Willie John Daly, who has died at the age of 92, was the last surviving member of the Cork senior hurling team that won an elusive three All-Irelands in a row in 1952, 1953 and 1954. In that truly remarkable team, which gained a special place in the history of the GAA, he played at centre-forward, alongside Christy Ring, arguably the greatest player that ever held a hurley stick, who rated him highly as a player.
A prolific scorer and superb striker of the ball, Daly later became involved in team management and coaching of the senior county and local club teams. Born in Carigtwohill in east Cork, he went to the local St Mary’s boys school and then joined the staff of the ESB, getting a secure job in difficult times. His father was a point-to-point jockey which left Daly with a great interest in the horses.
A promising hurler in his school days, it was only natural that he would join his local club named after the village where he was born and grew up. He went on to win junior and intermediate championships with “Carrig”. In recognition of his achievements, the club paid him a glowing tribute for his many years of service to the local community.
By any yardstick, his medal collection was impressive, especially at a time when medals were not easily won. At inter- county level, he won four Munster senior titles, three All-Irelands, two national leagues, three Railway Cups, plus Munster junior and All-Ireland titles.
Twice a runner-up in the All-Ireland, he made 26 championship appearances and when he retired from inter-county hurling in 1957 he went on to management and coaching senior county and club teams, winning a National League title with Cork.
Known as a skilled exponent of the game and a clean player, his hurling philosophy sums up the essence of what top-class hurling is all about: “You never back away from anyone. You take on your man toe-to-toe. It doesn’t matter who he is or how big a name he is. You take no backward step.” This no-nonsense mantra still applies in today’s game.
Off the field he was the best of company, hugely popular and a great man to have a conversation with. He was also generous. When, for example, Daly was inducted into the Vintage Gaels Hall of Fame in 2011, celebrating his career, he donated one of his Railway Cup medals for auction which helped to raise a significant amount for Marymount Hospice.
His first game with the Cork senior team was in the 1948 championship. An instant success, he became a regular in the team. Kicking off his boots in the 1953 All-Ireland final against Galway, he played in his socks and won his second medal.
His funeral was attended by former Tipperary hurlers, rivals on the field of play but mourners at his burial, including John Costigan and Jimmy Finn, captain of the 1951 All-Ireland winning Tipperary team. In his graveside oration, the Cork County secretary of the GAA, Frank Murphy, praised Daly for “advancing the game he served with selfless dedication, which brightened the lives of so many people that were privileged to have seen him play and to have known him”.
In the warm tribute from his home club, he is described as “synonymous with Carrigtwohill and Cork hurling and will be remembered as a true giant of the game. He will be sorely missed by his friends, his club and his county”.
He is survived by his wife, Teresa, daughter, Ann-Marie, and granddaughter, Lauryn.