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Paul Rouse: 'A drop of the purest Flaherty'

by Paul Rouse was published in the The Examiner on Wednesday the 20th of December 2023

It’s 1967.

Kinnitty have just come up from junior the previous year and are playing Coolderry, the pre-eminent power in Offaly hurling, in the senior hurling final in Birr.

Johnny Flaherty is hardly out of minor, but he is already a genius. When the game is there to be won, he wins it. He scores all eight of his team's points – and the decisive goal at the end.

That evening, he is with the players when they arrive back into Kinnitty, a small village in the Slieve Bloom mountains. It is their first senior success in four decades.

The captain of the team is carried shoulder-high, with the cup, down the village. Almost everyone in the crowd is carrying a sod of turf. The sods have been dipped in oil and are all now ablaze. It is a torch-lit procession Offaly-style.

One of the young boys carrying a sod of turf is Ger Coughlan. He is 11 years old. Inspired by the day from beginning to end, Young Ger will play beside an older Johnny when Kinnitty win five more Offaly championships at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.


It’s 1969.

Offaly are playing Wexford in the Leinster semi-final. Wexford run out onto Croke Park as the defending All-Ireland champions.

An hour and a half later they leave stunned. Offaly score five goals to win by five points. Johnny Flaherty scores 1-3 and Offaly are into their first Leinster final since 1928.

At the end of July, they play Kilkenny, captained by Eddie Keher, and with other stars in their ranks such as Pat Henderson, Ollie Walsh, Ted Carroll, `Pa' Dillon, Jim Treacy, Martin Coogan and Paddy Delaney.

It is a good match and Flaherty scores 0-3. Offaly are leading with seven minutes left but Paddy Delaney scores his third goal and Offaly lose by two points – 3-9 to 0-16.

Kilkenny go on and win the All-Ireland.

The Offaly team breaks up. Johnny Flaherty heads off to America for most of the 1970s. He works in New York as a carpenter, in Alaska on the oll pipelines and then spends time down in San Francisco.

He goes to see the All-star hurlers play when they come over. The hunger for hurling has never left him.

So he goes home and helps Kinnitty win the Offaly senior hurling championship. By 1979 he’s back in the Offaly team.

A new generation have come through, winning a Leinster Under 21 championship in 1978.


It’s 1980.

Kilkenny are big favourites for the Leinster final. Only 9,000 people are in Croke Park.

In an extraordinary match, Offaly match Kilkenny blow for blow and are leading by a point with time almost up.

Everything is frantic. Offaly are holding on, just about, as they try and win the Leinster senior hurling championship for the first time.

Kilkenny are driving and driving again. A ball drops in front of the Offaly goal. There’s timber everywhere. It comes to Matt Ruth. He shoots for the equaliser. He’s blocked. There’s more timber, more bodies, more mayhem.

The ball comes to Johnny Flaherty. He’s wearing 15 and has already scored two goals. But now he’s back in the half back line. He flicks the ball up and spins out towards the sideline. He throws the ball on the hurl and heads up the field.

He’s about to cross halfway when the full-time whistle blows. Johnny Flaherty is about to shoot a point into the Railway End goal. Instead, he jumps into the arms of the Offaly subs and selectors and anyone else who is in front of the dugout.

It will never again be said that Offaly have not beaten Kilkenny in championship hurling.

The wildness of the presentation of the Bob O’Keeffe Cup is unmatched and unmatchable. Johnny Flaherty is bleeding from above a right eye as he stands elated in front of Pádraig Horan as he raises the cup.


It’s 1981.

At half-time in the All-Ireland final, Offaly are getting a hiding from Galway. They are trailing by 0-13 to 1-4. It would have been an awful lot worse but audacious skill and vision from Johnny Flaherty had set up a goal for Pat Carroll.

Con Houlihan writes: “If anyone tells you he foresaw the second half, he is either a prophet or a liar.”

Slowly, though, Offaly pulled themselves back into the game and with five minutes remaining were back to within three points.

A ball heads towards the Canal End, into the corner in front of the Cusack Stand. Flaherty gets there first. He bobs and weaves with the ball on his hurl. He takes it back into his hand, eyes darting everywhere, looking to create a goal. There is none available.

The ball goes back on the hurl and he dodges away from two Galway men. He’s 25 yards out now, perfectly balanced, and strikes the ball off the hurl over the bar.

There’s an immense roar. The game has turned. It was, said Con Houlihan, “a drop of the purest Flaherty”.

Two more minutes pass. Galway try and fail to stem the tide. Offaly are rampant – a catch and a run from Pat Delaney, flicked brilliantly to Brendan Birmingham and then a pass that splits the defence. Johnny Flaherty has the ball in his right hand now, right in front of the goals. He’s seven yards out. The full back line converges. Conor Hayes can’t hold him. Niall McInerney can’t get there. The goalkeeper Michael Conneely tries then. He also can’t hold Flaherty.

There no room to swing a hurl. He shifts his weight and his right hand comes up across his left shoulder.

He is too quick for everyone. The ball is out of the hand and palmed to the net.

Con Houlihan wrote that the Offaly crowd went out of their delightful minds: “All heaven broke loose – and its colours were green-white-and-gold.”


It's 1993.

Johnny Flaherty is 46 years of age and is starting for Kinnitty against Crinkle in the Offaly junior hurling final. He stays in near the goals and scores 1-3. Kinnitty win and Johnny is as good as finished hurling.

He had actually said he was already over the hill by the time he had scored the winning goal in the 1981 final when he was 34.

“That game came a bit late for me. A few years before, I could dominate a match from out the field. But to go in at half-time in an All-Ireland final seven points down, and know there was nothing you could do about it out the field, that you didn’t have the legs anymore, that was hard.

“I was caught at me worst, if you like, I was well past my best anyway. Still, I felt if they could only work it up to me, if they’d puck it up to me, I’d be able to do something with it. They did, and sure I managed to get the ould goal.”


It’s 2005. Johnny Flaherty is walking around O’Moore Park with the Kilkenny hurler Liam Fennelly as part of a feature for the ‘Irish Examiner’. He describes the way he used to think about hurling before a big game: “I’d be talking to myself for two weeks before a big match, about the fella I was going to be marking. Okay, he’s bigger than you, he’s faster, he’s stronger, he’s a better hurler than you, he’s even better-looking, and all that first week I’d be training, preparing myself, getting into the humour.

“As the second week went on though, I’d be bringing him down to my height, maybe he’s not so good, maybe he’s not so strong, and by the time the game came around, I’d be really ready. I’d try to show him up, if he made even half a mistake, I’d pounce.”


It’s 2022.

Johnny Flaherty is president of the All-Ireland Hurlers' Golf Society. There is an outing underway at Esker Hills Golf Club.

He is playing with Michael Duignan and Joe Dooley and is standing on the tee box at the par four second hole. The hole is a dogleg, not much more than 320 yards away – if you go over the trees Johnny is still a big hitter, still a very competitive 11 handicapper. And he is only ever going to go over the trees.

He steps up and swings his driver. He hits the ball beautifully and it makes the green no problem. There are three former Wexford hurlers – the Quigleys – on the green, The ball runs past them, straight and true – and into the hole.

It is the first ever hole-in-one at a par 4 recorded at the home club of Shane Lowry.


There was nobody in this world like Johnny Flaherty. He remade the madness of the mountain to the main street of Tullamore where he was a successful businessman.

He was, of course, a great hurler. His deeds for club and county are the stuff of legend. He will always be a hero to Offaly people.

More than that, he was a wonderful human being, warm and generous, enormous fun.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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