A golden patch of hurling aristocracy
Club game is still king in the part of Kilkenny that produced a rich seam of gifted stickmen
It is raining on this May afternoon as we drive past Henry Shefflin's spacious rural residence, home of the most decorated hurler in history, and travel downhill through the townland of Kiltorcan in the heartland of Ballyhale Shamrocks, a verdant landscape of green fields and tall trees. Scarcely a quarter of a mile further is the home that TJ Reid grew up in. You are never far from a hurling home here.
The journey continues to a small junction where, at Castlebanny, sits the yellow-painted farm house that Kevin Fennelly Snr bought along with some land when the Stoneyford native moved from Piltown in the early 1960s. If Shefflin is the most decorated hurler, the Fennellys reached new frontiers for a hurling family, producing seven talented sons who backboned teams that shot the Shamrocks to lasting fame.
This is the tranquil setting out of which sprung an unrivalled six All-Ireland club titles and the first, in 1981, won by a rural parish. And it is still producing stickmen of national renown. Across the road from Fennellys', the centre-back on the breakthrough team of 1978, Maurice Mason, grew up. Not too far from there you will find the family farmhouse of 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, from where his grandfather John left in 1933 to help Kilkenny beat Limerick in the All-Ireland final.
There has always been hurling in this area but it was 40 years ago that a new revolution began. That was the year Ballyhale popped the cork in winning a first Kilkenny senior championship. The Riordans was still Ireland's popular television family drama. Grease, starring John Travolta, had top billing at local cinemas. If you wanted to dance the night away in the popular discotheques it would cost you £1.50. Of the panel that triumphed in '78, defeating favourites Fenians of Johnstown, five were farmers and there was just one student. The others were carpenters, plumbers, electricians, clerks, machine operators, stone cutters, teachers and a cadet.
The world hadn't heard of Henry Shefflin then, nor TJ Reid. It didn't know that Kevin Fennelly Jnr would later manage Dublin, who Kilkenny face today in Parnell Park in the Leinster championship. But when Shamrocks broke through by beating Fenians, the champions and hot favourites, in Nowlan Park on October 22, 1978, after one of the best county finals in years, their mentor and club chairman, Kevin Fennelly Snr seemed to know that great things were coming their way.
"If the interest in the club continues as it is at present," said the club patriarch, "then we will be in the top bracket for a long time to come." He had been chairman since its formation in 1972.
At the annual victory celebration the following February, the team selector Stephen Walsh revealed that "it took us three hours to pick the county final team, and I smoked ten cigarettes". The then chairman of Leinster Council, Paddy Buggy, noted that it was a famous win for south Kilkenny, an area that generally expected to win a senior championship once every ten years. "I hope the Shamrocks can do something about that," added Buggy.
They surely did, as Fennelly Snr predicted after downing Fenians in a match that failed to produce a goal, only the third time a senior final had been without one. Over a 13-year period from 1978 they won nine county titles, reeling off three in succession to begin with, and adding three All-Ireland club titles. Although there has been a Ballyhale native on every Kilkenny All-Ireland-winning team since 1922, the modern club was only formed in 1972 when the two junior clubs, Ballyhale and Knocktopher, merged.
On the first championship-winning team in '78, five of the six forwards were sons of Kevin Fennelly Snr, whose wife's sister married Brian Cody's father, Bill. The exception was Patrick Holden, father of the current Kilkenny player, Joey. Later, the youngest of the Fennelly brothers, Dermot, made it a magnificent seven hurling for Ballyhale Shamrocks. When Ballyhale re-emerged after a temporary slide to win a first county title in 15 years in 2006, it led to a fresh wave of prosperity including three more All-Irelands, with almost all of the players blood relations of those who had created the first era of success.
In their fourth year in senior hurling, the Shamrocks exploded like the big bang. They were 0-7 to 0-9 behind in the '78 county final when, in a key move early in the second half, they switched Michael Fennelly (father of Michael and Colin of recent county teams) to full-forward. Wiry and lean, Mick Fennelly hurled on throughout that period, being part of all nine championship wins. In the company of fellow player Declan Connolly, and former player and administrator Michael Hoyne, in the village of Knocktopher on Wednesday, he recalled that day they lowered Fenians. Eleven of their 15 points came from his family. "I just remember we were one point down, and I got the equalising point to make it a draw," says Fennelly. "Then I got another point, so that gave us the lead. And we never looked back."
Fennelly was joint manager in 2010 when they won their fifth All-Ireland, overcoming Portumna in the final. But it all began in '72. Bennettsbridge had dominated Kilkenny hurling in the 1960s, before giving way to Fenians and James Stephens in the following decade. Then Ballyhale Shamrocks emerged. Connolly, a wing-back who later became a successful manager, leading Tullaroan to their last senior championship in 1994, was at the meeting in Ballyhale hall when the club was formed.
"We thought it would be a lot tougher," admits Connolly. "On the night it worked out well. We weren't giving ourselves that much of a chance on the night, were we? There were a few little issues about the name."
Michael Hoyne: "Going to school then even, there was always a bit of a rift between Ballyhale and Knocktopher. And politics too, because Ballyhale/Knockmoylan would have been mostly Fianna Fáil. Knocktopher would have been Fine Gael. Even in the people looking after teams, you know what I mean? Like the Holohans would have been Fine Gael. The Aylwards would have been all Fianna Fáil."
Declan Connolly: "I think the hurlers took it upon themselves, the older crowd were hanging on to the politics and all that end of it. Then the young crowd stepped in. They were losing and they wanted to win."
Ballyhale and Knocktopher combined to field minor teams in the 1960s before parting again, and reuniting for good in '72. Twenty years later, in February 1992, Kevin Fennelly Snr reviewed what had been a good year. The hurlers had won their ninth county championship. The club committee had overseen the completion of the new dressing rooms and grounds at Ballyhale village. Peter Quinn, helicoptered in, would perform the official opening that May.
The club is now planning a new juvenile pitch and embarking on a fundraising venture that offers other clubs a chance to avail of Ballyhale's rich seam of hurling talent through a coaching weekend for those plucked out of a draw. Participants can also retain 60 per cent of the money raised for their own clubs. Ballyhale Shamrocks has provided All-Ireland senior winning captains with Kilkenny on seven occasions, the last being Joey Holden in 2015. Jimmy Walsh was also a parish native who captained Kilkenny to win in 1932 and '39, although he played with Carrickshock.
A month after the official opening of Ballyhale Shamrocks' grounds in May 1992, Kevin Fennelly Snr died unexpectedly. Later that year his son Liam, aged 34 and in his last county appearance, captained Kilkenny to win their first All-Ireland in nine years, the second time he had done so. His older brother Ger was captain when Kilkenny won in 1979. Kevin Snr lived long enough to witness the club thrive, not realising that within three years they would be relegated to intermediate hurling.
Mick Fennelly is asked what his father was like. "Ah it (hurling) killed him in the finish. We were at a match in Thomastown against Clara. We were 11 points down at half time," he recalls.
Kevin Snr was there as a spectator and in the second half two of his sons, Mick and Kevin, were sent off. "It happened in the dressing room," says Mick, "he got a stroke and never recovered."
Declan Connolly: "That time, if we were going bad, there would be a row among the boys, the Fennellys, one of them 'atin' the other, jaysus we'd be saying we'd better liven up. Thinking back on it afterwards, I'd say the lads had a plan, we'll row to get these lads going. Ah, I'll tell you, there would be sparks going in the dressing room at half-time if we were going bad. Liam would be laying into Michael. Or the other way around."
Michael Hoyne: "Selling tickets when we were young lads, you'd be afraid of Kevin if you were told to sell the tickets. If he asked you to do it you were expected to do it."
Declan Connolly: "He'd be always looking for perfection. I was taking 65s. I remember one night I was taking them in Mullinavat. I scored five 65s out of the six. He said to me going in, 'young Connolly, you can start practising your 65s'. I missed one. He wanted 100 per cent. He had a modern mind for an elderly man on hurling, how it should be played."
The team earned a reputation for an eye-catching style of play, with the ball whizzing across the forward line, dragging defences apart. Mick Fennelly recalls people coming from Kerry to watch them hurl.
"You could say the Shamrocks' hurling style is hurling made simple," said Tommy Hearne, a native of Ballygunner, when training the team in 1990 before they beat Ballybrown to win another All-Ireland. "Their players have a natural instinct for the game. They never lose their cool when things go wrong. That stands to them."
After relegation in '95 it took them a couple of years to return to senior hurling and 15 to win it again, in 2006, when they began a run that saw them win four on the trot. Connolly says he still has people asking him what is in the air around Ballyhale that enables a rural parish with the usual challenges to continue to be a force in the game. He doesn't have a ready answer for that.
When they first broke through 40 years ago it was reported that there were 260 houses in the parish. There are a few more now, but the three pubs that used to be in Ballyhale is now reduced to one, and large families like the Fennellys aren't the fashion any more. Playing numbers fall and in some juvenile age brackets they are struggling with quantity and quality. But they are resourceful and any team facing the Shamrocks does so with full knowledge of the tradition and reputation facing them.
When did you finish? Connolly is asked. "I played until I was 33. I finished in '83. Some lads can go longer than others. You take the like of Michael (Fennelly). Michael was always able to go on, never carried a bit of weight. The training that time was fierce enjoyable. You'd miss the oul banter. You'd stay hurling all night. We'd say the last goal, the last point, and stay going."
There is disappointment over the decision to close off Kilkenny training sessions to the general public, nights on which a hardcore group of followers would meet up and chew the fat. Everything changes. But the impact of the inter-county games on clubs like Ballyhale exercises these men most of all.
Michael Hoyne: "Like, if you wanted to write something, write about that. The way the clubs are being treated now. Especially senior teams and intermediate teams. It's pure scandalous."
Declan Connolly: "They've (Shamrocks) played one match (in April). And we don't know when the next match might be. Like, if Kilkenny go to an All-Ireland final it could be September before they hurl again."
Michael Hoyne: "I mean that's not right. You heard the GAA President talking about the club being important. They don't even say that now, it is all about the county. There is a big gap. It's a month nearly since that last match was played."
It looks like August 12 is the earliest they can expect to see Ballyhale again in the championship. They are now being managed by Henry Shefflin. They have players. A manager of some repute. Tradition. Just no games.
Declan Connolly: "A few years ago Tipperary and Clare contested a brilliant under 21 match and afterwards Ken Hogan was praised for allowing players to play club games the previous weekend. If Kilkenny were playing under 21 no-one would be allowed to play for three weeks or a month here, sure they wouldn't?"
I thought Kilkenny were one of the exceptions?
Declan Connolly: "No, they were. Everyone you meet, the first thing they talk about now is what's gone wrong with the clubs in Kilkenny?"
Michael Hoyne: "This year now is really the worst."
Declan Connolly: "They have come in with this thing (inter-county hurling championship experiment) now for three years. I think after three years it will be too late. Like, we'd normally be down in Thomastown or wherever at matches in the last few weeks. That is all gone. We've no matches."
Michael Hoyne: "Even this new Club Players Association. It won't be any use unless they show a bit of teeth about it."
Declan Connolly: "Someone made a good point that they definitely must have been up in Mars when they decided to put the Munster final and the Leinster final on the one day. I think people will watch the two of them on television at home. I think Croke Park are totally out of sync. You have an element of people in Kilkenny who have no interest in club hurling; all they talk about is the county."
Ballyhale Shamrocks derive much pride from what their county players have achieved with Kilkenny and some will journey to see them in Donnycarney this afternoon. But they are first and foremost a club. In the struggle with long, dispiriting spells of inactivity they are no better off, for all their success, than any other club in the country. What started as dreamy and enjoyable reminiscence with three hurling men of this great parish ended up sounding like a cry for help.
For details of how to get a chance to sample some of Ballyhale's coaching expertise first hand go to hurlingwiththestars.com
Each fundraising card costs €100 to purchase, and contains 25 lines at €10 per line. Of that, 60 per cent is retained by the seller, with the balance going to Ballyhale. Any club that purchases three fundraising cards or more can bring three teams on the day - a total of 75 players - should they win the draw.
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