Leinster SH Final/Offaly v Wexford: A late June
Monday in Birr and a heavy lunch-time shower spatters the square in
the town, causing people to cower in the porch of Dooley's hotel.
Brian Mullins is among them, wearing jeans and a light sweatshirt.
Hurling heroes are two-a-penny in Birr and if Mullins has joined
their ranks, he has done so reluctantly. He doesn't carry himself
like a man expectant of recognition in the town of his
After talking with grave unease about himself for an hour, he
casts an anxious look at the grey midland skies and turns to say
good luck. The town post office, a gorgeous red-brick building, is
located just up from the hotel and he is due back at work.
"Feck this. Is your car near here?" he asks. "Ya'll make it so.
Right then. All the best," and he steps under the downpour, moving
with a panther's alacrity and grace through the noon-time downpour
until he is quickly out of sight.
His first coming was a bit like that too, was it not? Brian
Mullins appeared on the intercounty scene with such a blatant lack
of annunciation that it might have been presumed he had been plucked
from obscurity. Because Offaly's summer was confined, Mullins's
debut season was brief, but distinguished by an afterglow of quality
that somehow got overlooked when the end-of-year baubles were being
In the 70 minutes against Wexford, he demonstrated the
preternatural sharpness and skill and unorthodox reflexes that
marked him out as a goalkeeper worthy of displacing his illustrious
predecessor Stephen Byrne. Just like that, it was obvious he was the
But, be clear, there was nothing preordained about the arrival of
Brian Mullins. When Paddy Kirwan consulted with Mullins in the post
office one day before the beginning of last season about his role in
the Offaly panel, Mullins was highly dubious about his future. They
talked about it, goalkeeper to goalkeeper. Birr men.
"I first got a call the second time (Michael) Bond was there.
What year was that? 2001? They called me, but I suppose I only half
bothered with it. Stephen Byrne was there and nobody was going to be
taking his place, he was that established.
"I knew I would have to make the same sacrifices as everyone
else, but that I would always be on the sideline. And I thought that
was just a waste of time. At least an outfield player always has a
chance of getting in off the substitutes. So it wasn't they didn't
give me the chance then, it was that I didn't bother taking it. But
then I decided to give it a bash and right enough, I was on the
sidelines in 2002.
"It was frustrating, so last year I was contemplating not even
going back. I remember asking Paddy Kirwan if I was just wasting
everyone's time. Like, what was the point?"
Kirwan recalls that conversation and the doubt in Mullins's eyes.
He always regarded the younger man as a protégé and from his
childhood he believed that Mullins had whatever ichor hurling
goalkeepers have running through his veins.
"All I could do was promise him he would get a fair crack. I
wouldn't have asked him to join if I didn't think he was in with a
The dilemma Mullins faced then epitomises the contradictory
nature of his hurling life. You think of the cast of the best
hurling goalkeepers in Ireland right now and you come to the fast
conclusion that there is no stereotype but Mullins just looks and
He is scruffy in a hip way and when he goes out around Birr, he
hangs around with a non-GAA crowd. Although he is growing tired of
hearing it, he is notoriously laid back and kind of drifted in and
out of the conventional structures of his sport, playing minor for
the county but then passing on the Fitzgibbon hurling when studying
at Waterford IT.
The college team was particularly strong then, led by the
redoubtable Henry Shefflin. The odd time, Mullins would bump into
Colm Cassidy from Kilcormac, who would enthuse about the set-up and
encourage him to come up.
"And I'd go, 'Yeah, yeah, be up on Tuesday'. But I never bothered
me bollocks. And I suppose they never really asked me to go up
either. It's something I regret not doing now. Like, I think they
won a couple of Fitzgibbon titles when I was down there.
"But if I am completely honest, just getting in as far as the
college was an effort in those days. A lot of the time I just sat on
my arse doing nothing. Ricki-Lake-in-the-afternoon kind of
It wasn't that Mullins was indulging in a period of
self-conscious collegiate slacking: all his life, he was never one
to impose himself on situations. He loves hurling and is a student
of goalkeepers but was always naturally reserved when it came to the
trappings of GAA culture.
As a kid in the town, he idolised the architects of the Offaly
hurling renaissance of the early 1990s: Brian Whelahan, big Joe
Errity and the Pilkington brothers. But he never said boo to
Even when he joined the senior panel a few years later, taking
over from Robbie Phelan, he stayed quiet as a mouse until guys like
Johnny Pilkington took him under his wing at the bar. Made him
welcome. When Birr won the 1998 club All-Ireland, he was up there on
the lorry for the homecoming and the speeches. Then Big Joe decided
to introduce each of the players individually. Mullins wilted in
"Just remember havin' to go out and give this wave and then
getting out of there as fast as I fuckin' could."
Mullins is lightning but that wasn't quick enough to spare him
the mother of all slagging from his friends. That summer, when the
vanguard of the Birr team were chasing All-Ireland glory with
Offaly, Mullins followed their trail with no more interest than a
casual observer. The only match he attended was the semi-final
against Clare, which was ended prematurely, sparking a sit-down by
the Offaly fans.
"It was a laugh. I just remember walking around with everyone
sitting on the field, just pulling the piss. I was up in Dublin then
for the All-Ireland final but there was this party on the night
before and I wasn't feeling the best by the morning. So I sold on
the ticket and watched it in the pub."
He was back in his local in Birr when the Offaly bus crawled by
the window, the boys all dolled up in suits and the McCarthy Cup
dangling over the edge. He did not go down to the square for the
speeches. It was better fun where he was and that scene is just not
"I thinks sometimes people - even former Offaly managers - got
the wrong impression of Brian Mullins, that he has this lifestyle
that doesn't tally with the game," says Kirwan.
"Brian enjoys life, definitely, and I would never knock a man for
that. But he also just keeps himself out of the hurling spotlight -
he's a quiet fella in that way. And he is deeply serious about his
game, he cares about it as much as anyone I know. It probably took a
while for people to get to know that - and to know Brian
When he was 17, Mullins endured a horrendous experience in goal
for the Offaly minors in the Leinster final against Kilkenny. Four
goals went past him, three of which were caused by fundamental
"It was nerves," he confesses. "They used to eat me up. The ball
went through my legs, it dropped from my hands. It was a complete
"Afterwards, I went home and thought about it and just said fuck
it, enough is enough. Like, it's a game of hurling when all is said
and done. No point in fretting about it. The worst had happened that
day. The nerves haven't come back since."
Lurking in the shadows of the Offaly senior team gave him a
chance to observe the established keepers up close. He rates them
all: Cummins, Fitzhenry, McGarry, Donal Óg, Fitzgerald. But he knows
none of them. The first three names made up the shortlist for last
year's All-Star nominations.
It is common for players to talk down their interest in such
awards but when Mullins says he "doesn't give a toss about that sort
of stuff" you believe it.
It is unlikely he will ever go into acting - he is too honest -
but if he does, he will shun Oscar night for genuine reasons.
"Anyhow, I'd have no gripes with those three names. Who won it?
Cummins, wasn't it? Sure that man - like those saves against
Kilkenny were unreal. Like, I reckon he would say himself that there
was a couple he would have been disappointed not to have got - one
ball came to his left and he jumped to his left to push it away. It
looked great and all that but he would have been annoyed not to get
it. But the combination of saves was amazing now. Ah, the man is
just a step ahead of the rest."
Had Mullins never been presented with the opportunity to showcase
his own repertoire on the main stage, he would not have lost sleep
over it. Legend has it that his full range of abilities became
irresistible during a pre-season weekend early in 2003 in Waterford
when they played Cork in a challenge game. Goals rained in on both
sides but Mullins won a series of one-on-one encounters with
Stephen Byrne, watching his understudy, reputedly turned to the
selectors after each stop grew more outrageous than the one before
and declaimed, "Jesus, what about that. It's unreal."
And Byrne, an All Star in 1998, could not have been more
supportive when it was apparent Mullins's force had caught the eye
of the selectors. They trained together and the Banagher man
encouraged him, praised him publicly and generally let it be known
there were no hard feelings.
"I was fierce appreciative," Mullins says. "Like someone else
would go off sulking and make it awkward for you. He couldn't have
been more sound."
Mullins's form has been such that Byrne, with busy work and life
commitments, took stock and decided to quit the panel, at least for
the interim. Hurling goalkeepers aren't in it for the free shirt and
Now, Mullins is the senior man, with Shane O'Connor, the county
under-21 goalkeeper, as his ghost. With that comes a certain
profile. As well as requests for interviews, he made his debut
appearance on the GAA magazine programme Breaking Ball last night.
Starring in a show like that was not exactly his thing, but the
truth is he would have felt like an arrogant asshole turning down
what was a polite request. Better to grin and bear it. He is an
excellent tennis player so they filmed him hurling on the grounds of
Birr Castle and on the town courts.
"Ah, they were sound. Yer man was lying on the ground while I was
whacking a tennis ball over the net with a hurl. Suppose I'll get a
hammering for that but what odds?"
It is the same in his job as a postman. Sometimes he delivers in
town, other days he is on a country route. To his eternal surprise,
people have begun to recognise his face and in weeks like this are
mad to talk hurling.
Such banter does not come easily to him so he tears through the
delivery route, furtive and stealthy, the opposite of the whistling,
bicycling purveyor of gossip, and never ringing twice.
"People mean well and I suppose they must think I am an ignorant
oul hoor half the time. I just like to keep the head down. Weeks
like this, a lot of people will ask, 'Are ye goin' to win?' And in
fairness, how the hell am I supposed to know."
But he is getting used to it. For Paddy Kirwan, the rise of Brian
Mullins is a case of true potential realised. Billy Mullins was an
All-Ireland handball champion and his son inherited the speed, the
fast-twitch fibres, along with an easy-going way.
Kirwan knows Mullins is an independent character but understands
also that doesn't conflict with his hurling. He was there to witness
the desperate disappointment that overcame Mullins in the
dressing-room after that late, dramatic loss to Wexford last summer.
He was disconsolate.
A few weeks ago against Dublin, Mullins fired his hurl against
the netting after a ball went past him. About life, Mullins may come
across as non-committal, but when it comes to hurling, he is as
passionate as the rest.
Against that, Kirwan enjoys telling the yarn of a county under-21
match when the team stepped off in Mountmellick just to hit the ball
around the field. After a while, he noticed Mullins was absent and
his investigations took him to the dressing-rooms.
"There he was, lying on the bench with the gear bag under the
head, fast asleep. Sure, we couldn't get over it."
It is the perfect image of the true Offaly virtuoso, à la
Pilkington or John Troy. Mullins thought the world of those two men
but would never classify himself in their bracket. That is for
others to do. All Brian Mullins wants is the quiet life
distinguished by all the clean sheets he can gather. How he fits
into the broader picture of Offaly hurling is not his concern.
After an hour in his company, all you can be certain about is
that Brian Mullins is true to himself and true to his sport. And
that he did not come down in the last