Henry Shefflin: Mesmerising, from beginning to end
Keith Duggan looks back at the career of one of the GAA’s immortal figures, a persona who might just overshadow them all
Sixteen years at the heart of the fastest game and it has gone by in a flash. Noon tomorrow – March 25th – will find him sitting in Langton’s hotel, the unchanging establishment where legions of Kilkenny hurling gods have crossed the threshold down the decades. He will explain to the public why he won’t be seen wearing the black and amber again and of how he just knew it was “time”.
And there will be something forlorn about the breeze in the Marble City, even if there is nothing to mourn. Henry Shefflin’s hurling life with Kilkenny has been a sustained performance of endeavour mingled with genius. It has been one long ovation.
If he got a lucky break, then it was that he happened to be born in the same playing era as exceptional talents like JJ Delaney, James “Cha” Fitzpatrick, Tommy Walsh, Richie Power. Since word travelled from Noreside on a humdrum Tuesday afternoon, his almost embarrassing treasure trove of 10 All-Irelands, 11 All Stars, five national leagues, three All-Ireland clubs with Ballyhale and three times the supreme Hurler of the Year accolade – have been trotted out on the radio, on the websites and on the main evening news.
Ireland is a village, no question, but the news about Shefflin would have reached every GAA person around the world within hours and it would have felt like a significant shift, like the end of special and distinctive era in Irish sporting and cultural life. Many summers have passed since it was accepted that the tall, pale, copper-haired stickman from Kilkenny belonged to the fraternity of GAA’s immortal figures. And that his persona might just overshadow all of them.
How do you declare the greatest? How to compare, say, the hurling craft and influence of a blue-eyed Corkonian named Ring born in Cloyne during the War of Independence with a publican’s son born in 1979, the year of Pope John Paul and of Charles Haughey’s ascent to power and of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures; the year, in fact, when Ring’s sudden death caused a cold wind to whip through Cork county and the country in general.
The most relevant comparison is that they both caught the imagination of the Irish sporting public in a way that was unprecedented. The most relevant comparison is that in front of packed houses in Thurles or in Croke Park, they had the power to grab the souls of all present, for an instant or for the hour. They weren’t fazed by all eyes on them, all the time.
Maybe Shefflin had a stroke of luck too in that he was raised in Ballyhale, the place which has acquired a near-mythical status in Kilkenny’s golden vale of hurling villages. He has accounted for his grounding in the game often enough: the received jolt of magic of the all-conquering Shamrocks sides of the 1980s, the simple and profound instruction given by Joe Dunphy, the local schoolmaster and then growing up in a house of uncommonly gifted hurlers.
The brothers won medals in stripes before him, remember: John in a man-of-the-match display in the minor All-Ireland in 1990 and Tommy an under-21 medal in the same year. Decades before Henry was referred to as the “King” – and it’s a title that always conflicted with his views on the importance of the collective – he was regarded as an ordinary enough young prospect: a big lad mad for the game in a county teeming with such teenagers. “A fella with a big ould arse to throw in at full forward” was his lightly disparaging verdict on his days with St Kieran’s college.
The stick-craft was developed and refined in the squash court behind the family pub but it wasn’t until he was out of his teens that he went supernova in a way that mystified even his closest friends and that will only be satisfactorily explained in his biography this autumn. Between 1998 and 2000 he was transformed over a couple of seasons from a fringe candidate of the county under-21 team to the on-field conscience of the new model army which Brian Cody began to assemble.
Shefflin’s Kilkenny years – 1999 to 2014 – coincided with a hugely transformative period for the GAA, when it became a more expansive and slicker organisation whose games commanded huge media interest – and revenue. Shefflin was an able communicator, genial and full of common sense and always careful about his public utterances. He came across as such a rock of common sense that he inadvertently demystified some of his most extraordinary performances.
Made Kilkenny seem invincible
It wasn’t so much the decorative skill of John Troy or DJ Carey that set him apart, as much as the omnipotent range of his fundamental excellence. His marksmanship, his ball-winning, his passing, his tenacity, his temperament and, perhaps best of all, his instinct for delivering the plays that simultaneously steeled his Kilkenny teammates and withered the belief of opposing counties. He worked like a demon and hit hard. He made Kilkenny seem invincible.
Everyone knows that Shefflin won 10All-Irelands with Kilkenny but now that he has left, the question will be asked. How many All-Irelands did Kilkenny win with Henry Shefflin? Those nerveless, coldly beautiful closing minutes of September 2009; the fearless assault on Galway sensibilities in the final two years later; those were just two days when it seemed as if his force of will was as important as his pure hurling talent.
It shouldn’t be forgotten how hard he fought for his obsession. A cruciate ligament injury in the All-Ireland final of 2007. A cruciate in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork three years later – and his exit in that year’s final when his departure from the field presaged the end of Kilkenny’s stunning drive for a fifth consecutive All-Ireland title.
He ignored the toll on his body and worked harder and harder and kept on coming back, season after season, seemingly as impervious to age as Cody. But he is 36 now.
He has given so much. So while it is such a shock to think of him calling time and wishing the ship and crew good sailing without him, it is no surprise. All-Ireland hurling has entered its post-Shefflin existence and in the immediate few days, there is something saddening about that. But what a splendid contribution; what a pleasure and a thrill to see him play.
Even the hurlers and counties whom he crushed in those 10 crowning summers will tip their caps this week.
Mesmerising, from beginning to end.