One of the swiftest rises to hurling stardom in Tipperary must surely have been that of Jimmy Kennedy of Kildangan. He made his debut for the county in the Thomond Tournament against Clare on May 8, 1949 and scored seven points. According to 'Wintergreen' in the 'Tipperary Star' the week following the game: 'Jimmy Kennedy possesses rare pace, has a delightful speed when cornered and an uncanny knowledge of just where the goalposts are.' Three weeks later he played in the first championship outing against Cork and scored 1-4 in a game that ended in a draw. The replay was at Limerick on June 26 and Tipperary won by 2-8 to 1-9 after extra time. In the first hour he was the only forward to shine and he scored all his side's 1-5, including a spectacular goal in the last minute to earn extra time. He went off injured during that period but came back before the end to score a point. By then he was a hero. He played his final game for the county in the 1951 Munster final and was a sub on the winning All-Ireland side. He was then 25 years of age and had never played the full hour on a losing Tipperary side!
Of course Jimmy Kennedy did not spring full-blown into hurling stardom in that summer of '49. He had a very respectable apprenticeship over the previous five or six years. As long as his memory serves him he recalls hitting a hurling ball about but he did not play for a team until he went to St. Flannan's College, Ennis in 1940. In 1944 he helped the College team to win the Harty Cup, Munster Cup, the All-Ireland Individual College title and the Interprovincial Colleges' title. When St. Flannan's played Thurles C.B.S. that year the Tipperary school included Pat Stakelum, Tommy Ryan and Seamus Bannon. Jimmy recalls playing the Interprovincial in Kilkenny and meeting Jim Langton as they took a stroll in the town on the Sunday morning. 'We met him on the street and he stopped to talk to us. He stayed chatting to us for half an hour and he treated us as equals. We were tremendously impressed.' He gives great credit to Tull Considine for the success of the 1944 team. The President of the College, Canon Quinn, brought in the former Clare star. According to Jimmy he was one of the greatest trainers and was brilliant at assessing a player's potential. When he took over the team he began playing players in positions they had never been in before. He insisted on ground hurling and crossing the ball. By this stage Jimmy had most of the hurling skills and had perfected the art of picking the ball off the ground easily and quickly. But he learned his team experience in Flannan's.
After receiving his Leaving Certificate Jimmy Kennedy went to U.C.D. to study Agricultural Science. There was no inter-county minor championship in 1944 - it had been suspended during the war years - and so missed the chance of playing with the county. He had some consolation because in that year he won his only title in Tipperary, the North Divisional Junior championship, with Kildangan. Jimmy was to leave university without taking a degree and in 1950 took up the job as assistant to the Manager of Minch Norton Maltings, based in Nenagh. His job involved selling fertilizers to farmers, buying malting barley, etc. He had a car which was a fine perk with the job in those days. He stayed until 1961 when he was appointed Manager at Goresbridge. Three years later he went to Guinness Maltings at Midleton and remained there until 1971. In that year he came to Thurles to take over the well-known business of J.K. Moloney's in Liberty Square. In the meantime he had married Rita MCormack and they had five children. The most famous of the latter is Louise, who won the overall Designer of the Year Award in 1989. Susan runs the Kilkenny School of Beauty Therapy, Rosemary lives in St. Louis, Caroline works as a producer with Century Radio and Christopher is in the family business. His wife died in 1983.
Jimmy Kennedy had a very successful hurling career at U.C.D. which included winning' a coveted Fitzgibbon medal and two Dublin county finals in 1947 and 1948. There was some fine talent in the college at the time like Dick Stokes, Pierce Thornton, Des Dillon, Jody Maher, Jack Rice, Luke Sullivan, Ned Daly and more. Presiding over the lot was the great Mick Darcy, who was full of enthusiasm for the game of hurling. To win the county finals required great ability because the competition was cut-throat from teams of the calibre of Faughs, Young Irelands and St. Vincents. There was tremendous interest and crowds as great as twenty thousand turned up for finals.
Jimmy Kennedy's talent soon became known to the Dublin selectors and he made his debut with the team in a match against Antrim at Belfast in the winter of 1946. He hardly got a puck of the ball until the final quarter. However, on his way back in the train he was relieved to be told by selector, Jerry O'Connor, that he wouldn't be dropped on the basis of that display. His next match was against Tipperary in Dublin in 1947. He was playing on Micheal Maher and again hardly got a puck of the ball. He found the pace of the game much faster than he was used to. In another county he might have been dropped but he was given time to settle and is very thankful for getting the opportunity to do so due to the generosity of the Dublin selectors. He believes that some players are discarded too easily and too quickly and should be given a longer chance.
He played his first inter-county championship in the summer of 1947 and got to the Leinster final against Kilkenny at Portlaoise. Kilkenny had Diamond Hayden, Terry Leahy and Jim Langton and beat Dublin well. Jimmy held his place on the Dublin team and achieved success in the 1948 championship They beat Wexford in the semi-final and when word came to them in the dressing room that Laois had beaten Kilkenny in the other semi there was a great cheer. They went on to beat Laois in the final at Tullamore but lost to Waterford in the All-Ireland No less than seven, Jimmy Kennedy, Mick Hassett, Frank Cummins, Dave Walsh, Johnny O'Connor, Mick Feeney and Ned Daly, of the U.C.D. team played on opposite sides in tha All-Ireland. Jimmy's growing stature as a player was recognised the following spring when he was captain of the Leinster side in the Railway Cup. This brought him to the attention of the Tipperary selectors.
Sometime in February Phil Purcell, the Tipperary County Secretary, sent declaration forms to Jimmy and to Joe Butler who was from Clonmel and who also played with Dublin in the 1948 All-Ireland. Jimmy takes up the story.
'Joe and I had a long chat on the matter. We were going well with Dublin and were having a good time playing around the country in tournaments. The Dublin County Board were very good to us. As well we were uncertain as to how we'd get on with Tipp. We knew that many players, who had got trials, had been taken off after ten minutes because they hadn't been performing to an expected standard. Maybe the same would be our fate and what would we do then? So, we tore up the forms.'
'On Easter Saturday I came back to my digs in Leinster Road where there was a message awaiting me: I was to go to Barry's Hotel. I made my way there to find my father, Phil Purcell, Fr Johnny Minihan, Dinny Costello and Seamus Gardiner present. 'I sent you a declaration form,' said Purcell, 'and you never returned it.' I told him my reason. They took me into a room and gave me a long chat. I said I couldn't go without Joe Butler. I was informed he wasn't necessary as Tipperary had enough backs. I told them I wouldn't do anything until I spoke to Mick Darcy.
'It was now 9.30 and at that time declaration had to be made before 12pm on Easter Saturday night. Seamus Gardiner offered to drive me out to Mick Darcy, who lived in Merrion. Mick was an out and out Tipperary man but didn't like to give me advice. He advised me to talk to Joe Stewart, who was in charge of the Dublin team. Darcy's final word to me was: 'You know, they (Tipperary) are a hard lot to please.'
'I was driven to Joe Stewart's place. We had a chat. He dissuaded me from leaving Dublin. He said: 'you'd be mad to declare, we're going well. We'll see you tomorrow for the game with Kilkenny. You'll stay with us.' 'I came back to Barry's and told Purcell of my decision to stay with Dublin. It was now 11.30. Purcell took me into a room and began to work on me. He hammered home to me the greatness of Tipperary, the land of Knocknagow and Slievenamon. He told me they'd be no danger of being dropped. He even promised any position in the forward line, with the exception of full-forward. After two hours of this barracking I gave in and signed the form at 1.30 amidst major misgivings. I don't know how the 12 o'clock rule was got over but it was obviously surmounted. I have never regretted that decision."
As stated above Jimmy Kennedy made his debut in the Thomond Tournament. He recalls driving down from Dublin and meeting the team at Sadleir's Hotel in Limerick. He didn't know anybody and there was a bit of awkwardness until Pat Stakelum came over to greet him and welcome him to the team. In his short career he was to win three All-Irelands, one National League and a couple of Thomond Tournament and Monaghan Cup medals.
His contribution to Tipperary's success in the 1949 championship was major. Again and again he is mentioned as the key man in the team's attack. In the course of the six games up to and including the All-Ireland he scored 6 goals and 37 points. In the five games of the 1950 championship his tally was 4 goals and 23 points, which was a higher percentage of Tipperary's total score than in the previous year. His most brilliant display in 1950 was in the first round against Limerick. One commentator had this to say: 'Tipperary's success was due in the main to her defenders and to the genius of Jimmy Kennedy. The Puckane's man's total of 3-6 was, to say the least, amazing. The most talked of goal of the match came from the stick of this scoring wizard. The ball sailed in from fifty yards out. Tipperary attackers and Limerick defenders watched its flight as it seemed to sail over the crossbar when, to the 'amazement of attackers and defenders alike, like a guided missile, it curved into the net for an astonishing goal. That wasn't Kennedy's best score. He struck a ball from within ten yards of the right-hand corner flag, which sped like an arrow between the posts, a miracle score if ever there was one.'
Jimmy Kennedy disdains the notion that he was some kind of technical wizard with the hurling stick. Instead he would subscribe to the adage that 'Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.' To an obvious natural athletic ability he added many hours of skill learning as he pucked the ball around the village of Puckane during his early years. Playing the ball against a wall and picking it smartly as it rebounded was part of this learning process. I have already drawn attention to the teachings of Tull Considine and the team learning he acquired at Flannan's. The kind of hurley he used was most important and he never brought fewer than two to any game. On that visit to Kilkenny mentioned above he 'discovered' the Neary hurley and never used anything else after that. Tom Neary was a famous Kilkenny hurley maker and for Jimmy his type of hurley was the answer to his needs. It had a wide pole, great balance and unerring accuracy. He could recognise a Neary hurley with his eyes closed.
His free-taking was practised until it was perfect. Basic things like stance and angle were worked on until his shooting became unerring. When taking a free he stood back from the ball and walked up to it at a right angle to an imaginary line between the ball and the centre of the crossbar. When lifting the ball he stood very much over it with the handle of the hurley coming back between his legs. In this way he achieved perfect balance during the lifting and striking movement. He raised the ball above the head but hit it at knee height. The follow through was most important as it contributed to the accuracy of the stroke. All of this practice developed his confidence and confidence produced even greater accuracy. Jimmy is convinced that at the height of his form he had the confidence to go for scores from any angle, and get them.
Tipperary played Waterford in the first round of the 1951 championship and just got there by 2-10 to 1-10. Jimmy Kennedy scored 1-3. The selectors sprang a big surprise by dropping him for the semi-final against Limerick and replacing him by Tim Ryan of Borrisoleigh. The latter were the new county champions. Jimmy was very disappointed at being dropped because he believed that he was still maturing as a player. The occasion was also Tipperary's first championship appearance at Thurles since 1945 and he would have loved to be on. He made a late appearance in the game and got a tremendous ovation from the fans as he came onto the field.
He was recalled for the Munster final against Cork on July 29.
He had a most unfortunate hour when nothing would go right for him and it was the first hour in which he failed to score. There was a reason for the poor display. He had cracked two ribs in training and was advised by his doctor not to play. But, he was so delighted at being restored to the team that he foolishly determined to play. Because he was well strapped up his movements were very restricted during the game. He was dropped for the All-Ireland final, in which Tipperary beat Wexford by 7-7 to 3-9.
There were twenty-one medals for the twenty-two players on the panel. The first fifteen on All-Ireland day were obvious choices but, when it came to distributing the remaining six, Jimmy was excluded. Understandably he was very upset. He would have loved to have the medal to put with the other two as it was a unique achievement to win three-in-a-row. He was picked to travel for the Oireachtas game against Kilkenny on October 7 but wrote to Phil Purcell to say he didn't wish to be considered any more. He was 25 years of age. He continued to hurl at club level until 1954 when he married and called it a day. He didn't involve himself after that with the exception of 1955 when he helped Eire Og, Nenagh minor hurling team prepare for a county final.
A Major Injustice
The decision to leave Jimmy Kennedy out of the medals was a major injustice and even worse than that to leave selector, Joby Callanan, out of the trip to the U .S. with the league team in September 1950. Jimmy had made a major contribution to Tipperary's successes in the 1949 and 1950 All-Irelands and had played two championship games in 1951. In contrast five of the subs had played no championship game that year! No wonder he was upset and called it a day.
His decision to quit was a major loss to Tipperary. He was only 25 years of age and, in his own opinion, was still maturing as a hurler. Admittedly he wasn't playing as effectively as in the previous year but there was no reason why he wouldn't bounce back to brilliance once again. How many good players go through bad patches and crises of confidence?
Perhaps his decision to quit was precipitate. Maybe he should have stuck it out and played his way back on to the team. He was only 25 years of age and, if we are to take his own word, not yet at his prime. It is arguable that had he been there in the follpwing years Tipperary's three-in-a-row might have become the elusive four or even five-in-a-row. Who knows? We can only speculate. The only certainty we have is that those of us who were privileged to see him play saw one of the most graceful movers, the most brilliant strikers and. the most accurate of scorers that ever wore the blue and gold.
Tipperary G.A.A. Yearbook 1991, pp 78-79