John Leahy: ‘I never felt as free in life as I did on a hurling field’
Tipperary great on hurling, Tipp, Kilkenny and the life lessons learned along the way
John Leahy in action against Kilkenny in the 1991 All-Ireland hurling final. It was to be the only time Leahy faced Kilkenny in the final during his long career. Photograph: Inpho
‘I hurled to get away from life, I think,” John Leahy says of days that were wilder in every sense. On a low-slung afternoon in Kilkenny city, few would guess that the unassuming man strolling across the hotel foyer was once the conduit for all of Tipperary’s angels and its demons, too.
Leahy: in the hurling strongholds of the country, the name still carries high voltage as a significant and edgy period for the game.
He’ll be a face in the crowd on Sunday and, funnily, for all of the storied Tipperary and Kilkenny rivalry, his championship experience against the Cats was confined to the 1991 All-Ireland final. But he’s no stranger to Kilkenny, working in the county with the HSE, and coaching, in his spare time, Carrigeen, a junior C club, located close to Mooncoin.
“People think of Kilkenny as a land of . . . hurlers,” he says. “And it is. But to see the guys in that club, keeping it alive knowing they aren’t going to win anything. It’s humbling that. They are surviving down there with a big club like Mooncoin alongside them. It’s their tradition and they want to keep it.”
John Leahy races in triathlons these days, even if the swimming remains an alien pursuit, and he’s already chalked down acting roles in The Field and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
He loves hurling still but is no longer possessed by the game. He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since the week in 1996 when he ended up in a jail cell for a night after an incident in Manchester where he narrowly avoided a prison term – but not a full year of vilification across Ireland’s hurling fields and on its streets.
The man who could be such a mutinous presence on the hurling field turns out to be a natural communicator and for years now he has counselled and informed people about the issues of drugs and alcohol, a minefield he crossed. But mention his name to anyone old enough to remember and they’ll immediately return to the killing fields of the late 1980s.
Leahy seemed to land fully formed; a stylist with a furious workrate and a combustible streak
He was both contradiction and enigma, bursting on to the scene as an exceptional 18-year-old in 1988 from a quarter of Tipperary which had remained stubbornly immune to hurling. Mikey Cahill had been the only Mullinahone man to wear the Tipperary shirt and that had been 40 years earlier – at minor level.
Leahy seemed to land fully formed; a stylist with a furious workrate and a combustible streak. No wonder Babs Keating liked what he saw. Perhaps the most ridiculous thing about John Leahy is that he played in his first All-Ireland senior final aged 18 while at 14 he had only ever played four games of hurling in his life – and one of those was as goalkeeper.
He was almost entirely self-taught. He left school at 16 and worked as a plasterer. That should have been that. How did John Leahy even become a hurler?
“That’s an interesting question?” he laughs before taking himself back to Christmas of 1986. Through pure athleticism, he had made the last 40 of the Tipp minor trials.
“Brother Perkins came up to me and said, ‘John, come here, keep going the way you are going’. And that was the last I heard about it. And I still don’t know what came on me but that Christmas I decided I’d train three times a week. I was drinking a bit and said I’d give that up. That year was the making of me as a hurler.”
Nobody had heard of him. Through the black nights he ran a series of solitary sprints, laps and did press-ups and chin-ups. He never missed a session. One day he was doing a bit of plastering in John Maguire’s house and spied a book sitting there. It was Hurling by Tony Wall. He decided John wouldn’t mind if he borrowed it. He used it as Wall would have wished: as a bible and guide book, selecting a skill, studying it and practising and practising.
At the 1987 minor trials he was marked by Conal Bonnar. “Conal was a kingpin. I hate to say it but I looked up to him.”
Leahy had 1-4 scored after 20 minutes. He was the standout player during Tipp’s run to the minor final, where they lost to Offaly. In Mullinahone, a parade was organised in honour of their 18-year-old county man. Precious, shaky footage of the scene still exists. It was, he agrees now, like a scene transported from 1950s Ireland.
“Twenty or 30 young lads sitting in the trailer and Mickey Hennessy, Lord rest him, playing Slievenamon. I remember they rang me. I was up at a friend’s house. I said I wasn’t coming down. The whole parish was out. ‘You have to come down.’ I was saying no. ‘Please! No! I don’t want to do this!’ They collected me outside my own house and here I was on the back of this trailer.
“Like, I didn’t play for acclaim or that. It probably wasn’t the wisest thing but I appreciated it and I think I handled it okay. Wally Scott singing on the trailer and a little bonfire at the GAA field. One of the greatest sentences ever said to me was a guy I worked with on the farm. He said to me: ‘I want to thank you for playing for Tipp. What I really want to thank you for is seeing Mullinahone on a senior Tipperary programme.’ That is what it meant to people. So you had the backing of those people. That fed into it.”
By ‘it’ he means the zealotry which accompanied Tipp hurling at that period. In 1987, the senior hurlers reclaimed the Munster championship for the first time since 1971. There was a sense of manifest destiny about their re-emergence except for the unhappy surprise of Galway standing in their way, in the semi-final of 1987 and the final in 1988.
Babs Keating saw in Leahy a potential counterpoint to the dynamic Pete Finnerty in Galway’s rampaging half-back line. Over three years, a messy and acrimonious rivalry developed between the counties and the friction between Finnerty and Leahy was the on-field flashpoint.
“The atmosphere then . . . hate would be too strong a word but it was touching on that. I do believe what contributed to it was we didn’t know those players we played against. We only met on the field. I remember coming in that for Tipp to beat Galway at that time, Babs would say, we needed to beat their half-back line of Pete, Tony Keady, Lord have mercy on him, and Gerry McInerney. And the way to beat them was with aggression. Those words would have been used.
“Get in their face. You were fighting for your county, like. And I think the game was more physical then. People went along to watch these individual battles. So I was marking Pete. And we f**king marked each other, like. And people went to see that. You take next Sunday. We don’t know who will mark who. And you don’t get away with much. I didn’t know Pete Finnerty. And I didn’t really care who he was. I was aware of his reputation so my attitude was: ‘I am going to break you down. I am going to test you and see what is in you, like’.”
It’s easy to forget now that he was a kid, just 19. Leahy’s combination of easy, nimble skill and confrontational style made him stand out. He became a cult figure for Tipp’s followers and an automatic fuse for Galway supporters’ outrage. No allowance was made for his age.
“Probably not,” he says cheerfully. “But I wouldn’t have looked at it that way anyway. I was asked to stop Pete hurling. I remember Bobby Ryan saying to me, ‘John, whatever fuckin’ happens don’t let Peter Finnerty put in that big clearance’. Like, that moment in the 1989 semi-final; if it happened now, I probably would have been sent off. But I can always picture it. He ran past me with the ball and he put the ball out here like.
“And this thing rang through my mind. I can’t let him clear this. Bobby will kill me! So I went for the ball but his hand was there, like. You got away with it then. And he gave it back to me. We gave it to each other – verbally, physically – nothing was off limits. You had two guys fighting for a cause. And you were allowed to do it.”
He sighs and shakes his head at the madness of it but then looks up in surprise when he is asked if those experiences were actually enjoyable.
“Jaysus, I loved it, yeah,” he confirms. “Genuinely! Give it to me and I’ll fecking give it back to you,” he says of the credo of that time.
“See, I never felt as free in life as I did on a hurling field. When I went out there, this was my space, my environment. So I could trust myself out there. I believed in my ability to a point. I never considered myself the greatest hurler. But I was kind of safe out there. I never thought I’d hurl for Tipp. But I loved it out there. Give me it back today! Give me back the dressing room, give me back running out, give me back the national anthem. I just couldn’t wait to get out on the field. I couldn’t wait.”
By 20, he had done it all: won an All-Ireland, an All-Star, he was feted as one of the brightest forces in the game. Years later, when he began to sift through those five blurry and ultimately lost years in the first half of the 1990s, he can trace the pattern through which his drinking came to define him.
“I would still have had drink problems regardless of hurling. But it shifted my journey in it. But I would always say nobody forced drink on me. I drank because I loved the crack of it.”
In two years I went from drinking socially to every day of the week. Pints mainly, but by the end of it, shorts
His face creases at the thought of aimless winter afternoons and nights spent in the Trap in Graingemockler or Thurles, just on the beer. No particular place to go. It was great fun and mischief. Ireland and drink ran on different rules then.
Even at Tipp training, in deep winter, the talk would go around during laps. Will we go for one?
“Down to the County Bar we’d go. And we could stay all night. That was the down time. And it was a slower pace of life.”
In 1994, Leahy took Galway for seven points in the league final, then injured himself playing county football for Tipp and took the brunt of the blame for being absent as Clare dumped the hurlers out of the championship a few weeks later. By 1995, he found himself walking in the parade against Limerick and gazing up at the terrace in Páirc Uí Chaoimh wishing he could be with the Tipp lads up there.
“In two years I went from drinking socially to every day of the week. Pints mainly, but by the end of it, shorts. Now, ’twas great crack like. But somewhere along that journey, it got a grip of me.
“Anger would have been an issue with me. That escalated. I could be out having the best of crack and you could say one or two words and I would turn. And I didn’t like that. It used to frighten me. There were two or three incidents and the last one in Manchester was well publicised. And they frightened me.”
What happened that night in January 1996 flipped his life. Leahy was in Manchester for a football match and became involved in an altercation with a man from Limerick. Leahy would say in court he believed the other man was about to strike him and he swung out, not realising that he had a glass in his hand; the other man was cut deeply on his face. Leahy pleaded guilty to unlawfully wounding him and received a suspended sentence. He continues to think about that night with deep remorse.
“Ah God, I do. Of course. I left that man with a mark for the rest of his life. I did something that should not have happened. It’s a confusing kind of place because I wonder if I would have stopped afterwards if that night had not happened. I remember inside in the cell asking myself what had gone wrong. And it was drinking. So I said: ‘John take alcohol out of your life and you have some chance’. I drank a few pints that week. And since then I haven’t touched it.”
The court case in Manchester Crown Court loomed over Tipperary’s hurling championship season. It conferred public notoriety on Leahy. There was no hiding. He played against Kerry and spent the first half listening to a tirade of abuse from his opponent.
His nature is upbeat but he sat in the dressing room that day feeling genuinely low. When Tipp met Limerick a few weeks later, he stood on the field during a minute’s silence for someone recently deceased. From the terrace, through the pin-drop silence came a venomous shout. “GO ON LEAHY, YA WANKER.”
“If the ground could have swallowed me then I’d have taken it,” he says.
“I would have got a lot of grief throughout that time. I would mind where I’d go. Lads would have a go and throw it in your face. I worked with United Beverages. I could go into 25 pubs in a day. There could be a crowd on the beer. Maybe it was just boys slagging and showing off . . . but that part was hard. It is not nice.
When they smelled an opportunity, they buried you. That team was incredible
“Over time I realised: I am not that person. It was alcohol driven. I would have no doubt people thought I gave up drink to get away with the case. But no. It was a huge life lesson. I think it had to be horrible for my family more so than me. I’ve a brother who looks like me and the poor man, I’ve no idea what he put up with then.
“I remember attending the Munster final in 2002 when I wasn’t playing and I heard for the first time how critical people could be of the players and their parents around listening. And I thought ‘My God what did my parents have to listen to when I was hurling for Tipp?’ I will never know. We need to realise now that the lads playing have a life outside of this. They aren’t just hurlers.”
By 1997, he had begun to understand that. Leahy was a luminous presence that year, more controlled on the field and a delight to watch. The season swung on his late goal chance in the All-Ireland final which Davy Fitzgerald scooped safely to his right.
“It would have been magical. But for me to get back hurling for Tipp, it was incredibly enjoyable. I was hurling with a whole new freedom. I missed a chance. I give Davy credit for stopping it but in my mind, I missed a chance. But my rationale by then was – it was great to be there to miss it.”
He missed most of Tipperary’s All-Ireland-winning campaign in 2001 through injury and retired two years later; his exit was as quiet as understated as his entrance had been electrifying. By then, the Brian Cody era had already begun to assert itself. Like all hurling people, he watched on as Kilkenny began to expand the borders of hurling excellence. And he was fascinated.
“I think a few things happened. One was Cody. The other was the organisation of the Kilkenny board. And they got characters into that team with unbelievable skill. The likes of Henry [Shefflin], JJ [Delaney], Tommy Walsh were leaders. And if you came in as a young lad, you were quickly grounded with these guys. Look at what they did with Limerick and Waterford then.
“When they smelled an opportunity, they buried you. That team was incredible. And you don’t need a team of that quality to win an All-Ireland. You might not get a group like that again, ever. You might get two or three. TJ [Reid] has taken on that leadership now and Pádraig Walsh. An unsung hero is Conor Fogarty: he is consistent, not making any mistakes. Joey Holden is an amazing character on that team because I am sure a lot of people had Joey written off a few years ago and here he is, still hurling at the top level.”
Leahy hurled and coached and became more deeply involved in the counselling and addiction work. He’s both a listener and talker and has seen and heard more than enough to know that hurling, for all its beauty, is just a game. The more time he has spent in Kilkenny, the more he feels that they have mastered that balance in the county.
“Everyone is grounded. Like, I imagine Cody’s team speeches are nothing special. I would believe it is getting the Kilkenny jersey; his players mind that and treasure that. I have no doubt that there are chaps on development squads but you will never see them with Kilkenny gear on them at club training. You don’t stand out.
“I’d imagine there is a code of ethics there – you keep Kilkenny gear for training. I see in Tipp – and I might have been part of it – in winning an All-Ireland we might have been glamorised a bit. I think here in Kilkenny they follow their clubs as well. Whereas in Tipp, we have a lot who follow Tipperary. They are not necessarily die-hard club supporters. It is about the county.
“And when Tipp teams do well, it blows up. Sometimes Tipp become favourites without really deserving it. And we can get caught with that. Go back to 2017. All that talk of doing two-in-a-row. Pressure. It is huge. And the Tipp game is . . . skilful. Kilkenny, the last day, they just ground Limerick out. Tipp, in the end, outhurled Wexford. And you have to match Kilkenny in every arena.
“I think on Sunday that Tipp will have to start well. One thing that Kilkenny have is that they can adapt to what is thrown at them on any given day. They will counteract it. On Sunday, Tipp will go out to hurl to win the game. Kilkenny will go out to win the game. They have that ability. They don’t get carried away.”
Thirty years ago, Leahy was sort of swept away on a once-in-a-lifetime torrent of emotion and passions generated by championship hurling. He knows now that he was too young to understand that it shaped him; the public wanted John Leahy the hurler and that’s what he gave them.
“It defines who you become. People don’t see the life outside of it. That’s who I was: this mad character from Mullinahone going at the Galway lads. I felt I had to be that to beat Peter Finnerty – because he was so good.”
These days, he’s on friendly terms with Finnerty and several others of that Galway team. His brother lives in Oranmore and he delights in the notion that his nephews might end up hurling in maroon. He’s excited about this Sunday but for the occasion as much as the game. A cousin is coming home for England for the first time since 2001.
He’s going along with a nephew and nieces who only know him as uncle John, not as this rampaging figure. And if that 20-year-old Leahy, glowering, hurl in hand, could materialise now in the pleasant lobby of the Newpark and listen to his 49-year-old self sitting on a sofa, would he recognise himself? He roars with laughter.
“No chance. No chance. I wouldn’t understand it. I’d be saying: ‘that lad is nuts. What’s he talking about? No. No.’ Hurling was everything to the 22-year-old John Leahy. It isn’t to the 50-year-old. My head on Sunday will be out on the field. I will be watching the match thinking, ‘Jaysus, maybe I could still do that’. But no. It had its place. It was a brilliant time.”