Groundwork puts Cuala in safe hands
Thriving underage scene indicates remarkable rise of Dublin champions is just the beginning
Around the time he won three senior championships with Cuala, and kept goal for Dublin, Damien Byrne went on a recruitment drive to schools in the local catchment area. Despite the club's prosperity, manifest in winning a first senior hurling championship in 1989, and two more by 1994, they could tell from their juvenile numbers that they were in trouble. Below the age of 18 the count might be as low as 40 and rarely exceeded 60. They could see the rain coming.
Byrne's grandfather and four of his granduncles played hurling in Cuala; the game was undeniably in his blood. And knowing the area, he knew the challenge that awaited him. He assumed nothing, expected the worst. At one of his first ports of call, a school in Ballybrack, he produced a picture of that cup that's presented annually to the winner of the All-Ireland senior football championship.
"Can anyone tell me the name of that cup please?" The audience looked perplexed. "I will give you a hint. His first name is Sam." And then one kid raised his hand. "The Sam-Rock Rovers Cup?"
As they feared, those three hurling championship wins were followed by a valley period where staying senior became the bottom line rather than winning any more titles. They revamped their underage structure, met the crisis head on, and today their juvenile section is a thriving industry. The numbers playing for Cuala below 18 has soared to around 1,500. In 2015 they won their first senior hurling championship since '94 and last year broke new ground by retaining it.
On Friday next, they will become the first Dublin side to play in an All-Ireland senior hurling final. Three thousand tickets were sold in the club on Wednesday night and a second DART has been commissioned to carry followers keen to see the team hurl Ballyea on St Patrick's Day after the first train sold out in an hour and a quarter. Byrne jokes that he still heard one kid lately confuse Gaelic football's greatest prize with the chef Neven Maguire, but the entire picture has changed since be began his mission to promote Gaelic games. Only that, unlike the last period of success, the future is more secured.
Hurling has spread like wildfire and reaching an All-Ireland club final elevates the game's status higher than could ever have been imagined. In many parts of this region in south Dublin rugby and soccer have been more populist pursuits. The GAA now offers a potent alternative. "I worked with a development officer for hurling in Dublin," says Byrne of the changed attitudes, "and what he found was that hurling was the new rugby in the schools."
He thinks of the glamour associated with the game now compared to his days playing. From his youth he has a vivid recollection, seared in his memory, of being shown coaching videos in which "there wasn't one fella in it with a full set of teeth. I can still see it. All these inter-county players with missing teeth."
Hurling is a safer game for today's player and one with broader appeal. It made sense that Cian O'Callaghan would hurl, given that his father, Maurice, had already blazed a trail and won championships with the club. But the groundwork which Cuala put in to get young players to want to stay playing was also a factor. "No memory of him playing," says O'Callaghan of his father. "I think he hung up the boots when he was quite young - bad ankle, I think. But I do remember he was the manager of the Cuala senior team in football and (my brother) Con and I used to go along to training and my younger brother Niall as well. My mum's background was hockey and my dad's GAA and whichever of them would offer the best deal with regards sweets, crisps and Lucozade you would go with them (to training)."
The investment in crisps and Lucozade paid off. "When I was growing up there weren't really any academies - you see huge academies nowadays," recalls O'Callaghan. "Back then, when I was six or seven you just went to a field with a ball and once you got your Freddo (chocolate) at the end of it you were happy. You go down to the academies now on a Saturday morning and the place is chock-a-block; Dalkey is completely packed whereas when I was there you had really three or four really committed parents and you had 15 or 20 maximum in each group and you would be doing very well to get that many. So I suppose that shows the evolution."
O'Callaghan had two years as a county minor hurler before making the senior county team and he will rejoin Ger Cunningham's squad once the club season finishes on Friday. "Definitely hurling is my favourite game, one hundred per cent," he says. "I'm probably a better hurler (than footballer)."
His brother Con, though a wonderful hurler who has inspired Cuala in their run to the final, is destined to be a star with Jim Gavin's Dublin football team. Cuala's football profile is also on the rise, with their team playing in Division 1 of the league, even if hurling is the more dominant game traditionally. Johnny Sheanon has two sons, Colum and Cillian, hurling on the Cuala senior panel, and a nephew, John lining out in the half-back line, while his wife is an aunt of the O'Callaghans. He played before Damien Byrne's time up to the middle 1980s, having joined the original Cuala Casements at the age of eight in 1963. The Christian Brothers school in Dún Laoghaire he attended acted as a feeder for Gaelic games in an area where rugby enjoyed a greater profile.
"Even though the Christian Brothers school folded we were lucky in that back about 15 years Colmán Ó Drisceoil became the Scoil Lorcáin principal (in Monkstown). He had played in the '89 and '91 teams and his father Seamus was a founding member of Cuala. Suddenly here was a great promoter of all things GAA and Irish language and that became a school with a GAA base. So anybody who went to that school, like my kids, they played hurling and football. And then many went to Coláiste Eoin. They went up there and joined with Kilmacud Crokes and Ballinteer players to get really good high-quality coaching and played at the top level. Twelve of the current team went to Coláiste Eoin over several years."
The greatest challenge was to get parents with little or no GAA background involved in coaching and mentoring. "If you look at any of the Cuala teams that do well," says Sheanon, "you can bet your life there are a couple of men with a GAA background involved in it. Now we are not complaining - we have the numbers. But that is an added challenge to get the message across. We are all in the same business of trying to win the hearts and minds, we all have a battle to get the kids to play GAA.
"We made sure the kids were well looked after and that they enjoyed what they were doing and that the coaching was good, and they just stayed on. I think 13 of the starting 15 started at five years old in Cuala."
With the numbers no longer a concern, the challenge they now face is in providing adequate facilities and effective administration to cater for those wanting to play. They use a number of County Council pitches and also lean on nearby Bray Emmets. "We are very much indebted to Bray Emmets," says Sheanon. "We nearly play all our home games out there now, they have wonderful facilities. They have been very generous to us. We have great support from all the local clubs. I have never seen so many flags out. It's like when you go through small towns. It makes you very proud. Lots of people who would not have known there was any GAA in the area are having to ask the question: what is this all about?"
The other impetus has been the arrival of Mattie Kenny as manager, a Galway native. "He has been a unifying force n the club," states Sheanon. "A lot of times when managers come in they put in a lot of demands and want dual players because they are on a limited time-span. But he has worked within the club structures, worked with the footballers, worked with everybody. I have never seen the club as unified as it is now. A lot of it is down to him."
For Cian O'Callaghan, this adventure has been a series of unexpected bonuses. "I assumed winning the Dublin title was the Holy Grail for a long time," he says. "We won it in 2015. It was Mattie Kenny's second year; the first year we didn't really have a full team available. So we were kind of getting ourselves together and organised. We set out to just get out of the group. We didn't talk about anything else. We took each game as it came. I think we had four games in three weeks to win the championship in Dublin. That was a big breakthrough for us. We went into Leinster and again we took each game as it came, lost out to Oulart in the final. We regrouped and our aim in 2016 was to win the Dublin championship again. I know my dad, the Holdens, the Treacys' father, their team would never have put two Dublin championships back-to-back - straight away that was the aim, to nearly surpass what they achieved."
He's asked if losing to Oulart drove them the following season most of all. "Sometimes you can be a bit flat after going on a long run. You could see it with Na Piarsaigh last season. They won the All-Ireland but then didn't get out of their group in the Limerick championship. But we had so much hunger seeing how close we were to winning that Leinster title and it gives us that bit of drive and ambition. Once we got out of Dublin this season we knew our goal was to win the Leinster title and not to worry about anything after that."
The best days are still ahead.
Sunday Indo Sport