When the present Kilkenny County Senior Hurling team is spoken of today the name of Brian Cody is never far away, as he is synonymous with the unrivalled success of Kilkenny since Cody took over as manager/trainer in 1999. The success of Thurles Sarsfields Senior Hurling Team in the period 1952 to 1965 is unprecedented too in the history of hurling in Tipperary, and I dare say, unmatched by any other club in the country either.
It is no coincidence that this period of success for Sarsfields coincided with Tipperary’s golden era of success in the All Ireland series of the 1950’s and 60’s. The reason for Sarsfields success is that they had a talented group of players who possessed all the attributes necessary for success in that period, skill, courage, and determination. They had a wonderful style of hurling, great spirit, and nobody could rough them up as they were well able to look after themselves. None more so than the ‘Rattler’ himself, Mickey Byrne. They also had another major weapon in their armoury; John Lanigan as manager and trainer, was the driving force and the brains behind all these successes. Like Cody he was the man on the training field with the whistle and he decided on the format of training for each session. The laps of the field, short sprints, ground hurling only sessions, and games of backs and forwards. The training was done on the main pitch in Thurles Sportsfield, now Semple Stadium, and the discussion on how all that changed is a wide ranging one, and a big loss to the Sarsfields club. He was a great judge of hurling and a firm disiplinarian, and his role as manager and selector with the all conquering Sarsfields team of the 1950’s and 60’s when they won the County title in 1952 and 10 County Titles from 1955 to 1965 cannot be underestimated. The defeat by Toomevara in 1960 in the County Final played in Templemore, with Sarsfields going for six in a row can be compared to Kilkenny going for five in a row in 2010 when Tipperary halted their amazing run of victories. Sarsfields were without Noel Murphy, Larry Keane and Bobby Mockler in that final and they were missed as all were an integral part of the team. Larry Keane hadn’t been able to train due to family circumstances, Bobby Mockler likewise, and Noel Murphy was on the subs bench due to an interrupted training spell. If you didn’t or couldn’t train you didn’t play! After losing that 1960 County Final the majority of the team went on to play football with Thurles Crokes and won the County senior football title. In his youth John Lanigan played for Thurles CBS, Thurles Sarsfields, and Tipperary, at all levels, and won School, Divisional and County Titles, and All Ireland honours, together with his brothers Jim and Tom. He also won a championship title in England in 1940 when he spent some time working in Coventry during the war years. He won an All Ireland minor medal with Tipperary in 1930, the year Tipperary won all three All Ireland titles: minor, junior, and senior. That year due to travel restrictions the Munster minor Championship was not completed in time, and the Munster Council nominated Tipperary to contest the All Ireland Final against Kilkenny. Cork objected and Tipperary offered to play the game on a Wednesday evening at a Tipperary venue. Cork wouldn’t agree and eventually it was decided to toss for the venue. Tipperary lost and went to Cork Athletic Grounds to contest the game. John Lanigan went to the game on a motorcycle. He still had the goggles he wore. “We weren’t going to come home losers,” he said. How could you know that, he was asked. “We were a hardy team we tore into them, “ he knowingly remarked. The score was Tipperary 4 – 3 Cork 3 – 0. The following Sunday, remember they had played the Munster Final on Wednesday, Tipperary played Kilkenny in the All Ireland Final in Croke Park and won by 4 -1 to 2 – 1. John Lanigan was selected to represent Munster in a Colleges S.H. game v Leinster in 1931 and was a proud player on that team. In 1930 John’s brother Jim was on the Tipperary senior team and Jim went on to become a key Tipperary player in the following years culminating in his captaincy of Tipperary in 1937 when Tipperary defeated Kilkenny in the All Ireland final in Killarney. Jim Lanigan was a superb county and club captain, really respected for his motivational abilities and an example to his team mates at all levels. John Lanigan won 4 County senior titles and played senior hurling a number of times for Tipperary in the League and in Tournament games, notably when Tipperary beat Cork in a game to commemorate the official opening of Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, in 1935. His brother Tom was also an accomplished hurler who won a Harty Cup medal in 1933, Munster and All Ireland minor Championships with Tipperary, and Divisional and County Championships with Sarsfields. John Lanigan was a shrewd observer and weighed up the strengths and weaknesses of opposing teams. Each game was planned with an alternative strategy in the event that matters were not working out as expected. He was a man who was very proud of his club and county, and wanted to ensure that Thurles Sarsfields and Tipperary were to the fore in all competitions. An example of his strategy was the way he took Jimmy Doyle aside before a Mid final with Holycross and told him to go in to right corner forward. Jimmy did as instructed and had 2-2 scored by half time and as he came off the field for the break was told by John Lanigan, “you can go to your own position now Jimmy.” Years later Jimmy met his opponent in that first half and he said to Jimmy “what brought you in on me that day, you never played corner forward at that time?” Jimmy said “you’ll have to ask John Lanigan that.” In the 1952 County Final versus Borrisoleigh Paddy Kenny was the danger man. Seamus Browne, Sarsfields corner back, was taken aside by John Lanigan and told “ I don’t mind if you don’t hurl, but he’s not to hurl.” Seamus knew he had to stick like a leech with the ever dangerous Paddy Kenny and make sure he didn’t get many scores. That he did as Sarsfields won by 5-6 to 1-8 and although Kenny scored 0-2 from play and 1-4 from frees Seamus could be satisfied with his display. Over the years players joined Sarsfields from other areas as they found work in Thurles notably Kevin Houlihan from Kilkenny, Tim Walsh from Cork, Paddy McCarthy from Ahane in Limerick, Pa Joe O’Brien from Bansha, Tommy and Frank Barrett from Holycross, Flor Coffey from Boherlahan, Jimmy Cunningham from Solohead, but the majority of the team were locals; Mickey (Rattler) Byrne, Jack Ryan (Gallagher), Donncha and Miceal Maher, Mick Cahill, Martin (Musha) and Benny Maher, Connie, Larry, and Michael (Blackie) Keane, Tommy and Mikie Doyle, Jimmy Doyle and his brother Paddy, Michael (Rocky) McElgunn, Tony Wall, Michael Craddock, Michael and Noel Murphy, Patsy and Michael (Barton) Dorney, Dick Tynan, Matty O’Dowd, T.J.Semple, Bill O’Dwyer, Michael Stapleton, Michael and Patsy Butler, Dick Callanan, Ray Reidy and Tony Kelly both students preparing for the priesthood, Gerry Hogan, Sean McLoughlin and Bobby Mockler. Who remembers, or more to the point, who could ever forget if you saw him play; the stylish Tommy Ryan of Parnell Street. His fleetness of foot, side step, and skill with the hurley was to be marvelled at considering he had a heart defect that saw him pass away at a relatively young age. On many a Sunday morning before a match he could be seen practising with a sponge ball against the wooden door of Dwan’s mineral water store on Parnell Street. Different times, in every way. John D. Hickey, Sports Editor with the Irish Independent and Thurles native,wrote: “He had a turn of speed and a feint of such mystery that I never had an idea as to how he executed it, often as I saw him employ it. It is difficult to believe that he will no more enchant friends with stories told in inimitable fashion, about hurlers and hurling men.” Tommy Ryan was just 41 when he died. John Kearns was another fine hurler who contributed to many a Sarsfields victory, in particular the 1955 and 1956 County Finals and who also, regrettably, died at a young age. Sarsfields had great characters like Pa Joe O’Brien, a big strong rawboned Bansha man who came to work in Thurles. Pa Joe was a fine footballer and developed the skill of stabbing the hurling ball up into his hand with the toe of his boot as it came towards him. One memorable occasion when his attempt came unstuck was in an unforgettable Churches tournament game against St.Vincent’s of Dublin played in Croke Park on a wet July day in 1956. Pa Joe went to flick the ball into his hand but the wet ball flew off the toe of his boot and across the square where the lurking Paddy Kenny let fly and sent the ball like a bullet into the net for a goal all the national papers raved about the following day. Paddy Kenny at this time resided in Thurles and had transferred from Borrisoleigh to Sarsfields. Pa Joe ran past Kenny and said “what about that for a pass Kenny?” That game against a star studded St Vincent’s team, which Sarsfields won by 8-6 to 3-6, cemented the aura of Sarsfields as the team to see and the National newspaper reports on the following day were loud in their praise of such a marvellous game of hurling played by two superb teams. Pa Joe O’Brien, Mickey Byrne, Michael Murphy, ‘Musha’ Maher and Tommy Ryan were the chief entertainers on the team and their musical talents together with the exploits of Tommy Ryan and ‘Rattler’ on the team bus going to and returning from matches was a highlight when the ‘crack’ between them lightened the mood and shortened the journey. Seldom is a town fortunate enough to get such a talented team playing in its colours and the Blue jersey of Sarsfields was now revered everywhere hurling was played and loved, and John Lanigan’s ambition for his club was realised. On another occasion Sarsfields went to Cork to play Glen Rovers in the Cork Churches Tournament. They needed a full forward as injuries ruled out some regulars. Local man Michael (Stabby) Stapleton was given the job. He had a ‘stormer’ on no less a man than Cork full back John Lyons. He scored 3 goals and was the talk of the Cork mentors for his display and when John Lanigan was asked where he had found this new star he jokingly, tongue in cheek, remarked that there was lads like that hurling on every street in Thurles. Another occasion was one Sunday evening in Rathdowney when Sarsfields took on the Laois County team in a challenge game. This came about at the request of the Laois County Secretary who was confident they had the makings of a good side and who was a friend of John Lanigan’s. Paddy McCarthy who was playing full back for Sarsfields remarked that playing the Laois county team was a tall order. Paddy had come to work in Thurles, was a Limerick native and had hurled for Ahane and with the Mackeys for Limerick. However such was his faith in the teams ability that McCarthy, a real character who liked to celebrate a win with a few drinks, had a bet with some Laois supporters who clearly expected Laois to win. Sarsfields won by by a decisive margin and Paddy enjoyed a good night with the winnings. Whatever about that Laois teams progress it certainly raised the profile of Sarsfields for all those who attended and were not already aware of this teams ability. Sarsfields played the Kerry County team and had a great weekend in Dingle; the Antrim County team and had a great weekend in Dunloy, and also neighbours Offaly . In the time before the All Ireland Club Championship was inaugurated Sarsfields played in many Tournaments, were in great demand, and were the uncrowned club champions of Ireland. Against Bennetsbridge Sarsfields were on a mission to avenge a defeat by a single point the previous year. With time up in that game Sarsfields were awarded a 21 yard free and Paddy Kenny went for a goal and glory. It was saved and the day was lost. Bennetsbridge were a strong hardy outfit and never was John Lanigan’s mantra, “you hurl with controlled agression” more apt. As the team awaited the team talk John Lanigan looked over at Jimmy Doyle and said “how many hurleys have you Jimmy? “I have three John” replied Jimmy. “Well will you go out today and break one of them?” This was his way of telling Jimmy “I need a big game from you today”, and Jimmy, a gentleman and aristocrat of the camán had 1 – 8 scored before half time. Was there ever a better or more talented hurler? A joy to watch. Agression was never needed, artistry with the hurley was his gift in life. For a player who never depended on speed of foot Jimmy had such wonderful antisipation and always seemed to be able to lose his marker and fade into space with the ball. His father Gerry was ever present at all the games, and can be seen in every photograph holding the replacement hurleys for the team, especially Jimmy’s. Also ever present around the team was Michael (Micil) Callanan, Jim Maher, Jimmy (Whim) O’Brien, Tommy Semple, Joss Connors, Eddie Gleeson, Tommy Max, Tom Behan, Timmy Grace, Paddy O’Gorman and Gerry McEntee. Micil Callanan had a great catch cry when Sarsfields were attacking the opposing goal he’d shout “ in around the house lads, in around the house.” All of these men played important roles in Sarsfields success in those years. Paddy Maher, a Sarsfields stalwart of the 1930’s and 40’s, and ‘Musha’ and Benny’s father, composed and sang the ballad ‘Bury me in a Thurles Sarsfield shirt’. Unfortunately it was never recorded, and if anyone knows the words of it the club would be glad to have them. Tony Wall was a truly superb centre back in all those games and Bobby Mockler who has a fund of stories of his time hurling with Sarsfields credits his ability to read Wall’s inspirational play as one of the reasons for his success as a full back. Great praise indeed from a stylish hurler. Matty O’Dowd recalled how Wall took him aside before a major game and said “Matty if you think you can get to any ball go for it, I’ll be behind you.” The confidence he got from those words ensured Matty played a ‘stormer’. All the Sarsfields players were superb competitors and whether the ball was in the air or on the ground could win control with deft strokes of the hurley. Sean McLoughlin (Mac) scored many a crucial goal with a swift flick to the net with stick or hand no matter how congested the play was around the goalmouth. And there was Larry Keane, a great forward, who totted up major scores in matches with his ability to strike from his left or right side with equal power and dexterity. John Lanigan grew up in Cuchulainn Road with his five brothers Martin, Tim, Jim, Pat, and Tom; and his two sisters Mary(Mai), and Brigid(Pidgie). His sister Pidgie was a brilliant camogie player and won many honours including playing in the An Tostal games. Jim, John, and Tom Lanigan were the hurlers: and Jim was widely recognised for his leadership in the dressing room and on the field. Yet Jim was a quiet man in daily life and didn’t get involved in the training or mentoring side of the game when he retired. Tom was a classy forward and many is the tussle he had with Jim on the training pitch. John was a dour defender who made sure his man didn’t get many scores, and on one occasion when a remark was made that he hadn’t done much hurling in the game, replied “the fellow I was marking didn’t either.” October 1977 also saw the coming to fruition of possibly the greatest project undertaken in his long association with the Sarsfields Club: the opening of the splendid new Social Centre adjacent to Semple Stadium in which he had played an important role as founder member, Trustee, and Chairman of the building committee. This project was based on the clubs in Cork that had a social centre attached to the playing pitches and where players, present and retired, could meet and socialise. It was also a place where the ethos of the club was cemented and pride in the club nurtured. Players on retirement would be encouraged to stay involved with the teams at all levels and thus ensure continuity of the clubs success and place in the division and county. John Lanigan played his part in this and was the same in his management of Sarsfields senior team as outside it. In his life he worked as he had played, showing no favouritism, and treated everyone alike. He was an entertaining and knowledgable conversationalist and his sometimes stern demeanour concealed a witty sense of humour. He gave his time training Sarsfields unselfishly, and travelled the country with his beloved club. He was a selector with the Tipperary Senior team in 1971 when they defeated old rivals Kilkenny in the All Ireland final. He died in 1988 without ever enjoying another Tipperary victory.The success he was instrumental in acheiving for Sarsfields probably came at a price as sometimes decisions made are not popular and he often remarked that to be successful at anything you have to be prepared to be unpopular with some. He was probably old fashioned as regards duty to club, county, and employment, and would expect others to be as loyal as he was. Not much of a fault, if at all, one might say in our world of today. When the decision was made to hold the Centenary All Ireland Hurling Final in Thurles in 1984 he took on the onerous task of Treasurer of the Centenary Committee. He spent many hours in the GAA office in Thurles and at meetings in Dublin and other venues and played his part in what was a truly magnificent and successful endeavour. He can be seen in photographs of School teams, County Minor, and in all Sarsfields Club teams he played on; but remarkably he only stood in for a few of the Sarsfields team photos, notably 1958, 1959, and 1965, in all his years training Sarsfields in that golden era of success from 1952 to 1965. John Lanigan’s dedication to Sarsfields Club was such that he continued on in his role as Manager/Trainer for another 6 years from 1966 until 1971. In that time, even though the great teams of the 1950’s and 60’s were breaking up, Sarsfields won Divisional Titles, Cahill Cup, and 2 Mayor’s Cup Titles presented by Mayor of Clonmel Sean Lyons. Sarsfields contested the County Finals in 1968 and 1970 but had to give best to the great 3 in a row Roscrea Team. In April 1971 to promote hurling in the Northern Counties John Lanigan took Sarsfields Seniors and Minors to Fermanagh, where they played the Antrim County Intermediate team, the 1970 Intermediate Champions. The players and officials were guests of people in private houses in Eniskillen parish and were entertained on Sunday night to a concert and ceili. Sarsfields won the Senior game by 0-13 to 0-11 with Jimmy Doyle scoring 0-7 points. The minors beat the Fermanagh minors by 7-12 to 2-3 and the Fermanagh Herald gave an interesting report on the games. So from 1952 to 1971, that’s 20 years of continuous service to the Blues; even Brian Cody has a bit to do yet to catch up on that as he prepares for his 16 year with Kilkenny. John Lanigan never missed a Munster or All Ireland Final in both hurling and football and was ever present at the games in the County. In later years he enjoyed socialising after matches in Sarsfields Social Centre with the ever present Jackie Cooke at the helm, and then as company and circumstances brought about, the evening would often end up in Jackie Glasheen’s pub on Stradavoher. There the chat, song and story among “old hands” would continue. Well done John Lanigan. Your legacy is still strong and Sarsfields and Tipperary successes in the last ten years would be a source of joy to you and all your heavenly comrades. You, and all of the Sarsfields players of that wonderful era, are not forgotten.