Babs Keating's 'donkeys' line a great misconception

Perceived jibe was intended as a compliment to Cork but the words were skewed
Babs Keating's 'donkeys' line a great misconception

Former Tipperary player and manager Michael 'Babs' Keating

While watching the early round of the Masters last week, the sight of Phil Mickelson reminded us of how a quote can be skewed so as to change its meaning.

The 1991 Walker Cup was held in Portmarnock and Mickelson, along with David Duval, was part of the victorious US side. In analysing one of his rounds on TV, he was shown an errant drive which ended up in the gallery and tried to go with humour in his explanation.

“That's not a place I want to be,” he said, “the Irish women are not that attractive.”

Mickelson was putting his emphasis on the word “that”, as in, “The Irish women aren’t so attractive that I’d want to hit my shot towards them.” With that important distinction lost in the transfer from broadcast to print, it became, “Women’s fury at Walker Cup ace.” Of course, close to home there is a famous example of words being misinterpreted – perhaps knowingly – in a bid to gain an advantage.

Michael ‘Babs’ Keating has achieved many things. A dual player with Tipperary, he won two All-Ireland hurling medals as a player and was on the inaugural All-Stars team in 1971, winning the Texaco Hurler of the Year award that year, too. As a manager, he guided the county to two All-Ireland SHC titles, and also led Galway to a decider.

Not shy in giving his opinions, his “sheep in a heap” line referring to Offaly just before his departure during the 1998 season came back to haunt him as the Faithful won the All-Ireland, while in 2007, during his final spell with Tipp, he said after one loss that the players “were dead, only to wash them”.

Both of those statements were intended as motivators to his own teams, but it is a quote seemingly aimed at opponents that is remembered on Leeside, even if the intention was the opposite.

Like so many great quotes, what is in the public consciousness isn’t correct – Babs didn’t say, “Donkeys don’t win derbies,” but the popular story is that such a throwaway line inspired Cork to dethrone the Munster and All-Ireland champions Tipp in 1990, going on to complete the first part of the double.

The following day’s Cork Examiner featured a headline that said, “Not bad for donkeys!” while it was reported that manager Fr Michael O’Brien had been annoyed with Keating’s comments.

Lost in all of that is the nuance, with Keating’s love of horseracing leading him to use a metaphor that went on to be misunderstood by so many. The quotes came from an interview with RTÉ’s Ger Canning on the Tuesday before the Munster final, broadcast on Sports Stadium on the Saturday.

Early in the piece, Keating said, “We face the old enemy here next Sunday and I hope we treat them with the respect they deserve.

Later, Canning asked, “Of course, you have to respect a team motivated and trained by people like Fr Michael O’Brien and Gerald McCarthy?”

Keating’s reply to that was: “You still need the talent, you still need the players. Several managers in recent weeks got credit for being great motivators but if you have not the talent…you can’t win a derby with a donkey.”

The intention was to say that it didn’t matter who Cork’s manager was if they didn’t have good players. Speaking to Adrian Russell for his 2019 book The Double, Canning confirmed the real story.

“He was wary of Cork and most certainly was not denigrating them in any way,” he said.

“That point was lost at the time. By why spoil a good line?”

In the week after the 4-16 to 2-14 loss, with Mark Foley scoring 2-7 from play for Cork, Keating tried to clarify things.

“If anyone in Cork wants to interpret my comments to suit themselves, that’s fine,” he said.

“But what I was saying applies to Tipperary as much as it does to Cork. It takes skill to win a Munster final. Everyone knows that…I don’t know how anyone could twist my comments to their own advantage.”

In The Double, most of the Cork players Russell spoke to admitted that they hadn’t been aware of Keating’s comments until afterwards but the story grew legs. Perhaps the credit – or blame – should go to Cork trainer Gerald McCarthy, who told Russell: “It was the last fucking thing I said going out on to the field.

“The Canon didn’t actually say it, but he’s down for it. I know Babs didn’t intend it that way. Strictly speaking, he’s right; you don’t win a derby with a donkey. But here we were saying, ‘Lads, this is Tipperary, this is the way they are thinking.’ And that’s a fierce motivating tool alright.”

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