Keith Duggan senses a deep pride among Birr locals for newly ordained hurling legend Brian Whelahan.
The pub was heaving on the Monday evening. Confirmation that
Brian Whelahan had been officially ordained among the ranks of
hurling's legends was always going to mean a late drink locally but
strange faces lit the bar also. They journeyed from every corner of
the county, calling pints and shaking his hand. The best right
wing-back ever putting a head on your Guinness. Birr is not a town
in which people tend to elaborate on the nature of heroism. Of
course, there is a deep rooted pride that, for a combination of
reasons which can only be guessed at, the community has shaped the
finest generation of hurlers it can hope to know.
Rarely is Birr mentioned without misty tales of how the
Pilkingtons, Whelahans, the Cahills and young Errity used to
scampishly run the streets together, lift hurls together. That
background and the cosy and fond ordinariness of such images are
standard reference points in all sport, essential in helping us to
place the feats of great athletes in some sort of context we can
relate to. To remind us that off the field, these people were and
remain just like us.
So it is in Birr. This generation, which delivered two club
All-Irelands for the town in the 1990's are both revered and taken
for granted. The boys. Regular characters who just happened to be
wizards with hurls. Johnny Pilkington, with his punkish, vulnerable
rebellious streak, casual wit and even easier hurling style. Joe
Errity big sauntering Joe with a face that has seen living and is
yet possessed of a grace and ability to read his sport that goes
against everything his physique suggests about him. And Whelahan.
Quieter, self-effacing, authoritative. Sometimes frightening on a
field, even to those with an eye trained by thousands of hours of
hurling. There is a mystery to him.
Somehow PJ's freckle-headed kid had risen inexorably to become
emblematic of all that Offaly hurling represented. He wasn't just
very good. He existed, at times, somewhere beyond excellence. It was
as if a gift fell over the locality and Whelahan was the chosen
So on the Monday when it was acknowledged and he became the only
hurler of his generation to gain selection onto the GAA Team of the
Millennium, it was only natural that they celebrate, that they would
for once vocalise about the greatness in their midst. Arguments
could rage about the sense behind trying to arrive upon the 15 best
hurlers of all time and over who was deserving of inclusion, but
history would record that the Birr man stood alone; that he was seen
as the embodiment of everything the modern, flourishing game had to
offer. In the minds eye, he was up there, copper-headed and
quizzical, with Ring and Mackey.
At times that evening, during the flow and lull in conversation,
PJ Whelahan would pause and find himself regretting that he hadn't
accompanied his son up to the midday ceremony in Croke Park.
"He called for ma all right and I had intended to go. A lot of
those men that were honoured I knew. Eddie Keher I hurled against
and Tony Reddin coached us to a championship in St Rynagh's in 1965
and Ray Cummins I hurled against as well so I would have enjoyed it
and loved to have seen Brian in their company. But Monday morning is
never the best time - you'd be late clearing up in the pub from the
Sunday night and just when he called, I decided to stay where he
was. I was sorry since," he said.
There is a tale once told by Whelehan that has since become
glazed with weighty prophecy. It was about how, in the boozy
aftermath of Offaly's first All-Ireland (in 1981 - one year after he
had quit following 13 years of service), he coped with missing out
on such a fantastic adventure. Admitting that the finest honour in
the game had eluded him, he put his hand on the head of his young
fella and quietly announced that `Brian would win everything in the
The subsequent accumulation of All-Ireland minor and senior
medals, two club championships, Player of the Year and AllStar
awards gave that moment a wonderful poignancy. But with this latest
honour it acquires a new dimension, as if the path had been
Whelahan's manifest destiny.
"Well, to me it is everything," says PJ. "That is it. I mean, to
be picked as the one hurler over the last 25 years or so, well,
there is no finer honour. He has won it all but this is the biggest
thing. He is there."
But driving up to Dublin that day, Brian Whelahan was troubled.
The day before, he had been in Croke Park making a belated and
decisive appearance as Offaly coughed and gasped their way past an
organised and superbly resourceful Derry team. But still, a Derry
team. People looked upon it as further proof that Offaly were out of
gas, that as a team, they were dead men walking.
"I know he was disappointed about the Derry game and bothered
about the way things worked out. They just haven't been firing and
it was on his mind. But I think that the evening back in the pub,
with all the people coming in and the craic, that he enjoyed it and
took a lot out of it."
And tomorrow, Whelehan will be back on the field at Croke Park, a
timeless figure now who can step off the canvas portrait that has
him keeping company with Lory Meagher and John Doyle and Jack Lynch
and into the heart of this All-Ireland series. It is uncertain as to
whether Whelahan will be singled out and officially honoured before
the game - the player himself would possibly prefer otherwise - but
there will be an awareness now. Fingers will guide the eyes of
youngsters to the Offaly number five.
It seems a shame though that this season he does not appear to
have the requisite cast with which to showcase his talent. That
Offaly are alive at this point in the championship is due mainly to
luck; had they drawn either Tipperary or Galway in the
quarterfinals, most believe they would have made a hasty and
inglorious exit. Now, the expectation is that Cork will inflict a
similar fate upon them. Last year, the teams gave us the game of the
championship, also at the semi-final stage. This year, it is viewed
as a gross mismatch. Offaly have famously defied adversity before
but tomorrow's odds seem to be overwhelming. In some ways, the
occasion seems set for a superstar turn from Whelahan.
"Yes, they'd need a huge game from Brian if they are to turn it
around," assessed Michael Bond, who managed Offaly to All-Ireland
success two summers ago. "He is such a central figure in that
dressing-room, the respect he commands. Brian was just a pleasure to
work with, always keen and interested and just a terribly nice,
unassuming fellow. A quiet type of man but well aware of the
importance of his place within this team. You can be sure he'll come
to Croke Park with the right frame of mind and the thing about
Offaly is they are dangerous right now. It's a tricky one for
Whelahan seems to have been with Offaly for an eternity. His
father managed him as a minor back in the late 80's and such was his
promise then that he was inclined to throw him with the Offalys
seniors in 1989, when he won his minor medal. Offaly crashed to
unfancied Antrim in that year's senior semi-final.
"Some of the selectors felt he was that bit young to start but I
knew he was ready. When he was a young fella, there wasn't much of
him and you didn't know if he was going to be any good, that he
might be a bit windy. But he was always keen. I remember him going
across to Banagher with me for training with Rynagh's. Couldn't get
enough of it. That he was late filling out probably improved his
skills and by the time he was a teenager, he was coming really good.
And I reckon if you are good enough, you are old enough."
By his early 20's, his mastery of the game was recognised with a
1992 All-Star, a faintly surprising but widely appreciated nod to
his talents. Back then, Offaly were caught up in an annual power
struggle with Kilkenny, which the traditionalists always won. And
for all Whelehan's majesty, DJ Carey was the wunderkind of the time.
Since their minor days, the two were constantly paired off, as if
the team meetings were less relevant than their personal duals.
In the 1993 Leinster championship, the rivalry seemed especially
compelling., with Whelehan hurling out of his skin at times but
still forced to cede 2-4 to Carey. A year later, when the result was
reversed and Offaly were on an All-Ireland trail which would yield
the county another title, Whelahan spoke about the trauma of the
"What happened in that game was just terrible. I still have
nightmares about it because we should have hammered them. I watched
the highlights on TV that night and that was it. I wanted to leave
And how. He banished the memory over the summer and early autumn,
establishing himself as the pre-eminent hurler in the country as
Offaly torched Limerick with a late flourish during an unforgettable
All-Ireland final. He was, incredibly, left off the All-Star team
through mishap apart from anything else but took the Texaco Hurler
of the Year award and graced the All-Star teams in 1995, 1998 and
"That he is on the Millennial team essentially sums up my opinion
of him," offered Paddy Downey, who sat on the selection panel. "He
has such a complete game. He is a very pure hurler, great skills,
has a wonderful strike and marvellous tactical nous. But he is also
possesses a lot of resilience and is well able to cope when the play
gets tough. He is simply one of the true greats."
The 1998 All-Ireland final was his most recent hour in the sun,
when he dragged an ailing body into the forward lines and scooped a
late goal that buckled Kilkenny. It was Whelahan's day, bagging 1-5
after a miserable opening period when his flu virus rendered him
ineffective in defence. It was hard to avoid noticing at the other
end that his old adversary DJ had failed to draw smoke, finishing
the afternoon scoreless. Such has been the ebb and flow of their
Although Whelahan's reputation had been cemented before that
game, his contribution to Offaly's fourth All-Ireland set him in a
new light. The question now is whether that was the Offaly lad's
last glorious stand. Whelahan has gold in his veins still but around
him, great names are showing signs of fading. This summer has seen
them tumbling through to this stage, as much by accident as design.
Last year, as defending champions, they rose for a magnificent hour
against Cork, all skill and stubbornness and still were caught for
legs in the final few minutes.
"We've only been around for the last 20 years but we've given
great memories," said a forlorn Whelahan that evening. "I hope it's
not another 100 years before we see Offaly in an All-Ireland series
again. If this team breaks up, it breaks up. But at least we put in
a great performance."
A year on and the same warriors are back in the dressing-room,
save Martin Hanamy and John Troy, who called it quits just weeks
ago. The pride is palpable but so are the cracks. There is a sense
that autumn has fallen over this ageless bunch. Offaly eyes will
burn on Brian Whelahan more needfully than ever. He has yet to be