McGrath, Oliver 'Hopper'
August 01, 1996
Wexford's Oliver McGrath
Wexford's recent victory over Offaly in the Leinster Hurling Final has brought the famous 'Yellowbellies' back to the limelight ... and not before time.
Of all former All-Ireland winning counties, Wexford have held a special place in the hearts of the nation's neutral hurling enthusiasts. The reason for this minor phenomenon almost certainly has its roots in the glorious escapades of the Model County team of the 1950's ... few teams in the history of the association captured the imagination of the public to such an extent. They contested three successive All-Ireland Hurling Finals, winning the second and third, and attracted record crowds to Croke Park. Hurling enjoyed a remarkably high profile in those pre-television days and the glamour had much to do with the Wexford team, Christy Ring and Micheal O'Hehir.
When the Wexford team arrived in the big time by winning the 1951 Leinster Championship they were bridging a gap that stretched back to 1918 and their arrival heralded the county's most glorious era. Oliver "Hopper" McGrath was not a part of that team but his first game at senior inter-county level came in the autumn of 1956 in the National League ... he was proud to be part of the All-Ireland champions line-out and he subsequently went on to win an All-Ireland medal in 1960 as well as three Leinster championships, a National League and Railway Cup. He was the first man from the town of Wexford to win an All-Ireland SH medal.
Among the delighted Wexford supporters at Croke Park on Leinster Final day was one of the county's great legends ... Oliver "Hopper" McGrath, and he had several reasons to be thrilled with the team's win. His sister's son Sean Flood was one of the stars of the victory, thus maintaining a fine family tradition ... a tradition that goes back to the early days of the association. There were other reasons too ... the victory meant that the purple and gold could flutter proudly once again, that Wexford had overcome immense psychological barriers and that they could now erase the memories of all those heartbreaking defeats by Kilkenny and Offaly. It was a great day to be a Wexfordman.
"Yes, it was a great occasion," said Oliver, "and I am hopeful that there are plenty more to come. It was a long time coming but there had been signs of a breakthrough in recent years, and thankfully the hard work and the patience has begun to pay off. The effect on the youngsters has been incredible ... their heroes are now real people like themselves, not just newspaper or television images. And the public are taking these men seriously ... they are beginning to appreciate the sacrifices that players make to bring success to the county."
And is there more success to follow? "Why not? It has often happened that Kilkenny, or Offaly, struggled to get over Wexford before going on to win the All-Ireland. There is no reason why the Leinster champions should be afraid of anybody. If they could score 23 points against Offaly, they can do it against any team. But they'll have to produce an even greater effort.
"The atmosphere throughout the county these days is simply electric. We played Kilkenny, and beat them in the under 21 championship ... there was over 8,000 people at the game. I am working on the hurling summer camp and the effect of the Leinster success has been unbelievable. When I first came on to the Wexford team, we expected to win games. That confidence had long since disappeared and it's a difficult quality to re-acquire. I am involved with the team that will represent the county at under 16 level next year and our task will be greatly helped by the senior success. The psychological barriers have been broken."
Wexford town was traditionally a football hotbed, with six teams providing ample outlets for its youngsters ... hurling was not a major sport. And there was a rich football tradition in the McGrath family. Oliver's grand uncle Tom was goalkeeper on the county team that contested five successive All-Ireland finals, losing to Kerry after a replay in 1914 but going on to make history by becoming the first team to win four-in-a-row ... 1915 to 1918. Oliver's father also played with the county at junior level. It was quite natural that the young McGrath's first sporting impact was in football ... he helped Sarsfields to win the county juvenile championship in 1953. Volunteers were the dominant team for many years in the world of local club football and Oliver's early days were filled with tales of great deeds of former Volunteers legends. His involvement with hurling came about while attending the local Christian Brothers School and to this day, the Brothers have a special place in his heart. "I have always thought that the Christian Brothers never received due credit for their efforts. They inspired a love of all things gaelic and their promotion and organisation of various Schools Leagues had a major impact." Oliver progressed to the Faythe Harriers minors and won three successive minor hurling championship medals, 1954-56. It was in 1955, as a seventeen year old that he first donned the purple and gold jersey ... at minor level. But Kilkenny came out on top in the Leinster Final replay and it was the Cats who again deprived Oliver of a minor medal in the following year when they won by a goal.
There was speedy compensation when Oliver lined out at corner forward on the Faythe Harriers intermediate team that beat O'Hanrahan's in the county final and the heady days continued with selection on the county senior team for the national league in the autumn. His debut took place in Cork and it was a particularly memorable occasion as "Hopper" lined out alongside the great Nicky Rackard for the one and only time. His second national league campaign, in 1957-58 ended in success although he was disappointed not to be included in the starting line-up for the final against Limerick. However, he was introduced during the first half and played a substantial role in his team's thrilling victory in an epic encounter.
Kilkenny won the Leinster senior title in three successive years from 1957 to 1959, garnering the Liam McCarthy Cup in '57, but Wexford put a halt to their gallop in the provincial final of 1960, the Yellowbellies coming out on top on a 3-10 to 2-11 scoreline. Tipperary were the All-Ireland champions. The Leinstermen took control from an early stage and were boosted by a goal from a free by Padge Kehoe. The Tipperary attack could make little headway against a defence in which Billy Rachard and John Nolan were superb containing the respective threats of Liam Devaney and Jimmy Doyle.
Early in the second half "Hopper" scored a goal for Wexford, a score that effectively killed off the Tipperary challenge as the Leinster champions went on to win by ten points, 2-15 to 0-11. It was a great day for the county and for the town of Wexford; at last the town had an All-Ireland hurling medal winner. There was a belief that the 1960 team was even better than the 1955-56 combination and when they defeated Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship in 1961, hopes were high of a second successive Liam McCarthy triumph. Dublin were the Leinster Final opponents at Nowlan Park and the champions looked comfortable in the early stages, but the defence collapsed and the Dublin forwards went on the rampage, finding the net on seven occasions ... the final score was 7-5 to 4-8. Dublin went down to Tipperary by a point in the All-Ireland final.
But the Yellowbellies came back to take the Leinster Championship in 1962 and were determined to confirm their 1960 superiority over Tipperary in the All-Ireland final. It was not to be. Tipperary had the ball in the net before the Wexford forwards had taken up their positions and a poor puck-out was immediately punished by Tipp's second goal. Six points behind in less than two minutes, Wexford faced a difficult task to get back into contention. But they rallied and, in the end, could have won the game ... two points separated the teams at the final whistle.
Oliver's third Leinster medal was something of a surprise ... Kilkenny were warm favourites to win the 1965 Leinster Final and were leading with time running out. Points from Martin Byrne and Oliver levelled the match and Martin Cox sent over the winner in the last minute. The Leinster victory led to another showdown with Tipperary, the third final between the counties in the space of six years. Wexford's prospects of being involved in the All-Ireland Final had not been great and Oliver had set his wedding date in the run up to the big game. The newlyweds agreed to cut short their honeymoon but on the way home, heard the bad news that Oliver had not been included in the starting fifteen. It was a major disappointment. By the time he was introduced along with Ned Wheeler at half time, Tipperary were firmly in control and the title went to the Premier County.
Kilkenny emerged from Leinster in 1966 and '67, and although Oliver was on the panel at the start of the 1968 championship, he was dropped before the successful campaign got underway. He felt that he could have made a significant contrition ... he was only thirty years of age. His exclusion at various times in his career could well have been as a result of his outspoken views on training and tactics. He was rarely the "flavour of the month" with selectors and his ideas may have cost him a second All-Ireland medal as well as a starting place in the '65 final.
"Hopper" was particularly popular with the Wexford supporters and when he won possession, a buzz of anticipation invariably emanated from the crowd. He was small in stature but compensated by reading the play expertly and by taking on defenders who were often turned "inside out" by his jinking and feinting. He was one of the top forwards of his day and was chosen by the Rest of Ireland selectors in 1958 and 1962 for the games against the All-Ireland champions. McGrath also enjoyed great success at club level with Faythe Harriers and it is still a great source of pride to him that the Harriers were the unofficial Leinster club champions in the early sixties prior to the competition acquiring official recognition. "Gaelic Weekly" sponsored the tournament for Leinster club teams and the Wexfordmen won it on three occasions.
The McGrath family football tradition was greatly enhanced by Oliver, who won two senior championship medals (football) with the Wexford town club, in 1959 and 1960. In the latter years the Harriers completed a magnificent double, becoming county senior champions in both hurling and football .. an achievement that has not since been equalled. "Hopper" was the regular right half forward and free taker on the football team and although he preferred the same position in hurling, his county appearances were almost all at corner forward.
His playing career eventually came to an end in 1975 although he recently came to the rescue of the Shelmaliers junior hurlers when he lined out between the posts in a league match ... at 58 years of age! The Shelmaliers club is now the beneficiary of his enthusiastic membership and his great knowledge of hurling has been a significant factor in their success. He coached the county junior team that qualified for the 1987 All-Ireland Final and then became a selector with the senior team during Christy Keogh's term as manager.
The McGrath tradition in both hurling and football looks set to continue. Oliver's youngest son Christopher was on the county minor hurling and football panels this year and has captained the St. Peters College team. The family has been part of gaelic games in Wexford since the foundation of the GAA. Few, if any households would have greater cause for celebration if All-Ireland glory was to be relived in September.
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine, August, 1996
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