Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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CHAMPIONSHIPS

Irish Amateur: 1987, 1989.

World Junior: 1989, 1990.

World Amateur: 1989.

World Champion, 1997.

Welsh Open 1992, 2001.

Malta Grand Prix 2000.

Thailand Masters 2001.

Irish Masters: 1993, 1998.

Irish Professional: 2006, 2007

Malta Cup: 2006.

AWARDS

Texaco Hall of Fame 2003

Texaco All Stars
1989, 1992, 1993, 1994.

KEN DOHERTY – SNOOKER


It was “Winner Stays On” at Jason’s in Ranelagh and the kid just could not be beat. Men and women of every shape, size and sexual persuasion grabbed the cue and tried their damndest. But even when they landed the white in the sneakiest of places, the boy would somehow figure a way around it. If it is any consolation to those who failed, the kid was Ken Doherty and he was already on a course that would see him become champion of Ireland, world junior champion, world amateur champion and, come 1997, straight up World Champion.

Jason’s was undoubtedly the making of his star. Ken was eight years old when the south Dublin snooker hall opened in 1976. He already had a pocket-sized snooker table, a Christmas present from his father, upon which he played religiously. Henceforth, every Sunday afternoon, Ken headed down to Jason’s with his big brother, by-passed the juke boxes and pinball machines, and b-lined to the snooker table. ‘They got me a biscuit tin to stand on while I played’, he recalls. ‘Sure I was only a baby!’

His passion for snooker was further ignited in 1982 when he tuned in to watch Alex Higgins win the world championship. ‘That was one of the best moments in sport’, says Ken. ‘The wife came out with the baby and he takes the baby in one arm and the cup in the other. Higgins inspired a lot of people to watch and play snooker. I was one of them’.

Within a year of Higgins’s victory, thirteen-year-old Ken was mourning the death of his father, Tony Doherty. The event would bring him considerably closer to his two older brothers, Seamus and Anthony, and the Doherty boys grew up quick.

The Doherty family originated in Co. Donegal but were settled in Dublin by the early 20th century when Ken’s great-grandfather Patrick worked as a fishmonger.[i] Ken’s grandfather, also Patrick, ran a bookmakers’ office on Baggot Street. When the bookie’s went belly up following a victory by the favourite in the Grand National, Patrick went to work for a blood-bank. Patrick’s funeral was a well-attended affair and he was buried in St Mary’s Church on Haddington Road where there is a war memorial recalling his older brother Jack, a private in the Dublin Fusiliers, who was killed in action in Belgium in 1915.[ii]

Born in 1924, Ken’s father Tony was the eldest of Patrick’s three sons and the only one who married.[iii] He met Ken’s mother Rose Lawler while working as a houseman with the Marist Fathers at the Catholic University School on Leeson Street, where she was the cook. Tony later found worked as a night-porter at the Royal Exchange Hotel on Parliament Street. In time, he and Rose moved to Trinity Hall by Palmerston Park where he worked as the porter and she as a cook. ‘They were very hard times’, says Ken. ‘They lived in half a house with another family below them. I remember my mother would take in a blind woman for a six week holiday every year.’

Rose was the daughter of James Lawler, a cabinet-maker from Bawnogues on Baltinglass Hill, Co. Wicklow. The house is still in the family and Ken has climbed the hill many a time.[iv] ‘I nearly died in Baltinglass’, he says. He was messing about with his brother and cousin who pretended to throw money into a slurry pit and six-year-old Ken stumbled in after it. ‘It was like quicksand. Next thing I’m down to my knees and seconds later I’m up to my neck.’ Fortunately his cousin grasped him in the nick of time. ‘My uncle came down on his bicycle and carried me through the town. I had three Dettol baths to get rid off the stench.’

When Ken was born in 1968, the family lived at Swan Place, just off Morehampton Road. Three years later, they moved to Ranelagh Avenue.[v] All three Doherty brothers went to the Christian Brothers School on Westland Row. ‘It was a real nice school’, says Ken. ‘Tough and in a tough area, but thankfully we never witnessed any trouble from the Brothers.’ [vi] As a sign of his appreciation, he later gifted the school two snooker tables and he presents the trophy to their annual tournament winner.

Three months after his father’s death, ‘the guys at Jason’s started to give me free practice, an hour a day’. Ken attended every day. ‘You grow up very quickly in a place like that because you’re with adults all the time.’ He showed his gratitude to Jason’s by shaking the Irish snooker world upside down later that same year.

First, he narrowly lost in the finals of the Evening Herald Under 16 championships. Then he entered the Irish Under 16s and ‘beat the guy who beat me to win the whole thing.’ With the approval of his school principal, Bro. Paul Hendrick, he began taking more and more time off to compete. He secured his place on the Irish team, initially as an Under 16 and, from the age of fourteen, as a Senior.

At the age of 18, 'Crafty Ken' completed his leaving certificate, moved to England and began his global conquest. In 1989, he became Irish amateur champion. He went on to win the world amateur title that same year. He turned pro in 1991, losing 10-8 to Steve Davis in the televised stages of that years’ World Championships.

His 18-12 victory at The Crucible over Stephen Hendry in the 1997 World Championship final was an epic. ‘The world professional was the pinnacle’, he says. ‘That’s what you dream of.’ The event was all the more epic for the fact that he was only twelve years old when he chose the warped cue he used to beat Hendry. He was so on fire that year that he also secured a Guinness world record, potting all the colours in sequence in 23.4 seconds.[vii]

In 1998, the reigning world champion returned to Ranelagh where he lives today with his wife Sarah, their small son Christian and a pair of King Charles black and tans.[viii] His home is entirely free of sporting memorabilia. That is all kept in his own private snooker den at the Radisson Hotel in Stillorgan, a consolation prize from the Cosgraves, owners of both the hotel and Jason’s when they made the lamented decision to close the snooker hall down.[ix] This is the space where Ken practices today on a Riley table just like the one he became world champ on back in 1997. You sense that he misses the live banter of Jason’s, the one-liners which make him erupt with a deep rumbling laugh not unlike Boycie from ‘Only Fools and Horses’. But all that is an age ago now.

Ken’s den is not without its humorous moments. A few months after George Best died, Alex Higgins popped in for a practice. Ken pointed at a photo of himself standing beside the great Belfast footballer and said, ‘there’s an old friend of yours’. Alex approached the photo, took off his glasses and regarded it intently. ‘Oh yes’, he said, at length, ‘Georgie Best … what a waste’.

Despite all the cities and landscapes he has visited, Ken’s preferred holiday destination is Ireland, primarily Killarney or Connemara. ‘There’s no place like it’, he says. ‘We always give out about the Irish weather but I don’t like hot weather. When it’s too hot I get freckles and go pink and I have to slap on sun cream all the time. I can’t lie around on a beach or by a pool all day. Pink isn’t a good colour!’

Pale he may be but Ken enjoys the outdoor life and keeps fit playing golf and soccer. He is also increasingly adept at poker and has played in the last two Irish Opens. ‘I love the buzz of poker’, he grins. ‘The gamble, the chance … its one of the few buzzes I get that’s on a par a snooker tournament. It’s a lot like snooker. You have to be focused and stay cool under pressure. You have to be passive, you have to be aggressive. There’s a lot of body language, a lot of psychology and unlike snooker, where there are too many gentlemen, there’s a lot of yapping’.

Between 1997 and 2003, Ken spent fifteen years in the world’s Top 16, reaching the World Championship finals in 1997, 1998 and 2003. At the close of the 2005-2006 season, he was ranked as the world No. 2. He continues to compete, going out in the first round of the 2010 World Championships to Mark Selby. He has also proven himself a useful analyst which may stand him in good favour with the BBC.

He remains the only player ever to have been both world amateur (1989) and world professional champion (1997).

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ken laughs nervously when I suggest he’s related to Pete Doherty of Babyshambles fame.

[ii] Patrick lived at 9 Sussex Road, Leeson Street, Dublin.

6968 Private John DOHERTY 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Enlisted Dublin. Born Dublin. Killed in action 12th April 1915, aged 20. Buried in Ration Farm cemetery, Le Plus Douve, Belgium.

[iii] Tony’s three sisters all married and have children, and live in England.

[iv] At the time of the 1911 Census, Rose’s father James Lawler worked as a porter for the Great Southern & Western Railway. He later worked as a Cabinet Maker for which he was renowned for in Baltinglass. Her mother Julia Simpson, the daughter of a harness maker, was simultaneously employed as a domestic servant by John Hawthorn, a Fermanagh-born solicitor based in Inchicore.

[v] Ken is the third son. His eldest brother Seamus, 8 years older then him, works as a European Trade Mark Attorney. His middle brother Anthony got a job as a butcher. All three lived in the house until Seamus got married aged 27. He also has a younger sister Rosemary (b. 1972) who went to Muckross and became an Accountant Technician.
[vi] I loved history, reading about the wars, civil wars and world wars and all that’. His teachers included Paddy Finnegan and Eddie Kelly. Br. Paul Hendrick now runs the Life Centre on Pearse Square ‘helping out kids from the area who are from broken families and have dropped out’.
[vii] Recordbreakers, 29th August 1997. One of his proudest uses of the world cup was when, a die-hard Man U fan, he walked onto the pitch at Old Trafford at half time, cup held high, for the last match of the season which also happened to be Eric Cantona’s last game.

[viii] He dislikes being away from his family for any great length of time – ‘its torture’ – but enjoys playing at the Legends Tournaments with the other greats such as Higgins, Jimmy White, Steve Davis, Hendry, Thorburn, Knowles etc.
[ix] The room is a veritable shrine to his snooker glory days, with photos of Ken and others such as Alex Ferguson, Hendry, Higgins, Ronnie Wood, Jeffery Archer (then president of the World Snooker Association), Brian O’Driscoll, and shirts from Pele, Cantona and Roy Keane. There is also a picture of Jasons by Peter Horgan (1986).

He has never ripped the felt. ‘Unfortunately I’ve never been involved in a match when a streaker came down.’

‘I probably passively smoked thousands of cigarettes.


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.