Kerry All-Ireland football winner, Clare family roots and a hurling milestone for Dingle

Matthew Flaherty struck a blow for West Kerry on the hurling stage last Sunday.

Matthew Flaherty celebrates Kilmoyley's win last Sunday.
Matthew Flaherty celebrates Kilmoyley's win last Sunday.

IN LATE AUGUST on a wild evening in West Kerry, the Spillanes and Templenoe danced in celebration in Páirc an Aghasaigh after a famous win for their club.

The flipside of that outcome was the deep disappointment for those defeated in that game. The streamlined Kerry championship model to fit into a compressed 2020 season removed any safety net. Dingle’s footballers had reached the end of the road with their county aspirations for the year.

Two days later Matthew Flaherty, still stewing over the defeat, picked up the phone and was sold an idea by John Meyler. Years on the county stage with Cork and Wexford and Carlow had never loosened the draw of Kerry club hurling for Meyler. He was at the reins of the Kilmoyley club again for another campaign. Football may have been Flaherty’s first love but hurling had got some attention over the years.

So the next night he journeyed up to their base in Lerrig in north Kerry to join in their Tuesday training session and have a shot at reviving a part of his career that had been dormant.

And last Sunday, just under a month later, he was celebrating in Austin Stack Park after sharing in a county hurling final triumph, embroiled in the midfield battle throughout.

Flaherty has helped engineer an All-Ireland minor victory with Kerry in Croke Park. He has won a Hogan Cup at the same venue. There have been plenty underage Kingdom experiences and a spring in 2018 lining out for the flagship county team in the league.

But still becoming the first senior hurling champion from Dingle has a nice ring to it.

“I wasn’t planning on going playing the hurling this year, simple as that,” recalls Flaherty.

“Then John rang me the Monday after the Templenoe game, then Maurice Murnane rang me. They asked me to come up and play. I spoke to the Dingle management, it was no problem, just to mind myself. 

“I got onto John B O’Halloran, the Kilmoyley captain to see if it’d be alright. The last thing I wanted was to walk into a dressing-room with fellas who’d been training all year and take a fella’s spot. I was a bit nervous going up but the whole thing above was incredible. You could see these fellas meant business. They were very welcoming. To get the hurling medal ahead of the football, you wouldn’t think it but it’s an unbelievable one to have.”

So how does it work? Where is the hurling interest nurtured in a football heartland? 80 years ago the great Tom ‘Gega’ O’Connor spearheaded a Dingle side to a county hurling final. They lost to a team from Banna by seven points as the silverware destination for 1940 was settled. Dingle had chased a landmark win to accompany their football victory, the hurling side populated by Gardaí and creamery managers based locally.

O’Connor’s decorated sporting career had already at that juncture seen him captain Kerry to lift Sam, he would finish with five All-Irelands and also pick up six county medals in the Dingle ranks. That hurling experience was a fleeting deviation from the sporting mainstay.

Flaherty grew up on the Dingle peninsula and was consumed by the tradition like most youngsters. He was part of a talented crew that made rapid strides at underage level. In 2014 they enjoyed a year of remarkable success and shining memories that will be easily preserved.

April brought their school to the national summit in Croke Park. September saw Flaherty and six of his PS Chorca Dhuibhne team-mates contribute as Kerry ended a 20-year search for an All-Ireland minor win. From Dingle alone Mark O’Connor has gone on to make waves in Australian Rules and is closing in on the 50-appearance mark with Geelong. Tom O’Sullivan has solidified a space with the Kerry seniors.

Shane Ryan, Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Killian Spillane are others from that minor outfit who graduated and featured in the unsuccessful bid to deny Dublin five-in-a-row last September.

tomas-ose-cormac-coffey-and-matthew-flaherty-celebrate-after-the-game Matthew Flaherty (right) celebrating Kerry's All-Ireland minor success in 2014. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Thatwas the second of Flaherty’s seasons as a Kerry minor, he had three spring runs at U21 level and won a Munster medal in 2017. Two years ago he was pulled into the main setup by Eamonn Fitzmaurice, receiving gametime against the likes of Donegal, Galway and Tyrone.

ruairir-lavelle-loses-possession-to-matthew-flaherty Flaherty in action for Kerry in the 2018 league against Galway. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He has been adaptable in half-back or half-forward roles. In 2015 he captained Dingle to a Kerry club final victory over Dr Crokes, featuring again in 2018 when Crokes reversed that result on a bigger stage in the county decider.

If the sporting track seemed to point solely in the direction of football, then hurling found ways to cross his path. His father Enda hails from Sixmilebridge. Go back further and Matthew’s great grand-uncle lit up Kilkenny senior sides in the 1920s and 30s. Matty Power won four All-Irelands with Kilkenny and one with Dublin when he switched allegiances for a time after becoming a Garda based in the capital.

There was another Banner figure that created a hurling environment in their school days in Brother Catháin from Kilbaha, the last village heading out on the Loop Head peninsula. Their principal Micheál O’Connor was always a source of encouragement in sport.

“It was always played in the primary school, it was a big grá by our fellas back here to play it. We won a Division 1 hurling county in U14 in 2009. My father was the manager, Enda O’Dowd. We won the football the same year. I used to go up to Clare in the summer time when I was younger, playing in hurling camps in Sixmilebridge. That’s the main reason I played it, obviously the father had a big influence in that way.

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“We won the football the same year. There was a big gang of us, a big interest. We didn’t know any different with the football and the hurling, we loved them both from U10s to U14s. We were just as good at the hurling too but from U16 I suppose you start to get serious. There was county championship medals to be won in football and the hurling wasn’t taken as serious, there wasn’t enough players playing it either.”

Over a decade ago Maurice Murnane offered a hurling pathway for Dingle youngsters. Dara O’Sullivan took the leap with Kilmoyley, Paul Geaney followed for a spell before he became an All-Star winning football marksman. That duo bagged All-Ireland U21 B medals with Kerry in September 2010, the curtain-raiser to Tipperary’s destruction of Galway.

paul-geaney Kerry footballer Paul Geaney Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Barry O’Sullivan achieved a similar feat in 2017, he and Flaherty would then pitch in with Kilmoyley’s senior team if their football commitments provided a window in the calendar. Last year they both played in a semi-final loss to Lixnaw, this time Flaherty channelled all his energies successfully into the hurling cause.

There was a heightened commitment but the two-hour round trip to training was worthwhile. The spins out from Dingle, up over the Conor Pass, hugging the coast by Castlegregory, through Tralee and into the hurling domain in the north of the county.

Starting from a place down the grid made it hard but Flaherty found a willing tutor in Meyler who departed the Cork hotseat last summer

“The fitness levels thank God were good this year. There’s a couple down here I’d go pucking with once or twice a week but I remember the first Tuesday night in training, I was marking Paudie O’Connor, my midfield partner and he ran the legs out of me. The touch wasn’t great, I was dropping balls.

“Meyler would say to me, go up to training half an hour before it starts and that’s what I did. I’d go up with Meyler to the ball alley, work away with him for half an hour. Just small things, very calm and cool guy. The knowledge he has of hurling is just insane, he’d always be talking to me then. He knew my strengths and weaknesses. At midfield I was more a grafter. The hurling actually got better.

“That’s down to Meyler and it paid dividends. I can’t speak highly enough of him, I think he’s brilliant. Just a small example the last day, we were under the cosh against Causeway, he just calmed us down in that second water break. We were able to finish the job off, thank God. It was a big decision but at the start it was more of a release for me, a distraction to get away after the football disappointment. Being from back in Dingle it’s fairly remote, so we’re used to travelling places all over.”

He was received warmly by a group of team-mates who were willing to impart information on opponents or Kilmoyley club members who would ensure he’d get some soup and a sandwich after training before the drive home.

“That’s the kind of people they were. The community up there is second to none. The players would mind you as well. They’re just pure hurling people. I can’t speak highly enough of them.”

And last Sunday he put in a shift, chipped in with a point and helped Kilmoyley hold off a late onslaught from Causeway.

There were plenty more illustrious names and eye-catching stories from the catalogue of county finals on around the country but in Tralee the big annual day for Kerry hurling served up the common themes of joy and satisfaction.

“It was exhilarating,” recalls Flaherty.

“Every five minutes after I was looking up at the scoreboard. When that final whistle went, I remember just dropping to my knees and next thing seeing my father there. It’s very hard to put into words. From a personal point of view it was incredible and you’re showing that lads from Dingle can play hurling.

“The disappointment two years ago was just heart-wrenching. We felt we could have beaten Dr Crokes. I’ll be honest I was never as low after a game as I was in 2018. But we’ll keep going and trying.

“And of course you could see what it meant to Kilmoyley to get back to the top.”

Priorities quickly move on. The 24-year-old is in his second year of the Hibernia teaching programme, this week was spent on placement in school in Annascaul.

Today he’ll be back in Dingle colours for the West Kerry Football Classico in Gallarus against An Ghaeltacht with local bragging rights at stake. His father will be keeping an eye on the exchanges in Ennis, Sixmilebridge aiming to retain ownership of the Canon Hamilton trophy against neighbours O’Callaghan Mills.

But the memories of last Sunday will endure, the unlikely partnership between Dingle and hurling which yielded a success that will be cherished.

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Fintan O'Toole

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