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'Never. Couldn’t watch it' - Trying to force Belfast hurling back up the hill

O’Donovan Rossa contest their first county senior hurling final since 2004 today.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

BACK IN THE long evenings of summer, Antrim duo Gerard Walsh and Aodhán O’Brien found themselves at a loose end.

They were playing a National hurling league game the following day against Wexford and had time to kill. So they scratched an itch that had been there a long time and fired up YouTube, casting it to a television to watch the 1989 All-Ireland club final between their club O’Donovan Rossa and Wexford’s Buffer’s Alley.

And in the opening minutes of the game, the years rolled off men. There was a teenaged Jim Close, now their modern-day Antrim selector, jab-lifting the ball and haring towards goal.

Up top was their fireball of passion club manager, Collie Murphy, wearing a blue helmet.

They knew the final result, how Buffer’s Alley ran out 2-12 to 0-12 winners with the 43-year-old Tony Doran putting on a display, but it still didn’t stop them getting excited as Rossa ran up an early 0-5 to 0-0 lead.

That game didn’t inspire Walsh to hurl. After all, it would be eight years before he was even born. But as a child he was drawn to the sport. His father played football for O’Donnell’s, but they didn’t offer hurling.

Walsh’s two sisters played camogie for Rossa. In 2008, Roisin was on the team managed by the redoubtable Mickey ‘Wing’ McCullough and went all the way to an All-Ireland senior camogie title, beating Tipperary’s Drom-Inch in the final.

Gerard settled on it, he was going to be a hurler.

Now, he finds himself on the senior club team preparing for their first county final since 2004 this Sunday against defending champions Dunloy.

Not only that, but only one Belfast club has made the blue ribband day of Antrim hurling since, St Gall’s falling to Cushendall in 2014.

For a club like Rossa, this is a painful stat. Traditionally they had been the powerhouse in Antrim hurling and led the leaderboard for decades until McQuillan’s Ballycastle overtook them in 1980.

The Volunteer Cup was only kept in safekeeping on the Fall’s Road over the winter twice more.

Ruairí Óg Cushendall found their voice in winning their first in 1981 and have compiled 14 since. Dunloy got going even later, their first time in 1990 a replay win over Rossa.

That’s who makes up the final pairing this Sunday, in Corrigan Park, once again live on TG4 who have gotten so much good value out of Antrim hurling deciders in recent years.

It was Dunloy that ended Rossa’s involvement in last year’s semi-final. The change in format to a group-based system has undoubtedly favoured the likes of Rossa, clubs trying hard to raise their standards.

In 2015 they won the All-Ireland Intermediate title. The following year they failed to make the breakthrough. Injuries, loss of form, holidays and retirements all contributed to leave the club in a bit of a funk.

A few years back, they travelled up to Cushendall to fulfil a midweek league fixture. They had the bare fifteen with no subs. Sambo McNaughton was there as a spectator and having been around Belfast hurling all his life, he couldn’t identify a single Rossa supporter in the crowd.

Enter Collie Murphy and his management team. With three sons on the team (Tiernan, Daire and Deaglan) and having managed them to Ulster and minor All-Ireland titles with their school St Mary’s CBGS, few have had their hands as dirty in trying to force Belfast hurling back up the hill.

He differs from Walsh in one regard. He cannot bring himself to watch that ’89 All-Ireland final.

“Never,” he winces. “Couldn’t watch it.

“You think these things are going to happen for you every year, but you never get back. Same with Dunloy, they were lucky enough to get there three times and one was a draw but they never got over the line.

“But I remember when the St Gall’s boys got beaten in the football final and I used to say, ‘Jeez lads I hope you get back and it’s not one bite at the cherry.’ And then a few years later they were back and won it.”

While finals get people excited and reporters poking their noses in around the club, it is always a mistake to look at the roll of honour and use that as a barometer of the overall health of the club.

Rossa are one of the very few clubs in Ulster to offer the whole GAA experience. They have hurling and football. They have ladies’ football and camogie. They do handball. They take part in Scór. They play Rounders, on occasion at the end of underage training sessions.

West Belfast, Belfast in general has its’ struggles in the area of mental health. The club do what they can for their membership that numbers over 700. They recently got the ‘Healthy Club Award’ from the GAA and are on the road to achieve ‘Club Maith’ accreditation.

Margaret Flynn is the Chairperson and has a lot on her plate every week, not just the weeks of county finals.

“It is just looking after, as well as the playing side of it, the mental health aspect to make sure all our people are looked after properly. If anyone has a problem, they know where to come to and who to speak with,” she explains.

“It’s nice that you have that social end of the club as well as the playing end. We have a lot of people who are maybe past playing, but they have somewhere to go, with the cultural group and so on. We learn Irish and we take part in Scór.

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“We have all the talent and we have a Cultural Officer and he has been inundated with stuff.”

The other night, the senior team arrived down to the Under-10 session and took them through a few drills. The kids beamed. Afterwards, they got out their autograph books, seeking the signatures of the Walsh’s, Orchin’s, Armstrongs, Shannon’s and Murphy’s.

The role of a GAA club has been radically redefined across the country over the last few decades, but nowhere more so than in west Belfast.

During The Troubles, the clubs did a roaring trade with their social clubs. They were places to socialise where people knew each other.

The Peace Process brought the happy effect of young people socialising in Belfast city centre together. A side effect of that, was that the social clubs couldn’t survive. Apartments now for elderly people sits where Rossa’s old club once was.

But there are worse things. The emphasis is now on games and well-being.

They have a county final to look forward to. But for those involved in the playing and managing, these are occasions to be endured.

You can see it on Collie Murphy every time Rossa play. He is a fireball of frustration and pent-up energy along the line, his behaviour a reflection of his passion.

“I go out every day and say, ‘I will be calm today. I will not go out to shout or do this,’” says Murphy.

“But as the game goes on you get wrapped up in the situation and you do get carried away. Sometimes you say things you regret, we all do.

“The boys know where I am coming from.”

All the way back to 1989.

About the author:

Declan Bogue

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