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Johnny Pilkington We hardly know ye.

by Tom Humphries was published in the Irish Times on Friday the 11th of September 1998

April 1998, Guinness Press Release for Psyche-Up Ad Campaign: The hurling hero is psyching himself up . . . camera moves back to reveal another figure . . . new character brings with him a sense of foreboding, of dark forces . . . back to the hero, who takes a step further, swings his hurley across his torso and gazes down the corridor unflinching . . . the other figure mirrors these actions . . . close-up reveals he is the same person . . . the first hurler's alter ego . . . the demon within . . . the demon cracks the base of his hurley off the floor . . . a fracture appears and travels down the length of the tunnel . . . it is white hot and molten, spitting and bubbling . . . with a fluid movement the demon takes up a scorching ball of molten material -- a sliotar from hell! . . . with a sudden tremendous burst of speed the demon hurler knocks up the ball and fires it down with awesome power and pace to the hero facing him . . . our hero holds his ground . . . he tenses himself in anticipation and . . .

Johnny Pilkington leans back in his seat and runs his hand through his hair. Looks at the ceiling. Yawns. All the good things and all the bad things in Johnny's life are stored up in his brown eyes. He is considering hurling just now. Good and bad.

"The whole idea of it actually is ridiculous," he says. Johnny never saw a bush he wanted to beat around. "Training in muck and dirt. A big chunk of life gone fora little chunk of metal while an organisation is making millions. It's a socalled amateur game with a professional way of preparing and nothing but a clap on the back or a knife in the back at the end. 'Why bother?,' I'd think to myself sometimes."

And he grins, showing a wrecking yard of imperfect teeth. On the table is the round plastic ashtray, a mass grave for the cigarettes Johnny has sucked the life out of this morning. Johnny drums his fingers. No fags left. Forgot to buy a pack at lunchtime. The tension of a looming All-Ireland final can't be found anywhere on his face. The fiancee says he's a little snappy in the week before a big game, but he hasn't noticed it himself. The way he's been for the last year or so, well, it's not molten lava or sliotars from hell stuff. Forgot the fags. Tut.

Take this summer and the game with Meath. A done deal after 10 minutes. Game over. Johnny found himself just standing in Croke Park in the middle of the field. Wondering and wandering. What's the point in beating these by 25 points? Could have done with a fag.

Even when he has been with the programme it's not been his best season. His detachment from the game and it's molten passions has become more distinct. Sometimes he listens to the table banging speeches and the boys who are going to do or die and his ironic mind is leading him away from it.

"In the dressing room every game is the important game, you know. Win this one and ye'll be alright lads. The All-Ireland, we'll go out and play that and it's the biggest thing ever. Two weeks later it's the club championship. We have to win that and get into the semi. Then we have to win that to get into the county final. We've never put one back to back or something, so that's the most important thing and so on.

"Sometimes in the dressing room I think, 'wouldn't it be more important if one of us lost his job. Then we'd be in trouble'."

He bodyswerves. "Then again though, you wouldn't be without the hurling."

He wouldn't be without it, but there are times when just being a hurling man in a hurling town closes in on him, days when the world seems a small place. If he didn't have hurling, what would he be?

He works for Minch Norton, the agricultural supply people. Apart from farming, every customer has one thing to talk about. Hurling. All hurling. All the time. Goodfellas and blowhards and bad debtors. Hurling.

Listen, Johnny might say, you owe us money, you've owed it this long time. Johnny, there'll be some hurling done to beat Kilkenny on Sunday, some hurling done.

Once, not long liberated from the ag block in UCD, Johnny and another ag graduate went out on a professional mission to see a farmer, a former Tipperary hurler actually. For half an hour Tipp asked Johnny's colleague about farming. Then, business done, he turned to Johnny for the hurling chat at the end of it, as if Johnny was some sort of hurling bimbo included as part of a special offer. "You have to get away," he says. "You need to escape it sometimes. There's not much point in stopping hurling and staying around Birr. You'd have to go away altogether. Go somewhere where nobody knows you and nobody knows hurling . . . Kildare maybe.

He got away for a bit last winter and fled to the sanctuary of the local rugby club, where he hid out for the duration of the Towns cup campaign. The town buzzed with rumours that the rugby was eating Johnny Pilkington away like the ebola virus. Little to be talking about.

"My rugby career wasn't exactly what it was made up to be," he grins. "I was playing in the worst division in the worst league in the worst rugby country in Europe. Didn't exactly have my head turned."

Yet he appreciated it greatly. The lads on the rugby field with him two nights a week and on Saturday afternoons put the work in and pulled out less reward than hurlers are accustomed to. The GAA is the hub of life in Birr. The rugby boys go about their toil facing every problem except acclaim.

Babs gave him the call of course, summoning him back to the fold. Johnny told him he'd a couple of weeks left with the rugby lads and if Babs didn't mind he'd like to see it out. Glad he did it. No idea what was down the line with Babs.

That's life though. He shrugs in a way that's part of him.

IT'S 20 minutes after the All-Ireland seim-final in Thurles has finally finished up. Offaly aren't yet done with their whooping and hollering. The dressing room door opens. He stands in the dustmoted light, drained, drawn and a cigarette in his mouth. Lets his mouth crinkle into a smile. He-eeeere's Johnny!

People sit Johnny Pilkington down for these sketches every year or so. They fiddle away while he sits there. Shade here, light there. And when they hand him back the portrait he's king pogue, the Shane McGowan of his game, burping his way through the seasons, indifferent to hurling and stone mad for the drink.

He doesn't recognise himself.

It started maybe in 1994, before the All-Ireland. Ger Canning asked him what an All-Ireland would mean to Offaly. Johnny said it would mean a lot of drink. Looking back now it was a stupid thing to say . . .

"But I was 24 and young and fresh out of college, no clue about tax or PRSI or those things. My reputation would be very exaggerated from then on."

If there are then rumours out there, he reckons six of them are wrong and he hasn't heard the other four yet. His fiancee's family own a pub. Brian Whelehan owns a pub. His car is parked outside one or the other most nights. Quick tongues do their work about the place. Johnny Pilkington had six gallons of porter and went home in the bat mobile.

Johnny? He's not a soak. He's not telling you he's at home listening to his Jane Fonda workout tapes either, but he's not a soak. He has a life is all, and if he sits drinking minerals till his woman finishes work at two in the morning, he's no need to reckon it with you in the morning.

"Look. Probably I drink a little more than I should, too much for inter county hurling maybe. Maybe 16, 17 pints a week, but there is a limit. I know the rumours, but where I'd be, the people who'd talk about me don't be."

He has the face and the character for it, the mixture of humour and sadness, the attitude and the walk. It all provokes gossip. In a town consumed by hurling he cradles his genius for the game with such nonchalance that he must infuriate the right-thinking fundamentalists.

"What damages me is being the lad with the one liner, the smart answer, I'm the messer. And sometimes I feel that, because of that, people don't take me seriously. The people that matter know me."

Some guy bellied up to him the night before a wedding once. Johnny's fiancee's sister was getting hitched and the do was held the Friday before an All-Ireland. The wedding was at two o'clock in the afternoon, and back in the hotel Johnny set into drinking minerals, tipping along nicely, enjoying himself despite the parade of people coming up to him all night with wagging fingers and soppy stern faces and drink taken.

"You're not to be drinking too much tonight." So this guy bellies up once and says his piece. Fine. Then up the second time. Bit more strident this time. Not long later he's along for the third speech from the pulpit. "I can look after myself," said Johnny. "Look, I'm standing here drinking minerals."

But this guy is in Johnny Pilkington's face, all froth and fervour pushing him around like he is a piece of public property. So what happened?

"I says, well fuck you anyway, I'm tired of you coming up telling me what to do. I went off and had a few quiet pints. Came back and had two more. I drunk five or six pints at the wedding from two o'clock in the day."

And everyone of them counted threefold by the time they got spilled into the rumour machine the next day. He knows how the machine works, multiplying his consumption exponentially.

Take the year they won the Fitzgibbon cup in UCD. As it happened, the semi-final was on the same Saturday as another wedding which he had promised his fiancee he would attend. No matter what. Hell or high water.

Then a month later he realised it was Fitzgibbon cup weekend in Waterford. So he went and played the semi-final, hopped back into the car, drove home to Birr and was at the wedding before anyone was any the wiser. He had three pints, went to bed and drove to Waterford the next day. He played out of his skin and UCD won the Fitzgibbon.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. Johnny meets a young fella still yomping through the groves of academe in Belfield. Said scholar pipes up to Johnny that in Belfield his legend still lives, preserved in alcohol as it were.

"How do you mean?"

"The Fitzgibbon," says he and nods and winks.


"The Fizgibbon. The lads were saying when you turned up for the final they had to pump coffee into you and put you under a cold shower, just to get you onto the pitch."

"Never happened."

That's life when you have a big name in a small world. Part of you is hurling property. The bits of life you might call your own are sequestered. "I know what I'm doing," says Johnny. "I'll always go where I normally go. I'll do the same thing and if somebody wants to say that Johnny was in the pub and he had 10 pints and he fell out the door and next day he raised the hurl, well it doesn't bother me at all."

Press him on the subject though and, rightly, he gets irritated. The business of players and their own lives blurs the borders in this amateur game. "It's made out to be the wrong thing," he says. "I enjoy a pint. I'll have a couple the night before the All-Ireland. That's me. I'm easy going, relaxed. Other fellas will miss a night's sleep with the tension. No big deal."

He's baffled by the curiosity, but it's been a baffling year. Why hasn't he been dropped, for instance? "Seven games," he laughs. "About seven different partners in midfield. It's some kind of punishment." Strange times. Not too long ago he came into training and there was a new fella sitting in the corner. Shiny top, red face, nothing to say. Johnny whispered an inquiry. "He's the new physical trainer."


Next thing, the imposter was on his feet.

"I'm Michael Bond. I'm from Loughrea. I trained the 1983 Galway u-21 team. I love Offaly hurling. I don't want to change Offaly hurling. I expect respect and I respect commitment. I give respect and I give commitment. Let's go train."

Johnny was loping out the door thinking to himself that the lack of bullshit was a commendable change when he heard the other. Jesus what was that?

Another turn in a convoluted season, that's what. He's hogged headlines without hurling well at all. "Did the Leinster championship exist at all?" he asks. "Must have been the dullest ever."

It would have been if he and Babs hadn't added the strange coda to it after the Leinster final. There were few words said in the dressing room that day they lost the Leinster final. Babs Keating said something or other. One of the players stood up and said there were too many lads acting the mick on the team. Nobody in Offaly was playing well and Johnny felt that they were hinting at me a couple of others. That stuck in his head.

He can't really remember what Babs said. He'd tuned out, but in the car later he heard the sports news coming on, heard this business with Babs, washing his hands, telling the world that Offaly just weren't listening to him. It got in under his skin, and next morning the phone rang. Liam Horan from The Irish Independent. Johnny cut loose.

"I thought afterwards that maybe there's probably be holy war at training. We'd either knuckle down or, if he wasn't happy, well me or him would have to go. Then just before it came on the news I heard he had resigned."

Sorry it happened?

"Well, he was wrong to say what he did say. I was wrong to have a go back in the media. He was wrong in a lot of things he wrote about me after that too. I don't know him as a man, but he doesn't know me as a person."

Seen Babs since?

"Babs isn't from Birr. He doesn't be where I be."

Glad he's gone?

"Am I glad he's gone?" Pause.

"Well, to be honest, I don't miss him."

Johnny Pilkington grins again. Easy come, easy go. The words sound harder than he is. He's not a fella for confrontation. Not a fella to hide from it either. Just not driven.

You pcik away at him, talking about DJ Carey and Brian Lohan and those sessions they talk about, alone in the handball alleys battering a sliotar against the wall. Ever do that Johnny? He smiles at the mischief of it.

"Hmm. Did it once or twice maybe. When we were kids we'd be at home bating a ball off a wall alright. I'd never go off on my own though. Horses for courses really. DJ Carey and Brian Lohan, they're the top hurlers in the country. I'm in the top 50 on a good day."

When he's warmed up and talking hurling his erudition on the topic is clear. This is his life after all, even if he tires of every dog and divil looking for a word.

"Sure I like to hang around. When I was working in Kilkenny, I knew a fella in Piltown, and if he went into a pub and he couldn't see anyone there to talk to about farming or hurling he'd just leave. I could talk farming and GAA and sport and beyond that, well, what is beyond that? I don't know. The salt of the earth, the hairy bacon and bit of cabbage kind of thing. That's what I grew up with."

He grew up with perhaps the most gifted bunch of hurlers playing the game today. Grew up with them and learned to take them for granted.

"We're just a group of friends. Nothing special. We play hurling. We train. I remember in national school, I was 11 and Brian was 10. I got a phone call to come out and play an u-14 match in Banagher. I'm not too big now, but I was very small then and Brian was worse. The two of us got sent in as corner forwards. He's been there on teams with me ever since."

Joe Errity was in his class. Always exceptional, and Johnny reckons that, bar serious knee injuries, Joe might have become the best hurler in the country, or one of them.

"We grew up together. We went to places. Feile. The community games in Mosney. The crack in the chalet. All that.

"Daithi Regan was around, he was a year or two older, but we'd be on the same teams. Daithi would have been a mad hoor but he's settled down now. I remember he was so big he'd solo up to me in training and handpass the ball over me and solo around the other side. Thanks Daithi, making me look good here." They never fell out. Johnny can't remember ever having a bad word. They'd have their arguments when they were out having a few pints, but nobody ever got wound up and walked out. There was always a third lad as referee. Anyway, it was more of a jeering thing, if you made an eejit of yourself at some stage it would be coming up forever. "If you couldn't take it you wouldn't really be in the group."

That's what keeps him ticking over really. No lava or flaming sliotars or burning passions. Just that feeling in the dressing room. The comfort of friends. "It's 3.15 on Sunday and everything else is forgotten about. I like that. All that matters is the 20 lads togging out, plus the management. The lads who have put in the effort. You don't want to let them down. Everything is forgotten about, all the troubles, all the worry. You have a job to do. It starts then and you tune off the other things. You'd be worried about missing the first ball, what'll you do if you win it. "Everybody is focused in on the one thing. Some of the lads would go through a steel door. I'd be more inclined to open it first, but we're all going the one way. You know the sounds. fellas chatting, balls banging, lads getting rubs, all the talk, fellas a bit nervous. It's a nice place to be actually. Gets you away from everywhere, no trouble, no bitterness, no anything else. Just some lads out to do a job."

Three-fifteen on a Sunday with the lads. That's it, the heart of it, the Johnny Pilkington psyche-up.

"I know the rumours, but where I'd be the people who talk about me don't be."

"It's 3.15 on Sunday and everything else is forgotten about. I like that."

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