to Parnell Park. Normally he drives to matches with his wife, Frankie – nee Grace, daughter of legendary Kilkenny County Board secretary, Paddy – but the gift of a seat in the bus comes because he is a designated hurley carrier for the team.
“Life has changed, and very much for the better,” Michael insisted with an air of satisfaction. “Everything is grand when you are winning.
“You look back now and you wonder if we had won the Kilkenny championship a few years ago, how far could we have gone. Next year will test the lads. We were up senior so long but in the latter years we were being constantly beaten.
Spring in Step
“In the end everyone was happy to go back to the intermediate grade and we started winning a few matches. Then when you win it, the older lads in the club get younger all of a sudden. It keeps them going. I can see the spring in the step of the older people.
“Tullaroan are a good team. They have to know they are as good as their results. We need one or two players coming into the panel to strengthen it again, however.
“But this run will prepare them well for the big challenge in the Kilkenny senior championship next year. Gaining the experience of these matches is wonderful; coping with the big days.”
Nothing up the road has to be rushed, he insisted. He was 36 when he won the senior championship with Tullaroan. His brother Dick was 38.
“There were a lot of us well over 30 when we won that championship,” he reminded. “I kept telling the lads, it might not come when you are 26, but it could still come when you are 36.
Never Give Up
“You never give up the chase. We won the intermediate in 1988. My dream was to play senior just once, but I got to play there for a good few years.”
Yes, he played on until he was 42, winning two All-Irelands with Kilkenny over 40 teams along the way.
“What is happening is powerful,” Michael said with force. “It is not an accident that the club is enjoying this success. Tullaroan put in great work over the year.
“Georgie Leahy was a great man who helped; Bro Damien, Jim Maher in his time as teacher, who started off with Tommy and those. There have been many, many people who have contributed to what is happening today.”
Now his own son Tommy has the young lads, as he put it, “gone mad”. Tommy works with the young lads in the school, under-12 and 13.
“We are really looking forward to the semi-final in Parnell Park,” Michael assured. “I expect to be bet after the match. I will be hurling every ball with them.
“Life is great right now. It is hard to describe it. No matter where you go the whole parish is behind the lads. That is what makes it all so wonderful.”