IN May 2020 Pat Kehoe retired from refereeing. It wasn’t that the Carlow man saw it coming or had anything planned. It just happened. The first set of Covid restrictions had been imposed. Since March there had been no sporting activity.
Interclub GAA games didn’t recommence until July that year while intercounty fare was postponed until October. During the lockdown Pat assessed where he was and made his decision.
“I wasn’t getting any younger. I am 62 years of age now. I could have got a few more years but I said this was the time to go,” he recalled.
He has no regrets. He has kept himself in touch with the Carlow club scene and, when required, he carries out umpire duties for his Rathvilly clubman and referee Brian Deering.
In the immortal words of a certain politician who shall remain nameless.
“He hasn’t gone away you know.”
Pat is set to become involved again not as a referee but as a support for up and coming young referees. He was delighted when current County Board Chairman, Jim Bolger, asked him would he be interested in being an advisor to referees.
“I would gladly do that. I had a great life out of it and I wouldn’t mind giving a bit back,” says Pat.
His playing career is not that memorable. He was corner-back on the only Rathvilly team to win an intermediate football title. That 1978 team, trained by Éire Óg’s Ber Hennessy, set the foundation for Rathvilly’s senior success five years later. Injury curtailed his playing career so that is the only silverware Pat has as a player.
He subsequently dabbled in different aspects of GAA club affairs but one day someone handed him a whistle and asked would he referee a practice match.
“All of a sudden there I was. It grew from there,” Pat says.
One of the first games he refereed was an under-12 championship game between Ballon and Tullow. Pat Ahern carried out an assessment (advisor is the new word in 2021) on his performance. The Advisor noted the new referee “had an excellent performance”.
“Pat Ahern inspired me. He was a great coach. He was very good. Very obliging. You could ring him at night time and talk to him about a match. You might have made a mistake and you would be worried. I looked up to him big time and he was my role-model,” admitted Kehoe.
Perhaps it is a measure of the Rathvilly man that he didn’t think it important to carefully collect mementos of his days in the jersey. He refereed four senior football and four senior hurling finals. He does have programmes of those games and many others but they are not in a scrap book dedicated to his career.
On one notable occasion, Pat refereed a drawn match between Palatine and Éire Óg but was then offered the replay. Normally another referee is chosen to do the replayed match but the two teams requested Pat come back with them on the second day.
“I couldn’t believe it. Pat Deering, the County Chairman at the time, came to me and told me.
I felt I shouldn’t do it and I told him (Deering) I would have no problem stepping away.”
Perhaps the fact the two clubs had made the request convinced Pat that he should referee the replay. The match went off without any problem. Knowing Pat, that was no surprise.
Going into the 2012 season the Rathvilly man was at the height of his career. Having reached the age of 50 he knew he would not be getting any men’s intercounty football games. He anticipated this and had already attached himself to the Ladies Gaelic Football Association where he got many good assessments.
The pinnacle of his career came when he was chosen to referee the 2012 All-Ireland intermediate ladies football final between Armagh and Waterford in Croke Park.
It wasn’t just the day which stuck in his mind. It was the entire build-up during the week. Days before the final, he and his four umpires (Jo Jo Donegan, Pauraic Kehoe, Christy Donegan and Dylan Connors) all went to Croke Park where it was drilled into them about the protocol for the day.
They were allocated a room in an hotel in Dublin on the night before the match. Pat and his umpires declined the offer, stayed in their own beds overnight and travelled up the morning of the game. The day was a huge success and Pat’s 87% assessment mark confirmed that he had had a good game.
“We got through the match and it was a fantastic day. It was a very proud moment for everyone. For Rathvilly, for my family. It is the pinnacle of my career,” concedes Pat.
That appointment made up for the 2011 LGFA National League final in Parnell Park which Pat was appointed to referee but had to pull out because he damaged ligaments in his leg when officiating in a lowly match in Carlow the previous Monday.
Despite getting these high profile matches it is county finals which are right up there in his memory. County finals mean the world to all referees. Pat was no exception. He refereed eight finals. When he started out it never crossed his mind he would even get one.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would get a minor final-never mind a senior,” he confirmed.
It is believed some referees would canvass for particular games. Kehoe says he never did. He acknowledged he could be on tenterhooks before the announcement of referees for county finals.
“I guarantee you after doing a semi-final you would be going home on a Saturday or Sunday waiting for a call on the Monday. There was many a time I got no phone call but whoever got it I would ring or text them wishing them well. The best man gets it but you would always be hoping you would get it.”
“If you didn’t get the call you would go in and do a line if you were appointed. That is the way it was.
“There are some referees who would ring and request a match or a county final. Hand on heart, I never had to do that. It was an honour and a privilege to get any county final. Let it be a junior or a minor, it is a privilege.”
It is amazing to reflect that Pat was as good a hurling referee as he was a football referee. His home club, Rathvilly, concentrates on football. He dabbled in school with the small ball code but not seriously.
It was small steps at a time in both codes.
“I started at juvenile level and I picked it up. I made a good few mistakes along the way.”
In the early days, he was thrown in at the deep-end for an intermediate hurling championship decider when the original referee had to pull out on the morning of the match.
“It was a nightmare. A baptism of fire. I got through it. It was a big step for me. I was down to do the line but got a phone call from the late, Tommy O’Neill (Carlow County Secretary), asking me would I come in and do the final. Pat confesses it was not his best day as the man in the middle.
“Massive mistakes but I battled on. Abuse-I got a lot of verbal help that day. In fairness to Tommy O’Neill he was a stalwart and stood by me.”
The 2003 football final between O’Hanrahans and Old Leighlin was his first ever senior decider. In wet and windy conditions with the assessor confirming it was a difficult game to handle Kehoe got top marks.
The retired referee says his philosophy is simple.
“You get days where you look at things differently. Referees have only seconds. I tried to be fair and honest. That is all you can be.
“I have always talked to players. I would tell them they were giving me no choice or what the free was for.”
He has seen players get a rush of blood to the brain and do things they immediately regretted. Yet the referee still has to wield the red card.
“They do something and then they say they are sorry. It happens.”
Pat say that no matter what the match was he was never nervous going out on to the field.
“No. I got on with it. If you were you wouldn’t be able to do it. You take it as it comes. Once you knew the rules you were happy going out.”
Did he ever make mistakes and was there ever a time he would have loved to have a match all over again?
“So many of them. Every referee is the same no matter who they are. You go home in the car and you say f**k it. You would be kicking yourself after. There are so many,” admits Pat.
“You learn something every day you go out and if you don’t there is something wrong.”
The Rathvilly official knows he would never have risen as far up the refereeing ladder as he did without the dedicated support of his family and a close group of friends.
“My wife, Peg. Sons, Daniel and Pauric. My daughters Margaret and Patricia. I cannot let this moment go without a mention for my beautiful grandchildren, JD, Lauren, Isla, James and Eabha,” he says.
Then there is a long list of umpires. To name just a few!
“Over the years I had lads like Martin Dermody, Adrian Dermody, Donie Mullins. Without them you would be lost. They would go anywhere. I could ring Martin and ask him would he do a Junior B match down in St Mullins? He would come. Never a question asked. They get nothing. A meal upstairs after a county final and that is it.
And so the curtain has come down on a glittering refereeing career. He says he has eight to ten shoeboxes of programmes, assessments and other documents. He might look back over them and surely then he will appreciate what he has done.
His last senior final was a hurling decider in 2017 between Mount Leinster Rangers and Naomh Eoin. That went well for him. There was no drama. Just as he would have wanted it.
“I wasn’t expecting that one. It was coming towards the end of my career,” he recalled.
It wasn’t his last game to carry the whistle but it was his last big one. They say old fishermen never die, they only fade away. The same could be said for referees.
PAT Ahern is still helping and training referees. He recalls when the Rathvilly man came on the scene.
“Pat got better from one game to the next. As he got older he got better. His relationship with players, his judgement in relation to hurling and football was exceptional,” noted Ahern.
“No doubt he was one of the best referees Carlow ever had. He was always a pleasure to work with. As a fellow referee, as a linesman, as an umpire he was top class and very professional.”
Ahern says his colleague communicated well with the players .
“He had a very good way with them and had a great judgement.
“He has a fantastic record. It is a fantastic achievement and it is a testament to his record he was respected by all clubs, by all players, by administrators and referees. On a personal note, when I was working in CBS, if he could, Pat would help us with school games. He was exceptionally good. It is very difficult to get someone as good as Pat. Carlow owes him a great debt and he owes the county nothing.”
By Kieran Murphy