As one of the greatest figures the game of hurling has ever seen calls it a day on his Kilkenny career, we present to you an interview Henry Shefflin gave Ireland’s Own back in January of 2015. We wish him all the best in his retirement.
By Dave Devereux
What Lionel Messi is to soccer, Roger Federer is to tennis and Michael Jordan is to basketball, Henry Shefflin is to hurling.
That’s the seismic standing he has within the game and the Kilkenny great’s name is box office material and definitely not out of place among that kind of exalted company.
The ancient Irish game may not command the same level of audience and hit the worldwide headlines like the multi-millionaire sports stars mentioned, but make no mistake King Henry, like Christy Ring and Nickey Rackard before him, has had just asmuch impact in his chosen field and can justifiably be labelled as the greatest ever exponent of his art.
As a wide-eyed teenager growing up in Ballyhale few may have predicted the honour-laden future that lay ahead for the fledgling hurler, but a combination of hard work and no little skill brought him to the very top of the hurling tree.
The 11-time All Star grew up in a family of seven in an area steeped in GAA tradition and it was inevitable that he would catch the bug and become immersed in the world of hurling.
‘I grew up on a farm and in a pub on the small street of Ballyhale. I was the second youngest in the family and all the lads before me would have played hurling. I was lucky that Ballyhale Shamrocks were a very successful club side. They had seven Fennellys in the team. From an early age if I wasn’t to be a Kilkenny hurler I wanted to be a Ballyhale hurler first and foremost. My early memories would be heading off to a Ballyhale match in the car and coming back to work in the pub and picking up glasses’, he said.
His parents, Henry and Mai, embraced the GAA tradition and hurling was always a big part of the Shefflin household.
‘My older brothers (Tommy and John) would have played Minor and under-21 with Kilkenny and Paul my younger brother. They would have all been part of that great Shamrocks team as well. Hurling was very much part of our life,’ he said.
Henry continued to develop his love for the game when he attended the local national school in Ballyhale and says principal Joe Dunphy played a big part in further igniting his passion for the craft.
‘Joe was Mr Hurling in Ballyhale basically. He would have put all the Fennellys through their paces and a lot of other Kilkenny players, like myself and ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick. He would have seen a lot of talent through the years,’ he said.
Henry continued his education in the famous hurling nursery St Kieran’s College, a school that has seen the best of the best in Kilkenny hurling roam through its corridors.
‘That was a major step. I remember when I was a young chap going to watch St Kieran’s playing All-Ireland finals with DJ Carey, Pat O’Neill, these great players. My brother Tommy was part of that team that won an All-Ireland and I would have always wanted to go to St Kieran’s to be part of that,’ he said.
Although Henry went on to become the most decorated player in the game, winning a record-breaking ten All-Irelands, he admits he didn’t shine like a beacon in his secondary school days, despite being part of an All-Ireland winning side.
‘I was into my 20s before I would have stood out. At that stage I was a small fish in a big pond because there were so many talented players going through St Kieran’s. I thought I was a good player for Ballyhale but when you go to St Kieran’s you have all the town teams and all the country teams with excellent players. I’m glad when I look back on my career that I wasn’t identified as a great player because I had to work hard to get on the team and be part of it. I had to work hard to stay with the lads that were probably developing better than me. To get more skilful I had to put in the extra effort,’ he said.
Shefflin went on to win two Fitzgibbon Cups with Waterford Institute of Technology and although obviously blessed with an abundance of skill and natural talent, it’s that ethos of hard work that he sees as his greatest asset.
‘I didn’t have things handed to me. Once I got a taste for it I had done that hard work so I knew where that could get you and I was always going to keep that going,’ he said.
The Bank of Ireland official met his perfect match in his wife Deirdre O’Sullivan, whom he married in 2007. Deirdre is an accomplished camogie player, something Henry believes helps them to deal with the highs and the lows of the game.
‘She would have played herself, she’s a good camogie player, so she would understand. I think it’s great to have someone like that there for you. When you go home from the good days and the bad days she can understand the way you’re feeling,’ he said.
The couple have been blessed with four children, Sadhbh, Henry, Siún and Freddie, and the Kilkenny superstar is happiest when surrounded by his family.
‘When you’re starting out in your career it’s all hurling, hurling, hurling, that’s your priority, but your priorities change. Some of the younger lads in the panel don’t realise that, but that’s life. Life moves you on through different stages. I’m very lucky to have four healthy children at home. My spare time is spent with the family. I enjoy bringing the children off to the pool and that kind of thing,’ he said.
For a player that has tasted so much success on a national level it’s a local triumph that evokes the fondest memories for Henry, illustrating that community and a sense of place is essentially at the heart of the GAA.
‘The win that stands out most for me as one of my greatest successes ever is winning my first county final in 2006.
‘The reason being is that I grew up looking at Ballyhale winning county finals and going into those great days, those Sundays in October, it was my dream to do that. We had lost the previous year and I had a bad game, so it was great to come back and I got great satisfaction out of winning that county final,’ he said.
The three-time Hurler of the Year has enjoyed numerous inter-county successes with Kilkenny but says there’s a few triumphs that stand out just a little bit more than others.
‘Obviously your first All-Ireland is special, to captain a team to an All-Ireland is special and the last two where people thought “Henry could be gone”, 2012 and this year, are special years as well because you know that could be it, so you very much cherish those moments,’ he said.
It may be winning All-Irelands with the Cats that captures the national headlines but the Ballyhale talisman garners as much, if not more, pleasure when climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand after the ultimate club triumph.
Shamrocks are bidding to win a sixth All-Ireland title in March and Henry says there is a special feeling at the St Patrick’s Day showpiece.
‘They are different. There’s no doubt about it. With your county it’s a national event, there’s bigger hype to it and stuff like that and there’s great satisfaction to it. With your club it’s something different. It’s just so localised and parochial.
‘You can really buy into it. You know every one of the supporters that are there, you know all the old characterws on the street and you know everyone is 100 per cent into it. They’re both very special feelings but they are very different,’ he said.
Throughout an incredible career Shefflin has reached many milestones and continued to break record after record, including most All-Ireland wins, most All Stars, highest championship scorer and most championship appearances for Kilkenny, but he’s not hung up on personal accolades.
‘I think when I retire that’s when I’ll reflect on the records but once you’re still playing you’re always looking ahead. When I retire and put the boots away I’ll be able to sit back with satisfaction. That’s when you can look back with fondness and treasure the great memories,’ he said.
Shefflin has suffered a number of well-documented injuries throughout his time at the top but has always had the fire in his belly to regain fitness and run out on the hallowed turf again. So how does he continually bounce back from the depths?
‘Because I love it more than anything else. I’m very lucky that I’m from a successful county that has a chance of winning.
‘When you’re working hard in the gym in the lonely times you are thinking of the bigger days. That does help to drive you on. I love playing the game, I love training – you’re busting your gut to try to get back and experience all that,’ he said.
It comes as no surprise that Shefflin lists Kilkenny manager Brian Cody as one of the biggest influences of his hurling career, as the pair have stood shoulder to shoulder going into battle for the past decade and a half. ‘Brian has been a massive influence. Nobody would have picked me out in 1998.
‘Brian watched me and identified something in me he liked. From 1999 that was it. He was the one that gave me the opportunity to develop and he obviously instilled great confidence in me and has been driving us the whole time since then. Without him I wouldn’t have had the success I’ve had,’ he said.
Cody has a reputation as being a tough task-master who’s not afraid of making the difficult calls and Henry believes that’s the right approach for success.
‘He’s tough man but a very fair man. You know what you’re getting. He’s all for the team at the end of the day and that’s all you want,’ he said.
And would Henry consider following in the footsteps of his much-heralded mentor and going into management?
‘I don’t know what my wife would think of that. It’s very time consuming.
‘I’ve been so busy with Kilkenny and my own family you probably don’t get a chance to give something back to the club at an underage level.
‘I’d like to do something like that at some stage anyway,’ he said.
With fellow Kilkenny players Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, JJ Delaney, Aidan Fogarty and David Herrity calling it a day in recent weeks, the obvious question on everyone’s lips is will Henry Shefflin be hanging up his camán or go into battle for a another championship campaign – he turns 36 on January 11.
‘I’m concentrating on the club at the moment so that’s my main focus for now. A decision on next year is for another day,’ he said. When leading man Shefflin does exit the main stage it will be a nigh impossible role to fill.
Hurling fans will certainly be hoping for one last hurrah from King Henry.