PA DILLON – HURLING COLOSSUS

Many believe that a sporting life can be crystallised in one moment, that a particular incident or image becomes embedded in the memory and it serves to encapsulate that life. This is an over simplification of course, but very often just such a moment can help explain the essence of the person involved.

In 1967 Pa Dillon was faced with a nightmare scenario. Kilkenny were three points up on Tipperary in an All Ireland final against a team they hadn’t beaten in the championship since 1922. Tipperary’s Jimmy Doyle was bearing down on goal and saw his team-mate Devanney inside the defence alone and unmarked, with Pa Dillon seemingly stranded. Doyle flicked the ball over Pa’s head, or so he believed. The Freshford man straining every sinew of his imposing frame brought the ball down and cleared it. Kilkenny scored next and went on to secure an historic victory. That incident alone may not define Pa Dillon as a player but it certainly was a pivotal moment in an illustrious career.

Such incidents are results of years of hurling toil. Beginnings less auspicious are no less important. Pa Dillon’s first tangible success on the hurling field came when the Freshford U/14 team, of which he was a member, won the B county final of 1951 and the U/14 county final the following year. Local schoolteacher Tom Waldron was the catalyst to much of Freshford’s underage success. He is credited with initiating an organised structural approach to training and success soon followed. In fact having been victorious in the 1954 U/16 county final, Freshford went on to contest three minor finals in succession, beginning in 1954. Pa Dillon played in all three finals winning one in 1955.

Hurling is essentially a parish game, it is born out of the locality and becomes ingrained in those who play it. Pa Dillon recounts his own hurling initiation,

"After school we would hurl on the green for an hour or more and then tip on home and hurl again later if we could once the jobs were done"

Transport to and from the games was via the local creamery lorry, driven by Sean Buckley’s father Micheal and the money for a set of jersey’s had to be raised through a raffle which proved a huge success. As Pa himself points out, such interest and encouragement was bound to yield results and of course it did.

Pa’s success at club level didn’t go unnoticed. He played on the Kilkenny minor side that won a Leinster title in 1955 and were beaten All Ireland finalists in 1956. It is no coincidence that Freshford’s rise to prominence around this time, though not solely down to any one individual, coincided with Pa’s emergence as a dominant force.

The Junior Championship was not easily won at this time in Kilkenny. The hurling was tough and uncompromising as the competing teams vied for Senior status. Following a North Junior Final between Threecastles and Freshford in 1959, a significant figure was to come on to the scene. Local priest Fr. Houlihan did what so many clergymen of this era managed to do and acted as a unifying force. In bringing Threecastles and Freshford together he was to create a pool of talent whose successes were almost instant. Freshford won the 1959 Junior Championship played in 1960. Pa himself takes up the story.

"For us to win the Junior Championship was almost unthinkable. Success was new to us but we liked how it felt. The win was a tribute to the entire parish and not just the team, we received unbelievable encouragement."

The countless nights training under the watchful eye of Jimmy Bergin, who even had the team training indoors in the local CYMS hall in inclement weather continued to yield rich rewards. In 1961 Pa led Freshford to their first Senior County title, a shock to all except the men from St. Lactains. The parish was riding the crest of a wave and went on to win the title again in 1963.

All this time Pa’s progress was being monitored. His performances at full back were becoming a talking point following the Junior victory in 1959 and the county call was not long coming. Pa’s first senior outing in a Kilkenny jersey was against Waterford in 1960 in a tournament game. The winners being afforded a trip to play in Wembley. The Deise men were reigning All Ireland champions and boasted such greats as Guinan, Cheasty and Martin Og Morrisey, but Pa’s debut was a victorious one nevertheless.

However, it took the big Freshford man a while to gain a permanent foothold in the county team. The ‘Link’ Walshe was a regular full back and ‘Cha’ Whelan of Thomastown held the position in the 1963 final. By 1964 Pa Dillon had taken over the position and he made it his own right up until All Ireland success in 1972, aside from a brief sojourn into the full forward line in 1966.

Pa was to become part of some great Kilkenny teams and guarded his area with a keeness and guile that few could breach. The era in which he played was one where the goalkeeper was fairgame as Pa himself says,

"The full forward would try to get the goalie on the way in and if he didn’t he’d get him on the way out, I was there to stop that."

But Pa Dillon made use of his physique more than as a buttress. His height afforded him a great advantage and his ability to catch a ball was unrivalled.

Exactly how or why he ended up in the full forward line in 1966 is a slight mystery. It was perceived that Kilkenny could be lacking in some power in that position. His first time to play full forward was for a Leinster selection against Wexford and he scored three goals. Pa himself likes to qualify this by saying,

"I headed one in, walked in another and I think one hit off me as it crossed the line."

Following defeat to Cork in the 1966 final Pa shipped more than his fair share of blame. It is said that it took some encouragement from Paddy Grace to get him to take the field for the second leg of the league final in Nowlan Park in the same year.

By the spring of 1967 Pa had been restored to his more natural full back berth when Kilkenny played Tipperary in a hot tempered league game. Pa got his marching orders along with ‘Babs’ Keating that day and as a result missed the Railway Cup final. This rankled badly with him as the Railway Cup was something he valued dearly. In fact probably his greatest display came in a Railway Cup final against Munster when his catching and interceptions were peerless.

The photographs of this era show a tight and often combative Kilkenny full back line whose reputation often did as much to ‘psyche out’ opponents, although it served also to belie a depth of skill. ’Babs’ Keating quotes one of his team-mates on being told to move into the full forward line as saying, "no way they are in there sharpening their blades." Ted Carroll, Jim Treacy amongst others flanked Pa Dillon at various stages throughout his career and the return opposing forwards gained was never more than frugal. Pa is quick to pay tribute to these men,

"We had a great understanding, we played for each other and we were all familiar with each others style of play and that is invaluable especially towards the end of a close game."

Tom Ryall had this to say about the Freshford man:

"In his era Pa was the perfect full back, he had great hands, excellent ground strokes and he completely dominated his area. Forwards respected him and many dreaded marking him."

Newspaper reports of the day more than affirm this perspective, as do the players he marked. When asked for his opinion on Pa, former Cork dual star Ray Cummins answered as follows:

"Pa was extremely hard to mark, tough and tight you really earned your scores. Because of my lack of physique at the time, I tended to roam out the field. I didn’t fancy rising the dust around the square with him. It was pointless anyway, it rarely yielded anything, and Pa generally came out on top in those situations. I have great respect for Pa Dillon, hard and tight on the pitch and a gentleman off it."

Admiration for Pa was not confined to players at the time either. A pre-cursor to the All-stars as we know them now, was an annual best team selection picked by the journalists and ex players, under the auspices of the ‘Gaelic Weekly’ magazine. The prize giving ceremony was held on the eve of the Railway Cup final and Pa Dillon was honoured on two occasions, in 1964 and 1967. While such awards are not all important they confirm today the esteem in which those who knew the game held Pa Dillon.

When asked if he has any regrets Pa Dillon answers simply, " Yes, I had to stop hurling" such a sentiment says so much about Pa’s love for the game. He retired from intercounty hurling on a high note after the 1972 All-Ireland victory over Cork, a day of days for Kilkenny hurling. With seventeen minutes left the rebels led Kilkenny by seven points, but a titanic final quarter saw the cats win by seven points. It was a fitting note for Pa to exit the scene on.

He went on hurling for St. Lachtains for a number of years after. Pa relates how his club days came to an end.

"I stopped hurling altogether after a Special Junior game. A high ball came in and I thought I was 22 again, so up, I went and got a ferocious belt in the forehead. I asked the full forward had he done it he denied it. I then asked the other forwards, they denied it as well. I even asked my own backs, then I realised I must have hit myself. In the county hospital the nurse asked me my age and even though I lied she nearly dropped. Time to go I thought."

For a man so dedicated to the cause his involvement continued of course, he has been a chairman of the Freshford club and was a selector last year. A man like Pa just doesn’t suddenly stop loving the game. It is his life’s blood. When asked about the state of the game today Pa has some interesting comments to make.

"In a way it’s a faster game, and players are generally fitter than they were but if or how that has improved hurling as a game I am not quite sure. The pitch is still the same size."

He believes that players should be compensated monetarily for their involvement at county level but that a fine balance between preserving the games purity and not leaving players out of pocket should be maintained. Pa contends also that camogie players don’t quite get the treatment their male counterparts receive and that this should be addressed. His daughter Gillian has played for Kilkenny for a number of years so he is speaking with some authority on the subject. These of course are opinions of a man who cares whole heartedly about the game. Pa pays tribute to the people who encouraged him throughout his career and gives particular mention to his wife Teresa.

Pa relates an anecdote that conveys much about the man in the context of the game of hurling.

"I was ploughing a field one evening when I saw Gillian wandering up the road after school with her hurley. She ran up and begged me to puck around with her. So I did across a ploughed field. She couldn’t wait. I must have done something right."

How true.

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