'He was before his time' - Offaly hurling folk hero remembered

Kevin Corrigan


Kevin Corrigan


'He was before his time' - Offaly hurling folk hero remembered

The 1953 Offaly hurling team and the late Paddy Molloy

In an era of teak tough hurling that was not for the faint of heart, Paddy Molloy’s talent shone through like a beacon.

A magnificent hurler for Offaly from the 1950s through to the early 1970s, the Drumcullen folk hero died last week in Birr Community Nursing Unit and leaves behind a treasure trove of cherished never to be forgotten memories for the people lucky enough to have seen him in his prime.

A remarkably versatile hurler who played with equal efficiency in goals, defence, midfield and attack, his scoring exploits brought him to national attention. He was a star figure during an era when Offaly hurling struggled to establish himself – as a 19-year-old, he was a sub on the Offaly team beaten by Tipperary in the 1953 All-Ireland Junior Hurling Championship final while he was a key figure as they ran Kilkenny agonisingly close in the 1969 Leinster senior hurling final, though he was in the Winter of his career and past his prime at that stage.

In the public mind, he was the one Offaly hurler comparable with the great performers and All-Ireland winning heroes of the 1980s and 1990s and this was reflected when he was selected on the Offaly hurling team of the millennium in 2000. But just how good was Paddy Molloy?

No one is better positioned to talk about Paddy Molloy, both the hurler and the man, than his fellow Drumcullen legend, Mick Spain. Born in 1933, the year before Paddy was born, the two went to National School together in Killyon, grew up as great friends and retained a powerful bond throughout their long lives. They played together for club and county and they also played against each other after Mick was forced to switch allegiance to Birr following his move into that parish – they had some memorable exchanges during the 1971 senior hurling semi-final when Birr beat Drumcullen on their way to winning
the Sean Robbins Cup.

Unsurprisingly Mick retains a fountain of fantastic memories of Paddy and his obvious joy in those as he recalled old childhood memories, stories of fun with the occasional fight as they grew up in the world in the 1930s and 1940s, is infectious.

“He was before his time, he used to study hurling all the time. When he would see a great hurler from another county, he’d study him. He would practice what he was doing and try to perfect that. Long before Offaly was heard of, Paddy Molloy was picked wing back for Leinster. He also hurled wing forward and corner forward for Leinster. Not too many were picked in the backs and forward lines for their Railway Cup team,” smiled Spain.

The duo became firm friends in their youth, going to school together and sharing in good times. A powerfully built man during his county career, the young Paddy Molloy was small. Spain recalled: “I have a picture of the Drumcullen team that won the Minor Hurling Championship in 1949 and Paddy was very small on that. Willie Mitchell was the captain, he won four minors and three seniors (1950-1952) in a row. He won three minors with Banagher (1946, 1947 and 1948). Drumcullen didn’t have a minor team at the time but they put in one in 1949 and won it. He was a big minor and Paddy is in front of him in the
picture, it is like looking at a father and son. Paddy didn’t grow until he was about 16/17 years of age and
then he shot up all of a sudden to over 6 foot.

“He had a powerful burst of speed over 30-40 yards. I saw him in the sports in Rath, running a race on a mile circuit. He walked away with it and there were other athletes there. He was a tremendous athlete.”

He talked about Paddy practicising on a gable end at home and having a target approximately 6 x 4 yards between bricks. “He would start shooting from twenty yards back and would aim to get one out of four first of all, then three out of four and four out of four. He would stay at it until he got it right. When he was bringing home the cows, he would hurl a ball up there and back. He was a natural athlete.”

He spoke of Molloy’s pride in winning a senior football medal with Tullamore in 1963 and then being selected for the Cardinal Cushing Games in 1965, from which he struck up a fine friendship with Cork legend Christy Ring. “He was a great pal of Christy Ring and they exchanged messages every Christmas.

He practised and practised and gave everything to detail. He stayed at it and at it. Most of us would have been happy pucking a ball against a wall but he had to have a target on the wall to get it in there. He had four bricks in a diamond shape and eventually, he was getting it in so often, he had to put a plank up inside to stop the ball from hitting the horses. He had tremendous skill and he was a fine athlete, he would blow you away with speed.”

A long time selector for Offaly senior hurlers during the 1990s, Mick Spain stated that some opponents preferred to see Paddy playing in the forwards than in defence. “When he was in the back line, he would cut through them by racing up the field and scoring. He was tough and like all good players, he was a marked man.”

Spain and Molloy started hurling together in 1945 at U-12 level when Mick was 12, Paddy 10 and a half. He has seen hurlers from every Offaly team since then, been a selector with All-Ireland winning champions in the 1990s and he has no doubt about his place in the pantheon of greats. “I never saw an Offaly hurler as good as him. I hate comparing one hurler against another but he was just brilliant, no one compared to him.”

He talked about memories of Paddy on the farm around Killyon, of him going up the mountains to help his uncle Mick, a former Birr hurler, farm, helping look after the sheep and the cattle. During an era of almost notorious toughness in Offaly club hurling, Molloy had to be hard to excel. Looking back on that era, Mick Spain does not wear rose-tinted glasses. “I could write a book on some of the stuff that went on. There were fierce tough matches, some of them were unreal. They didn’t make
sense at all. They were not using their heads. Hurling at that time was fierce tough and some lads would sooner knock down a man than a ball.

“He was a tough man. I used to hurl in front of him and I remember the 1958 final against Coolderry. He was on Paddy Teehan of Coolderry, a good hurler who was coming near the end of his time. He’d say Pat you are too old to be here, you should be at home picking potatoes or pulling beet. This went on the whole game and Molloy was skinning him.

“He was sent off and he would lose the head every now and again. He was a tough hurler, not dirty but every now and again, he would slap back. He reminded me of a rose bush, he was beautiful to look at but he would still prod you.”

Johnny Flaherty was finding his way in the hurling world as Paddy Molloy was winding the clock down on his career. 22 and wing forward as Offaly lost to Kilkenny in the 1969 Leinster final with Molloy inside him, the Kinnitty legend went onto become one of Offaly’s iconic hurlers himself, scoring the decisive late goal as Galway were stormed late on in the 1981 All-Ireland final.

He had made his debut in 1966, spent much of the 1970s abroad and his return home towards the end of the decade was a pivotal stepping stone in the emergence of Offaly’s first great side. He has special memories of Paddy Molloy and also of his early years, when the county team and club scene in the county earned an unwanted reputation for some of hurling’s “darker arts”.

Flaherty spoke with great passion about Paddy Molloy. “He was one of our greatest of all time and probably one of the greatest of all time in his own era. He was magnificent. He was a professional athlete in the late 1950s and the 1960s. He took it further than anyone else with his dedication to himself and the development of the skills.

“He could hurl in any part of the field. He won three Railway Cups at wing back and then he went up to the forwards. He had a ferociously strong way of hurling. He was the highest scorer in Ireland on three occasions, I think. He was a million pound player when everyone else around him was bought for feck all.

I thought he was in the region of Ring and all those great players. He had power and strength and such hurling ability. And he was a wonderful Offaly man. He always wanted to do better for his county, players to improve themselves and the right team to be picked. Every day he went out, he gave a performance.”

Flaherty learnt a lot from the then veteran Molloy when he burst onto the scene in 1966. “He had a burst of speed that was incomparable with anyone. Over 60 yards, no one could get near him. His striking on the run was magnificent. You had to see it to understand his power and accuracy. Without losing momentum, he would hit it off his right foot nearly all the time.”

He talked with great honesty about Offaly hurling in that era. “We had a better temperament and stuff. At that time, hurling was changing in Offaly. St Rynagh’s had come, Kinnitty were coming. There was a different attitude around Molloy. The new players coming in had a different attitude.

“The 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s were a rough time and we could never win anything with the way things were. We fought it out in Birr and we left it in Birr, we couldn’t come together as a hurling team. Lads wouldn’t pass to each other over things that happened. We changed all that, we didn’t care who we passed to. Molloy got great back up in his last few years and more lads doing the right thing.”

Was it that bad? “It was terrible,” he replied, maintaining that Offaly lost a chance of winning an All- Ireland in 1967 following the “Battle of Birr” against Westmeath in the Leinster hurling championship.

Flaherty felt that Offaly were coming good at the time but three players were sent off, Willie Gorman of Killoughey, himself and Joe Murphy, who played with Killoughey, Drumcullen, Tullamore and Kilcormnac. Flaherty subsequently got a month’s suspension, Gorman and Murphy were hit with much longer bans as a decent Offaly team were beaten by 5-10 to 4-8.

Paddy Molloy scored a whopping 2-5 from centre half forward that day but Flaherty declared: “It was the same bully boy tactics again with Offaly. It went on for years in our old home town in Birr. We never fell for that again.”

In 1968, Offaly ran Kilkenny to four points in Portlaoise but had Johnny Kirwan (Ballyskenagh) sent off after ten minutes and Flaherty still looks back on that defeat and the 1969 Leinster final loss with regret.

“We could have beaten them in 1968 and we should have won it in ‘69,” he declared. He concluded by expounding Paddy Molloy’s virtues again. “He was awful strong. He was near six feet and built to proportion. He had a huge strong pair of arms, from pulling beet and all that. He minded himself. He didn’t drink and he smoked very little. He was training all the time, he had to be doing that to be as good as he was.”

Tullamore’s Andy Gallagher was the man in goals for Offaly for most of his county career and they also enjoyed some great clashes on the club scene during an era when Drumcullen were a powerful force and Tullamore serious contenders. Like Paddy Molloy, Gallagher also made his county debut in 1955, albeit on a different day, a league win over Roscommon. Gallagher was the resident goalkeeper from then until 1968 and he also played in the goals in the early league in 1969 but had been displaced by an emerging Damien Martin for the championship that year and his last Offaly appearance was a league win over
Laois in March.

“He was brilliant really. Molloy was possibly ahead of his time as a hurler. His ball skills and control were unique really. The bigger the challenge, the more he liked it,” stated Gallagher this week. The toughness of some of the battles between Drumcullen and their great rivals Coolderry in those years is part and parcel of Offaly GAA folklore. Was it as rough as it has been painted? “Hurling had a lot of physicality in it, no doubt. Molloy was like a lot of good players, he was a target man every time he went out. The general opinion was that if you could take Molloy out, you would beat Drumcullen or Offaly,” recalled the 1981 All-Ireland winning manager.

He recalled that Paddy Molloy had brilliant speed from a standing position. “Most lads could be fast when running to the ball but Molloy could take off from a standing position. He would be gone like a rocket. He had a great ability to read other hurlers’ brains.”

Gallagher has particularly cherished memories of Molloy’s performances as he helped Tullamore win the Senior Football Championship in 1963. Full forward, the Drumcullen man received permission to play football with Tullamore as there was no football in his home parish and he scored a crucial goal in the final win over Gracefield. Gallagher knew that Molloy had a keen interest in football, encouraged him to throw in his lot with Tullamore and he declared: “If he had been born in a parish where hurling and football had equal precedence, he would have been a brilliant footballer. He would certainly have been inter-county standard. The year we won it, he was very good.

“How does he compare to the greats of the 1980s and ‘90s. “Molloy would have been on any Offaly team that ever played, he was worth his place on any of them. He played in every position, he was such a good hurler and he was before his time.” Gallagher recalled Offaly’s near miss in 1969. “He was coming to an end at that stage, he had seen his best years but he still gave brilliant displays. He was always a marked man for Offaly. If you stopped, Molloy, you stopped Offaly.”

He also retains great memories of their battles on club fields. “We were fair opposition to Drumcullen for a few years. We beat Drumcullen in the final in 1955 and we had some mighty duels. He was a great free taker, he would drive the ball right through you and don’t I just know that. It was tough hurling. I will put it this way, no one was saying excuse me when they went for the ball.”

Sean Grennan from Rahan has a host of never to be forgotten memories from the 1950s. Now a hale and hearty 88 years of age, he was captain of the Offaly team that won the Leinster Junior Hurling Championship in 1953 and lost to Tipperary in the All-Ireland final.

Grennan was close to his hurling prime in 1953 – a versatile performer, he played 26 league and championship games for Offaly seniors from 1950 to 1959, when he emigrated to London, staying there until retiring in 1994. His family is still in England and he now spends time his time between there and his Glaskill home each year.

In 1953, he was 21 and would have been an automatic choice on the senior side – he played in attack, defence and midfield for Offaly. However, he missed the 1952 championship campaign because of suspension which meant he was eligible to play junior in 1953. Rahan won the Intermediate Hurling Championship in 1952 and as a result, he was given the junior captaincy – he was asked to go senior but decided to stick with the junior team as they had good prospects.

1953 was a great time for Rahan as he was one of six players from within a short radius of each other around the then village on the squad – it also included his brother Ned Grennan, Jim Meacle, Johnny Lowry who went to Australia and brothers John and Joe Minnock.

A 17-year-old Paddy Molloy was the sub goalkeeper and Sean recalled that he didn’t play any game in 1953. He remembered him playing in goals for Drumcullen after that but remarked that he didn’t want to be there. “At a senior match in Birr around 1955 or 1956, Paddy got fed up in goals and ran out the field. Drumcullen were not very pleased with him but he knew he was wasting his time in goals and would rather be out the field.”

After emigrating to England in 1959, Sean didn’t see Molloy hurl again but was very aware of his progress, his growing reputation and achievements in winning Railway Cup medals with Leinster in an era when that didn’t happen for Offaly players.

They met at a 50 year reunion of the 1953 side in Dooly’s Hotel, Birr back in 2003 and enjoyed a conversvation. “He played his best hurling in his last few years. Definitely, he was one of the best hurlers in Offaly at that time. He was a very fast hurler, he was outstanding. He was as good a hurler in Ireland in his time,” stated Grennan.

He has other powerful memories of that era. A ferocious row between Coolderry and Drumcullen at a club game in Tullamore at that time, a garda being laid out by a Drumcullen supporter as he tried to restore peace is one that never left him. “It was brutal,” he smiled.

In 1953, Rahan shocked Drumcullen in the Senior Hurling Championship semi-final before losing by 4- 4 to 1-6 to Coolderry in the final. On successive Sunday’s, Grennan played in three losing finals – the All-Ireland junior final to Tipperary, a National League B final to Antrim that they were hot favourites to win and the Offaly decider.

“We had eleven good players but we needed a few more,” he said about that Rahan team. He recalled that game against Drumcullen and Rahan’s tactics of playing ground hurling only with players instructed not to take the ball in hand. He was exempted from these instructions but went along with the game plan and it worked for them. “Paddy Molloy and Mick Spain were not playing for Drumcullen that day, that is how good they were. They were going for four in a row which was a very rare thing at that time.”

Michael Connolly, a Birr man now living in Kinnitty, had the privilege of watching Paddy Molloy for several years and he harbours great memories of his excellence. Well known as a trainer of club teams for several years, Connolly has feasted on a diet of Paddy Molloy stories for decades and he shared three of them on Monday.

He recalled that Paddy Molloy didn’t get his medal for the Leinster Junior Hurling Championship in 1953 at the county ballroom in Tullamore because of a mix up. “Jimmy Shandon and band were playing and the Ballinamere Ceile Band were the support. Sean Grennan (Rahan) was the captain of the Offaly junior side and he was playing with the Ballinamere band. He came down off the stage, was handed his medal, went back up and played again,” Connolly outlined, revealing that years later Molloy happened to say to the above mentioned Mick Spain that he never got his medal.

That set the wheels in motion and culminated with Paddy being presented with a replica medal by then County Board chairman Pat Teehan at a Drumcullen GAA dinner dance in 2010 as they honoured the golden jubilee of the 1960 senior hurling success. “It was a nice reflection on Paddy that he made no fuss about his medal and on Pat Teehan for going to the trouble of getting one,” he commented.

Another story he heard was about Paddy playing for a selection of the best hurlers in Ireland in the  Cardinal Cushing Games in New York in 1965. “Paddy was corner forward and was having a chat with the corner back from Tipperary. He got a rap across the hurl from Christy Ring, who said, wake up boy, we are playing Tipperary.”

A great personal memory of Connolly is of an adult street football league in Birr in 1970. He was assistant secretary of Birr club at the time and was given charge of a team from Emmett Street, Townsend Street, Burke’s Hill end of town. “There were five or six teams from different parts of the town, I had to go to various fellows I knew and try to get them to play. Paddy Molloy was living in an apartment in Oxmantown Mall, he was married to Bernie Carey by that time. We had a good chat and he said he would love to play.

“We put together a real united nations of a team. John Hopkins (A Mayo native and long time resident in  Tullamore) played rugby and football with Tullamore and he was a garda in Birr at that time. Mick O’Grady, another garda from Mayo, played. Michael McIntyre, a teacher in the Tech at that time and later the Community School. He was a Donegal man and a very good footballer. Sean Moylan from Rynagh’s was living in Birr at that time and we also had Martin Loughnane, Brian Coolahan, Johnny Tooher.

"I was in goals in some of the early games and also played out the field. Johnny Tooher played in goals in the final and Paddy Molloy said to him, all you have to do is keep your eye on the ball, we will make sure no one gets in near you. Jim Rosney, RIP was very prominent as well. We won it, we had some good footballers and were presented with our trophies. There were a couple of fractious events on the field but all was fine.”

Connolly concluded: “He was an outstanding hurler. He wouldn’t have won four Railway Cup medals if he wasn’t. He would have been an automatic choice on any team in the country. Eddie Keher summed him up best. He said he would have got onto any Kilkenny team of any era.”

You can read further tributes to the great Paddy Molloy in this week's Tullamore Tribune.