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The DIB and the Six Nations: Moss Keane

08 March 2017

Hope springs eternal, annually, in the oldest rugby championship in the world.

As Ireland head to Cardiff chasing the Six Nations Championship, read about the illustrious career of Moss Keane, by Dr James Quinn, below.

One of the 38 new lives added to the Dictionary of Irish Biography online in December 2016, Keane's career was the prototype for other converts from GAA, notably Mick Galwey.

Keane, Maurice Ignatius ('Moss') (1948–2010), rugby and Gaelic footballer, was born on 27 July 1948 in Currow, near Castleisland, Co. Kerry, the eldest of three sons of Willie Keane and his wife Cassie (née O'Mahony), who were farmers. He was educated in Currow national school before boarding at St Brendan's College, Killarney, renowned for its fine Gaelic football teams. Moss, though, was tall and gangling, and failed to make the school teams. After completing his leaving certificate in 1965 he went to Pallaskenry agricultural college, Co. Limerick, where he played for the college Gaelic football team and was student of the year on graduation in 1966. He also played minor football for Currow and for Castleisland District, winning a Kerry county championship medal. In 1966 he entered UCC to study dairy science, graduating with a masters in microbiology (1972) and securing a job in the Department of Agriculture laboratory in Cork. Selected for the UCC Gaelic football team, usually at full-back, he won a Cork county championship (1969) and three Sigerson cups (1969, 1970 (as captain) and 1972), and lost to Bellaghy in the 1972 all-Ireland club final. He played for Kerry at under-21 and junior levels, and was on the Kerry team beaten by Wicklow in an all-Ireland junior home final at Croke Park in 1969 (something of which he never liked to be reminded).

A friend, Johnny Brosnan, advised him that, with his massive build (6 ft 5 in (1.96 m), and 20 st (127 kg) at his heaviest), he would never become a top-class Gaelic footballer, and suggested rugby as an alternative. The game was far from unknown in Currow: Keane's neighbours Tom and Mick Doyle (qv) had already played for Ireland. Keane's initial impression of rugby was that 'it was like watching a pornographic movie – very frustrating for those watching and only enjoyable for those participating' (Independent, 8 October 2010). In December 1970 he decided to get involved, turning out for UCC seconds under the pseudonym 'Moss Fenton' to evade the GAA ban on 'foreign games'. When the ban was lifted in April 1971 he began to play rugby more regularly. He was aware that he had a lot to learn, but reckoned 'you did not need to be a rocket scientist to be a second row' (Guardian, 7 October 2010). Progressing rapidly, he made his debut for Munster against Ulster at Thomond Park on 11 November 1972, and helped the province to a 3–3 draw against New Zealand at Musgrave Park on 16 January 1973. A year later (19 January 1974) he played his first game for Ireland, alongside Willie John McBride in the second row, losing 9–6 to France in Paris. The pace and ferocity of international rugby came as a shock, and he required stitches after a French forward deliberately stamped on his head and severed an artery next to his right ear. Keane played on despite the injury, and throughout his rugby career seemed almost indestructible, taking punishment without flinching and readily dishing it out in return. Ireland drew their next game, against Wales, and beat England and Scotland, to win their first five nations title for twenty-five years. For the next decade, Keane was a permanent fixture in the Irish second row, playing 44 consecutive five nations games, earning 51 caps in total and scoring a single try (in a 22–15 victory over Scotland in 1980).

While not the most technically gifted second-row to play for Ireland, Keane made up for his deficiencies with raw athleticism and whole-hearted commitment. His fierce tackling and ability to disrupt opposition possession were vitally important to Irish teams, especially after McBride's retirement in 1975. Having been a Gaelic footballer, Keane was comfortable with the ball in hand, and his rumbling charges at opposition defences were a memorable sight. He never frequented a gym, maintaining that his upbringing on a farm had given him all the natural strength he needed. He became a great crowd favourite, and his GAA and farming background did much to popularise rugby in rural areas. (Mick Galwey, who was born in Currow and captained Munster and Ireland, maintained that without Keane's inspiration he would probably never have played rugby.)

Keane played for the Barbarians in a 22–35 defeat by Moseley on 27 March 1974. Having performed well on Ireland's 1976 tour of New Zealand, he was selected for the British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand in 1977. He was injured in the first test, compounding the effects of a concussion received four days earlier. Afterwards, he was restricted to midweek games, playing twelve times against provincial opposition. The Lions lost the test series 3–1 and Keane found the three-month tour wearying; towards the end he lost interest and began drinking heavily.

A more rewarding experience was Ireland's 1979 tour of Australia, when Keane was one of only three players selected for all eight matches. In Ireland's most successful tour, the team exceeded expectations to win seven matches, including both tests against a formidable Wallabies team that had recently beaten the All Blacks. This was his last international tour. In 1981 he refused to travel on Ireland's tour of South Africa because of his opposition to apartheid.

In 1973 Keane moved to the Department of Agriculture in Dublin to become an agricultural inspector, a job he loved, having a particular affinity with those who worked the land. He joined Lansdowne FC, where he learned much about rugby, especially from the club's kitman, Con Murphy (1914–2002), a former international. At Lansdowne he won three Leinster senior cups (1979, 1980 and 1981) and three Leinster senior leagues (1974, 1977 and 1981), captaining the club to its first ever league and cup double in 1981. To stay in shape, he continued to play Gaelic football with Civil Service, retiring in 1977 to concentrate on rugby.

Some of his most memorable games were for Munster, notably their 12–0 win over the All Blacks in Thomond Park on 31 October 1978. The victory was all the sweeter after his unhappy tour the previous year, but Keane was pushed to his limit by the great New Zealand locks, Andy Haden and Frank Oliver. After a Munster lineout call late in the game, Keane was heard to exclaim: 'Oh Christ, not me again!'

Towards the end of his career, some critics argued that Keane was not mobile enough for international rugby and was prone to conceding too many penalties, but his physicality and experience were central to Ireland's triple crown in 1982 (the first since 1949) and to sharing the championship with France in 1983. He was then 34 and considered retiring, but stayed on for another five nations campaign, in which an ageing Irish team were whitewashed. His last game for Ireland was a 32–9 defeat to Scotland at Lansdowne Road on 3 March 1984.

He retired from club rugby the following year, but took great pleasure in coaching the Lansdowne under-19s to win the McCorry Cup in 1986. As one of the great characters of Irish sport, he was much in demand for veterans' rugby games and golf tournaments for various charities and sports clubs. Always ready to help charitable causes, he worked for a time in Calcutta with the charity Goal and was president of the Monasterevin/Portarlington Lions' Club, having moved to Portarlington, Co. Laois, his wife's hometown. He had married Anne Dunne (d. 2014), a teacher, at University Church in Dublin on 11 August 1979, and always regarded it as the best decision he ever made; they had two daughters, Sarah and Anne Marie. In September 1993 Keane was badly shaken by a vicious mugging near Heuston Station in Dublin in which he suffered a serious eye injury, but even this could not permanently dent his cheerful outlook. During these years he played golf regularly, and maintained an interest in most sports. He took great joy in Munster's Heineken Cup victories in 2006 and 2008 and Ireland's 2009 grand slam, but had no regrets about missing out on rugby's professional era, admitting that he would have found its demands excessive.

Although he was something of a hell-raiser in his playing days, there was more to Keane than the brawling boozer of legend. He prepared carefully for most games and, away from rugby, his interest in herbal medicine, spirituality and meditation belied his reputation. A reflective man with a strong connection with nature, he enjoyed nothing more than walking his family's land in Currow and thinking about those who had gone before him. He had a deep catholic faith and before international matches would sometimes drink from a bottle of Lourdes water for protection; on one occasion he sprinkled some over his Ulster protestant teammates Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride, with the assurance that it would protect them too. His personal warmth, exuberant sense of mischief, and razor-sharp Kerry wit made him an immensely popular figure among those who had played with or against him, and he forged strong friendships with opponents such as Bill Beaumont and Jean-Pierre Rives. Those close to him identified kindness and humility as his most characteristic traits; his neighbour Con Houlihan (1925–2012) summed him up best as 'a man of few airs and many graces' (Keane, Rucks, xiv).

In February 2009 he was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and faced the trial with courage and humour. He died on 5 October 2010 in Portarlington, Co. Laois. After a graveside oration by his Lansdowne, Munster and Ireland teammate Donal Spring, he was buried in the cemetery adjoining St Michael's church, Portarlington.

Ir. Press, 30 Oct. 1972; 1 Feb. 1973; 7, 11, 23 Jan., 28 Mar. 1974; 15 June 1977; 11 Mar. 1981; 10 Sept. 1993; 14 Feb. 1994; Barry Coughlan, The Irish Lions 1896–1983 (1983); Edmund Van Esbeck, The story of Irish rugby (1986); Terry Godwin, The complete who's who of international rugby (1987); Ir. Independent, 9 Sept. 1993; 6, 8 Oct. 2010; Hogan Stand, Feb. 2000; Moss Keane (with Billy Keane), Rucks, mauls and Gaelic football (2005); Sunday Independent, 20 Nov. 2005; 10 Oct. 2010; Irish Examiner, 6 Oct. 2010; Ir. Times, 6, 9 Oct. 2010; Guardian, 7 Oct. 2010; Independent (London), 8 Oct. 2010; Telegraph, 18 Oct. 2010

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2016

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