Tony Keady: great character at heart of Galway hurling’s golden era

Obituary: career featured many high points and a famous controversy

 

With stark timing the sudden death of Tony Keady at the age of 53 has taken one of the great Galway hurlers just as the county is one match away from winning a first All-Ireland since his own playing days.

He was present at Croke Park earlier this month for the epic semi-final victory over Tipperary before taking suddenly unwell two days later. The sense of shock spread through the county and the broader GAA community that someone in such apparently good form, a larger-than-life character with a young family, could be so prematurely struck down.

During the greatest era for Galway hurling he was one of the leading figures, a dominant centre back who was strong in the air and a wonderful striker of the ball. Flanked by Peter Finnerty and Gerry McInerney, as he was for one last time when they shouldered his coffin in Renville Cemetery, he was at the heart of one of the great half-back lines in the history of the game.

In his distinctive white helmut in 1987, the year he won his first of two All-Irelands. Photograph: Inpho
In his distinctive white helmut in 1987, the year he won his first of two All-Irelands. Photograph: Inpho

White helmut

With his distinctive white helmet, which was brought to the altar during his funeral, he was a highly visible presence on the field, who dependably rose to the biggest occasions, as a defender and dispatcher of long-range frees – he used to joke that the only distraction when he was addressing the dead ball was the last-second movement of the umpire to pick up his flag before the shot had been struck.

The list of his honours reads like an inventory of the most valued prizes in hurling: two All-Ireland senior medals and one under-21, two All Stars in 1986 and ’88, when he was also chosen as the Texaco Hurler of the Year.

Tony Keady was born on December 5th 1963, to Jimmy, who worked with Bórd na Móna, and Maureen (née Daly), in Attymon, Co Galway. He was the youngest of 11 children and attended the local national school before going into secondary education in Athenry Vocational School.

His talent as a hurler was evident from an early age with his club Killimordaly, with whom he would win a senior county title in 1986, and he famously enjoyed the first “big win” of his career in an under-16 tournament final for which the Connacht Tribune had offered a prize of 20 bicycles – Raleigh Choppers.

He would win All-Ireland vocational school titles with Galway, play for the county minors in the 1981 All-Ireland final and go one better with the under-21s.

His senior championship debut came in 1985 in an All-Ireland semi-final against champions Cork. A crowd of just 8,200 gives a sense of the public expectation but in a deluge Galway won well with Tony Keady attracting plaudits. This personal triumph gave way to sadness a couple of weeks later when his father Jimmy died after a long battle with emphysema.

It was an additional source of sadness for him that his father never got to see him winning the All-Ireland in 1987, against Kilkenny, and a year later when the late Breandán Ó hEithir, a regular hurling writer in these pages, made the following observation.

“The outstanding feature of this Galway team, in my view, is something which even good Galway teams in recent times lacked: coolness when their backs were against the well. This trait was shining through the play of Tony Keady at centre back.”

In 1989, with the team on the cusp of a three-in-a-row, disaster struck. He was suspended for playing without authorisation in the US despite arguing that he had been misled by assurances from the Laois club in New York that he was eligible to play.

He deadpanned in the Laochra Gael programme dedicated to him that he felt should his epitaph should be, `They should have let me play in ‘89!'

‘The Keady Affair’

In what is still known as “The Keady Affair,” the suspension ruled him out of Galway’s All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary, the third time the counties had met in successive championships. With his team going for three-in-a-row, Keady would miss the biggest match of the season.

He would always resent the punishment and deadpanned in the Laochra Gael programme dedicated to him, that he felt should his epitaph should be, “They should have let me play in ‘89!”

His intercounty career ended relatively early, before he was 30, but he maintained his involvement in the game, coaching clubs – this year Ahascragh-Fehonagh – and serving as a selector with the Galway under-21s earlier this decade.

Having married Margaret Curran from Rathcairn in Meath, he settled in Frenchfort, Oranmore, and became an integral part of the community, adopting the local Oranmore-Maree club and working as the caretaker in Calasanctius College where he coached the school’s teams.

A keen golfer, he won a number of competitions but he was primarily devoted to his family. His children Shannon (15), Anthony (13) and twins Jake and Harry (11) inherited a love of sport and frequently accompanied their father to matches and training.