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The Kerry, Derry, Mayo and Kildare clubs dreaming of All-Ireland hurling glory

Kilmoyley, Banagher, Tooreen and Naas are the unlikely hurling quartet hoping to reach Croke Park.

Copy of Cora Bríd

“IN THE MIDDLE of January, where else would you want to be?

“It’s something to look forward to.”

Joe Walsh is enthused, the chairman of Kilmoyley plotting and planning for the biggest game in his club’s history.

In his pocket of North Kerry, hurling excitement has taken over. It is a sentiment shared in a Derry community close to the Tyrone border, in a small corner of East Mayo and the large Kildare town near Dublin.

Kilmoyley, Banagher, Tooreen and Naas.

These are hurling strongholds, perhaps lacking the profile and glamour and national tradition that is associated with that label, but localities nonetheless that bristle with the same deep passion for the game.

This is All-Ireland semi-final week. The last four standing in the race to be crowned intermediate club champions, all eyes turned to Sunday afternoon. Kilmoyley will meet Banagher in Bekan at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence. Tooreen and Naas are heading to Duggan Park in Ballinasloe.

It is a championship since its’ inception that has been monopolised by the big two, clubs from Kilkenny and Cork winning 10 of the 16 titles on offer. Galway teams have contested seven finals. Only twice has an intermediate club hurling decider not featured a team from that trio.

Kerry, Derry, Mayo and Kildare have never had an intermediate club hurling finalist, never mind produced a champion. Go further and consider Eoghan Rua Coleraine from Derry got to the junior decider in 2016, but that’s the sum total of All-Ireland club hurling final appearances from the four counties.

First-time champions and first-time finalists beckon. For Kilmoyley, Banagher and Naas, this is groundbreaking in escaping from their province in hurling. Tooreen have made two forays previously but only since 2018.

“The four teams involved are looking at this as a great opportunity to go and win it,” says Dom Greally, Tooreen chairman.

“You don’t have a Cork or Kilkenny team there, the Kilkenny teams have dominated for a good few years. Novel pairings, it makes it more interesting.”

Long-held dreams are close to being realised.

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***

Austin Bergin put down a couple of magical hurling weekends as 2021 drew to a close.

The hurling chairman of Naas, his home club is Clough-Ballacolla in Laois. There were two hurling fronts to fight on, two teams to follow on Leinster adventures.

“I’ve had a remarkable time. The quarter-final and semi-final of the Leinster intermediate were both on the days Clough-Ballacolla played their quarter-final and semi-final. Our games (with Naas) were earlier on the Saturday, RTÉ had both Ballacolla games in Portlaoise that night so I got to both games, which was great.

“You couldn’t script it to work out any better, both teams winning on the same day twice.”

The Clough-Ballacolla flame was only extinguished when they faced with the might of Ballyhale before Christmas. Last Sunday, Naas saw their year prolonged when they got past Wexford’s Oylegate-Glenbrien in the Leinster final in Newbridge.

They have scarcely had adequate time to let that achievement sink in, only the second Kildare club after Ardclough in 2006 to win that title, and their semi-final win over Glenmore ended Kilkenny’s eight-in-a-row at this level.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for their club, the senior footballers journeying to the Leinster final as well, losing last Saturday week to Kilmacud Crokes.

“”It was fantastic, probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at a Naas hurling match,” reflects Bergin.

“The dual thing with the club has cemented a lot of thing, big following for both teams.

“Eoin Doyle spoke very well last Saturday week, he encouraged everybody to go (to the hurlers) and there was a big response. This run has brought a different dimension to the club.”

The Naas story is different. Their fellow semi-finalists are rural spots, blink and you’ll miss them as you drive through. Naas is an urban centre, teeming with numbers off the M7 motorway. The latest count had their membership at 2,800 as they cater for more than 90 teams across hurling, football, camogie and ladies football, in a town with a population that touched just past 21,000 according to the last census.

That generates its own challenges and trying to spark a rise in hurling fortunes has been far from straightforward.

“We would describe ourselves as fourth in the running in sport in Naas,” says Bergin.

“Gaelic football, rugby and soccer would be ahead of us in terms of numbers. We’d have about 250-300 players underage, then three adult hurling teams.

“We’ve had underage success for years but it hasn’t translated to where we want it to. Look it’s hard work. A lot of blow-ins into the club from counties around Ireland. Just get stuck into it, you stay at it, you’re dogged.”

brian-byrne-lifts-the-cup Brian Byrne, Kildare's 2020 Christy Ring Cup winning captain. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

For years getting over the line in Kildare was their primary objective. A county final win in 2019 was cherished after a 17-year gap and on the back of losses at the last hurdle in 2016 and 2017.

Along the way there have been milestones to make them feel they were on the right path and they were prospered after an enlightened idea to expose their young players to hurling in Kilkenny.

“Naas CBS won the Leinster Colleges Senior B hurling in 2017, that fed into it. The fact we play in Kilkenny underage fed into it. We’ve been successful in intermediate in Kildare over the last few years, that’s a breeding ground for us to blood our guys.

“Kilkenny could not have been more helpful to us. It’s not an easy thing to do, fixtures are tight. Our first priority are the Kildare games when they’re on, then to fit in the Kilkenny fixtures around that. The county board and the clubs facilitate us, just couldn’t speak highly enough of them.”

Their current hurling leader is a Kilkenny native, Glenmore’s Tom Mullally currently double-jobbing as Carlow boss, a county where he enjoyed rich success with Mount Leinster Rangers.

“The guys have great respect for him. Christy Kealy is with him and they work well together. Tom loves the commitments that the players and club show towards it, that’s why he’s with us. We’re lucky to have both of them.”

tom-mullally Tom Mullally. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

The concept of people coming in from outside to make their mark in Naas runs through the hurling section.

“John Holmes is our nursery genius. Every guy that was on the panel last Sunday came through his nursery, it’s a lovely environment. There’s guys over the years, Don McSweeney, John Geoghegan, Morgan Lawlor, the late Denis Hanley, they put in huge work and may not have seen the rewards.

“I’ve been lucky, the time I’ve come in to work with great people. Eoin Moore, John Burke, David Delahunty, too many people to mention. We’ve people from Tipp, Galway, Cork, Offaly involved, that’s the logistics of Naas, One of our selectors is Tony McTigue’s son, won All-Irelands with Offaly football in the ’70s. There’s great camaraderie and characters.

“Liam Greene, another Laois man, is coming in as next chairman, I’m stepping down once this championship is over after four years done.

“I was meant to step down in November but this committee decided we’d see it out. It’s the longest goodbye but it’s a lovely goodbye.”

Croke Park would be quite the setting to bow out on.

jack-sheridan-and-dion-wall Jack Sheridan (left) is part of the Naas ranks. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

*****

In Derry, it is Slaughtneil who have flown the hurling flag in style in the modern era, serial contenders in the All-Ireland senior series.

A half-hour over the road from them, there is another group gearing up for a hurling semi-final this weekend.

St Mary’s Banagher play in the senior league in the Oak Leaf County but are graded intermediate for championship purposes. They have had recent big senior days out, lifting the county hurling crown in 2005 but losing a bunch of finals thereafter, most recently in 2018, a third in succession at the hands of Slaughtneil.

Earlier this month, on a Saturday afternoon in Omagh, they hit the jackpot. A first Ulster title for a Derry side in a championship that has largely been the ownership of Antrim teams.

“We’re just a very close-knit club,” said Andrena O’Kane, club PRO, in conversation with Mike O’Halloran on Kerry Hurling News this week.

“Just a special time for our club because we brought home an Ulster title for the first time at any level at any age. We were founded in 1965, so it was a big deal, it put a lot of smiles on faces.”

The bulk of their squad juggle football and hurling but for now the focus is firmly on the latter. In the villages of Feeny and Park, there is only one conversation topic.

O’Kane is club PRO and underage coach, with a quarter of a century’s service as a camogie player behind her after first lining out for the senior team at the age of 12. This week brings duties like draping the villages in maroon and white, figuring out buses to and hotels in Mayo for players and fans, and satisfying the demand for tickets at the pitch adjacent to the Connacht GAA Air Dome.

“It’s brought great joy with the times that’s in with Covid. It’s given everyone a lift, I’m sure no different to Kilmoyley. 

“We would have had huge support in Omagh for the Ulster final. I would say we weren’t far off 800 supporters. I would say there’ll be quite a fight for tickets. Loads of Banagher people going down Saturday night and staying in hotels.

“When I was coaching the U9 boys last week, they were coming up and saying, ‘Oh Andrena, I’m staying in a hotel next week, we’re going to see the hurlers.”

“God, it’s great to see them smiling, they’re so excited.”

The club has a sprinkling of football stardust. Seán Marty Lockhart was a Derry defensive rock for years, an All-Star in 1998. Mark Lynch was another county football icon, wing-back in the Ulster final win over Lisbellaw of Fermanagh. His brother Ryan is the team manager; Kieran O’Connell from Loughgiel in Antrim coaches the team.

mark-lynch Derry football great Mark Lynch. Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

Midfielder Brian Óg McGilligan carries the tradition of his father’s famous name from Derry’s 1993 Sam Maguire exploits.

But for all those football links, there are standing an hour away from hurling on the biggest stage in Dublin.

“To win Ulster brought huge joy and huge relief to the club,” says O’Kane.

“Now we are in an All-Ireland semi-final. Just to say that is really special. To think we’re 60 minutes away from running out onto Croke Park, it would be everything the people of Banagher could dream of.”

brian-og-mcgilligan-with-duibhir-marshall-and-chris-cross Brian Óg McGilligan (left) in action for Derry. Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

***

Joe Walsh saw the flipside of life in Kilmoyley hurling. The three-decade wait for the Neilus Flynn Cup in Kerry brought plenty of disappointment.

Goalkeeper for their 2001 breakthrough, he has seen Kilmoyley hoover up 10 Kerry senior championships in the last two decades and contest another three finals.

“There was always hope if you could get over the line, you’d drive on and that proved the case because they won four-in-a-row. They laid the seeds for other teams to come on and take up the mantle.

“It’s amazing Tom Murnane is still there and he was with the first team there in the four-in-a-row years. He’s playing away.”

Last Sunday week raised them to another level. The Munster glory they have been striving for was achieved.

In 2016 they contested a provincial final against Waterford’s Lismore and found a team with Maurice and Dan Shanahan carrying too much attacking potency.

You live and you learn. That final saw Daniel Collins fire their entire tally of 0-13. He raised ten white flags in the recent 2021 final but had nine other team-mates that chipped in with scores. The O’Connor brothers supplied seven between them and three substitutes pointed.

niall-mckenna-with-paudie-oconnor Kilmoyley's Paudie O'Connor in action for Kerry. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It was all necessary to reel in Cork’s Courcey Rovers, finish the job in extra-time and complete a battle-hardened route to a Munster title.

“This time they’ve really gone at it the hard way,” says Walsh, whose son Ronan plays.

“A team from Tipp, Waterford and Cork, that’s great preparation to have behind you for the semi-final.

“It’s been a mighty distraction locally. There at Christmas, it was a worry with Covid and there was no escape.”

Hurling has been a welcome diversion. Former Cork and Wexford boss John Meyler is at the helm; when he was absent on holidays for the Munster final, Shane Brick, the critical component of the Kilmoyley attack for years, stepped up. Maurice Murnane, Raymond Young and Shane McElligott are driving forces.

john-meyler John Meyler. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

At underage level they are merged with Crotta O’Neills but make do while not being blessed with huge numbers.

“When you are tight with numbers, you need to encourage every young boy in the parish to catch up a hurley,” says Walsh.

“It’s not a given any more. We’ve a good underage structure, there’s good lads there in Padraig O’Sullivan and Ollie Diggins. We’ve a new hurling wall developed and an astro-turf surface. That’s a lovely development.

“All these things hoping to attract as many as we can at underage and to get back fielding 15-a-side teams. That’s our aim now. It might take a couple more years but that’s what we have to do and make the club as attractive as we can for the young lads.”

Their community and beyond have bought into their hurling odyssey. An online fundraiser to help out with preparations was launched before the Munster final. Trips to Templetuohy, Páirc Uí Rinn, the Gaelic Grounds and now a 250km spin to Mayo, necessitating an overnight stay, have loaded on the expense.

The response took them aback, donations now having broken the €18,000 barrier.

“We’re blown away. I can’t say the figure we had in our heads but it wasn’t that anyway!

“We were just hoping to get some help. We do a parish collection all the time when we get to a final but you just couldn’t do it this time with Covid. So this online thing was proposed, we weren’t sure would it work, but by Jaysus it worked alright.

“The support has been unreal.”

Over the years Walsh watched Kerry football clubs embrace these All-Ireland experiences. Three times since 2006, their neighbours Ardfert have headed up to Croke Park and come back home down the road with silverware. The last occasion, in 2015, saw Daniel Collins lining out in a footbal role.

daniel-collins Kerry's Daniel Collins. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Kilmoyley have never been closer to emulating them.

“We can’t believe it in one sense.

“You’re always hoping that it would happen. A lot of commentators were saying, ‘When is some club in Kerry ever going to do something serious in Munster?’

“It is in touching distance now. We can nearly reach it but we’re not there. The four teams left in it, each one of them it’s their first chance and by God they’re doing everything in their power to get to Croke Park.”

*****

Tooreen have been down this road before. In 2018 it was all new as they ventured into the All-Ireland series, still on a giddy high after becoming the first Mayo club to win a Connacht hurling final. St Patrick’s Ballyragget brought them crashing back to earth with a convincing win.

Then in 2020 they left armed with regrets, falling four points short to Cork’s Fr O’Neills in a tense game in Tullamore.

“Third time lucky, that is the hope,” says Dom Greally.

“You get greedy when you get there three times. It kind of has driven the lads on to get back there and go one step further.

“The intermediate championship has offered us a great platform to go places. There’s always hope there. Realistically for clubs like ourselves, we were never going to progress out of Connacht in a senior championship.”

In football country, Tooreen are situated in a hurling oasis. The club was formed in the 1950s by a bunch of teenagers; a local, Michael Henry, went to school in Galway and came home entranced by the sport. That sowed the seeds.

They are in the parish of Aghamore, the name of their sister football club where the core of their squad also play. Fergal Boland is currently part of James Horan’s senior setup; Boland and David Kenny won an All-Ireland U21 football medals together in Mayo colours in 2016.

fergal-boland Mayo's Fergal Boland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But when Mayo won in Croke Park last July, the celebrations revolved around hurling as ten Tooreen players started in a Nicky Rackard Cup success.

“When you grow up in Tooreen, hurling is your number one,” says Greally.

“Everyone in Tooreen would be just as mad a football supporter as anybody in the county.

“It’s a small village, we have our church, our school, playschool, hurling pitch and that’s it. We still manage to have good numbers underage all the way up, we don’t need to amalgamate with anybody. We’re on our own.”

They’ve had tough times. In 2010 Adrian Freeman, a shining light for their club, died in a car accident in Australia at the age of 24. His brother Cathal is a stalwart of the current side.

“Adrian is still very much part of us,” says Greally.

“He was our team captain when he went to Australia that time. He was always going to return to hurling, that was his wish. Unfortunately he never did.

“His nickname was Twink and Twink is on the back of all our jerseys. The pitch too has been named Adrian Freeman Memorial Park. So Adrian is still very much part of Tooreen Hurling Club and always will be.”

cathal-freeman-scores-a-goal Cathal Freeman scores a goal for Mayo. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Greally is club chairman, team selector and generally involved in whatever needs doing in hurling operations. He is immensely proud of this current crop, their three Connacht title wins and their response to losing last year’s Mayo final to Ballyhaunis. Former Galway Nigel O’Shaughnessy helps coach the team and they are primed for the sizeable challenge they recognise Naas pose.

But the prize is great.

“We’re a very small club nestled in East Mayo on the Roscommon border. For us, it’s a wonderful occasion.

“For a small club like ourselves to end up in Croke Park, that would just be fantastic.

“You dare to dream.”

Right now, in the four communities scattered around different ends of the country, they are all daring to dream.

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Fintan O'Toole

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