You often hear the expression that somebody ‘was dealt a poor hand’; that life has thrown that person a ‘curved ball’, as they say in the States. But, just as in a game of poker, same as in life, it’s not about the hand of cards you are dealt, but how you play them that counts. This story is mostly about a boy I knew at school, who was dealt a bad hand, but boy, did Joe know how to play the cards he got!

The only hurling championship medal I ever won was with Ballinvalley N.S. We had a very talented team of young hurlers, coached and encouraged by Master Lawlor. In those days of schools sports, there was no grading, it was winner take all and we became Westmeath county champions. I scored in every match, including 3-2 in the final in Cusack Park. I confidently expected those goals and that medal to be the first of many; that was until, very regretfully, I took a fatal break from the hurling in order to indulge my drinking career! The late and great Eugene Doherty drew to my attention several years later the fact that there was only one member of that team who didn’t emigrate, and Eugene always claimed that a senior championship was lost to Delvin as a result of the exodus of so many natural young hurlers of that era.

 I looked up a playing colleague from that Ballinvalley team last week and spoke with him by phone for the first time in 60 years. He was our outstanding corner-back. Nothing got past him … ball nor man! His name is Joe McNiece from Scurloughstown. Joe had only one arm… Joe was my hero. …

What prompted the memory of Joe to return was the fact that I have had my left arm in a cast for a couple of weeks and I was totally useless in doing anything for myself as a result. I thought of Joe and how he effortlessly got by each day and did stuff better than many of us with two arms.

Joe McNiece wasn’t the only one-armed person I knew at home. Mrs Mulvaney from Rangleborough was another heroine with only one arm, whom I knew in my youth. This remarkable woman reared 15 children, rode a bicycle to do her shopping every day, dug the garden, changed nappies, cooked meals and coped with any type of obstacle that the day might throw up. And here was I, sort of feeling sorry for myself because an arm was out of commission for a couple of weeks …

Pat Connell was the rate collector who called to our house when I was a child. I remember Pat as being a lovely man. Sometimes when he called, my father wouldn’t have the money. ‘Drop it down to the house when you have it’, Pat would advise casually. But he always came in for a chat, ‘so the neighbours wouldn’t know he didn’t get paid’, according to my father.

Pat’s jacket sleeve hung loosely, because he too only had one arm. He had modified the gear-stick so as to manage the driving – but Pat was more than an extensive farmer. He was a noted Collinstown hurler! I heard that he played for Westmeath a few times. Pat passed on the hurling – as well as the ‘nice-guy’ gene to his son Billy, who gave outstanding service to Lough Lene Gaels. Billy left us all too soon and may he too rest in peace.

 Joe McNiece came from a family of great Brownstown hurlers. I recall Joe as an impregnable defender – and he had more than one trick up his sleeve! Running shoulder to shoulder with his opponent, Joe would be ‘accidently’ slapping him in the face with the flapping jersey sleeve … preferably a wet sleeve! And what referee would give that sort of a free against a player with only one arm! It wasn’t all ground hurling with Joe; a flick on a moving ball to deftly rise it and with half a swing the ball would land at the other end of the field. He had double strength in his good arm – and not surprisingly, Joe excelled at handball. He left for England in his teens and last week was my first chat with him since those memorable days of long ago.

Joe McNiece is a wonderful example of triumph over adversity. He qualified as a service engineer and when John McDonald – another great hurling man from Gleniden, offered him a job maintaining mining machinery at McDonalds engineering works in Avoca, Joe returned to Ireland in the 1970s. Joe told me he tried several prosthetic arms over the years, but discarded all of them as ‘they were only getting in his way!’

Joe settled in Arklow. He lost his wife, Elizabeth, a few years back, but amidst the sadness, it is no surprise to be told that this remarkable man, ‘just gets on with life!’

What a wonderful role model are these three examples of getting on with life and making the best of it – no matter what sort of a hand you are dealt!

Don’t Forget

It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.