‘I’ve been very lucky’: Babs Keating on barefooted feats, surviving cancer and why hurling counties should quit Croke Park

The GAA great, who turns 80 next week, reflects on his joys and mistakes, and shows why he remains a force of nature

It wouldn’t be unusual for Michael “Babs” Keating, of a random midweek day, to get in his car and make the short trip from his home in Kildare to Johnny Murtagh’s stables on the edge of the Curragh gallops.

His daughter, Orla, or Johnny, his son-in-law, are usually knocking about. Either way, most mornings he’ll swim a mile in the pool and there tends to be racing on TV in the afternoons. Invariably, no day will pass without talk of hurling or football or both.

He’s not convinced the Tipp hurlers have the stuff to go all the way this year, but more than anything he finds himself growing increasingly concerned about the state of the GAA; where it’s going, what it stands for, who it represents.

No intercounty activity in August or September, the tinkering with the age grades and what he sees as the ostracisation of older people by the GAA, none of it sits well with him. And then there’s hurling.


“I’m saying it loud and clear, the first thing hurling counties should do is break from Croke Park and run their own association.

“Hurling is treated as a second-class citizen and it’s never going to get enough support in the current arrangement, because football dominates in terms of votes. Hurling counties should go out on their own and do so immediately.”

This is Babs at 80.

After all these years, he remains a force of nature.

Even within the pantheon of the game, mononyms are reserved for only a select few. Ring, Mackey, Henry, that’s the kind of rarefied air he shares. He’s a living icon.

His broad frame remains, and you still get the impression that if Babs Keating hit you, you’d stay hit.

But the truth is, these days, he’s just grateful to be here. In 2020 Babs received a bleak cancer diagnosis.

In the preceding years he had been dealing with various aches and pains, including a banjaxed shoulder which ended his golfing days. The shoulder pain lingered. In August 2020 he met Dr Pat O’Neill, and the former Dublin manager said he’d have a look at it.

O’Neill spotted something of concern when Babs removed his shirt, a black circle in the centre of his back, about the size of an egg. His wife, Nancy, had been telling Babs for ages to get it checked out, but he’d procrastinated.

He went in for surgery the following week but subsequently his entire back became inflamed. The medical team were concerned.

“I sat in front of the specialist and he said, ‘Look, you’ve a serious problem, I’m not sure you’ll be here in 12 months.Come back at 6.30 tomorrow morning, we’re going to put you in a chamber until the team determine the source of this and I’ll operate straight away’.”

It was several long weeks of worry before the results returned.

“The surgeon put his head in the door and said, ‘I’ll cut out the small talk, you’re one of the lucky ones.’ It was such a relief. I owe a lot to Dr Pat O’Neill and to Denis Lawlor and Professor Murray in the Mater. I also found great strength during that period from the blessings of Father Anthony of the Carmelites in Kildare. I’m so grateful to everybody who helped me and thankful that I’m still here today.”

It was during the Swinging Sixties that Babs became a household name. He won his first All-Ireland hurling medal in 1963, with the Tipp intermediates.

A senior hurling All-Ireland followed in September 1964, and one month later he added an under-21 medal. During that time he also played with the Tipp under-21 and senior footballers, laying the foundations of what would be an exceptional dual career.

A broken hand denied him gametime in 1965 but he was on the bench for that All-Ireland SHC final and won a second senior medal. He collected his third in 1971.

The Irish Times headline following Tipperary’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Galway that August declared: ‘Keating Puts Tipperary In Command’. He scored 2-12 that day.

But if he was celebrated before the 1971 final, events that afternoon immortalised him.

In the days before that decider, his gear bag was robbed from inside the door of a local hotel and Babs had to dig out an old pair of football boots, which he took to a cobbler for some repairs.

About 10 minutes into the second half of the final, he felt a sharp jab on the bottom of his foot – a nail had come up through the sole of the boot. He pulled the boot off, but that left him lopsided, so the other one was also sacrificed. The socks, straining off his feet, went next.

Michael O’Hehir namechecked him in commentary as “the barefooted wonder”. In an instant, a legend was born and that iconic moment forever elevated Babs Keating from hurler to a sort of mystical storybook character.

“Michael O’Hehir made me more famous than I was entitled to be. Sure, it was utter stupidity,” he smiles.

“People still come up to me saying they remember watching me play barefoot in Cork or Limerick or somewhere else, which never happened, the story just took off.”

Tipp didn’t win another Liam MacCarthy until 1989 – this time with Keating as manager. He led them to victory again in 1991.

“They were great times but it wasn’t easy, when I took charge the county board didn’t have a shilling.”

So, he started the Tipperary Supporters Club and their first major fundraiser was to raffle a horse. Trips were made to New York, Boston, London. At one stage, a call came from Highbury, Niall Quinn confirming he’d offloaded 20 tickets and providing the names of the various Arsenal players who had just invested in Tipp hurling.

But other later intercounty management ventures didn’t prove as positive. Keating’s spell as Offaly boss ended prematurely, and in controversy, after his “sheep in a heap” comments.

“I was working for Esso in the area at the time and when the opportunity came up to manage Offaly it seemed to make sense,” recalls Babs. “But I should have considered it in more depth before committing. Looking back on it now, it was one of my mistakes.”

And returning to manage Tipp in late 2005 was another.

“Huge regrets there, huge. There were disciplinary issues I tried to deal with but when I did suddenly the support from most of the board disappeared. If I was to do it all over, I wouldn’t have gone back to manage Tipp, no.”

On the broader picture, he sees the swift and rigid move to online ticketing as the GAA demonstrating a complete disregard for older people.

“It’s not right, that kind of sh*t, there’s none of our generation want to get in for nothing, we’ll pay for a ticket, all the GAA have to do is put somebody outside the gate.

“Having only online ticketing is such a barrier for so many older people. It’s a dangerous road we are going down if we are driving off and seemingly prepared to leave those people behind.

“And playing the All-Ireland finals in July, we are giving away two months of summer. And for what gain? Pat Spillane recently said it’s lunacy, and he’s right, it’s stone f**king crazy.”

As for the weight of the sliotar, don’t get him started.

You wonder why he still cares so much? The night Tipp won the 2020 Munster SFC, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Keating shed a tear. His granduncle, Tom Ryan, had played in November 1920. For better or for worse, he’s rooted to the games.

Babs and Nancy moved to Kildare almost five years ago. There’s a small family gathering planned next week to celebrate his 80th birthday.

He’s a proud grandfather of seven. Grace and Lauren won an All-Ireland intermediate football title with Kildare last August. Tom has played under-18 rugby for Ireland while Bella plays camogie with the Kildare under-14s.

And where would he be without Nancy.

“We’ve had a great life together, we have a great family, great friends. I’ve been very lucky,” he says.

With the days brightening up, they’ll soon make for Rosslare for a chunk of the summer where Babs will swap the swimming pool for the Irish Sea.

“I don’t know where the years have gone, but if I was told 20 years ago that I’d be in the form I am, and have the life I have at 80, especially after the health scare, I would have gladly taken it.”

The hurling championship begins next weekend but the Tipp footballers lost their opener to Waterford last Sunday. The outlook is grim. But Babs reckons traditional football powerhouse Fethard are developing quality players again and he already knows of several tidy footballers on this year’s minor team.

“There’s always hope,” he smiles.

Ain’t that the truth.