December 13, 1991
Mayo's Top Hurling Gun
Mayo Hurling is rarely painted in anything other then unfashionable hues, but that bald fact has never deterred a small community on the border with Roscommon from annually setting out on the voyage to the Mayo county senior title.
To many, such a title might seem unimportant, downgraded; but to members of the Tooreen Club each accolade won - and there have been 13 in the last fourteen years - is sweet, and quite how the appetite is retained is beyond the comprehension of virtually everyone, except those closely involved.
It is against this backdrop that Joe Henry, undoubtedly Mayo's finest hurler of all time, has carved a niche in the hurling lore of this land; winning three Railway Cup medals, two trips with the All-Stars as a replacement, and a legion of admirers along the way.
The Tooreen angle is a story in itself; suffice to say here that a particular kind of creature is born there one who is drawn to hurling quicker than football despite the presence of football domains all round. Joe, now 36 years of age, first wielded a hurl with some sort of purpose when he was four or five years of age, and in brothers Michael, Tony and Vincent he had ready made heroes. His parents Austin and Annie were great supporters too, and he is a firm believer in the need for parents to be interested in the progress of their sons for eventual success.
The absence of organised underage hurling in Mayo at the time - it's much different nowadays ordained that the fledgling's career was put on ice somewhat until he enrolled in St. Mary's College, Galway, where future Galway legend Joe Connolly was a schoolmate. Among a number of provincial victories was a Junior title under the captaincy of Joe, but three Connacht Senior A Final defeats at the hands of Our Lady's College, Gort were heartbreakers. To this day, those setbacks remain the biggies disappointment of Joe's career. During those times, father Austin drove up from Tooreen to Galway "in a banger of a car" for virtually all of St. Mary's matches - "my mother and father really gave me great encouragement".
Academic ability helped Joe's career, for when he went to Thomond College to study Physical Education he was thrust into a hurling atmosphere. He played alongside Rory Kinsella of Wexford; Paddy Kelly of Limerick and Clare's Colm Honan.
He was an exceptional footballer also, and on the Thomond first year team which won the Higher Education Championship. Mick Spillane, Brian Dalty, Declan Smyth and Ogie Moran were colleagues on that outfit- hurling and luck was again to bedevil him, as they lost the senior hurling league to St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, in Croke Park.
At this stage, though not long out of his teens, he was already an established figure on the Toreen senior team, for whom he made his debut at the age of 15. Since then he has won 16 county senior medals - if you think that's good, his brother Tony last year took the national record away from Mick Mackay. Tony has 17.
Joe was the ideal corner-forward, and that's where he was used to maximum effect by the Galway dominated Connacht for three Railway Cup victories in the 1980s. The only other Mayo player on two of those sides was Dave Synott, a goalkeeper who had transferred there from his native Wexford.
The Railway cup wins were the highlights of Joe's time in hurling. 'I remember playing against Munster in 1980 in Ballinasloe, and they had a huge full-back line of Martin Doherty, Pat Hartigan and John Horgan. Out in front of them they had Dermot Mc Curtin, Sean Stack and Tom Cashman, but we still managed to win. That's when people started to take notice of Connacht," he says.
Sandwiched between all of that is a Mayo senior football medal with Shamrocks - that came in 1977, an hour after he had played on the Tooreen team which lost the county senior hurling final to Ballinrobe in the curtainraiser - and many feel that he had devoted sufficient time he could also have made it as a gaelic footballer.
What's the motivation? "Love of Tooreen is one of the big things. Also, the hope of going further in the Connacht Senior Club Championship. I've played in seven finals, and lost them all. In 1985 we ran Castlegar very close, but John Connolly scored a penalty late in the game and they went on to win the All-Ireland Final.
"Okay, it is hard to keep players motivated when you seem to win every year, but it is still a great thing to win a county title. In years gone by, the rivalry with Ballinrobe kept us going, and, indeed, kept Ballinrobe going as well. But I think Mayo hurling is on the way up, particularly with Chairman TJ Tyrell doing so much work." He recalls sterling clashes with Ballinrobe's Mattie Murphy, Mick Walsh and Bart Crowley during a keen mid-70s rivalry.
To be recognised by the All-Stars selectors on two occasions - 1979 and 1986 - underpins the phenomenal talent he possesses. Joe is one of those players who is "always good for a goal and few points" (and often a lot more) and his skillful style is aided by a strong physical presence. A back injury has interrupted things in recent years, and he now plays "from game to game."
Two weeks ago, Tooreen beat Pearses of Roscommon in the Connacht four Counties League, and that was a satisfying victory, but there is a certain unbalance about playing times. "We often have a Saturday evening or Sunday during the summer without a game, and we end up playing a Connacht Final in November."
But the biggest priority for Hurling in Mayo right now is a full-time coach. "T.J. Tyrell has worked very hard to convince Croke Park of the need for such a coach, but they won't just come up with the money. It would only be £5,000 out of Croke Park's pocket, but it hasn't happened yet.
"There's a great lot of hurling being played at under-age level now. Westport, Ballyhaunis, Castlebar and Ballina have strong under-age sections, and in coming years it's going to be more difficult for Tooreen to win titles which I feel is a good thing. The appointment of the coach would be a great boost for Mayo. This year Mayo won the All-Ireland U-16 B title and I think inter county teams will be better in the future."
There is a somewhat naive, romantic notion abroad that Tooreen each year cranks itself up for its tilt at the county title. "That's completely untrue. One of the big complaints I have over the years is the lack of parental support. The children are just thrown there and the club have to train them and bring them all over the place to matches. Often when we have a juvenile match in Tooreen, you might find only three players and their wives and a handful of officials.
"Also we don't get the support from the local four-teacher primary school. The children are not brought out to the field to hurl at all, and that's a big drawback. That's why over the years I have to praise people like Michael Nolan, my brothers Tony, Vincent and Michael, my cousin Austin Henry, Packie Coyne, Peter Lynskey, Johnny Cunnane, Kathleen Fanning and all the others who have kept the game alive. I supposed the lack of support has commented the spirit within the squad."
Reflecting on a career in which he faced up a wide variety spectrum of players - Fan Larkin, Martin Doherty, Joe Hennessy and Dermot McCurtin were among the finest he met - Joe still retains a childlike interest in the game, and is passionate about the future for Tooreen. He trains the club minor team, and as a teacher at Castlerea Convent of Mercy in Roscornmon he trains camogie and ladies football.
Next year, he has one of his biggest outings to date - he weds Roscommon inter-county camogie star, nurse Martina Waldron from Castleplunkett. That, to take liberty with the old catch-phrase, is not so much a marriage made in heaven as one made in Semple Stadium, Pairc Ui Chaoimh, or proud Tooreen itself.
Taken from Hogan Stand
13th December 1991
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