Wednesday 18 September 2019

The Nire Valley men have their eye on the highest peak

The Nire manager Benji Whelan pictured ahead of Sunday's red-letter day for the club when they take on Kerry's Austin Stacks in the AIB Munster Club SFC final at Cork's Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
The Nire manager Benji Whelan pictured ahead of Sunday's red-letter day for the club when they take on Kerry's Austin Stacks in the AIB Munster Club SFC final at Cork's Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Christy O'Connor

A few hundred feet below Knockanaffrin, the highest peak in the Comeragh Mountains, there is a lay-by overlooking a postcard picture of The Nire valley, with its miniature lakes and rolling fields, all neatly framed by the background of the Comeraghs.

That's where the road into the mountains ends but it's also where part of the modern story of The Nire football club begins.

Climbing down the meandering road, past the old ruins of a house and a tiny bridge, sits Jim Wall's home.

Wall became the first Waterford man to win a Railway Cup football medal with Munster in 1972.

It was a combined landmark achievement for Waterford football and The Nire.

Wall will receive a Munster 'Hall of Fame' award next month and the footballing legacy Wall created still remains; his sons Brian and Diarmuid play for The Nire in Sunday's Munster club final against Austin Stacks.

The small primary school beside the stone church in the shadow of Knockanaffrin is closed now. This generation has provided a bounty but with fewer than 80 houses in The Nire, they were always reliant on providence for their footballers and hurlers.

REMOTE

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The Nire's story originated a little further down the road, just past Bolger's bridge and on the bank of The Nire river in a small field called Mecca's inch.

The Fourmilewater hurling club was founded just up the road on another remote part of ground in 1926 but when the football club was formed in that field in 1929, they named it The Nire because most of their players were from that part of the parish.

The Nire is a half-parish with Tourneena, while Fourmilewater is a half-parish with Newcastle, Co Tipperary but the parish also incorporates the tiny village of Ballymacarbry, which means there are three separate clubs within the six-mile parish radius.

The hurling club is still called Fourmilewater and when a ladies football club was founded in the area in 1970, they named it Ballymacarbry.

The parish supplied players to all three clubs and, while each club retained its own identity, their loyalty always bound them together as one.

Although the locality is nestled right on the border with Tipperary and the footballing hotbed of south-Tipperary, hurling and football have always co-existed there on the same level.

The Nire senior management also duplicates as the exact same management for the Fourmilewater senior hurlers.

The Nire won the intermediate football title to go senior for the first time in 1971 but they weren't a legitimate senior contender until the latter half of the 1980s.

When The Nire reached their second county senior football final in 1989, Fourmilewater won their first intermediate hurling title the same season.

The Nire reached their first county final in 1987 before finally winning a maiden senior title in 1993. Since then, football has assumed the higher profile.

Fourmilewater were in a senior hurling relegation play-off this year but they were semi-finalists two years ago and the parish has maintained their dual status.

Eight of Sunday's side (five football and three hurling) played senior championship with Waterford this season.

Thomas and Maurice O'Gorman have been regulars on the Munster football interprovincial squads over the last decade. Brian Wall, Liam Lawlor and Shane Walsh all won Munster senior hurling medals over the last decade, while Jamie Barron is an excellent hurler.

Although there are only 200 houses in Fourmilewater, friendship and togetherness has always been a uniting strand of the parish. On the road into Ballymacarbry, just beyond Doocey's pub and Melody's bar, sits a state-of-the-art community centre. It was completed five years ago at a cost of €1.6 million, most of which was funded through local volunteerism and labour.

The centre includes two massive halls, a gym, a hostel, creche and library. Most of the debt has been paid off.

Just up the road from the centre and inside the hallway of Michael Ryan's house, hangs a framed photograph of the five Waterford ladies football teams that Ryan coached to five All-Ireland senior titles.

While The Nire were establishing themselves in the 1980s and reinforcing that status in the 1990s, Ryan was building his own empire.

BAGGING

Ryan created a dynasty. Ballymacarbry won 14 Munster club titles in 16 years, bagging ten All-Ireland club titles in the process.

Between 1988 and 1996, they were unbeaten in the country. The club were so strong that they effectively were Waterford ladies football.

When Waterford won their first All-Ireland ladies senior title in 1991, there were 14 Ballymacarbry women on the team. When they retained it a year later, there were 13 on the team.

The ladies' success was also a catalyst for The Nire because their emergence coincided with Ballymacarbry's domination.

The Nire won county titles in 1993, 1994, 1997 and 2000 before walking into a Stradbally wall. Stradbally beat them for five years in a row, including three county finals.

They finally took down Stradbally in the 2006 county final before narrowly losing the Munster final to Dr Crokes.

They won another county title in 2008 before Stradbally erected the wall again, beating The Nire in county finals in 2009 and 2012. Eight of the side which reached the 2006 Munster final are still on board and this team has been further strengthened with an influx of quality young talent.

The Nire also won the minor 'A' title this year. The legacy and the lineage continues in various forms. Michael Ryan's son, Shane, captains the team, at just 22.

At the very end of Ballymacarbry village, just beyond the shop and service station, past the Pinewood Pharmaceutical Company, which employs over 350 people, is the GAA pitch.

The Mill Field is home to three different GAA clubs but the dressing-rooms at the edge of the pitch are modest and small. It would make financial sense for The Nire and Fourmilewater to join under the one name but they have two lottos going and they didn't want to lose an allocation of tickets for big matches.

They had always wanted to retain that identity but moves have been made recently to potentially join the two clubs.

Plans are already under way to modernise the ground with new dressing-rooms. During World War Two, there were potatoes set on the field and the hollows and undulations paint a picture of the toil and effort that the club have already invested to get to this point.

There is no stand or viewing area and the basic floodlights along both sides of the field are the only signs of modernisation.

The pitch is hemmed in by dense and climbing woodlands and by The Nire River, labelled as "the fastest-flowing river in the British Isles".

The Nire's own journey has continued at a hectic pace. It's also been as interwoven as the road through the valley.

After the 2008 county final, the medals were presented by Kieran Donaghy, who now lines out against them on Sunday.

This is The Nire's shot at the big-time, their chance to create their own unique history. They are ready. Primed. Prepared.

The men from the valley are coming.

Irish Independent

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