Monday 9 December 2019

Kilkenny Cats are looking for a Purrfect Ten over Tipperary

INSIDE her salon, Norma brandishes a black-and-amber hairdressing-gown. "I make the Tipp lads wear this, just to drive them mad," she confessed with a grin.

Her father, 88-year old Kieran Bergin, who saw his first hurling match in 1947, had wise words. "Sure in business, you can't tell a Kilkenny shilling from a Tipperary shilling," he reckoned.

But otherwise in this town, the rivalry is intense.

There was much talk yesterday of the battle of the signs - under cover of darkness, Tipp fans had doctored a road-sign just outside the town: 'We Stopped Your 5. Now We'll Stop Your 10'.

A reference to Kilkenny's famous five-in-a-row run of victories which was halted in 2010 by the men from the Premier County, and to the ambition of Kilkenny's King Henry Shefflin to add a 10th All-Ireland medal to his haul in Croke Park on Sunday.

That taunt swiftly vanished, to be replaced by the retort: 'Tipp: 6 in 49 years; Kilkenny 6 in 9 years. History Speaks'.

Kilkenny woman Norma Bergin from Urlingford gives Joe Burke from Tipperary a Kilkenny hair cut prior to the All-Ireland final this Sunday
Kilkenny woman Norma Bergin from Urlingford gives Joe Burke from Tipperary a Kilkenny hair cut prior to the All-Ireland final this Sunday
Residents of the Ossory Hill estate Kilkenny (from left), Jack Howe and Tadhg King

But like it or not, the two counties are intertwined by more than having 60 senior hurling championships between them.

In Urlingford, there are quite a few 'mixed marriages', such as that of Tipperary man Sean Manton and his wife, Kilkenny-born Jenny who have been living in Urlingford for 38 years.

Their son is a Tipp supporter, while their three daughters cheer for the Cats. And for the sake of domestic peace, Sean and Jenny will watch Sunday's final on separate televisions in the house.

However, the couple, along with Jenny's sister Breda, explained that the M8 motorway bypass has taken some of the craic out of the county rivalry - no longer do carloads of Tipp fans have to run the gauntlet of Urlingford on the road to and from Croker.

"The motorway spoiled a lot of the fun - the local kids would be out on the street from Friday evening, waving flags, and all the car-horns blowing as they went past," said Breda.

In Kilkenny city, the denizens may be a bit more blase about their team, but there are fanatical pockets where the houses, gardens and walls are a-blaze with black and amber bunting and flags.

Ossory Hill, in the shadow of Nowlan Park, is one such stronghold. Resident Liam Carroll orchestrated the colourful display in every one of the 80 houses in the small estate. It was awash with a gaggle of small, excited kids, who scampered around swinging hurls, festooned in jerseys, flags and headbands.

"The excitement is huge," said Lauren, mother of four-year old Tadhg King. "We're a very close community on this estate, everybody knows everyone else, and hurling is a great bond among the kids," she said. "I love it here, and I wouldn't move to a mansion if I got the choice. You can't buy good neighbours."

Kilkenny's Lord Mayor, Fianna Fail councillor Andrew McGuinness - son of TD John McGuinness - dropped by. He explained how both politics and hurling have deep roots through several generations of his family.

"My great-grand-uncle Jack McGuinness was lord mayor of Kilkenny one hundred years ago in 1914, and he welcomed home the victorious Kilkenny team," said Andrew.

"In his speech he described them as the hurling champions of the world - I might borrow that line if I get to make such as speech after Sunday," he joked.

Hopes of victory are high across the county, but nobody is taking a win for granted. Time and again, in town after town, the universal view was that it will be a close contest.

"They have a fifty-fifty chance on the day," reckoned Thomastown man Seamus Quigley who proudly confessed to being a hurling "fanatic". Seamus had built a unique shrine to his team in the centre of the town, a colourful tableau featuring mannequins in the team colours, a few cats, a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Henry Shefflin and a jolly-looking Brian Cody playing a squeezebox.

"Kilkenny lives for hurling," said Seamus, "and a great contest against Tipperary is what every Kilkenny fan wants to see".

Tomorrow: Lise Hand makes the trip to Tipp

Irish Independent

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