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'It was important to knock that myth on the head. We wanted to have our say' - Offaly hurling's golden age

Joe, Johnny and Billy Dooley on what drove Offaly’s golden age.

Image: Keith Heneghan/INPHO

THERE WERE NINE Dooley kids. Five boys, four girls. In their childhood, the family farm was the playground, ball wall, fun fair, training centre. A blank canvas where they could hone the craft that would later thrill the Offaly faithful.

The farm sat at the end of a long lane. Their own yellow brick road where imaginations could run wild. The hurl was a constant companion. While herding cattle, Billy and Johnny would puck the ball back and forth from 30 yards.

Cow shed doors, outhouse hatches and hanging tyres made do for targets. When an old bullock caught himself in a tyre and choked, the tyres came down but the sliotars stayed raining across the land.

“Farming was a big part of our life,” says Billy.

“We were all reared on the farm, my mother and father worked on it all their life. They never worked outside the farm. That is where a lot of our discipline and hard work came from. The same lesson, if you work hard in life or hurling, it stands to you.

“We were strong from a young age. Regardless of what you do on a farm, there is manual work in it. As we moved on in life, we knew you had to work hard if you were going to gain anything.

“We were lucky, we were able to train most evenings as well. Finish work every evening at 6pm with my father. That was his way, up early and do a hard day’s work, finish at six and usually not staying longer. That gave us the chance to get out to hurling.”

the-dooley-brothers-491998 Source: Keith Heneghan/INPHO

The story of one this renowned hurling family is the focus of a new book, ‘Dooley: A Family Memoir’, written with Kevin O’Brien. It chronicles the lives of Billy as well as his two brothers, Joe and Johnny.

They were at the heart of a team that defined the 1990s, winning two All-Irelands and runners-up in two more. As much as it is a chance to honour that era, the book also provides the stalwarts with an opportunity to counter some common misconceptions.

It is about three brothers, three different voices, three men who were interviewed separately throughout. One collective grip. All the talk of that great Offaly team, skilled but poorly disciplined. Dancing their way through the summer thanks to obvious talent, despite regular pints and craic.

For Billy, the myth does not fully match reality. Their upbringing wouldn’t allow them to abide by such a code.

“I think maybe a lot of people read too much into what was said about Offaly socialising. I felt strongly about it. Despite all the headlines, when it came down to it, that team worked hard.

“The likes of Kevin Martin, Martin Hanamy, Hubert Rigney. If you saw them training, what they put into it. Every sprint or 100-yard run, they left nothing in it. It was 100%. There was a perception we were skilful but didn’t train hard.

“We enjoyed ourselves all right when we were off, but when we were training the likes of those boys really drove it. They were hard grafters.”

A constant feature of the revolution years was how teams flogged themselves in pursuit of glory. Ger Loughnane’s punishing sessions on the sand dunes. Liam Griffin turning to a fitness-fanatic boxer to get his side punching above their weight.

Offaly went toe-to-toe with those teams. Would that have been possible if they didn’t train as hard? Johnny Dooley bristles at the suggestion.

“You don’t do that at that level without the fitness levels necessary. There were a lot of references to the fact we were a social team and there are references to drink but when we had to train, we trained hard.

“We cut loose in the downtime all right but the training we did right up to games was savage hard. We just weren’t ones for talking about it. You heard it about the likes of Wexford and Clare.

“We liked to think as a group of individuals we were as determined as them. You wouldn’t survive at that time if you weren’t.”

johnny-dooley-1171999 Source: ©INPHOPatrick Bolger

They did anything and everything. In 1997 the new league format was unrolled, with the games moved to after Christmas.

It offered the chance of a block of heavy training early in the year and Offaly took it. The period under John McIntyre was the toughest training window Johnny Dooley ever experienced. At the end of sessions, they’d finish off training with an army-style job in pairs, chanting:

“Who are? We’re Offaly. What are we? We’re winners.”

When Michael Bond came in it was back to basics, ball work and skill sessions. Different guises and various forms but always with the same approach, all out.

“We trained as hard if not harder than most other teams,” agrees Joe, the eldest brother in the tribe.

“We did enjoy ourselves in the off-season and even during the season at times but that team were so driven and determined. You do not stay going as long as that if you are not. It was important to knock that myth on the head. We wanted to have our say. Billy got that across.

“There was no arsing around. You always felt better after doing it. We had great craic off the field but when we trained, we trained. Sometimes lads are running around doing a lot of training, but they aren’t really. They are going through the motions.

“When it came to hard work, we put it in. Everyone put in the effort and if you didn’t you’d be told quick.

“You see lads now carrying bottles of water everywhere they go, eating the right stuff but if you don’t go hard for the ball, train hard, all of that is for nothing.”

Having collected All-Ireland titles in 1994 and 1998, by the end of the decade the team looked to be on the wane as the game’s high powers threatened to regain control. In the aftermath of ’94’s five-minute final, the perception that Offaly ‘stole’ the title from Limerick was another slight. Joe stresses they utilised that for their run back to the decider in 1995.

By 2000, this was an established energy source. After a double-digit loss to Kilkenny in the Leinster final, they overcame Derry and were rewarded with the challenge of All-Ireland and Munster champions Cork.

After the final whistle, the camera panned around a delirious and shocked Croke Park before settling on the sideline, where a beaming Offaly man stood beside RTE’s commentator, Marty Morrissey. 

“Johnny Dooley, captain of Offaly. Can you believe it?”

His response was immediate.  

“I certainly can Marty. Everyone has been writing us off all week, but we felt confident we could do it.”

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He chuckles now. That defiance fended off the inevitable decay that they are only recently repairing. It was part of them, instilled in them. Stubborn to the core.

“That year we were an experienced team around the block, not short in confidence. To be honest, there was a valid reason we were rank outsiders. We didn’t perform well in the Leinster final.

“The bookies fancied them, but deep down we firmly believed we could beat Cork. We had no inferiority complex. 

“We had no issue with a lack of confidence or belief. The core group knew we would be ready to beat the best out there. As we moved into the late 90s, the team started to break up. We were irked a bit at being so written off. It still gets your gander up, the blood flowing.”

michael-kavanaghdenis-byrnejoe-dooley-1171999 Source: ©INPHOPatrick Bolger

A powerful weapon. Joe points to their back-to-back Leinster hurling titles of 1994/95 as another example.

“You draw on everything to drive you on. In 1995 we lost to Kilkenny in a league semi-final. When it came to the Leinster final a few months later we were underdogs. Éamonn Cregan used that to drive us on. You are always looking for an edge, creating a chip on the shoulder.

“We respected everyone, but we didn’t fear anyone.”

On Thursday night, the Dooleys launched their book in Tullamore. County legends like Michael Duignan and Matt Connor as well as hundreds of supporters flocked to the hotel to celebrate their legacy and relive the glory days.

It was a welcome chance to reminisce, reflect. All three stress it was a privilege to be asked to tell their tale. In doing so they invite the reader to enjoy again one of the most colourful success stories the game has known and what their success meant to its people. 

Most importantly, they had their say. That’s all that matters. The family will be donating all royalties from the sale of the book to Dóchas Offaly Cancer Support.

“If a local charity benefits, all the better,” explains Joe.

“We got enough out of the GAA over the years. You don’t know how these things will read but from what we’ve seen we are happy enough.

“We wanted to enjoy doing it and be honest in what we say. It wasn’t about bias or settling scores, just purely tell it as it was.”

Mission accomplished.

Dooley: A Family Memoir’ is published by Hero Books and is available in all good bookstores, and also on Amazon as an ebook (€9.99), paperback (€20) and hardback (€25)

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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