Dick of the Church
It doesn’t fall to many people in a generation to be recognised by a short version of their name or a nickname. Internationally, the names JFK and Mother Teresa easily conjure up images. Nationally, the names Dev and Peig are also examples which inspire easy recall.
In Kilkenny similar recognition tends to be associated with hurling or camogie. The names Fan, Pa and D.J. conjure up familiar faces. Enquire about the Twins and you’ll be asked “Is it Angela and Ann?”
The late Dick Walshe of Tullaroan fell into this category. He was known to all as Dick of the Church. The church in question is the 17th century ruin called Grace’s Church after the builder whose family held the nearby Courtstown Castle for over 500 years. The Walshe family farm is adjacent to the church and, for well over a century, Walshes of the Church have been distinguished from other Walshs with this distinctive address.
Dick’s family was steeped in the history of Tullaroan. His grandfather Edmond was secretary of the local Land League branch and was jailed for agrarian activities. His grandmother, Mary Josephine, was secretary of the local branch of the Ladies’ Land League. When Charles Stewart Parnell canvassed for the North Kilkenny by-election in December 1890 he broke his journey from Callan to Tullaroan with a visit to the Walshe family home. The family has in its possession, to this day, a medal, one of three, left by Parnell to Dick’s mother Dorothy and her two sisters that day.
Dorothy, married Larry Walsh who won a county title with New Bermingham in Tipperary which meant Dick had a close affinity with the Premier County and a high regard for the people of Tipperary except, of course, when they were playing Kilkenny. In fact, Dick’s father, Larry, holds a unique place in hurling annals in that he played with the American Invasion team of 1911. When their game against Limerick came around, the Americans were short a number of players because of injuries in earlier games. Pierce Purcell of Johnstown recruited Tullaroan’s Sim Walton and Larry Walshe to play with the Americans.
Dick was a mine of information on events which happened prior to his birth because early in his life he spoke to witnesses and remembered what they had to say or to others who had heard the details and passed them down. He had a story connecting Walshes of the Church to the 1798 Rebellion. He told us that the field where the new school was built in Ballybeigh is the Yellow Meal Field because it was exchanged for a bag of yellow meal during the famine. He remembered seeing a Famine Pot in Kerwick’s of Oldtown.
Dick was born on 15 March 1918 when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom; a Tullaroan man, Michael Meagher of Rathmacan, was M.P. for North Kilkenny in the House of Commons and Bishop Abraham Brownrigg was Bishop of Ossory.
In Kilkenny in 1918 you could have cold luncheons and afternoon tea in the newly opened “Royal Tea Rooms” on High St. You could attend the cinema with a choice of seats from 4d., 8d., 1s. or have a balcony seat for 1s. 3d.
However, change was coming. The tricolour was now seen more often than the Union Jack. Ten days before Dick’s birth the leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond, died in London and a week after Dick’s birth a large meeting took place in Tullaroan to form a branch of Sinn Fein. We hope the new born baby in The Church, not far from the village, wasn’t disturbed that day by the “loud and prolonged cheers” which greeted the speakers.
One of Dick’s earliest memories was of seeing the Black and Tans in his farmyard in 1921. This frightening situation is not something which a young boy was likely to forget and happened on 13 May. This was the day of the Knocknagress ambush when two volunteers, Sean Quinn and Pat Walsh, lost their lives in the fight for Irish freedom close to Tullaroan village. So Dick was a link with that important day in Tullaroan’s history.
As a young boy Dick would have seen Tullaroan policed by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Later as a five year old boy, he saw the first Gardai arrive in 1923.
On the kitchen wall in the family home is an old print of General Liam Lynch in the uniform of Chief of Staff of the IRA. Dick’s admiration for the War of Independence patriots wasn’t confined to one side. He had equal admiration for Michael Collins and had a fascinating connection with the death of the Big Fellow at Béal na mBláth as his cousin, Edmond Foley, was a driver in the Collins travelling party that fateful day. Of course, Dick had his own theory about who fired the fatal shot but that revelation must wait for another day.
In September 1925, Dick attended his first county final and saw his native Tullaroan beat Dicksboro by 3-4 to 3-3 in the Freshford Road grounds. Little did he think that day that he would become president of Tullaroan Hurling club and reign well into the 21st century.
As well as farming, Dick held other jobs during his lifetime one of which was helping to demolish Kilkenny Jail. When asked if he enjoyed his work, he said: “I enjoyed that one anyway because my grandfather was a prisoner there!”
In the 1940s Dick joined the LDF, the Local Defence Force. One year they were training in Tramore when word came through that the army had been called from the Curragh Camp to the border. So the LDF were detailed to go the Curragh to guard the barracks and the IRA prisoners. The money was good and Dick volunteered. While there he met the late Con O’Shea who was a “Guest of the Nation”. The pair became lifelong friends when Con later settled in Kilkenny. One day Con called over another Kerryman who was also a guest of the state. It turned out to be the famed footballer John Joe Sheehy. Dick befriended him and often brought in sweets and cigarettes for him and the other prisoners.
Politics was a lifelong interest for Dick. He recalled a different, bitter time when local politics was partisan. He remembered collecting for Fianna Fáil outside the parish church when the table holding the box was kicked down the street by none other than the local parish priest.
Dick was also proud of the fact that Tullaroan often produced politicians to represent Kilkenny even though he may not have voted for all of them. Indeed he admitted as much when President Mary Robinson officially opened the Lory Meagher Heritage Centre in 1994. As she entered the avenue up to the house, Dick was one of the first to step forward and shake hands with her and said: “You’re welcome to Tullaroan. I didn’t vote for you but there’ll be another day!”
While Dick had an opinion on all topics of the day, hurling was the subject dearest to his heart. The first All Ireland final he attended was the second replay of the famous 3 game saga to settle the 1931 decider eventually won by Cork.
The following year Kilkenny beat Clare in the final. Dick remembered meeting his schoolmaster, Mr. Brennan, on the pitch after the game when their neighbour, Lory Meagher, introduced them to the bespectacled Clare hurler John Joe “Goggles” Doyle.
Dick cycled to Killarney for the 1937 All Ireland final. That year he had to suffer the Tipperary taunts not just in Killarney but all the way home as he cycled back through the county. The rivalry was long in existence. He recalled a story about a Tullaroan team in the early years heading over to Urlingford to play a team from Tipperary. They were to meet at his grandmother’s house in Rathealy and some of them asked her to make tea. “Tea!” she exclaimed. “Tea is it? And ye going to hurl Tipperary!”
That story features in the book “Hell for Leather”, written by Dermot Crowe and Ronnie Bellew and published in 2014. Since Kilkenny’s climb to the top of the Roll of Honour, many hurling journalists made their way to The Church to interview Dick. He appeared on national television and in the Sunday newspapers with tales from the old days and opinions on modern times.
Dick was on the Tullaroan team which won the 1948 senior hurling championship and he was a selector when Tullaroan won again in 1958. He was a supporter when Tullaroan last won the championship in 1994 and derived great pleasure from the celebrations which followed.
He featured in the acclaimed series “The Game” broadcast on RTE1 in 2019. Time and again Dick was prevailed upon in his interviews to name a team of the past as the greatest but he kept returning to the modern era as the greatest hurling he had seen. He might have been a little biased as a neighbour’s child, Tommy Walsh, was one of the great stars of the present day. In fact Dick supplied Tommy with a plank of ash for his first senior All Ireland final appearance in 2003.
Dick passed away on May 27, 2019 aged 101. His loss was all the more poignant as he was predeceased only a week before, on the 21st, by his beloved wife Kitty. She was a member of the Lalor family from Urlingford. They made a supportive couple as they ran their farm together and reared their family for over fifty years. Kitty was ahead of her time as a farmer and displayed a particular capability in animal husbandry. Cattle marts are not for the faint hearted but Kitty and, her friend Mrs Crowley, were often the only women in Kilkenny mart buying calves while Dick was working in Avonmore. She was wise to the basics of buying well and the principle of value. Her hospitality was legendary especially in retirement as visitors queued up for an interview with Dick but if there was a doubt about any fact or date it was Kitty who cleared it up. If chastisement was needed she wasn’t shy either. On the Sunday prior to the 2012 All Ireland final, Tommy Walsh was at Mass in Tullaroan with his father when in beside them came Dick of the Church. As Tommy recounted later, even though Kitty was scowling across at the two of them, there wasn’t much praying done as Dick and he hurled their way through Mass that day.
Dick and Kitty were a wonderful team in life and were only separated for a week in death. Leaba ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh acu.
Over the years, if a visitor to Tullaroan village enquired for Dick Walshe’s house, he or she was asked: “Which of them do you want?” However, if they asked for “Dick of the Church,” they were directed immediately to Huntstown. There were numerous Dick Walshes but only one Dick of the Church.