IT is now 20 years since An Ghaeltacht captain Mici O Conchuir lifted the Bishop Moynihan Cup for the small rural club based around the furthest tip of the Corca Dhuibhne peninsula. The West Kerry club would repeat that county championship victory in 2003 on their way to an appearance in the All-Ireland Club Championship final against Caltra of Galway. Heady times indeed, as Dara Ó Cinnéide recalls.
“In 1987, at under-12, that group that came through to the county seniors, we were in Division One, and it was the first time that any team from the Gaeltacht had played at that level, and we were beating the Stacks, the Rahillys, the Legions, the Crokes, all these teams, and the older generation at home wouldn’t believe us,” Ó Cinnéide told The Kerryman.
“They were saying that it must be their ‘B’ teams! My grandfather, who was alive at the time, was saying was that really the Rockies, because they would have been reared on Joe Barrett and John Joe Sheehy and these boys. It couldn’t be them that ye are beating. We were saying ‘yeah it is.’
“There was a sense, even when we were kids, that yeah, we were better than these teams. Then you go to school and you are winning Russell Cups and Dunloe Cups, and beating The Sems and The Greens, which Dingle CBS never did. That was more the thing, as opposed to rural versus urban.
“Our journey was winning novice ’92, junior ’93, losing an intermediate final ’94, taking four years to win an intermediate, which was a bit longer than we would have liked, winning intermediate ’98, going to senior ’99. We held our own in the first year, we beat South Kerry after a replay, and then the second year we were in the county final, and we should have won it.
“We lost by a point to Dr Crokes, bit of cuteness on Crokes’ part. They got a goal in a low-scoring game, and we knew that we weren’t far off it. The focus was to win a county championship, it wasn’t to beat one of the town teams, or anything like that. But, when it did happen in 2001, it was something that I was conscious of anyway,” Ó Cinnéide recalls.
“These are the teams that we had been beating at under-12, under-14, under-16, minor, all the way up along. We won two county minor Division One titles in ’92 and ’93. That group, everybody would have known Darragh Ó Sé and myself, but they were a group of very strong personalities. Cathal Ó Dubhda was an unbelievable footballer, great servant to the club, still is, he’s our club referee.
“These lads all had medals in their pockets from underage up along from beating the urban teams. It’s afterwards that you think of it as a rural/urban thing. You say, Jesus, that really was brilliant to be beating those teams.”
In the last 30 years, An Ghaeltacht remain one of only five clubs to have lifted the most prestigious title in Kerry club football (Dr Crokes, Austin Stacks, Laune Rangers and Kerins O’Rahillys the other four), but Ó Cinnéide and his teammates are the complete outliers, with not a hint of an urban base to work from. Would those two great seasons have meant the same if they were achieved in the West Kerry divisional colours?
“Not at all. I would have played with West Kerry from ’92, ’93 right up to the year that we left in ’98. There were some brilliant people involved, Páidí was involved, Mossie O’Donnell, who was brilliant, originally a Brosna man but a strong Dingle GAA man, great trainer, great manager, and we lost a county final by a kick of a ball in ’96 with West Kerry, which we dearly would have loved to have won it, 25 years ago now.
“Laune Rangers, at the peak of their powers, beat us. That was the Laune Rangers team that won the All-Ireland title, and they beat us by a point, and you would have loved to have won it. I would have held it in very high esteem had we won it, but it’s a different planet to winning with the Gaeltacht. Winning with the Gaeltacht was everything.
“It was unbelievably emotional to win it with the Gaeltacht in 2001. It was actually the first and only time that I couldn’t hold my emotions in a post-match interview. To see your neighbours, and the older people who you didn’t think had an interest in football or were totally consumed by football, it was very personal, very to the core as a feeling, as an emotion.”
With the 2021 county championship bursting into life with eight knock-out encounters on the horizon on Saturday and Sunday, when you analyse the landscape, you see that, of the eight club sides in action, three are from Killarney, two are based in Tralee, two others represent the towns of Kenmare and Dingle, and you are left with Templenoe as the little outsider in terms of size and playing population.
The former Kerry All-Ireland-winning captain of 2004 is full of praise for how Templenoe have got themselves in among this exalted company, but the fact that they are given little chance of going all the way this season adds even more to the fairytale story that unfolded for An Ghaeltacht back in the early noughties.
“To this day, and even this week alone, someone said to me that we under-achieved, and I’m going ‘what the f*** are you on about?’ Because we had all these big names, because we had so many fellas in the Kerry set-up at one stage, we were supposed to be winning county championships? I thought that it was two miracles that we won it in 2001 and 2003.
“There was no sense at the time that this was unprecedented for a rural club, but when you look back on it, it was, and when you look at the stats from all those years, that is something that we should be really proud of. To compare it right now, it would be like Dromid Pearses winning a county senior championship. Can you think of one rural club right now around Kerry that’s making progress in that sense? Demographically, and on the field, among the up and coming clubs in Kerry?
“Templenoe is a great story, and it’s an achievement for them to win a few games at senior club championship level. They’re not going to be winning the Bishop Moynihan, not a hope in hell that they’re going to do it, but what they have is four members of the current Kerry squad, and very decent club stalwarts, no more than we had ourselves.
“Templenoe have nothing coming up behind them that I can see, they’re not setting the world alight underage, and it’s like a meteorite trajectory that they’re going to have.”
The more you listen to Ó Cinnéide, the more you realise that it was an exceptional set of circumstances that brought those halcyon moments to An Ghaeltacht. And as East Kerry prime their firepower for the opening defence of their title, the prospect of seeing another story like 2001 appears to be farther away than ever.
“There was the work that Liam Ó Rocháin and others had done at underage level, there were the individuals involved, they were strong characters. Tomas Ó Sé put out a tweet there recently, and he’s played with a few clubs and he’s been around the scene, but he tweeted about our team of 2003 that it certainly helped that we were playing with some of the biggest messers in Western Europe!
“They were noted around the county for acting the maggot. Every club will say that about themselves, that’s probably me being parochial, but we had some ridiculous levels of fun.
“Every kid has to dream, and the dream for a Gaeltacht footballer now is to win an All-Ireland intermediate. We’re not winning the county intermediate, but that is the dream. We’re not big enough to dream about the Andy Merrigan (Cup) anymore, at the moment, and the likelihood of it happening again, demographics and stuff would have to change.
“Let’s look at a 20-year-old playing for the Gaeltacht at the moment. What’s his best chance of winning a Bishop Moynihan? It is with West Kerry, and it’s going to be with West Kerry. But for that to happen, you’re probably going to have to see Dingle fall back to intermediate, and us to become a five-club unit again.”
The men of 2001 and 2003. Heroes of An Ghaeltacht forever. Pioneers for all the rural clubs of Kerry. An anomaly in the times that we now live in? Almost certainly.