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Monday 18 December 2017

Con Houlihan: A warrior and a gentleman

Rugby legend Moss Keane came from a little village on the brown flesk river where his achievements will always be held high

Whenever my neighbours come back from a day in Limerick's Fair City, they almost all talk about Adare, in their minds the loveliest village in the world. This I can understand, but I know a village which is not famous but is my favourite.

The word 'Currow' means a marsh. Never is a word more misleading because the land in that part of the world is as good as you will find anywhere. And the marsh is little more than a square mile: it has been drained long ago and is now an attractive little lake with ducks swimming all over it.

It helps to make Currow a very attractive village. There is a modern parish church and the creamery and the Brown Flesk River, which half encircles the village. Moss Keane was born in that beautiful and half-hidden part of Ireland. He was lucky in another aspect: in no part of Ireland is there a greater all-round interest in sport, including rugby.

There were several rugby clubs before the coming of Gaelic football. One of those local clubs, Laune Rangers, was the first from Kerry to contest the All-Ireland final. It was a Gaelic football club officially but in reality it was a rugby club and Currow produced some outstanding players with the oval ball before Moss came on the scene.

There was a club in nearby Castle Island that survived ups and downs but Moss never played for it. He played all his early rugby in Cork where he was attending university. From there he went on to glory, ultimately with the Lions.

He and I had planned to play for Castle Island in an exhibition match. It never happened that way. And so he went into history as the best second-row who never played for Castle Island but all fame is not local fame and he became very much a part of our town, as he was of Currow. Indeed, Currow looks down on Castle Island as an inferior territory: when our club won its first county championship, there were nine players from Currow on the team, including the captain.

Mossy's parents were typical of the farmers of their day. They were just about strong enough to carry on in very bad times and so Mossy's knowledge of agriculture wasn't all from the books. To this experience he had high intelligence that took him through five years at university and to a master's degree in Dairy Science.

Many people thought of him as easygoing, a big boy with a great smile but, in fact, he was a serious person. And he was very much a modern man, part of the new generation who were putting Ireland on the map in high technology. If he joked and laughed, it was part of his heritage, growing up in rural Ireland at the time he did demanded a great sense of humour.

There was a strong link between the Keane family and the Houlihan family. My father, Michael, spent most of his working years in Currow creamery as a fitter and all-round man and was well acquainted with Moss and his parents. My brother, Dermot, began his working career there as assistant manager and gave Moss his first job during his holidays from Cork University.

I loved that village and have special memories of going to it with my half-bred mare and my flat spring cart of the kind beloved by the Travelling People. On Fridays my mission was to get about 20 gallons of buttermilk, the pigs' champagne. Then I had to pay for half of it, but they were different times. It is my belief that if Moss had been handing it out I wouldn't have had to pay for any of it.

There were three boys in the Keane family and sometimes when money was scarce they had to use various schemes. On one occasion when their parents were away at an ordination in Rome they found on their return that a few turkeys had disappeared. Moss explained to his parents that there were foxes in the area. His dad said: "Of course there are foxes in the area, but they have no tails."

There was one thing about Moss that couldn't be disputed: his prowess in rugby made the foreign games' theory ridiculous. To see him careering down the middle of the pitch with the ball tucked under his right arm made you feel that rugby was the most Irish of all field sports -- and, of course, it was. And, of course, those runs evoked chants of "Moss Keane, Moss Keane" that will echo over Lansdowne Road, or whatever they call it, for generations to come.

Every great sportsman leaves an image behind: the bould Mossy's special bequest was that romantic and dramatic charge for the try-line. We are lucky to have so much of modern rugby immortalised on tape and generations will be enthralled by the sight of the man from Currow having the crowd in an uproar at Lansdowne Road and in Twickenham and in Cardiff Arms Park and in the stadia Down Under. He was a great ambassador: he proved that romantic Ireland isn't dead and gone.

Moss continued to make many new friends with his charming ways when he moved to Portarlington with his family. He loved walking in the wood near his home -- it reminded him of Currow.

I will remember him, too, in his favourite corner in Cunniffe's pub in Currow and in Daly's next door, holding his own in the banter and sometimes doing a little more than that. He had toured the world but that little village on the Brown Flesk was his home and there his fame will last and grow as the brown waters run around the creamery.

Mossy's image was so old-fashioned that he might have walked straight out of Charles Kickham's great novel Knocknagow. He would have been at home with Matt the Thrasher, a man who excelled in an old technology, but he would have been equally at home with the most modern of European technocrats. And like Matt, he always thought about the credit of the little village.

God rest him.

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