According to Maggie Haberman’s scary portrait, Confidence Man, Donald Trump had a recurrent phrase when reacting to prospective appointments, which he viewed initially from a visual perspective: “Central casting,” he would murmur approvingly if he thought the candidate looked the part.
It’s not stretching the comparison to say the same about Ciarán Kilkenny but in his case everything about him is central casting.
An extravagantly talented underage dual player, he was the first of the core 93′s (those Dublin players born 30 years ago, including Jack McCafrrey, Paul Mannion and Brian Fenton) to make a senior start, being added to 2012 semi-final line-up against Mayo just before throw-in and kicking three points from play.
Like any exemplar, he has conquered adversity – the stunning late defeat by Tipperary in the 2011 All-Ireland minor final, an early cruciate injury, in 2014 – and brings a wide range of assets to his life as a GAA role model. He’s a fluent Irish speaker and 10 years ago, decided that a career in the AFL wasn’t what he wanted.
“As a child you dream of competing for All-Ireland finals, not Grand finals,” he explains.
He carries celebrity lightly and in the Hotel Castleknock, he is a celebrity regardless of the presence of the Ireland soccer team, who are sitting around and obliging various requests for selfies.
A woman with a pile of kids makes a beeline for the booth where Kilkenny is sitting and asks would he mind before stuffing them in beside him. “You’re their favourite,” she says.
He’s very easy-going and chats to the children: where are they at school, is Mr So-and-so looking after them, are they playing football? Autographs performed, pictures taken, he wishes them well, as the woman thanks him profusely.
Even in the shuddering days of Dublin’s apparently irreversible decline in 2021 and 2022, Kilkenny kept it lit with the county’s only All-Star both years.
He is a determined collectivist, though. Hardly a team-related question gets answered without reference to “the group” and references to him personally are turned into whether he can “benefit” or “add value” to “the group”.
If it feels at times like a bit of a mantra, there is some substance to his sense of comradeship. He references the minor defeat as one of the reasons he left the AFL after only a few months. “Understanding how good that group was and the bond we still had were influences.”
Which is both a challenge and a comfort when asked about this season. The group may have won the All-Ireland but Kilkenny wasn’t started in the All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final. The public narrative was said to be that Dublin management were frustrated at his desire to tend to the team’s machinery by recycling ball and running around with it, probing as opposed to moving the scoreboard.
In 2018, Jim Gavin played him closer to goal and he was the championship’s top scorer from play with 2-24. At a postseason press call, he mentioned both his peers in the 1993 cohort and the debt to Dessie Farrell, who had trained them from development squad to under-21 and a year later would take up the reins of the senior team.
In 2023, the same Dessie wasn’t picking him to start. Had that made their relationship more awkward?
“Dessie has coached me since under-13s all the way up and I’ve known him for 17 years. There’s a strong bond and relationship with him and you know that he’ll make decisions in the interests of the group.”
“But. As a player and individual, you’re going to be extremely frustrated with that. You’ve got to accept and think about in the collective context but it can be very disappointing. We’re all human beings and you’re going to be emotional. You just need to take time and accept your role.
“I was ultimately fortunate to get back in for the final. It wasn’t a scenario I’d been in before but I suppose it helped me understand football a little bit more as well as handling the emotional aspect.”
An ever present in the six-in-a-row teams, his versatility was prodigious. Underage, he was more of a shooter – 0-7, four from play, in that minor final – and a year later in the senior semi-final but his role would change. Courtesy of an inexhaustible engine, he roamed the field – a ubiquitous link player for colleagues on the ball.
Rub the lamp and there he was.
In the post-2014 overhaul, Kilkenny was the point guard in the recycle and reload game that Dublin evolved to shred the blanket defence. In the most startling demolition of the time, Tyrone in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final, he registered 62 possessions.
He has also played wing back, centrefield and as mentioned, in 2018 he became a prolific scorer closer to goal.
“I love the challenge of playing in different positions but the best football that I’ve played is maybe being aggressive, taking your man on and looking to go at the goal and has been at centre forward or full forward – closer to goal. I also get a great satisfaction out of making a big play for someone else.”
As a result it’s not surprising to hear the extent to which he compartmentalises his game, working on one element and then another. He says that annually he decides to concentrate on a different aspect of his game.
“Each year I try to evolve my body in a different way or take up a different sport, which will help me as a footballer. The last couple of years I would have done Jiu Jitsu – well a small bit of Jiu Jitsu and a small bit of Muay Thai, the training element, and a small bit of boxing.
“Each year I have a different focus. One year I might want to be more powerful and so I go to the gym and work on leg-based stuff. Another year it might be more endurance-oriented and I’d do more running.”
Does this approach not effectively predetermine where he’s going to play?
“It does, a lot of the time. This year I really wanted to go after the defensive side of my game and get my body into a position for concentrating on hard work. I played with a real emphasis on offence in recent years.”
So much is rooted in his past when raised in an enthusiastic GAA family. His father’s people are from Galway and related to Tuam football maestro Seán Purcell whereas relatives on his mother’s side played for Meath. Young Ciarán was no stranger to Croke Park and the championship.
“We hopped on the train in Coolmine down the road and went into the games. We were big Dublin fans and I still am. I’ll support any Dublin team and it was great to see the women win as well but in those days, we kept believing every year that we could do it but Dublin kept falling.
“That Special Olympics anthem [May We Never Have to Say Goodbye] used to blare out after all the games. Usually I’d be with my two sisters and my Dad and it became a kind of soundtrack to Dublin losing matches in the championship.”
Maybe it’s the vivid memories of being a supporter but Kilkenny views the highs of success through the prism of its impact on Dubliners and seeing the celebrations this year after returning to the top of football.
“For me, it was probably the next day bouncing around Temple Bar and seeing so many Dublin people around the city in their blue jerseys and it meant a lot to them to have come back after losing the way for two years.”
He believes that the same supporters had in the nicest possible way closed the book on them after 2022 and a second All-Ireland semi-final defeat with the added indignity of relegation after losing to Monaghan.
“We were very disappointed. I mean people were so kind to us after the game, coming up and saying, ‘thank you for everything you’ve done for Dublin,’ in a final kind of way as in we can’t be expected to be able to compete at that level again.
“Hearing that – although it was nice of the supporters to be so generous in acknowledging what we had done – had the effect of driving a response and ultimately we got there, which was very satisfying.”
Two of his contemporaries, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion, boosted this year’s effort by coming out of premature retirement to add quality to Dublin’s challenge and this spring 41-year-old Stephen Cluxton followed suit.
Kilkenny stays loyal to last year’s group by maintaining they could have won the All-Ireland unaided but given the contribution of the trio not least in the final, he acknowledges the impact.
“Oh, big time. The energy they bring and big plays in big games. Stephen kicked two great scores. Paul kicked five, one from a mark. Jack gave the ball to Collie [Basquel] and a free followed. You need 15, 20 guys who can make a big play in big games against quality sides.”
These days, he is knee-deep in his club Castleknock, who play Ballyboden in Saturday’s (September 23rd) Dublin quarter-final in what is a celebratory year for them – the 25th anniversary, which they will be marking.
A primary teacher in St Benedict’s in Ongar, Kilkenny has also branched out into yoga classes for children and adults. Initially it was one of the things he did to benefit his football – in this case, recovery – but he became interested and went to Bali to train as an instructor.
“I hold health and wellbeing summer camps for kids and I have a small yoga community next door. A lot of the yoga with kids is helping them to understand breathing, which helps when they get anxious but also expose them to different types of sports. Helping them understand how to run properly and that sort of thing.
“Adults’ lives are busy and they don’t get much time for themselves. Setting an hour aside to give time to themselves is really important. For example, some people struggle with back pain so it’s good to go and stretch because a lot of activity takes place without stretching first, which can lead to injury.
“I’ll be doing some lectures on health and wellbeing in Marino in the weeks ahead so I’m really looking forward to that.”
He likes being busy and a tight schedule of teaching, yoga classes, doing Irish grinds, coaching the school’s team and getting ready to weigh in on Castleknock’s silver jubilee fund raiser gives him plenty to do.
So, as he turns 30, where does intercounty football fit in? For all the supposition that this year was one last job to get James McCarthy to captain an All-Ireland winning team and reclaim their dominion, Kilkenny doesn’t think any of his colleagues will be making sudden moves before December and neither will he.
“The thing is that playing intercounty is a privilege. It’s any child’s dream growing up as a footballer or hurler. You can’t play forever, though. At some stage you have to prioritise other things whether more time with family or your club or your career or travelling. These are the internal conversations you have with yourself.
“I’d love to get myself to a position where I’ll be the best footballer I can be next year but you’d like to think as a competitor, you’ll still be there contributing to the team. I hope I wouldn’t be the person to outstay my welcome and if it got to that, I’d love if someone might say it to me and I’d be happy then.”
Paradise lost. Paradise regained. Central Casting.
♦ Ciarán Kilkenny was speaking in support of the 2023 Beko and Leinster GAA Club Champion initiative that rewards local club heroes. Closing date is October 3rd. For further details: https://leinstergaa.ie/beko-club-champion/