December 2, 2023

The moment came and the glory pelted but Brian McEvoy was thinking about his shoulder.

James Stephens had just beaten Athenry in the 2005 All-Ireland Final. Kilkenny’s oldest city club, 13 years mapping the wilderness, landed back in hurling’s top seat. But one player was worrying about his shoulder.

McEvoy laughs and withers tinsel: “I did a shoulder, last few minutes, and the pain was wicked. Then I see Joe [Hennessy] ― Joey Boy, as we would know him ― making a beeline. Joey was a top hurler for us and for Kilkenny. I was trying to fend him off, and he was thumping me across the shoulders.

“There is a great photograph of us together, a lovely one. But you can see I am nearly grimacing as well as smiling.” 

Here is a passed torch that burns and burns without visible scorch. Kilkenny stays renowned for its cathedrals. But Patrick Street and environs, south of the River Nore, urban and tight, remains the only spot that genuflects inside an invisible cathedral.

This edifice? James Stephens GAA Club, founded in 1887 and one of the county’s cornerstones.

Patrick Street and environs, locally, is only ever ‘The Village’. Ditto for the club. Look at the pump across the street from Delaney’s public house. The centre of their universe. That pump is the altar of a cathedral, in which the choir awaits this weekend’s Senior Final meeting of Ballyhale Shamrocks and James Stephens.

“Sunday will be a big one for us,” McEvoy stresses. “I was born and brought up in this house, here in Larchfield, right beside the clubhouse. My father, Kieran, hurled for them, back in the sixties. I have two older brothers, but they didn’t hurl that much after U14. Sharon, our sister, died in 2001.

“My mother, Kitty Mackey, was from Vicar Street, Dicksboro territory. She lived later in Maudlin Street, which is now O’Loughlin Gaels territory. Then she married the father and eventually came to live here. I used say to her: ‘God, you did all the clubs before you came to the right place!’ 

“She would laugh. They are out together, now, in Foulkstown [Graveyard].” 

Born on July 11, 1974, Brian McEvoy developed into a powerful operator for James Stephens and Kilkenny. With the club: two Senior titles (2004-05) and that All-Ireland. With the county: two Senior All-Irelands (2000, 2002), five Leinster titles (1998-2002) and an All-Star (1999). Here swung a rangy midfielder, a rangy wing forward, given to striking off left side, terrific on his feet, great to accelerate. On the right day, on the day he was full right, McEvoy had all the gears.

He traces proximity’s groove: “Mick Kenny, who hurled with Kilkenny in the fifties, was five doors up. Cian Kenny, centre back for us on Sunday, is Mick’s great grandson. [Phil] ‘Fan’ Larkin, who hurled with Kilkenny from the early sixties to the late seventies, was five doors down. Paddy Moran from Bennettsbridge, who hurled county with Fan, lived in this house before we moved here, around 1972, when Paddy went home to the ’Bridge.

“If you go back behind us here, into [St] Fiacre’s Place, you had [Liam] ‘Chunky’ O’Brien and [Seán] ‘Georgie’ [Leahy]. All Kilkenny hurlers, right beside us. And I could puck a ball into our home pitch from my front door. You could say it would have been hard not to be a hurler, but hurling is never simple.” 

Then a quintessential Village moment. As if we were in a bad European art film, Brian McEvoy exclaims: “There he is, the man himself!” I follow the hand gesture and see, through the front room’s window, Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin taking a constitutional walk around The Green in Larchfield.

“It is only younger Fan is getting,” McEvoy continues. “He is fitter than you or me, even though he just turned the 81. He walks that green several times a day. They are some family, the Larkins, Paddy and Fan and Philly. I think, in the football, it is only the Donnellans in Galway that have the same distinction, a Senior All-Ireland medal over three generations.

“I don’t think enough is made of that distinction. I don’t know how it is done. I was delighted to be out in Croke Park with Philly in 2000, on the day the Larkins did it. When you think of all the great hurlers, and I won’t mention any names, who had sons no good at all… It is some going to have even two generations. But three?” 

This native tenders Village intimacy and press: “Fan is the heart and soul of the community. We love having a pint with him, in the club. We’d be saying to him he should do this or that. The gallery takes nothing out of him at all.” 

Then a perfect imitation of Fan Larkin’s gunfighter’s drawl: “He’d just go: ‘Mackers, they couldn’t afford me, they couldn’t afford me.’ You’d never get one over on Fan.” 

James Stephens collected their second Club All-Ireland on March 17, 1982. Brian McEvoy was seven going on eight. The hurling world went dancing to a Village beat. Their progress, given teeming juvenile success, seemed assured.

I mention a paradox of hindsight: if someone had predicted in 1982 that both Dicksboro and O’Loughlin Gaels would win a Senior title before James Stephens got their next one, that person would have been ridiculed. “No doubt about it,” McEvoy agrees. “Who would have believed anyone saying that? The future was looking a fair bit different, at that time. We were expecting big things in the 1980s.

“No doubt about it. But it happened. Took another 23 years, and Dickboro were there in 1993, and O’Loughlins were there in 2001 and 2003. It was tough, and it was massive pressure on us, as the years dragged on. But at least we got there in 2004.” 

His memory is level: “I was terrible lucky. I was 30. Matthew Ruth was there with us, a Minor. Mattie will still be there on Sunday, and he will be one of our best performers.

“With 2004, a lot of lads had peeled away, because of age, before it happened. If I had been born a few years earlier… I often think of those lads. Tommy Fogarty, Richie Manogue, [Liam] ‘Chuck’ O’Connor…” 

McEvoy explains enduring strength: “A big thing is that our leaders stayed put. Fan and [Brian] Cody and all the rest. They stayed and worked with a team in the James Stephens club. They didn’t go off training other clubs. I had Fan and Brian over me at underage, and they were fantastic.”

Bookmakers might not rate his crowd’s prospects but McEvoy holds sanguine: “There would be fierce respect for Ballyhale [Shamrocks] in the club. Fierce respect. But no fear.” 

He elaborates: “People make these contrasts between ourselves and Ballyhale, town and the country. I wouldn’t see it. I think the two clubs are very similar. They both have loads of hurlers who did it for Kilkenny, for their own club. As a young fella, I really looked up to Joey, Fan, Mick [Crotty] and Brian.

“Ye have the same story in Ballyhale. Henry [Shefflin] had the Fennellys to look up to. Very few clubs are fortunate like that, but The Village and the Shamrocks are.” 

October is club time rather than county time. Yet Brian McEvoy’s years in black and amber cannot be ignored. His intercounty career began with captaincy of the Minors in 1992. He won an U21 All-Ireland in 1994 and went in with Kilkenny’s Senior panel as of late 1996.

McEvoy does not complicate: “I wanted to be a Kilkenny hurler, and I enjoyed it. Willie O’Connor was a serious leader in that panel. We all watched what Willie did. When I stopped enjoying being in there, the summer of ’03, I left it so.” 

His departure coincided with Charlie Carter’s exit. McEvoy clarifies that turn of events: “There was no connection. Charlie had his issues with Brian, his reasons. I had just stopped wanting the thing. Injuries were an issue. Personally, I never had a cross word with Brian Cody. There was no row whatsoever. I just went.

“Looking back, I could have dealt with things a bit better. But thickness is a terrible thing.” 

He glosses: “Brian is not necessarily what people think. There is another side to him, and that side, in fairness, is often a very good side. He loves The Village, and he will have the lads seriously revved up for Sunday, now that he is back with us.

“I decided to head off to Chicago for the summer in 1996, when he was managing our Senior team. Brian used to be ringing me up out there: ‘When are you back? When are you back?’ He’d be having the craic, asking what Chicago was like. There is another side to Brian, but probably only people in the club really see it.” 

Regret gets the same treatment as tinsel: “I had a brilliant time as a hurler. Lucky in my club, lucky in my county. When the time came, the time came. You move on.

“I just felt I was way better off out on the field with my club than on the bench with the county.”


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