Mayor David Hynes, GAA president Christy Cooney, members of the Wexford Borough Council, members of the 1950s team, Bishop Brennan, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Good afternoon …. It is lovely to see so many people here today … a big hello to the people of Wexford and to those who have travelled from all parts of the country.
On behalf of my sisters Marion, Berna and myself, I`d like to welcome our own family members, both immediate and extended, the various Rackard families, Gilhooleys, Dorans, Pooles, Cullens, Murrays, Murphys, Gemma, Maura and their families. In particular I`d like to make special mention of my fathers sisters aunties Mollie and Rita who unfortunately could not be with us.
It is a great honour to stand here today to speak on behalf of the family. Other than the sad occasion of funerals, we have not had such a Rackard gathering since 1996 in Killanne, where it all began. This took place just a few months before uncle Bobby passed away…….and if I could for a moment just remember those family members who are not with us but who would be very proud of this day…..I think of my father’s parents Robert and Anastasia, his siblings Sally, Essie, John, and of course Jimmy, Bobby & Billy, who played with daddy and who are equally being honoured here today. I would also like to remember the members of the 1950s team who have passed away and welcome members of their families. Such a list would not be complete without the mention of our dear mother Ailish, who is especially in our thoughts and hearts.
I would like to thank the Wexford Borough Council for commissioning this statue especially in these difficult times. This is the culmination of a long process that began over 4 years ago with a lot of input from a number of people. Thank you to everyone involved – in particular to George Lawlor, and Liam Griffin for their vision, passion & commitment in seeing to the completion of this statue. Daddy would have been extremely proud to see this statue sited in the heart of Wexford town, the capital of County Wexford. He was always an extremely proud Wexford man.
The statue itself is wonderful, I think you will agree. Mark Richards, is one of the best exponents of his craft in this part of Europe – these are not my words, but those of a prominent Irish sculptor. Nickey is indeed in illustrious company as Mark has created pieces for the Royal family, including images of the Queen & Prince Phillip in the Royal enclosure at Ascot racecourse and the official silver coin for the Royal wedding last year. I think Nickey
would have preferred to have had more exciting connection with Royalty – by winning the Queen Mother champion chase trophy at Cheltenham – but alas that class of horse he didn`t have.
Throughout the process Mark was modest, charming, and engaging. He was always inclusive even to the extent of allowing our 9 year old son Seth to give his opinion on his grandfather’s statue, to which he listened with intent.
Thank you Mark…. as long as this statue stands here there will be a part of you in Wexford and it will always be great to see you back. Can I extend a very warm welcome to your children G & N who have travelled here with you……….
An additional lovely feature of the work on the statue is the association of another great name from that 1950s team, Martin Codd. Martin senior was such a lovely gentleman and a firm family friend, and it is a delight for us that his son Martin was involved in the construction of the plinth. Martin, well done & thanks to you and the all who worked on it.
Mark has managed to capture the energy and movement just prior to an explosive drive for goal and the release of what was termed a Rackard special. While the statue bears the image of our father, it is also more than just a representation of one man. As an image of him, himself, it represents the hurling great that he was, the leader, goal scorer, the sportsman. It captures the true grit and determination as he eyes up a typical goal scoring opportunity. He had ferocious determination, power, strength & a will to win.
As a leader and spearhead of that great team, he infused them with these same values. In a sense perhaps this statue also speaks of the values exhibited by this team. These men were noble sportsmen who played this ancient game with fairness, creativity and flair. This sportsmanship was best exemplified when, following the final whistle in the 1956 All Ireland final , uncle Bobby & Nick O`Donnell hoisted Christy Ring onto their shoulders to honour the great man in his last All Ireland, even though this Wexford team had just beaten Cork to achieve the pinnacle of their ambitions. A memorable sporting gesture in a golden era of hurling.
This Wexford team were not the aristocrats of hurling tradition. They bounced onto the scene in the 1950s, an era of severe economic and social tribulation with high unemployment and mass emigration, similar in many ways to today, but perhaps a much darker time. They brought a new light and joy not only to Wexford people, but to tens of thousands of non Wexford people who took them to their hearts.
They were innovative hurlers who brought a new style and approach to the game. They were ahead of their time in the way they thought about the game, their opponents and how to gain a competitive advantage. These elements included a new approach to fitness, bringing existing skills to new levels & even to their off field sartorial presentation. Billy was to the fore in this new thinking. For instance he influenced the introduction of lighter hurling boots for match days in 1955. This particular innovation helped Wexford in beating Mick Mackeys Limerick in the 1955 All Ireland semi final on their way to winning their first All Ireland against Galway.
These men brought much glory, joy and excitement to a social landscape struggling with the pain of living through that dark & difficult period. Of course they had such a huge enthusiastic army of fans and followers. I believe, in a sense, this statue embodies the dance and interplay that occurred between the man, the team and the fans during the ups and downs of the wins and losses in those years.
I say all this without direct experience, as we his children were not around to witness it. However, over the years we came into contact with many people who knew and enjoyed this special team. As youngsters growing up, we met people who, once they heard the name and connection, their faces would light up and they would regale us with stories of the team, their exploits and our father. If one word was to capture that which they were expressing …. it was JOY.
Nickey was also an accomplished gaelic footballer and won a Leinster title with Wexford in 1945. He took pleasure in a lot of sports both as a participant and spectator. He played cricket as a child, and golf, rugby, boxing and athletics also formed part of his competitive fervour. However, after hurling, his other real, great passion was horses, be it the pleasure of riding, owning or training. He enjoyed some great success with race wins and betting coups with the likes of Ballyellis, Shining Flame and Mount Leinster.
As a young boy he often tried to pass on some hurling and riding tips to me. The hurling tips I remember most were to crouch low with both hands on the hurl when trying to scoop the ball up into the hand & how to pull good ground hurling strokes. But I particularly remember how he tried to teach me to use my backside and elbows and my power to make space to swing the hurl to hit the ball. It was only when I recently watched the DVD of the 1950s All Ireland Hurling Finals that I saw how he used that particular technique to great effect.
Of course he was all about making room to smash the ball to the back of the net. And in this endeavour, he terrified many a goal keeper, to the point that in one particular game, the goal keeper decided that self preservation took preference over trying to stop a Rackard special, and duly fled the goal. I too experienced this terror as a young lad standing in the goal of the double garage doors at home as he decided to gift me a goal keepers experience. The shock and crack of the sound as the ball hit those doors still resounds in my ears as well as the memory of my knocking knees!
His riding tips were sometimes more of a protective nature. You see, I liked to ride high in the saddle like Lester Piggott, my then hero. Being tall with a high centre of gravity, I had a propensity for falling off with some regularity. So when he couldn`t get me to lower the stirrups to a safer level, he coached me on how to fall properly. He later complemented me on how I`d developed a great technique for falling off! His judgement got the better of him on one occasion when he let me ride his good horse Mount Leinster in a point to point in Killinick. As the raging hot favourite we should have won by a country mile. BUT, you guessed it, I came off – at one of the fences just when we had moved into a winning position! In spite of my very valid excuses, needless to say that while I was nursing my pride, Mount Leinster went on to great success winning multiple races but with someone else on board! I was never to be legged up as a race pilot again.
Nickey was a big man in lots of ways, physically and in personality. People have used terms such as charismatic, gregarious, inspirational to describe him. He was a powerful man physically. For instance, he used to enjoy the challenge of manhandling cattle on his own when a farmer didn`t have a cattle crush for restraining purposes.
He was a saint to some, a sinner to others. He was fearless & courageous. He cast a big shadow, sometimes bright, sometimes not so bright. Most importantly, he had a big HEART.
The other significant dimension to our dad was his struggle with alcohol. While his struggle is well documented, I believe that he would wish to remind people of the devastation that alcohol misuse can cause and the impact it had in his own life. His problem with alcohol took hold in his early 20s while in college. It took him 7 years to complete a 5 year veterinary course at UCD, due in no small part to alcohol abuse. He gave it up in 1953 at the behest of a dying friend, Fr. Quigley and from then until a trip to New York in 1957, he avoided alcohol. Thereafter, as he said himself, alcohol took him from the highs of `55 & `56 to the lows of misery and degradation. A chaotic life ensued inside and outside the home for the next 14 years or so. Many wrong choices and decisions were made. He spoke on occasions about his remorse and the devastation and hurt that he caused to his family. Everything he had, his marriage, family, his veterinary practice, his friends and his reputation was put at risk.
With 2 choices, life or death, he chose life and made the courageous decision to seek help and then embarked on the life changing struggle to overcome his addiction to alcohol and to deal with his demons, as he called them. With the same courage, grit & determination he displayed during his playing days, he eyed a different goal. First to stay off drink and second to live one day at a time. The only way he knew how to avoid that next deadly drink was the way of Alcoholic Anonymous and the 12 steps. This is essentially what saved him. He got his life back together again and got back working and training horses with success. He also devoted and committed huge energy, time and resources to the support and assistance of others who were also afflicted with the scourge of alcohol misuse. He travelled far and wide at the drop of a hat to be with people if he thought he could make a difference. In this work, he made a significant positive impact on many people and consequently their families. This he did quietly & without fanfare. It wasn`t something we as a family always relished as he was so often not around.
The last 6 years of his life were precious years of sobriety for daddy which brought a newfound peace & spirituality that heretofore had eluded him. However, his life was cut short by illness, in no small way due to his lifestyle. Nonetheless, he faced his illness and subsequent death with acceptance, courage & dignity.
On April 10th this year, it will be 36 years since he passed away at the young age of 53. He would be celebrating his 90th birthday on April 28th.
I speak of his addiction to alcohol because it is central theme to the story of our father, as well as his hurling legacy. He was a warrior in the hurling arena and later in life in his fight for sobriety. Without his addictive nature and abuse of alcohol, we might have seen much more of his great HEART.
This statue and the story of our dad will evoke different things to different people. It may for some be a reminder of the highs and lows of the human condition. And as we all know, the human condition is perfectly imperfect. Others may find hope and inspiration in either considering their own potential or in dealing with individual life struggles.
One would hope that current and future hurlers might find inspiration to again bring Wexford back to the glory days of winning All Irelands and bringing new hope and glory back to the people of Wexford.
Finally, could I just mention the good work that the GAA are doing around awareness, early recognition of the signs & support of young people around alcohol and drugs misuse. Our family would be very supportive of this initiative and we know our father would be also. We`d like to congratulate the GAA President, his colleagues and all concerned with the programme and wish you the very best with it.
Thank you very much.
For help with alcohol and drug related issues, the following sites are recommended: