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Mayor David Hynes’s speech

Mayor David Hynes

I am deeply honoured as Mayor of Wexford to unveil this magnificent statue of the late, great Nickey Rackard by this young sculptor Mark Richards. In the words of ‘Cuchulainn’s Son’ the challenge of an ancient game, brought glory, glory to your name. Though March winds blew the crowds still came to watch you gentle hero’. Nickey was indeed a hero and man of legend – on and off the hurling field. Nickey was a celebrity long before the term was used and then overused. I am old enough to remember the nights when bon fires were ablaze all over this town and county during those ‘golden years’ in the fifties when Wexford brought home ‘the MacCarthy Cup’ and then my parents, like so many others, allowed us to stay out late to welcome home the team. I sure anyone of that era will also recall sitting around the wireless listening to the distinctive voice of Micheál Ó Hehir who, long before the age of TV in Ireland was the eyes for thousands – his description of the game and its participants, colourful and outstandingly descriptive. There was many a heart stopping moment when the Model County’s fate hung in the balance and a last second goal or point could mean defeat or victory. I also recollect the first time I was interviewed by a ‘Wexford Free Press’ reporter, after I had won a child art competition in 1957 Before he finished talking to me about my painting, he asked me, (all reporters were men, at that time) who was my hero and I answered without hesitation ‘ It’s Nickey Rackard’ , I think if had he put that question to any child in Wexford at that time he would have been given the same unequivocal reply.

1922 was a hugely eventful year in the history of our country but it was also the year that Nickey Rackard from Killanne, County Wexford came into the world. The eldest son in a family of five boys and four girls. Rackard’s father Bob had planned that his son would play cricket, however, young Rackard was much more interested in Gaelic games. He was educated locally and later attended St. Kierans College, Kilkenny, a virtual academy for young hurling talent, as it remains to this day. Rackard later attended University College Dublin where he studied to be a veterinary surgeon.

The path that led inexorably to Croke Park, started in St. Kieran’s then on to his home parish Rathure where he honed his skill and perfected the art of hurling, but he also played Gaelic football and rugby and would not doubt have excelled at any of these sports, indeed he doned the puple and gold for Wexford Footballers on many occasions. Hurling, however was his passion and he pursued this with a single mindedness and devotion that was characteristic of Nickey.

Wexford at this time not even considered worthy of discussion when it came to talk of national titles. , if fact Gaelic football was the main game of GAA clubs throughout County Wexford but even wins in that code were a distant memory . But that was all to change over the next decade or so, as Wexford began to show promise with many new players coming up and of course Nickey along with his brothers Billy and Bobby were joined by the likes of Wheeler, Morrisey, Flood, Kehoe – (I’m delighted to see some of these great men join us today.) Wexford statrted to show promise. They began to take on the ‘Big Boys’. The Counties ‘elusive dream’ began to look like it could be realised and the ‘Yellow Belly’s’ captured the public imagination with their magnificent brand of powerful hurling. Nickey Rackard was the leader of this band of men. He took hurling’s centre stage when Christy Ring was in the twilight of his career and the Wexfordman became an icon of Gaelic games with extraordinary high scoring feats He made his first All Ireland senior hurling final debut in 1951 alongside his brothers Bobby and Willie whilst another brother, Jimmy was also in the panel. Also in 1951 Nicky won the first of four Leinster provincial senior hurling medals.

Amongst his many scoring feats the highlights include scoring 7 goals and 7 points against Antrim in the 1954 All Ireland semi final. In the previous game, the Leinster Final against Dublin he scored 5 goals and 4 points. A total personal score of 12 goals 11 points in just 2 games.

In 1955 Nicky finally realised his dream when he made it to the winning enclosure as Wexford disposed of Galway 3 – 13 to 2 – 8 in the All Ireland final and Wexford proudly for the first time, brought the McCarthy Cup home . It was the 1956 final v Cork that made the Rackard’s of Wexford national heroes. In one of the all time great finals, Nicky and his team beat a star studded Christy Ring led Cork team to avenge the 1954 defeat. Wexford had now won back-to-back titles in true sporting and heroic style and won esteem and admiration for the splendour of their lightning striking of the ball in flight and on the ground. Nickey was a tall and fearless full forward who excelled in both codes for his county and province. His 21 yards frees were legendary as Michael O’Heir called them ‘Rackard Specials’ and it took a brave man to try to block down one of these! He won many awards for his daring and thrilling displays with Wexford, Leinster, Combined Universities and Rest of Ireland teams. He also won a national hurling league medal in 1956.

Nickey Rackard is generally regarded as perhaps one of the greatest hurlers of all-time. He was also one of the cleanest hurlers and always whatever the out come of the match, his big hand would go out to his opponent. He was personally honoured by being posthumously named on the GAA Hurling Team of the Century in 1984. His scoring prowess has also earned Rackard a place on the top ten lists of all-time scoring greats. In fact, no hurler (not even the greats) ever got near the number of championship goals that Rackard scored. (60 goals in championship and 65 in League games) He was and still is the greatest goal machine that ever took up a hurley, and so the record still stands. In 2005 the GAA further honoured Rackard by naming the Nickey Rackard Cup, the hurling competition for Division 3 teams, in his honour.

But Nickey Rackard was also a family man with a loving wife Ailish and daughters Marian and Berna and his son Bobby. He was also a well-known Vet in his community of North Wexford . But his personal life away from the hurling pitch was at times at any rate, deeply troubled , marred by excessive drinking. The problem of addiction so often affect some of the most gifted and talented people. His problems with alcohol began while he was studying to be a veterinary surgeon in Dublin and even at this early stage it began to have a negative influence on many aspects of his life including his game. In 1951 he suddenly gave up alcohol in a pledge not to drink again after making a promise to a friend, who was a priest, died. When Wexford celebrated All-Ireland success in 1955 and 1956 Rackard was a ‘on the wagon’. During a visit to New York in 1957, however, he began drinking again and the habit grew progressively worse over the next 12 years but to his great credit he finally quit by 1970 after joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Like many others suffering addictions he had to piece his family life together again, rebuilt his veterinary practice and generally mend many broken fences. With the AA he travelled the country helping people who were troubled by alcohol and to this day many will tell you it was Nickey Rackard who carried the message of hope and recovery to them. Regretfully, Nicky developed cancer in 1974 and although he struggled with this illness bravely as was Nickey’s way in everything, it was one battle he wouldn’t win.

Even though Nicky knew he was dying, in 1975 he gave the story of his alcoholism to the Irish Press newspaper , becoming one of the first people to break the taboo of alcoholism in Ireland. In my opinion this aspect of Nickey Rackard is every bit as important as his feats on the sporting field.

He finally lost the battle with cancer and sadly died in 1976. So in the words of the song ‘.An Ash Tree toppled when you died scattered seeds at random’. At his funeral there were many families, friends and many from the GAA community who came from the 4 corners of Ireland to mourn him. So many tributes were paid to Nicky on hearing of his death. Two stand out, one by the great Christy Ring; who said ‘Nicky represented to me all that is good and fine about Gaelic games. He was a fierce competitor on the field but was always fair and manly in his bearing’ another from his long time friend Pat’ Diamond’ Hayden. ‘there was a closer link between me and Nickey Rarkard, …we had many an epic encounter between his native county and mine….. I always felt that the hurling would be tough and uncompromising between us but I always had the certain knowledge that no unfair advantage would be taken of me.’ Foes’ on the field but our deep friendship endured not only during his playing career to up to the time of his tragic passing’.

While many have written about Nicky Rackard, I think the definitive work was penned In 2006, by Wexford author, Tom Williams, who wrote a long-overdue biography of Rackard entitled Cuchullain’s Son – The Story of Nickey Rackard. The same author also penned the now well-known song about Rackard many years earlier. Cuchullain’s Son and has been recorded by various artists over the last 20 years and is a lament for the great sportsman. I’m glad to see Tom is here today to celebrate the ‘great man’ again. We also have Nicky Leacy here today who will soon give us his unique rendering of ‘Cuchullain’s Son’.

The idea for putting this magnificent statue in our new Selsker Square came by way of a motion by my Labour party colleague Cllr. George Lawlor and I was delighted to second this proposal, which was then adopted by Wexford Borough Council. And while this statue and it’s site initially received a mixed reception of endorsement, it has over time grown on people and now I’m happy to say receives widespread approval and I think is evidenced by the large gathering here to day. I would also like to pay tribute the man who produced this fabulous portrayal of Rackard in action which will stand for future generations for visitors and local to enjoy. I know that Mark put a lot of detailed research into his subject. So thank you all for coming and I know this beautiful statue along with the Pike man in the Bullring, a few hundreds yards away and Commodore John Barry down on the Crescent Quay will make a wonderful trio in the heart of our town.

So I think the final words of this talk should be ‘We watched you on September fields, and lighting was the drive. You were the one, Cuchulainn’s Son, in 1955.

Thank you