On Aisake Ó hAilpín’s Twitter feed, his bio reads:
“Dont tell me the skys the limit when there are footprints on the moon.Il let u know when I land.”
For one day in 2010, Aisake became an astronaut. Down in the old bowl by the Lee, he moonwalked just like Michael Jackson had in the same spot 22 years previously. Aisake, then as now, was unconventional. He was as heedless of reputation then as he is of punctuation now:
“I remember the day so well. It really didn’t bother me who Tipp put at full-back. Whoever it was would be just another guy, standing in my way.”
The thing is, even then, Pádraic Maher was not “just another guy”. He was the ciotóg who had kept Baby Joe in chains; who had prevented a Galway treble while kicking off a double of their own. He was the living embodiment of Tipperary teak who was destined to take on all comers on the edge of the square for a decade or more. His physique was such that Shefflin was bounced in the League Final the previous year. This young lad put me in mind (again, says you!) of Flann O’ Brien’s droll characterisation of Fionn MacCumaill:
“… he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was wide enough to halt the march of warriors through a mountain pass.”
But on that balmy day in Backdoorland, he just couldn’t read the particular contours of the tuathalach young warrior from the other Sarsfields who stood as tall as Michael Jordan. Later in his career, in an echo of that early discomfiture, Paudie faced a Galway giant called Glynn. Again, it was like waltzing an albatross.
My abiding off-pitch memories of that day in Cork a dozen summers ago were of a sage (or plámásach?) Cork supporter whom I fell into step with who assured me that we would see far more hurling that year than he. And later seeing Liam Sheedy sitting shellshocked in the window of a restaurant downtown wondering whether Seán Óg’s unheralded brother had capsized his season and nascent managerial career.
And this is where Pádraic Maher comes in. After the 10-point defeat – which pretty much mapped to Aisake’s contribution in scores taken or created – Paudie and the new crew (of the firm Maher, Maher, and Maher) felt a collective responsibility to atone. After Liam Sheedy had digested his steak in Cork, he called his troops for a debrief. They would have the proverbial 5 weeks to save their season. And as ever, the brickbasts were being fired at home. Tommy Barrett let loose a few salvoes about over-training and going backwards and Babs was as reliably self-serving as ever: “They’d be better positioned today if they had sat down with us for a couple of hours.”
And so followed what Marty Morrissey called the “tour around Ireland” where Tipp stopped off to pick up redemption from Offaly, Wexford, Galway and Waterford. All the time, Tipp were improving. Paudie had left the Euclidean demands of the square to roam out on the wing instead.
It was the 7 shirt that he came to own and inhabit as very few others in the game ever have. Jackie Tyrell has spoken in recent days about how Kilkenny deliberately avoided his wing in 2011 – again implicitly calling into question our selection on the other wing that day – not only because Paudie’s fielding and distribution was of a rare order, but he was the member of the team for whom every act counted double.
The catches over Walter Walsh in 2016 and 2019 (a penny for his thoughts these days as his Twitter timeline lights up with Paudie lording it over him literally and metaphorically) are two of the best moments any Tipp man has ever had in Croke Park. As Tyrell said, Paudie spoke to something primal in us as Tommy Walsh spoke to the Noreside brethren. It was as if Paudie alone knew the recipes from Hell’s Kitchen.
It’s fair to say that while he may have been undone by pace at times – Éanna Ryan’s snapheeled opportunist goal in 2010 to instance an occasion – as we said, it has been the gnarly lads that gave him most bother. Because when it came to skill, Paudie covered the entire constellation. His hook on Conor Cooney in 2016 has no peer; not even that of his gifted ciotógach counterpart JJ on Seamie. And Paudie had heft to match his poise: his shoulder on Joe was probably felt in Norway (there is a Canning Museum in Stavanger; the locals are fond of sardines. Children are taught to “eat what you can and can what you can’t).
The bravery and timing of that hit are of a high order. Miss, and you are more likely to hurt yourself (or land on top of Jake Morris and the Tipp minors):
“We played the minor All-Ireland (semi-final) in 2016 and were sitting down in the Hogan Stand after,” says Morris. “Padraic Maher nailed Joe Canning a shoulder across the line out in front of us. I’ll never forget the crunch of it, that shoulder that day. I was called into the Tipp team in 2018 and I remember thinking to myself as a light 18-year old that I’d better not go near Pádraic Maher or he’ll throw me out over the line. That was my fond memory of him. That shoulder, which was the turning point that day.”
And in the highlight reels, we’ve all probably seen the bemused look on the Clareman when he breaks a hurley off Paudie’s unflinching chin; ash meets teak, teak wins.
As in all the greatest myths, his younger brother now assumes his brother’s mantle. Like his Japanese homonym, the ronin, our new captain will now serve no master but himself. He will be thrown back on his own resources and he will thrive. And why? Because he is a Maher and he is born to it.
By coincidence, Pádraic has an academic namesake called Martina Maher who has written a PhD in recent years about the representations of the death of Fionn MacCumaill in Gaelic literature. Our own Slievenamon figures among these tales but she concentrates largely on a manuscript she calls “The Chase” from eleven hundred years ago. Nowhere in the tale is Fionn’s death actually made explicit, Maher tells us. Instead ” … the tale breaks off with Finn still alive, albeit weary and bloodied and standing alone encircled by his adversaries, his death is a logical next element in the narrative, not least because there is repeated mention of a prophecy of his demise throughout the tale.”
In this, we see the bones of our own modern warrior. He practically patented the “weary and bloodied and standing alone encircled by his adversaries” meme. And as for prophecies? We have long known that the men that undertook that tour of Ireland in 2010 would one day file away. To Michael and Brendan we now add Pádraic. But his myth will never die. The championship of 2022 will be bereft without him. Whether pinballing out of defence or piercing diagonal balls into Seamie, he will be missed because he was matchless in his best moments.
For more, we cannot ask.