The rise of Ciarán Kilkenny and the story of him only being allowed to play on his left foot... in primary school
BY the time Ciarán Kilkenny was in third class in primary school, they had to put restrictions on him in training in Scoil Oilibhéir.
“For a week, Ciarán would only be able to play with his left foot in training,” says Antóin Ó Cléirigh, his former second and fifth class teacher in the Coolmine gaelscoil and a clubmate/hurling mentor with the Castleknock club.
Partly, they were designed to help improve elements of Kilkenny’s game but mostly, it was to give everyone else a chance.
Connchubhar Ó Brosnacháin, a Kerry man, was the school’s football coach and nobody was in any doubt as to Kilkenny’s potential.
“Maybe one day, he would only be allowed score goals or he would only be allowed score points with his left foot or he would give him a point if he fielded a kick-out,” Ó Cléirigh recalls.
“And this was in third and fourth class. He was dominating the training sessions, playing against fellas with a couple of stone and a couple of inches on him.”
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Soon, GAA people of both sporting persuasions in Dublin would hear word of Kilkenny’s prodigious talent.
On his last appearance for Scoil Oilibhéir in Croke Park, Kilkenny scored 10 points, eight kicked with his right foot and two with his left.
He hadn’t yet turned 12.
“When he was in fifth and sixth class,” remembers Ó Cleirigh, “you’d have grown men coming up to shake his hand and meet him in Croke Park after he played there for the school.
“But his father and mother have been very good at keeping his feet on the ground because it would be very easy for a child of that ability to get notions.
“But,” he adds, “I think the key to it was, Ciarán was only ever competing against himself.”
Now, at 24, he is already being tipped as a future Dublin football captain.
At 14, he was giddily backed to be Dublin hurling’s great red-haired hope.
In 2007, Castleknock, still in its infancy as a club, were crowned All-Ireland Féile na nGael (hurling) Division 1 champions following a 4-8 to 0-3 victory over Limerick’s Ahane in the final at Nowlan Park.
“It was huge but it was totally unexpected,” recalls Ó Cleirigh. “We were such a young club. We had no history. And we definitely had no history of competing at the top end of the national side of it.
“And they went with the attitude that clubs should go down with and have possibly gone away from – that they were going to enjoy the experience playing all these famous hurling clubs.
“They went down to meet all these clubs and they won it and Ciarán was obviously the star man.”
Fast forward to 2011.
A sports drink company are hosting a promotional media event in Na Fiannan’s clubhouse on Mobhi Road at which several high profile inter-county players are in attendance. Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Colm Cooper are the big draws.
It’s lunch time and the students of the adjoining Scoil Chatríona secondary school have invaded the pitches and tennis court.
Ó hAilpín watches as one young man in a tracksuit bats a tennis ball across the net with a hurley while his opponent chases with a tennis racket.
“That’s Ciarán Kilkenny,” RTÉ’s Brian Carthy says to Ó hAilpín.
“That lad’s still in school?!” comes Ó hAilpín confused response.
That was over a year before Ciarán Kilkenny would make his senior debut for Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo that stands as his only senior championship defeat.
But already, his reputation had gone national and he cut the powerful figure of a man who had played adult grade sport for several years.
“He’s a phenomenal physical specimen,” says Ó Cleirigh.
“He has been since he was a child. It’s not necessarily the gym that has done that. Ciarán has always been phenomenally athletic.
“And really, really naturally strong. All those physical attributes, obviously he has honed them but since he was a child, he’s been in fantastic physical shape.”
That year, the season Kilkenny was the brightest star on a Dublin minor team beaten by Tipperary in the All-Ireland MFC final, he wrote a letter nominating Scoil Chaitríona for school of the year to The Herald sports desk (see right).The school had won the Dublin senior ‘B’ championships in football and hurling, a first in both codes and in each case, heavily influenced by Kilkenny.
“What makes this achievement noteworthy,” he wrote, “is our small player population.
“Our success this year has been based on determination, school spirit and a will to win.”
Kilkenny has retained that sense of place right through his formative sporting years.
When he speaks now, he is almost sickly sweet about his sporting and cultural pursuits but they tally with his aforementioned 2011 school pride and in 2013, his reasons for returning from Australia just a few months into a two-year contract with AFL side, Hawthorn.
In a statement, he outlined how he “realised that it would never matter as much to me as the sense of community and joy I get from togging out and playing alongside the people with whom I grew up and live.”
Kilkenny added that the monetary rewards of a professional sporting life “could never replace the satisfaction I get from the round ball or a sliotar.
“The passion I feel for hurling and football is not transferable to any other sport and seeing my neighbours and team-mates happy when we do well is reward enough.”
At just 20 years of age, it was a remarkably mature sentiment which he rounded off by announcing his intention to get “back involved in what I feel truly passionate about,” and a self-composed seanfhocial.
“Ní glaise iad na cnoic i bhfad uainn i gcónaí!” Kilkenny wrote.
The faraway hills aren’t green at all times.