Archive for May, 2012

Bishop Denis Brennan – a few words to accompany the blessing.

Bishop Denis Brennan

As a neighbour of Nicky’s and the Rackard family it is a privilege to be here today. Growing up in the ’50′s Nicky Rackard was our hero, the dashing figure that led the way for Wexford.

Part of the golden team which brought Wexford to the hurling heights in the ’50′s Nicky in the words of Tom Williams’ tribute song, “led with style and dash.”

We know now that Nicky had to battle with his own demons too, again in the words of Cuchulainn’s Son, “He beat the devil on that lonely street.”

Like many of his battles on the field, this proved to be a titanic struggle but in the end he prevailed and his victory gave others the confidence and the courage to prevail too. Denis Brennan, Bishop of Ferns.

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

Bobby Rackard’s speech.

Bobby Rackard

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.
Bobby Rackard

For help with alcohol and drug related issues, the following sites are recommended:

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