WHEN those on the high stool gather to discuss the merits of Clare hurling custodians, they’re always in for a long night of drinking and discussion because there’s some hot company around the small square when it comes to goalkeeping greats from the Banner County.
There are very few people alive who can testify to having seen Tommy Daly between the sticks — be it for his beloved Dubs, with whom he won four All-Ireland medals, or his equally beloved Clare and Tulla — but still it’s hard to look beyond balladeer Bryan MacMahon’s assertion that he was ‘the greatest goalman to ever clutch a ball’.
There are plenty of other up there with him, however.
‘Duke Special’ in Seamus Durack himself from over the road from Tulla in Feakle who certainly believed he was the best; Davie Fitzgerald is another imbued with the same self-belief as ‘Duke’.
Then there’s Ennis’ own Pashcal O’Brien — he may have retired before his time but he was still a great one, while the credentials of Pa ‘Fowler’ McInerney shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Yes he was better known as a great full-back and the Brian Lohan of his day, who played in All-Ireland finals in three decades, but a little known fact is that he was the goalkeeper on the 1914 Clare team that won All-Ireland honours, with Tommy Daly having to be content with manning the gap on the junior team that also won Munster and All-Ireland honours that year.
That leaves Mick Hayes, the old St Joseph’s, Clare and Munster hurler, who passed away over the weekend.
He belonged to a different era — when goalkeepers were fair game for opposing forwards — but as the Newmarket-on-Fergus great and Clare’s National League winning captain of 1977 Jimmy McNamara recalled the rough and tumble around the square never cost the St Joseph’s legend a thought.
“It was against Limerick in the first round of the Munster Championship in 1956,” remembered McNamara. “I remember well Limerick scored a point and a fellow named Vivian Cobbe ran in as the ball was going over the bar and he went to tackle Mick Hayes.
“Mick side-stepped him and when he was coming out gave him a jab of the hurley at the back on the neck and left him flat in the square.
“There were no rules at that time and you could get away with it. I often saw a goalie in the back of the net even before the ball was dropped in the square. It never bothered Mick Hayes. He was fearless,” added McNamara.
“I don’t know if that happened,” quipped Hayes when I met him in his home a few years ago. “I can’t remember it anyway, but fire had to be met with fire.
“The goalkeeper could be challenged and forwards would often try to make their presence felt. The only thing was to meet steel with steel, to put it bluntly. We had a player, with St Joseph’s, Paddy Hassett and if a man came inside the square he’d think twice about doing it again after Paddy was finished with him,” he added.
Hayes was an accidental goalkeeper — he was playing centre-forward in a minor match in the late ‘40s against Tubber, injured his groin and was put back in goal, where he stayed for the rest of his career.
He made his league debut for Clare against Offaly in Cusack Park in November ’52, while first senior championship start came the following June in what was Jimmy Smyth’s greatest day, as he scored 6-4 in the 10-8 to 1-1 demolition of Limerick in Cusack Park.
He went on to man gap in goal for Clare for a further ten years, with the highlight coming in only his second year when the Oireachtas title came to the county for the first time after a famous win over Wexford in Croke Park.
“Wexford were a great team and proved it afterwards when winning two All-Irelands,” recalled Hayes. “They had the Rackards, Ned Wheeler, Tim Flood and Tom Ryan. We beat them in a reply and it was a great sensation.”
Another stand-out memory from Hayes’ career came in another Oireachtas game — a semi-final against Kilkenny in Nolan Park in 1957. “We lost, but it was my greatest display,” he revealed.
“Afterwards John D Hickey in The Irish Independent said ‘Mick Hayes gave an enchanting display of goalkeeping as I have ever seen. This was a wonderful exhibition, unexcelled even by Tipperary’s Tony Reddan or Kilkenny’s Ollie Walsh’,” he added.
It was against Limerick in the first round of the Munster Championship in 1956.
Hayes was also a key figure in the first coming of St Joseph’s as a force in Clare senior hurling. “I was in St Pat’s Training College from 1947 to ’49 and had just finished when the club was formed and named after a blessed well beside Our Lady’s,” he recalled.
“At the start we had no training ground but Marty McInerney gave us a field in Ballymacahill. Then we moved to Our Lady’s where there was a field back near the railway line.”
And so began a great success story that brought county championship glory in ’54 and ’58 as well as a couple Clare Cup titles during the same period that cemented St Josephs’ as a powerhouse of senior hurling in the county.
He had pictures of those winning St Joseph’s teams in a scrapbook, together with images of his two All-Ireland final days as a referee in 1965 and ‘67, but his favourite picture of all was the one he showed me when I visited him one day in his house out the Lahinch Road.
The picture was his way of answering a question of what the game of hurling meant to him. It was Hayes’ picture of himself in Croke Park after Clare’s All-Ireland win of 1995.
“After the final whistle I made my way down to the pitch, kissed the ground and had a photograph taken when I did it,” he revealed.
“To say that hurling has meant everything to me is an understatement. When I was playing hurling dominated my life and I was one of those who literally went to bed with a hurley,” he added.