John Maher leads Tipperary to success in 1945
He was the oldest ever All-Ireland winning senior hurling captain
When John Maher led Tipperary to victory in the All-Ireland Final in 1945 against Kilkenny, he was a seasoned veteran in the twilight of a great career that entitled him to recognition everywhere as one of the greatest of Tipperary hurling defenders.
In fact, at 37 he is the oldest captain ever to win an All-Ireland in the history of the Association - both hurling and football.
His performance in that final against Kilkenny bore all the hallmarks of classical hurling, the experience garnered in sixteen years at the top, manifesting itself in the quality of his positional play, the sharpness of his tackling, and the crispness of his striking.
He was the only captain to be chaired, shoulder-high from Semple Stadium to Liberty Square in the aftermath of Tipperary's famous victory in that Munster Final of 1945 - his adoring Gaels acknowledging a massive contribution to the cause by the great Sarsfields man.
Carbery wrote of that display - “John Maher, after 16 years of inter county stardom, played his best game in the 1945 final, which his clever tackling and superb ground hurling mastered Kilkenny's attack. Tall, handsome – of commanding courage and skill of ash.”
In any mans career, captaining his county to an All-Ireland triumph should be the greatest day, but John Maher was rather modest about the achievement and was always reluctant to talk about his own personal exploits and rather preferred to focus on the input of the team.
His greatest moment was in winning his first All-Ireland in the 1930 win over Dublin - fifteen years before he got to lift the silverware.
Proud moment - the Sarsfields lifts the cup for Tipperary
“Your first All-Ireland, your first Munster Final, or your first county final, are something very special, and something that will stay with you all your life,”he once said.
Tipperary had not done so well in the latter part of the twenties. With Jim Lanigan, his great clubmate and friend, John made his debut in the county colours against Cork at the end of 1929 after Thurles Sarsfields had regained the county title. He played at corner back against that great Cork combination which had won three All-Irelands and lost a fourth in four years, and he jokingly remarked that he got a roasting off Ga Ahearne on the day.
After Sarsfields won the county championship, Tom Semple took charge of the county team in 1930, and Tipp came from nowhere to win the All-Ireland Final. It was a relatively new team in some respects, but with a spine of experience in the form of Martin Kennedy, Joby Callinan, Phil Cahill, Phil Purcell, Tommy Treacy, Mick Cronin and Mick Ryan. These old hands nursed the new blood along and they led by a point at half time in the All-Ireland - by a strange coincidence it was the exact same margin at half time in all their outings that season against Waterford, Clare and Galway.
If the 1930 All-Ireland Final was to be John Maher's greatest memory of a lifetime in hurling, it was to be but one of many memorable performances in a career which saw him win another senior All- Ireland in 1937 in Killarney; nine county championships with Thurles Sarsfields and three Railway Cup medals. The only honour that alluded him was a National League medal as Tipperary were beaten by Galway, Limerick and Cork in finals in his time. Tipperary did, however, a win a couple of Four County League titles in the early forties - the war years - when the competition proper was suspended from 1942 -1945.
1938 brought bad luck as Tipperary were thrown out of the championship due to an objection in the now infamous Cooney case, a complicated wrangle involving a Tipperary player suspended for attending a rugby match. John always felt that the case was poorly handled, that Cooney should not have been selected to play against Clare in the first round, and that the team of ’38 was even better than the previous year’s outfit.
More misfortune followed in 1941 as the championship was suspended due to foot and mouth. Cork were nominated to play in the All-Ireland Final of that year, which they duly won, but they were later defeated by Tipp in the delayed Munster Final in November. John recalled later that there was no photograph taken of the Tipp team before the match; all attention was focused on the newly crowned champions. With a bit more luck then, John could have added a further two All-Ireland medals to h already impressive collection.
John Maher also won a World Championship medal with Tipperary when they toured America in 1931, playing seven games, one under floodlights. It was an experience alright and John claimed that everything was fine when the ball was clean, but when it got dirty, it was a different story.
It was entirely appropriate that John Maher should captain a Tipperary team to All-Ireland success. His father Denis was a member of the first Tipperary team to win an All-Ireland in 1887 and actually captained the team in most of their games. But, on the morning of the All-Ireland Final in Birr, a dispute arose over train fares and expenses and Denis was left in Thurles, with Jim Stapleton taking over the mantle of captain and going down in history as the first ever captain to win an All- Ireland. The Mahers could have been the first father and son combinations to captainTipperary to All-Ireland glory had fate not intervened.
The Maher family has been involved Gaelic Games since the foundation of the Association itself and John was very cognisant of the part the GAA played in the development of the Irish way of life.
John Maher with the Liam McCarthy Cup
“Do people ever stop to think what Ireland would like today if we did not have the GAA” he said in The Centenary Year of 1984.
“I wonder do they realise how important the GAA is to Ireland and do the younger people appreciate what it really means to have an Association to promote our own games,” he added.
However, while appreciative of the role that the GAA played in the development of a m odernIreland, John felt that the Association had moved to being too commercial with financial affairs playing too central a role. He acknowledged that huge sums of money had been ploughed into the provision of proper facilities at grounds around the country, but expressed a wish that the GAA would do more to promote Irish culture, music and dance as he recalled the efforts made during his own younger days.
He had very definite views about “gimmicks” such as Man of the Match and Top Scorer awards and felt that they should be scrapped as they are not conducive to teamwork, and tend to extol the virtues of one player above his team mates.
Hurling was John Mahers great love and for many many decades after he hung up his boots, he studied the ancient game on the local and national scene.
“What would you be doing on a Sunday, or on the long summer evenings, without the hurling,” he wondered.
He didn't subscribe to the view that hurling was much tougher in his day than in later years, but he did concede that players did';t tend to pick up as many injuries due, in his view, to the fact that the emphasis was on moving the ball along quickly, rather than holding onto it and carrying it, as in modern style. His advice always was to move the ball along - “let the ball do the work” as they say - and to keep both hands on the hurley. In this way, injury was avoided, fouling stamped out, and the number of stoppages reduced drastically.
Home from the US as World Champions
One wonders what John Maher would make of hurling in the second millennium. Having played against the two great legendary forwards in hurling, Mick Mackey and Christy Ring, John refused to be drawn on the oft-raised question of who was the greater. It is foolish to make comparisons between them, he would say, because, although both were great men, they played the game entirely differently. He never actually marked Ring but would have “come across him” during the course of many a game. He took the game seriously and was very intense, while Mackey was more of a devil-may-care in his approach.
In his playing days John Maher was known as a fierce opponent who manned the Tipperary half back line like his life depended on it. Indeed, the legendary Mackey described him as “a tough, bony divil. Oh you would know all about it if you got past him alright,” the Limerick legend said.
Born and reared only a few pucks of the ball from Thurles Sportsfield, an arena in which he displayed his prowess on too numerous occasions to mention, John held the great Tom Semple in high esteem and significantly Thurles Sarsfields were out of hurling honours in Tipperary from the end of the Semple era in 1915 to the start of his own intercounty career in 1929.
He recalled the inspiration Tom Semple was to teams, a great man to rally a side and in later years a great man to have involved in teams.
John Maher was an optimist and a realist. And, though Sarsfields endured lean times between 1974 and 2005 - thirty one years without a county senior championship was a lifetime for as famed a club as Sarsfields - John knew that the tide would turn. He pointed to the lean times between 1911 and 1929 and felt sure that the Blues would come good again. Sadly, he was not around to witness the incredible revival but would surely have taken pride in the role played by his family members - the Maher name was, and is, very well represented in the colours of Na Sáirséalaigh to this day.
John offered the view that Paddy Leahy, the guiding light behind so many Boherlahan successes in his playing days, and Tipperary triumphs as a selector, always credited Tom Semple's Blues as being the team that introduced science to Tipperary hurling. High praise indeed and a comment laced with a lot of truth too.
After captaining Tipperary to the All-Ireland in 1945, John Maher was still as commanding a defender as there was in the game, but early in 1946 he injured a hand in training and meant that he was unavailable for that years Munster championship game against Limerick. Tipp were beaten and John bowed out of the inter county scene though he went on to win a county championship with Thurles Sarsfields in that year when they beat Carrick Swans in the final.
The Maher name has since been immortalised in Semple Stadium with the renaming of the Killinan End as the Maher Killinan End in 1999 - a fitting tribute to a family which contributed so much, and still continues to do so, to the Gaelic Athletic Association in Thurles and Tipperary.
Members of the Maher clan were instrumental in the purchase of Thurles Sportsfield, later Semple Stadium, which was very close to where John Maher farmed.
John Maher, who had the distinction of being a Freeman of Boston, died in 1990 on the eve of the Munster Final - fittingly played in Semple Stadium between Tipperary and Cork. He had seen Tipperary bridge the 18 year wait for the Liam McCarthy Cup ( 1971 -89) and delighted in the success. However, it is certain that he would have been even happier had a Thurles Sarsfields player been involved. And better again, had it been a Maher.
A true legend of Tipperary hurling, John Maher of Killinan, Thurles is remembered fondly this year which marks the 75th anniversary of his lifting of the All-Ireland crown for The Premier County.
From the book 'Captains of the Premier Ship' by Noel Dundon.