By Cian O’Connell for gaa.ie
The medals will always matter, but in these utterly demanding days following the sudden passing of Tony Keady the memories carry even more weight and wonder.
Keady, with the white helmet and iconic number six stitched to his back, will never be forgotten in the west.
Last week, on the eve of the new school year, four of his former Galway colleagues gathered at the splendid and idyllic setting of Calasanctius College beside Oranmore Castle.
As the stories flowed and the conversation veered from sport to the harsh realities of life, the respect and fondness unfurled from every sentence.
Eanna Ryan hurled with Keady from National School and in the Killimordaly and Galway jerseys. Now their two sets of children attend Calasanctius College.
Pat Malone, understated, but so central to Galway’s last All Ireland titles in 1987 and 1988, continues to stitch things together, similar to how he played, helping in any way that he can.
Pete Finnerty wore number five in those salad years for Galway. Finnerty, Keady, and McInerney – arguably the most fabled Galway line that will ever play in any code.
Pearse Piggott, jokingly described by Finnerty as the ‘first sweeper in hurling’ for his withdrawn role in the 1986 All Ireland Semi-Final, spoke with such regard and affection it was easy to see how Galway were perched on the summit of the hurling world for a brief, but brilliant stint.
Cyril Farrell, such a decorated figure in Galway hurling history, was the spearhead. And when his speech following the 1988 All Ireland triumph over Tipperary was over, Keady walked across the dressing room to Piggott.
“Farrell used to always put me on Keady in matches in training; we had sat down after the big euphoria, everybody had showered, Farrell was giving us a lecture about life and Galway and everything,” Piggott laughs.
“We were all sitting down and the next thing Keady came over and he put his arms around me. ‘Pearse, I will never forget you, thank you so much’, he said. ‘Brendan (Lynskey) and myself are going to have a quiet party in The Hut will you come with me?’
“Tony, I says, you were at the wedding, I got married nine weeks ago to Noelle. This is only her third game of hurling ever, I have to be with Noelle. It wasn’t destiny that I could go with him. God has taken him now, but my place was with Noelle.” Keady knew the battles with Piggott had him primed for September Sundays at GAA headquarters.
Piggott stresses the esteem in which Keady was held. “He was very good natured, he was kind to people,” Piggott says.
“People thought he was arrogant, Tony wasn’t arrogant, he was anything but. Look at the community in Oranmore – devastation. Look at the way he loved his kids, spent time with his kids.
“In life Tony Keady won two Celtic Crosses, but to everyone on the ’87 and ’88 teams they think he won three the day he met Margaret. That was his third All Ireland.
“She lit him up like nobody else will ever know. She brought him to Oranmore, they set up a family, blessed with four kids together. To get a phonecall to say Tony is not in a good way that was devastation. I’ve always said that he was blessed with buckets of good nature, Tony. He had an exceptionally good natured DNA.”
That is precisely what Malone thinks too. Keady’s presence will be sorely missed at Calasanctius College. “I have two kids who have gone through the school,” Malone says. “The impact he has had on them and to make those five years so enjoyable for them. It is immeasurable really.
“He was more than just a caretaker looking after the school here. He was everything from the class comedian or clown to the principal. He was helping guys – bringing lads lunches, making sure they had a pair of togs or small things like making sure they had the school uniform to avoid getting a tick.
“He nearly had his own cloakroom stash, all of those small touches, looking out for the guy that is struggling, for a guy with a tough man image he had a soft heart inside.”
That ability to connect with others, to make them feel better about themselves was one of Keady’s greatest qualities according to Malone. “In Oranmore we have such a diverse community with people from all over the world at this stage, Tony had a word for everybody,” Malone admits.
“The Leaving Certs were back in getting results, it was a happy time for those kids, but without Tony appearing around the corner they took that very, very hard. It didn’t matter what part of the world you came from, he had a word for everybody. That was always so reassuring for them all.”
Malone is grateful that Keady settled in Oranmore after their playing careers with Galway ended. “Absolutely,” Malone remarks. “When you play together people perceive that you spend a lifetime together, but it was different in those days. We didn’t train near as hard as the guys do today, who are almost fully professional.
“We enjoyed maybe five or six years together as team mates and then we drift apart. You are off the panel and you go your own way, but I was very lucky that Margaret and Tony decided to settle and start their family in Oranmore.”
Hurling was always the main topic of conversation. “I’ve got to know Tony much better because the families intertwined with sport and I’d always see him dropping off the kids to school,” Malone adds.
“He would have the thumbs up, the wink or the nod. After a match you’d get the big fist pump. At our training sessions in Oranmore or in Maree he’d always be there with an encouraging word for his own kid and every other kid.
“There is a huge community within our GAA club who are going to greatly miss Tony. A huge amount of people who barely remember Tony in his playing days because they may be from a younger generation, but they know Tony the father, the colleague, the club mate, they see him in a totally different light and they wouldn’t be aware of his heyday.
“There is a raft of people across the community who are really heartbroken and Please God everybody will be supportive to Margaret and Shannon, Jake, Harry, and Anthony in the coming years.”
Eanna Ryan was Keady’s childhood pal in Attymon. Their sporting careers followed similar paths with Killimordaly and Galway.
Keady’s plan was to propel Calasanctius to Connacht Colleges Senior Hurling Championship glory in 2021 or 2022. Anthony Keady and Joshua Ryan were central to his plans; Galway would be going back to the future.
“It is hard to get it into your head that Tony has passed away and that you will never have the same craic or be able to reminisce with him again,” Ryan acknowledges.
“As the years went on we grew away from the hurling when we retired and then Tony started working in Calasanctius. It is ironic then that my kids started going there to Calasanctius College, he was there again looking after them.
“My fourth lad, Joshua, is starting in Calasanctius College with Anthony Keady. Tony had great plans for those lads and some of the others that were coming in to first year to have a good first year team, he was going to look after them to mould them all the way up, to hopefully win a Senior Championship with Calasanctius. That was his dream. Unfortunately that didn’t come through.”
Throughout the past fortnight Ryan has thought deeply about different games and victories. Keady was the beating heartbeat for Killimordaly and Galway. Fun-filled times.
“We started playing hurling together at the time in National School,” Ryan remembers. We progressed to county Under 14, 16, and minor, county Under 21 and seniors.
“We played senior with the club and Galway, but we did it because we loved the game. It was great fun, especially after the games when you went celebrating. We had a good bond.
“Lads talk about bonds with teams, but we had a great bond with Killimordaly. We had great fun, again when we came to the ’87 and ’88 team that won there was a great bond. We mightn’t meet one another for years, but, when we did, away we would go. The fun would start again. That is all we wanted.
“Tony was at the heart of it. Any time there was a bit of a session he was the life and soul of the party. Again he will be sadly missed.
“We will get over it, we will never forget because his memory will always live on, but our hearts go out to a family that has lost a young healthy man that did everything for his wife and kids. They cherished him and it is going to be a seriously tough time for his family. Hopefully time will ease some of the pain.”
For the rest of his days when Ryan talks hurling he will recall the tales and triumphs. What struck him, though, was how Keady just wanted youngsters to improve and develop. “With Tony he would just try to get the most out of you,” Ryan says.
“He knew from a young lad that if there was more to be got that he would get it out of you. He did it in a nice way. My oldest lad is gone two years from school, he’d come home, he mightn’t have won the match, but he would be in tears laughing telling me what Tony did or might have said.
“There was always a good side after a match even if you lost. He’d say ‘it wasn’t too bad or we will get them there’. He always had a positive side and the fun element always ran through.
“He was just a great character. I know we say that about people that have passed away, but he is just an unreal character. Happy go lucky, kept himself well, minded himself, he was looking forward to his young daughter playing Under 16 Camogie for Galway, Anthony starting in Calasanctius, to seeing the twins growing up playing hurling.
“That was his life, that was his dream. Unfortunately it was wiped from him, wiped from his family. It is sad.”
Another Galway warrior, Finnerty has thoughts scrambling around his head, trying to make sense of what has happened. “It is hard to come to terms with it really,” Finnerty admits.
“At times it sinks in when you think that Tony won’t be around for the All Ireland final or things like that, there are days it hits you at any moment. It is hard to comprehend when you think about a man that was so fit and so healthy and minded himself so well and died so suddenly.
“The whole county was in shock. All of Galway was grieving. It was an unbelievable turnout for the funeral, genuine sadness, genuine sorrow, genuine hurt. It has been a tough few weeks for Galway, especially for his team mates and family more so.”
Finnerty is thrilled to have hurled alongside and known Keady. “He had great character,” Finnerty stresses.
“I don’t think I ever heard anybody say a bad word about Tony Keady because Keady had a word for everybody. Some people thought he was arrogant, this, that, and the other. He wasn’t, he was just a character. Everybody had a good word for Tony because he was just a lovely guy, a good person.
“The outpouring of grief the Oranmore people, the way they helped to organise it showed what a big part of the community he was.”
That was most certainly the case. Keady excelled on the hurling fields of Ireland, he cared and assisted away from the action.
Images linger in the mind. Keady mining points from distance, relieving the pressure, giving Galway hope and unprecedented glory. A true maroon and white hero, who will be cherished forever.