Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Martin Phelan with his granddaughter Alesha, told Ronan Morrissey about growing up in Ballygunner, working on building sites and how he survives living surrounded by Kilkenny fans.

MARTIN Phelan grew up in one hurling stronghold before moving to another. The Ballygunner native was reared playing in James McGinn Park next to the primary school he attended and the home he lives in today is only a puck of the sliotar away from Nowlan Park. While he has enjoyed his life in his adopted hometown, he could never allow his allegiance to waver.

“I still don’t support them. I wear my Waterford jersey going around, and get abuse every day!”

Martin, sitting on the stone seats in John Roberts Square on a trip down to visit family in the city, grew up in Knockboy at a time when Ballygunner was “just a little village”.

“There weren’t the houses that are there now. There was about 12 houses along the road and the school. You had the Casey’s, the Gough’s who I think are still there, Mrs Power, Billy Driscoll. There were a lot of children there and the school was there too. We only had to hop over the fence to get there.”

Naturally, hurling was the main pastime for the local kids and he speaks of a club almost unrecognisable to the machine supported by a conveyor belt of talent today. Teams he played on would tog out in the ditches instead of dressing rooms and the youngsters didn’t let the calendar dictate when they could or couldn’t play.

“There were no helmets back then. It hardened us. It was the Clash of the Ash and that was it.”

Despite this taking priority, they would occasionally gallivant away from the sports field.

“You can’t mention it nowadays but we went off hunting! We would go off up the back road to Tramore. One or two people would go off but they’d collect every dog in the village. You’d whistle them and they’d all come down so you’d go off through the fields for the day. You could have 10 or 11; sheepdogs, cockers, every breed of a dog. You’d get the odd rabbit. No matter where you were the dogs would lead you back home.

“You’d bring the rabbits back but I never ate them, some of the boys up the road would. A man up the road put me off them for life – he would shoot them and I was having a cup of tea while he was eating them one day and he started spitting out the pellets.”

The eldest of 10 kids split evenly between boys and girls, Martin enjoyed a happy childhood but his teenage years were made more difficult when his father, a builder who worked for Joe Murphy of Scotch Quay, died due to a brain tumour when his son was 15. As the eldest, he stood up to the plate for his family.

“I went on to the building sites. I didn’t really like school anyway – the beatings they’d give you. I didn’t have a problem on the sites and I knew all the boys, they would have known my father. The first job I was on was the houses across the road from Orpen’s Pub behind the trees. We did Dooley’s Hotel as well. I enjoyed it but I had no choice – my younger sisters and brothers weren’t working and I had to help my mother some way.”

The craic on the sites helped inject some sense of normality into his life and he can still remember rolling around with the laughter from some of the characters he was exposed to.

“I remember two carpenters, the older brother told the younger one not to get up in the dumper. He did it anyway, drove up towards the garage and went straight through the kitchen wall. ‘I told you not to get onto it,’ he said, he was going to kill him with a lump hammer! ‘Don’t ever go near it again’.

“We were working near Viewmount and we were in the canteen, which was just one kettle and a fire lighting. The plasterer left his hat down so we cut the top off it with the clippers. After we were having the lunch he pulled the hat down and it came right down over his head. I tell you one thing, you’ve never seen so many fellas scattering out the door! Oh holy God, he went mental! He said ‘I’ll get ye back some way’.”

Hurling alongside his friends helped restore a sense of normality to his life and while he played for success at the time, he realises with hindsight that he took more from it than anything tangible silverware could give him.

“We played a few good games all over the place; Erin’s Own, Wexford, Mullinavat. I used to be on goals sometimes or in the forwards. I played with some very good hurlers like Pat Flynn who was a good friend of my father’s. He was a messer. It was a good craic. I used to have a load of medals for under age tournaments but we didn’t win anything senior. Mount Sion had it wrapped up back then.”

He moved to Kilkenny 40 years ago and when I ask what took him up there he looks over his left shoulder and states, “I don’t know where she is but she’s here somewhere”. He met his wife at a disco in the Kilford Arms, which was attended by him and his friends from Waterford, and like that his heart was captured by the old enemy.

Speaking of the Cats’ hurling success, he says: “This isn’t their best team but Cody pulls it out of the bag. It’s a pity we don’t have TJ Reid down here! The one thing Kilkenny has that I wish Waterford had is a great hurling team! I wouldn’t mind only we have the players but they’re not putting it in. We’d need Brian Cody to straighten them out.”

While he laments the quiet city centre, vacant units and closed pubs, he still enjoys coming to the city and when he returned last Thursday evening, he planned on relaxing in front of the telly. Once it’s not Fair City he’ll be happy, he adds in jest, before adding that sport would be his preference.

After agreeing to a truce – we wouldn’t fall out given our allegiances to Arsenal and Man United – Martin called over his grandaughter Alesha who unintentionally wounded both our pride.

“You support Liverpool, don’t you,” he asks.

“We won the Champions League,” she declares beaming.

I force myself to smile and say: “You did, you did.”

“I watched it, with my Daddy. He was so happy.”

“I’d say he was! I wasn’t,” I add again through a weak grin.

“No, me either,” says her Grandad.

“We had our head in our hands!”

Alesha also sports a Ballyhale Shamrocks jersey, she tells me, and would be clad in black and amber for Sunday’s All Ireland Final.

He wouldn’t admit it, but you get the feeling her Grandad won’t be too displeased if the girl sitting snugly alongside him was smiling by the end of it.

In conversation with Ronan Morrissey

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