In this fascinating interview from 2009, Eamonn Fitzgerald speaks to legendary Irish rugby player (and his former classmate) Moss Keane about his illness, his Gaelic football career and lining out for his country.
Eamonn Fitzgerald: First off Moss, to the urgent and the important, how are you coping with your cancer diagnosis?
Moss Keane: Very well indeed. It was a huge shock, of course. I went in for a routine check-up and the medics discovered that I had cancer. I have undergone treatment for the past six months. We all get setbacks of one kind or another and this is a new challenge for me. I am taking it on like all the other challenges I have experienced over 61 years… And I am in great form.
EF: On one occasion you were set upon near Heuston Station and suffered a serious eye injury.
MK: That’s water under the bridge now. 16 years ago. That was a challenge at the time, but I moved on from that.
EF: You had a big day recently raising money.
MK: Sure we had a mighty day recently in the K-Club, where a host of stars from a wide range of sports played under Paul O’Connell (Munster) and Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster).
EF: On this wonderful day and through your great influence a very significant sum of money was raised for two worthy charities: the Charitable Trust and the Stuart Mangan Appeal – both causes dear to your heart.
MK: Yes, thank God.
EF: You are an iconic and charismatic character in Irish sport, yet you’re still very much the ordinary guy we knew shoring up the UCC football defence…
MK: Playing football with UCC was great. Let’s get one thing straight: I was only a filler-in, making up the numbers. Look at all those great players from Kerry at the time. From the Killarney area alone you had Dan Kavanagh, D Coff, Tom Looney and that great trio from Beaufort: Paudie and Brendan Lynch, and Jim Coughlan. At one stage we had 14 Kerry men and a lone Cork man on the UCC football team.
EF: You captained the Skull and Crossbones to Cork County Championships and to Sigerson Cup successes.
MK: I was a compromise captain. They could not decide between two great footballers, Ray Cummins and Brendan Lynch, so to avoid any aggro they planked me in there. It wasn’t for my footballing ability I can tell you.
EF: Were you ever sent off in football?
MK: Only twice.
EF: What were the circumstances?
MK: On one occasion we were playing a Cork Championship, or was it a Kelleher Shield match, and the ref thought I was a biteen too enthusiastic. On the other occasion, the game was only on about 10 minutes when one of the opposition laid into Jim Coughlan, God rest poor Jim. I strode over to sort out yerman and of course the ref, Jimmy Dennigan, pointed me to the line. No red cards at that time. I made sure I brought one of the opposition with me, to even things up. Not too long afterwards, Mick Morris (Kerry centre back) was sent off on his own and we got the mother and father of a hiding.
EF: You played under 21 for Kerry, fronting me against Cork.
MK: No one passed me in anyhow, whatever about the ball. I left that to you.
EF: And then Currow went on to produce yet another international rugby star…
MK: It really is amazing that a small rural area in Kerry produced The Doyle brothers, Mick Galway and myself thrown in there as well. At that time, even more so than now, certain second-level schools were primarily rugby producing schools and these fed into the rugby clubs, inter-pros and international teams. My secondary school was the Sem (St Brendan’s), where (Gaelic) football was really the only sport and there was no mention of the oval ball.
Some of the lads in UCC rugby team asked me to join in when the footballers were finished, and it went from there.
EF: Bill McLaren (rugby commentator) described you as 18-and-a-half stone of prime Irish beef.
MK: Did he? That must have been after I had gone on a diet. He missed a bit more.
EF: Why do you think you made it at international level with Ireland?
MK: I started because I was big and strong. I could push and shove and do a few more things in the mauls, where you couldn’t be copped. Sure, I gave away penalties early on because I didn’t know the rules. The refs missed a lot more. The rugby crowd wanted me because I was big and strong. I could jump and I could push and shove. It wasn’t for any great ball skills.
EF: I was in Landsdowne Road the day you took off for the line and the crowd roaring you on.
MK: That was great. I got the ball somehow, about 50 yards from the line, and this big gap opened up. I stuck the ball under my oxter and took off, scattering any blokes who tried to hang on to me. The adrenaline was flowing and the more the crowd roared, the more I progressed. I was nearly there, but the oxygen expired.
EF: Do you recall the profile I did of you for the Munster football Final during Kerry’s Golden Years?
MK: Didn’t you get in to trouble with the GAA over that?
EF: Frank Murphy took exception to a player from a foreign code (you) being promoted on a GAA match programme.
MK: Frank of Cork, of course… Jesus, Mary and Joseph! God forgive me my sins. I cringe when I think of that narrow-minded…
EF: Was second row your best position?
MK: Second row is no great rocket science. There is a greater need for skills in the other positions. My old friend, Johnny Brosnan, from Curnow told me I might make a decent enough Gaelic player, but I would never be a Kerry senior. I was too big for it. I knew he was right. There were times when I was in tight situations when I felt like a man trying to turn an articulated lorry in a bathroom. He said that rugby might be an option.
EF: What goes on in the scrums?
MK: A lot of huffing and puffing. And there is more! You don’t see or hear everything, but you would want to keep at least half an eye half-open so that you could give some fella a good dunt, thump or a decent slap. Of course, you’d get a dunt too, if you weren’t on the lookout. The camera work wasn’t great at that time, but nowadays the electronic eyes are on you. Many people thought the Munster v Leinster game was very clean, but I can tell you that a fair bit of skelping went on…
EF: We have seen several examples of eye-gouging in rugby games. Reminds me of that tragic scene in King Lear when his eyes were gouged out.
MK: I wouldn’t know anything about King Lear. Don’t you remember it was Macbeth we did for the Leaving Cert in 1965. You must have read King Lear later in your studies.
EF: You did return to St Brendan’s many years later.
MK: I did indeed, when they ended the boarding school section in 1999, or so, I headed down to the refectory, where we used to eat. Would you believe it I got the same damn pangs of hunger that assailed me 34 years earlier?
EF: Once you started the rugby you moved through the ranks very quickly.
MK: The infamous ban (Rule 27) went in 1971 so I switched to rugby via UCC, Highfield, Munster, and on to Lansdown when I went to Dublin to do the Masters.
EF: What went through your mind when you won your first cap?
MK: I did a fair bit of pinching of myself. Was this real that an ordinary guy reared in football in Kerry and in Cork was now wearing the green jersey of Ireland?
EF: The professional era hadn’t come in when you were playing.
MK: That’s right, but you must remember that it is only the elite group of players are making the big money. There are many players who have small enough money going with their contracts. Some of these are paid figures below subsistence level. In today’s game if a player has a long-term injury it hits him hard in the pocket, so players must bear this in mind. In my time Trevor Brennan was being sent in as a sub to subdue a certain player and the only question he asked his manager was, “Do I take him out just for this match, or do you want it extended for the whole season?”
EF: There is a strong suspicion in the GAA hierarchy that the GPA are not just seeking better conditions for their players but are angling for pay–to–play also. Is this on in the GAA?
MK: No, it is not. The GAA cannot sustain hurling and football as professional games. Remember the professional game is built around big sponsorship and there isn’t enough of that to go around. How do you square up the ordinary club player with the clubmate that is getting paid for some competitions?
EF: You were, of course, on the Munster team that defeated the All-Blacks in Limerick, which has gone into the annals of folklore.
MK: Yes, that was a mighty day. Of course, it has proved almost impossible to defeat Munster in Thomond Park. Much the same way I don’t think the All Blacks would relish a trip to Aughrim. Didn’t Micko (Dwyer) prove that in the qualifiers this year? Three northern teams came down and he took them one by one in battle.
EF: Any thoughts as you look back on an illustrious career in sport.
MK: I enjoyed every bit of it and the craic was mighty in all sports. Looking back on it I would love to have been fit, of course. Fitness is a very relative experience. Gaelic footballers are far fitter now since Heffo and Dwyer upped the pace in the mid-70s. The level of fitness of the Kerry teams nowadays is way ahead of the great Kerry teams of 1955 and 1959. Similarly with club teams and the same goes for rugby.
EF: I have heard so many stories about you, Moss, that have entertained myself and others, but what is fact and what is fiction.
MK: You can blame Willie Duggan for some of these, I am sure. Fire away anyhow.
EF: How did you and Pádraig O’Meara from High Street, your great friend in your UCC days, manage to fit into one of the tiniest, minuscule Fiat cars?
MK: It was fully taxed and I don’t mean the disc… We always had a bag of spuds on board from home to sustain us for the week in the flat.
EF: I heard that you left a great print on the ceiling of the Blue Bull pub in Cardiff and they are very proud of it. How did you manage to put your two footprints on the ceiling of the pub?
MK: I don’t remember. Must have been an act of God.
EF: Do you remember Smyth, the BBC commentator, who interviewed you during the Lions tour in 1977 about the highlight of your tour, and your reply?
MK: I’ve no doubt about my highlight: when I heard that Kerry beat the daylights out of Cork in the Munster final. That’s true alright. Dermot Coffey had told me the result some days before that.
EF: Fred Cogley interviewed you for RTÉ Sport before one of the internationals?
MK: He did indeed and he kept calling me Maurice Ignatius. That was only for my birth cert in Currow. I remember him saying that I had won so many caps, but had never scored for Ireland.
EF: How did you answer that?
MK: I took my time, then leaned forward and gave it to him there and then. “Not yet, Freddie.”
EF: Finally, Moss how would you like to be remembered?
MK: Are you putting me down already?
[Howls of laughter from the Big Fella. His mind and quick wit are as sharp as ever, even with that invasive, progressive bowel cancer.]
Give me a shout anytime at all.
EF: I will.
Moss Keane, an enduring icon of Irish sport and mighty company. How much time has he left?
They laid Moss to rest a year later, on October 7, 2010, in Portarlington graveyard. A real “who’s who” of Irish sport joined his wife, Anne, and daughters, Sarah and Ann Marie. You can just imagine the stories about Moss that flowed after the funeral.
Moss would love to have been in the middle of all the craic. He was one person I was glad to have known since that first day in the same plebs class in the Sem, September 1960.
Thanks for the memories, Moss. You enlivened many a day and many an occasion. The quotes are in the bank of treasured memories.