Brothers in Arms

Pádraic and Cathal Mannion: The brothers at the spine of Galway's All-Ireland dream

Two-time All-Ireland winning manager Tony Ward recalls his time managing the Mannion brothers at NUI Galway.

JUST OVER A week after the 2017 All-Ireland hurling final, the NUI Galway hurlers were lining out for a league game against UCC.

padraic-mannion-and-cathal-mannion-lift-the-liam-mccarthy-cup Pádraic and Cathal Mannion lifting the Liam MacCarthy after Galway's All-Ireland victory in 2017. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The previous Sunday was a moment in history for the county as they ended a 29-year wait to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup. The Galway University had a hand in the triumph too. Conor Whelan was among the students helping Galway over the line. John Hanbury was instrumental too as were the Mannion brothers, Pádraic and Cathal.

But now the season was moving on from the inter-county scene to focus on the Third Level competition. And the dial was moving on a miserable autumn evening under floodlights in Ballinsloe. From ending a drought in Croke Park to a monsoon in a club ground.

But while the rest of the county was toasting the success of Micheál Donoghue’s team, Cathal Mannion was reaching for his gear bag and his stick.

“He just wanted to get back in hurling again, even after winning an All-Ireland,” says Tony Ward, who was in charge of that NUI Galway side. An experienced mentor from the Sarsfields club, Ward previously managed Galway to two All-Ireland camogie titles. He has also worked with the Galway U21s as well as serving a stint with the Doon club in Limerick, which is home to current inter-county stars Darragh O’Donovan, Richie English and Adam English.

“And we know what that All-Ireland meant to Galway. Cathal lined out at full-forward for us. Pádraic was carrying a bit of a knock.”

Ward has known the Mannion brothers since they were hurling cubs. During his time as a hurley maker, he received regular business from the two siblings who are two years apart in age.

The rest of the Mannion flock are hurling to the bone too. Their eldest brother Ciarán was also a talented hurler with a fruitful inter-county career on his horizons before his progress was derailed by three cruciate tears across both of his knees. And so it ended up with just Cathal and Pádraic divvying out four All-Stars between them (three for Pádraic) as well as a Hurler of the Year nomination for the wiry defender in 2018.

Their parents Tomás and Marie are their ardent supporters, trawling the roads to be at their games regardless of location.

“Even with the college when we used to be going to the weirdest places playing matches, you’d see Tomás and Marie there behind them all the time. They’re one out, all out kind of style.

“Growing up, they were the mainstays with Ahascragh-Fohenagh at U14, U16, minor. If you could mark them, you might have a chance at beating them. They were team players as well.

“You wouldn’t think they were brothers, you’d just think they were good friends. Ok, they’d have a word with each other if Pádraic didn’t hit the right ball to Cathal or vice versa. But that would be the same with any teammate. They weren’t like two arguing brothers coming to training.

“They’re very close and they teach together in St Cuan’s. It’s rare you’d see one without the other.”

As they grew, it appeared that Cathal was the more natural athlete with a more certain future in elite hurling ahead of him. Pádraic was the one who would need to graft that bit more if he wanted a similar path.

Pádraic also had injuries to complicate things further. In a 2017 interview with The 42, he spoke about how he developed late in the sport, only managing to break into a Galway panel as a minor. He then progressed to the U21 grade where he struggled with injury for two years due to a prolapsed disk in his back.

He admitted to having “bad posture” and that his core “probably wasn’t strong enough”.

“He missed a lot of his U21 career which was a pity,” says Ward. “But thank God he got over that and got back to where he is today.

padraic-mannion-and-shane-cooney-with-john-power Pádraic Mannion [left] in action for NUI Galway in the Fitzgibbon Cup. Pádraic Mannion [left] in action for NUI Galway in the Fitzgibbon Cup.

“Pádraic works so hard in the gym on his recovery. And he works so hard on injury prevention. He’s a professional bar in name. It’s probably not the right word to use but hurling is his God. That’s why he is where he is.

“It’s hard to hold onto the number five jersey for that many years. I suppose the last one to do it was probably Pete Finnerty.

“Physically, he’s very strong. He’s deceiving to look at and even in his clothes, he doesn’t look like a big man. But you rarely see Pádraic being knocked back. He’s able for the rough and tumble. He goes through it whereas Cathal is able to avoid it.”

Ironically, it’s Cathal who has been sidelined for a good chunk of the 2023 season with hamstring problem, but he has made a full return to the Galway team, bringing balance back to the force.

“It came so naturally to Cathal. He hurls at his ease; he seems to have space and he seems to have time. He’s just a born athlete and is probably one of the top hurlers in Ireland at the minute. He probably doesn’t get the recognition because he’s not knocking over seven or eight points a game.

“But if you look at his stats, he’s involved in every score. I think he was involved in 1-5 against Tipperary and something like 26 possessions in the game. He’s the engine room of that Galway team.”

Ward spent two seasons in charge of NUI Galway, whose name has since been changed to National University of Ireland Galway in third-level competitions. His first year at the helm was 2017, a campaign which coincided with an exciting time for Ahascragh-Fohenagh. After capturing a historic first Intermediate county title, they marched all the way to the All-Ireland final where they lost out to Kilkenny outfit Carrickshock.

Despite falling short of the big prize, it was still an encouraging run for the Galway club, and the Mannions were central to their progress. Cathal hit 1-3 including a penalty in the county final; he added 2-11 to his account in a Connacht final replay win over Ballyhaunis, and Pádraic chipped in with a point in their All-Ireland semi-final victory against Lismore of Waterford.

The only drawback was they were less available for NUI Galway and Ward.

tony-ward-dejected Tony Ward. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“They still gave everything they could to the Fitzgibbon. They mightn’t have been able to train as often because of their club commitments, but once that was over, they were full on [with us].

Cathal and Pádraic typically play in similar positions at club level, although the older of the two is sometimes seen in the forward line. He was the Ahascragh-Fohenagh hero three years ago when he struck for the match-winning goal in the fifth minute of injury-time to complete a dramatic preliminary quarter-final win over Craughwell.

Ward is familiar with that interesting positional switch, as his son was part of the club’s backroom team that has selected Mannion at centre-forward. Ward himself however, didn’t think to try that tactic, a decision he has come to regret.

“We probably should have in hindsight,” says Ward. “We played UL one year in UL and we needed to win by three points, and we won by two, and got knocked out of the Fitzgibbon in the quarter-final. So, we probably should have put Pádraic up that day. It’s one day that haunts me a little bit.”

The Mannions are capable footballers too with connections to the famous Caltra club, home to the another famous GAA family — the Meehans. Cathal and Pádraic have both lined out for Caltra in the past and Ward notes how the pair have benefited from dipping their toes in dual code waters.

“Your tackling is much better after playing football. It’s more technical and you’re less likely to give away frees.”

In their second year under Henry Shefflin, Galway are effectively back at the same point where their season ended last year: an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park against the reigning champions Limerick. They rattled John Kiely’s side last year, and some might say they could be in better condition to complete the mission this year. That is certainly a possibility considering the loss of Seán Finn and Declan Hannon in the Limerick camp.

Just like in 2022, Galway lost out to Kilkenny in the Leinster final, only this year’s decider was a more bizarre event. After rallying from eight points down, Galway advanced into a two-point lead with time almost up. And then it all concluded with one of the most chaotic sequences in modern GAA as Galway tried desperately to clear the ball. How unfortunate for Pádraic Mannion that he was the one to have the last attempt at a clearance when he put boot to sliotar in the absence of a hurl.

It was a horrifying way to fall, but Mannion showed great resilience in the days that followed. He was scheduled to report for media duty that week and instead of running for cover, he honoured his commitments and allowed the media to pick at him for answers.

cathal-mannion-celebrates-winning-a-free Cathal Mannion showing his passion during Galway's All-Ireland quarter-final win over Tipperary. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I believe he has said since that Ronaldo wouldn’t have done it as good,” Ward begins. “It was misfortune but look, before Pádraic kicked it, a few other Galway fellas could have dealt with the situation and it just didn’t happen.

“I remember the year against Seamie Callanan [2015 All-Ireland semi-final] when things didn’t go right for Pádraic, I believe he was on the bus on the way home wondering what he could do to improve his game. If you look at Pádraic since that, he has come on in leaps and bounds and that has never happened to him since. It’s just been a steady improvement.

“Both Cathal and Pádraic are willing to learn everyday they go out. Every session they go to, whether it’s with the county set-up, a club set-up or in my case, the college, they were just willing to learn. They brought such a brilliant atmosphere to every training session. They were just positive guys and they were never above anyone else.”

A lot of learning will be needed to get the better of Limerick. Even a weakened Limerick won’t be easy to take down. Galway will be depending on the Mannions to help unpick that lock.

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