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'The King Henry tag has never sat easy with me'

The Kilkenny hurling legend describes his sports-obsessed upbringing.

Shefflin: "When asked if I had heroes when I was growing up, I struggle to summon an honest answer."
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

CHILDHOOD BECOMES A covenant with our history, because no house is far from the home of an All-Ireland medal winner or, in my case, a number of them. Ballyhale had a national profile long before I was remotely accomplished with a hurl.

Waterford border, a parish of no more than 300 houses. Throughout my childhood, we owned a pub in the middle of the village and my earliest memories are of it being almost routinely thronged for triumphant homecomings, celebrating a team that came to dominate Kilkenny hurling in the late 1970s and early ’80s. That Shamrocks side, backboned by the Fennelly brothers, also won three All-Irelands.

When asked if I had heroes when I was growing up, I struggle to summon an honest answer. These men weren’t superstars in my eyes. They were just neighbours who hurled for the village. A couple of my brothers, Tommy and John, were part of the 1990 All-Ireland club championship team. To me, hurling and winning trophies was simply a tradition that Ballyhale families honoured.

Manhood put some manners on me in that regard. I came to understand the privilege of those days when I was trying desperately to win a county medal long after I’d started winning All-Irelands with Kilkenny.

That’s probably why the ‘King Henry’ tag has never sat easy with me. There is no hurling royalty in a village like Ballyhale or, for that matter, in a county like Kilkenny. Certainly not among those still playing. Ego is best parked at the dressing-room door if you don’t want to be met by a fairly rude awakening. There’s no ‘King Henry’ in that environment. Rightly so, too.

Shamrocks’ dominion stretched far at the time, and all of the great team would have been in and out of the pub. The Fennellys, Dick Walsh, Jimmy Lawlor, Wattie and Paul Phelan. Kevin Kennedy, the groundsman. Hurling seemed to tether everything and everybody together. I remember a sixtieth-birthday party for Big Tommy Walsh, now club President, one night and, because Tommy idolised Frank Cummins, Frank drove all the way up from Cork to make a guest appearance. That was the beat of life in the pub. The beat of hurling people.

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The idea of one single house giving seven sons to an All-Ireland-winning team seems almost ludicrous now, but back then the Fennelly brothers would have been seen as just part of the club furniture. Liam and Ger were the best known and, when Liam was Kilkenny captain in ’92, RTÉ turned up with a camera crew down on the Shamrocks’ pitch. They wanted a back-drop of a couple of young lads pucking the ball while Liam chatted about the final, and so I got my big TV break, a red-haired urchin doing his damnedest to get noticed on the evening news.

When I wasn’t hurling, I was watching my older brothers hurl. Somebody would be detailed for pub duty while we piled into the family Toyota and headed away to Nowlan Park, Walsh Park, Semple Stadium or — on the really big days — Croke Park.

Henry and Mai had seven children in total: Aileen, Helena, Tommy, John, Cecilia, myself and Paul. As a family, I suppose we’ve never been overly tactile or expressive. Maybe we’re old-fashioned in that regard. My wife Deirdre’s family tends to be the opposite, always affectionate and animated towards one another. The Shefflins are more private about their feelings. That said, if I’ve a few pints with my brothers, the barriers often come crashing down and, by the end of the night, we’d have no problem exchanging soppy hugs.

The pub had been in my father’s family since his grandfather bought it in 1917, and it would remain so until it was sold in ’97. My mother, Mai, ran the pub while my father, Henry senior, looked after the farm. The work was hard on her. Paul arrived in June of ’81, and it was only then that we got a girl in for three days a week to take some of the pressure off her. Pub hours were long and unpredictable. Fellas full of drink could lose the head with one another very easily. One of the more frightening images of my childhood would be of rows spilling out of the pub at two or three in the morning and my parents wading in to the middle to act as peacekeepers. I hated those nights. To this day, I feel literally nauseous at the sight of people swinging punches at one another.

But, for a child, the pub had its consolations. I adored the hurling talk, the endless cycle of preview and analysis. There was always a match to be dissected, a row or a selection issue to be discussed. In Ballyhale, the exchange of hurling gossip felt as natural as breathing.

Extracted from The Autobiography by Henry Shefflin published by Penguin Ireland. More info here.

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