1988-2007 : Young Irelands
( 57 championship appearances (34-195)
Leinster Titles: 10
National Hurling League: 4
All-Ireland Doubles: 3 (with Ducksie Walsh)
World Under 23s: 2
All Stars: 9
Texaco Hurler of the Year, 1993, 2000.
Eircell Hurler of the Year, 2000.
Kilkenny Hurling Team of the Century, 1999.
‘A broken nose is painful insofar as you can’t breathe properly’, explains Kilkenny hurler DJ Carey. ‘I’ve broken my nose three or four times. I’d have over 250 stitches between my face and head. You expect that. Many players break a hand or a finger or a wrist in the game and just play on. When the blood’s up, you don’t notice. It’s when you cool down that the real pain comes.’
The Beatles performed together live over 1,200 times before "I Want To Hold Your Hand" broke into America. Mozart played on the piano for 10,000 hours before he produced his first masterwork. And DJ Carey must have slammed the sliotar into that wall a hundred thousand times before he secured his debut on Kilkenny’s victorious All-Ireland Minor team back in 1988. That was the start of a most beautiful friendship between DJ and the Kilkenny Cats.
Without doubt, DJ has been Ireland’s most influential hurler of the past two decades. Using what Tom Humphries called ‘the burst of pace of a scalded cat’, he’s racked up a personal tally of 34 goals and 195 points from 57 championship games, making him one of the top five scorers of all-time. [does this still stand] In 2002 he equalled Pat Spillane's record by collecting nine All-Star Awards. He has made more appearances for Kilkenny than anyone in the county’s history and, on the side, he happens to have been a two-time world handball champion.
The Carey family originally hailed from Galmoy, a small village on the broad plains of northeast Kilkenny, well known for its lead and zinc mines. DJ’s grandfather John Carey was born on a small farm just outside the village in 1899. The zest for the hurl came into the family in the late 1930s when John married Catherine Phelan, a sister of legendary hurler Paddy Phelan, a winner of four All-Ireland medals.[i] Paddy’s lead also inspired John and Catherine’s daughter Peggy to take up the stick and so DJ’s aunt went on to scoop four All-Ireland camogie titles with Kilkenny in the 1970s.
In 1956, John Carey sold the land at Galmoy and relocated to Gowran, Co. Kilkenny, where he set up a cattle farm. In time, the farm passed to his son, also John, who married Maura McGarry of Kilkenny City. Born in St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny, in November 1970, Denis Joseph Carey was the eldest of their seven children.
DJ believes that at least some of his success was determined by geography. Young boys in Kilkenny generally know how to catch a sliotar on a hurl long before they’ve mastered the toothbrush. DJ was a toddler when he gripped his first hurl. Fuelling that clench was the success of the Kilkenny hurlers who had won five All-Ireland titles before his thirteenth birthday.
‘I played for Kilkenny at a time when that team was on a roll. That gave me a high profile. But if I had been born five miles away in Co. Carlow, then maybe I’d have played for Carlow instead. Carlow may be going well these days, but I could have played for them for 18 years and maybe we would never have got past the first round of a championship.’
Given that his aunt Peggy and great-uncle Paddy won eight All-Ireland’s between them, one could be forgiven for thinking that sporting prowess is genetic. DJ doesn’t buy into that. ‘By God you have to work at these things’, he says. ‘It wasn’t something handed down to me and all of a sudden I was good. I became good because I wore out a wall when I was young, hitting the ball off it, practicing all day, every day. There’s also the fact that I wanted to be my hero, Eddie Keher, and so every time I hit that spot on the wall, I was pretending to be Eddie, scoring a point or a goal.’ The nearby window was apparently broken so many times his mother gave up replacing it.
By the early 1980s, he was one of the leading lights of Gowran’s Young Ireland hurlers. He honed his skills at St. Kieran's College in Kilkenny, a celebrated ‘hurling nursery’ where his mother Maura worked, winning back-to-back All-Ireland colleges' titles in 1988 and 1989. In the latter year he played for both Kilkenny’s minor and senior teams, respectively winning the Al Ireland and the League.
In 1992, the 21-year-old slammed a crucial goal into the net to help Kilkenny win its first All-Ireland Seniors title in nine years. DJ was to be an indispensable part of the team for the next twelve years, during which time hurling evolved into a much more physically demanding game. One of his most sublime performances was during the 1997 All Ireland quarter-final where he almost single-handedly annihilated Galway.
DJ, one of the sports’ gentlemen, is a serious man. ‘But there is great fun in the dressing room after a match’, he assures. ‘Maybe a couple of funny guys or a couple of stupid guys acting funny. Some of the undergarments the guys wore at times … when I started, the togs were up around your hips and crotch. That was the great fashion. Now it’s nearly around your ankles and there’s guys wearing socks above their knees.’
The camaraderie appealed to him, particularly at club hurling. ‘When myself and Charlie Carter and a few others were getting older – and getting older together – and we obviously weren’t as fast and as fit as we once were, we’d sometimes be inclined to let someone else go for the ball instead. There is always a bit of humour from your own side then, no doubt about it.’
DJ’s attempt to retire gracefully in 1998 was thwarted when the postman delivered some 25,000 letters urging him to stay at his post. He went on to become one of the most electric lynchpins (and sometime captain) of Brian Cody’s record-breaking Cats, scooping three All-Ireland titles and two League titles in the first five years of the present century. No Kilkenny match was complete without a considerable percentage of the crowd chanting ‘DJ, DJ, DJ’ over and over again, willing him to score one of his trademark late goals.
His final appearance in the black and amber stripes was the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final when Kilkenny fell to Galway. He retired at the start of the 2006 championship to concentrate on charity work, his golfing handicap and his hygiene business, D.J. Carey Enterprises, which sees him clocking up approximately 80,000 km a year in Ireland. He is also regularly to be found presenting medals at schools and clubs. DJ Carey is separated from his wife, with whom he has two children, and presently lives with Essex-born dotcom entrepreneur Sarah Newman, well-known for her role on the Irish version of ‘Dragon’s Den’.
[i] Paddy was selected on both the GAA Hurling Team of the Century and the GAA Team of The Millennium.