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'They're mad to come in to us. It's sad but we're better off than most' - waiting to hug grandkids again

Richie Bennis speaks to The42 following the launch of his new book.

Updated Mar 30th 2020, 5:15 PM

BEHIND EVERY MAN stands a better woman.

manager-richie-bennis-looks-on-in-dispair Former Limerick boss Richie Bennis. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Those are the first words that greet you when you open Richie Bennis’s book ‘A Game That Smiles.’ It’s a dedication to his wife Mary. They have been married since 1972, and together, they have five children. 

They also have three grandchildren who they must love from a safe distance for the moment.

Dickie was first to arrive to Richie and Mary in 1973. He was followed by Imelda, Anthony, Kieran and Alison. There are passages about each of the Bennis children in the book, along with a written contribution from Imelda at the start of chapter 12 which carries the title ‘Life’s Battles.’

Bennis and Mary have certainly soldiered through many of these. Their son Dickie was born with cerebral palsy and died at the age of 36. In his book, Bennis describes how Dickie was given a prognosis that he would only live into his mid-20s, a fate which he fought to outlive by over a decade.

Bennis also had serious brushes with ill-health. He was diagnosed with bowel cancer after he was advised by his wife and his doctor to undergo a colonoscopy. He also suffered from septicemia which almost resulted in having his leg amputated.

Failing to manage the Limerick hurlers to an All-Ireland title in 2007 suddenly seems like small potatoes.

Bennis has a philosophy about marriage where he believes that both partners go through different phases of being the rock in the relationship. Mary has occupied that role many times in their time together, but now it’s her husband’s turn to look after her.

“It’s a long journey,” Bennis tells The42 about his wife’s recent ill-health.

There was swelling in her spine and it’s only after maturing now so her spine was completely blocked.

“We were going for a drive one Sunday morning last January 12 months. We were going out to our son in Corbally for dinner. She had a pain in her left shoulder. All of a sudden she got it again and I thought it was something serious.

“We rang Shannon Doc, the ambulance came and she was moved to the Regional [Hospital]. She was in ICU for five weeks.”

Mary is wheelchair-bound as she continues her recovery, and receives home care three times a day.

Bennis is her official carer, he says. She’s in good spirits and is feeling better with each passing day. The hope is that her healing will progress even further down the line. 

The main worry for Mary at the moment is the same fear that is shared by everyone across the world — Covid-19. Bennis insists that they are both following the Government’s instructions about social distancing and cocooning, although they have the advantage of living in a rural area where the likelihood of coming into contact with others is low.

Their grandchildren did previously come in to say hello from a safe distance in the early stages of the pandemic, but they have decided to call a halt to that as well.

The Taoiseach has asked that everyone remain at home for two weeks until Easter Sunday. These new restrictions mean that the Bennis family have to be even more cautious. There’ll be plenty of time for hugs again soon.

“I’ve a big patio out the back,” Bennis explains.

“They’d drive up there in the car and they’d run around and we’d be inside looking at them.

They’re mad to come in to touch us. It’s sad but we’re a lot better off than most. Hopefully [we'll be able to give them a big hug soon], it’ll be great.

“I’d be worried for my wife Mary because she’d be very prone. But we’re keeping very strict to the rules.”

Bennis’s experience with his health scares has helped him become more attuned to the movements of his own body.

He’s quick to respond to any pain or ache that pops up, but Mary’s composure stops him from worrying too much.

Men don’t [look after themselves] and I’d be in that category,” Bennis admits. “Coming back to my wife again, she’d be fairly well up. She’d analyse things fairly well and she’d make me go. Only for her, I’d probably never have gone for the colonoscopy after meeting with the doctor.

“He suggested I should go [for it] at my age and I probably mightn’t have gone only I said it to Mary when I came home.

“The only thing is if you get a pain here or a pain there, you’re more concerned. Every little pain or ache I’d get, I’d be saying it Mary. She’d be saying it’s this or that and nine times out of 10 she’d be right.

“That’s the way it worked out.”

Indeed, family is a key theme in Bennis’s book. As he speaks to this writer, the former Limerick boss is gazing out at the house where he grew up in a family of 13.

But there’s plenty of hurling talk for the aficionados too.

He takes the reader through his love for the local club Patrickswell, as well as recounting his memories of the 1973 season where he helped Limerick end a 33-year wait for All-Ireland success.

He also recalls his days when he was the Limerick manager during the 2006 and 2007 campaigns. The latter season culminated in a seven-point defeat for the Shannonsiders at the hands of Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.

manager-richie-bennis-with-his-daughters-imelda-and-alison Bennis with his daughters Imelda and Alison after Limerick's 2007 All-Ireland semi-final win over Waterford. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Watching John Kiely’s men finally end the famine two years ago helped with some of the healing for Bennis.

“We had a great year in 2007, we beat the second best team in the country in the semi-final. 

“We’d a lot going for us and we were going in meeting the best team that ever played at their very best.

“Only for the circumstances and the way they got the early start, it could have been a little bit different.”

The book also contains an amusing story about a horrible injury that Bennis sustained in a club game against Adare in 1971. A pull of the hurl resulted in Bennis losing 12 teeth which have since been replaced by six dentures on the roof of his mouth, and another six across the bottom.

He says he never received an apology for the wild stroke either.

All 12 gone, broken. I’d to go to a dentist the following morning to get all the bits and pieces taken out. I got a blackout driving the car so I went up to a brother of mine who lives at the back of the Regional Hospital.

“I ended up in the Regional overnight with a transfusion. That was 1971, that was the year I met my wife. I met her without the 12 teeth so she had something to look forward.

“I had a fine set of teeth but that’s the way it goes.”

‘A Game That Smiles’ is on the shelves now. Granted, it’s unfortunate that the timing of the release happens to coincide with a worldwide epidemic, but Bennis isn’t dwelling on that.

manager-richie-bennis 'A Game That Smiles' is out now. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

“Sure what can you do?” he reasons, “When is the right time for anything?”

There’s no hurling matches for him to attend either. An added pain no doubt, but that too is small change considering what’s happening at the moment. 

His only wish for anyone who does buy the book is to simply enjoy his account of a great game that always smiled at him, and a married life that has been good to him.

Behind every man stands a better woman. And all other special people in the family to.

“We’ve had a great 48 years,” says a happy Bennis.

“I’d do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything. We’ve had our ups and downs but no family goes without that. We’re a good combination. I’d put her top of the class.”

A Game That Smiles: Richie Bennis, the autobiography’ is published by Hero Books, and is available in all good bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple and all quality digital channels.

- First published today at 16.31

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