'I could go up to our juvenile pitch in Pearse Park, throw a bag of hurleys on the ground and kids would come running from every direction to play.'
former Crumlin GAA PRO
Alone it stands: Crumlin's Leinster senior club hurling win of 36 years ago, a deed unequalled by a Dublin team before or since. In Athy, on March 23, 1980, they defeated Camross of Laois, benefiting from early goals in each half, two from Bernard Donovan, an All-Ireland medal-winner with the Dublin football team in 1974, and one from Mick Reynolds. For most of the final half-hour, Camross threw everything at them but fell three points short.
Crumlin's unique claim may finally end today. Cuala hope to match their achievement when they meet O'Loughlin Gaels in Portlaoise, having failed in last year's final and also in 1990. Ballyboden lost the 2008 final to Birr during the course of a five-year winning streak in Dublin. UCD also lost three finals in the last decade and O'Toole's were losing finalists in 1997. Until another triumphs, Crumlin's lone success will continue to enjoy special renown.
"I would love to see Cuala win it," says Crumlin's winning captain of 1980, John Murphy, who will be there to see them try. "People say, 'Oh, I hope no one else wins', and I say, 'Why? We need a club winning at this level, it would be good for Dublin hurling'. I was talking to (former Cuala manager) Harry Roberts on Friday night and I said, 'I sincerely hope you do it'. It is a good young team, that Cuala team. It's 36 years now."
Crumlin GAA club came into being in 1969 when St Columba's, the hurling club in the village, joined up with St Agnes, the football wing. In 1978 they won their first senior hurling championship, defeating their arch-rivals Faughs in the county final. Hurling had a presence before then. In 1956 St Columba's won the senior championship. Two years before one of their players, Bernard Boothman, who played in the 1961 All-Ireland final with his brother Achill, captained the county to an All-Ireland minor hurling title. The influence of the CBS on Armagh Road was monumental in spreading hurling's message. One of St Columba's founding members was the celebrated Kilkenny trainer Fr Tommy Maher, who was a curate in the area at the time.
A rapidly rising population provided huge potential to tap in to. In 1968, Denis Murphy, no relation of John, arrived as a nine-year-old from Clonmel with his family, who made the decision for the benefit of their children's education. His grandfather and grand-uncle had won All-Irelands with Cork; the game was in the blood. But the change was seismic. He moved into fifth class in the CBS with numbers in the hundreds. Crumlin was a stolidly working class conurbation. As a country boy, Murphy had to adjust quickly.
"Talk about a culture shock," he says. "In my year alone there were 300 young fellas. We would all head out into the yard at break-time. There were regular mills in the yard. And you just learned."
Murphy went on to become one of their best hurlers, representing the county at every level and even winning a Leinster minor football medal with Dublin in 1976. The GAA handed him his route to integration and social acceptance. "I remember a fella tried to rob my bike on the way home one day, in my first year I was there, and I gave him a smack. I didn't want to have to go home and tell my father, or I would probably have got a smack around the ear for getting it robbed. I went back to school in the afternoon and I told one of the lads about how this fella stole my bike. This was totally new to me." When he revealed the identity of the culprit his friend advised him that hitting one of that family might have repercussions.
He grew up fast and every step of the way there was Jim Boggan, synonymous with Crumlin during their best years, and also a successful coach with Dublin teams. Denis Murphy remembers Boggan helping to get a kid out of a detention centre for a day so he could play in a county minor final. He repaid their efforts by scoring four goals. When the same player was sought for an under 21 final a few years later he was serving time in Mountjoy. Denis Murphy, by then between completing his accountancy training and starting work, was dispatched.
"Jim would have been instrumental in that," says Murphy. "He sent me to the 'Joy to see what I could do. You went over to see if you could get him out for the match. We ended up getting him out anyway. And he came out and he was utterly useless, because he was too well fed and had got lazy."
Boggan, above all, was an excellent coach, preaching the mantra of first touch and constant movement. Players like John and Denis Murphy, and the majority of the team that won a Leinster title, had been coached by the Christian brothers. The last Christian Brother stopped teaching in the CBS 20 years ago. The population began to decline and families dispersed, their children playing with other clubs. Since winning Leinster, Crumlin have struggled to maintain that kind of profile and failed to win their way out of Dublin.
"He is the story of Crumlin hurling," says Denis Murphy of Boggan, who died in 2009. "He started mentoring in the early '60s. As a young man he came up as a teenager from Wexford and stayed with a guy called Thomas Grealish, who played with us; his dad had a shop on the Drimnagh Road, near where Eamonn Coghlan's dad had a shop. Near where you go on to the One Mile Road. His whole life and soul was hurling and he was a social worker as much as anything else."
The team that won Leinster didn't all grow up together as players. They had Liam Martin, the captain of the Dublin minor team that won the All-Ireland in 1965, Grealish, Reynolds, Ado Forde and Pat McCarthy, who were around the 30 mark. Canice Hennebry, from the county team that reached the All-Ireland under 21 final in 1972, was part of another batch. Denis Murphy came later again. They had county players but not illustrious names. The county hurling team, beaten by Kildare in '76 in the Leinster Championship, had little impact.
Denis Murphy cites the 1978 quarter-final win over UCD at Parnell Park as the trigger, the moment they realised they could win a county title. They reached the final against Faughs in Croke Park in late July. After 90 seconds full-back Noel Quinn was sent off. Noel Clare, playing off the full-forward in a two-man inside line, had to do the work of two men. He scored a goal in the second half and they won 3-13 to 1-11.
"Faughs were all country lads," says Denis Murphy, then just 19. "They had Seanie Buckley, who played with Kilkenny back in the '60s. Ned Rea and Jim O'Donnell from the Limerick 1973 team. There was an element of a bitter rivalry between us. We played 14 v 15 for 59 minutes in Croke Park - played out of our skins."
Strong contenders in previous years, they were now champions. Their luck had turned. "I remember once playing against St Vincent's in Parnell Park," says John Murphy, the team's centre-back, of a previous campaign, "and Jimmy Keaveney was bending down to tie his bootlaces when a free came in and hit him on the shoulder and the ball went into the net."
Having conquered Dublin, Leinster beckoned. They defeated Coolderry of Offaly, 4-14 to 1-13, in November. In Athy in the semi-final they put out Wexford's Rapparees, then headed to Carlow for the final against Ballyhale. On a wet and windy day they led 1-4 to 0-6 at half time. The teams were still level three-quarters way through but then Kevin Fennelly was introduced and Ballyhale took charge in the final 10 minutes. "The winners were stretched to the full," wrote the Kilkenny People, "and Crumlin must rate as one of the best hurling sides ever to come out of the capital. Certainly, they surprised many with their stylish play."
In 1979 they retained the Dublin championship. Killyon of Meath were beaten in the first round, then they faced Kinnitty, who had hammered Ballyhale in the previous round. Ballyhale had played a county final replay the week before with Erins Own which had been abandoned after a massive row erupted. The county board later awarded them the match but they lost motivation and went through the motions a week later.
In the match against Kinnitty the Crumlin captain, John Murphy, was sent off in the second half. He recalls the episode. "A guy had pulled very badly on Liam Martin, gave him an awful cut on the head, and he was sent off - so I went to the team at half time and said, 'Don't do anything silly after half time 'cos the ref will try and even it up'. The game hadn't started long when a ball came down between me and their centre-forward and he went on a solo run. I clipped the ball off his stick but the hurl went up and hit him in the eye and it opened like a tin of beans. It wasn't a dirty stroke. The ref ran down and saw the blood and sent me off."
Faced with possible suspension for the Leinster final, Murphy pleaded his innocence at a hearing in Portlaoise. The Kinnity player sent off was dealt with first and got six months. Murphy's hopes of reprieve dropped on hearing the sentence. "I thought I was dead and buried, but I got two weeks," he recalls. "The person who spoke up for me the most was John Quigley, from Wexford, and I met him three years ago coming out of Croke Park. I said, 'You don't know me, but you did me a great service'. I don't think he even remembered it."
They were back in the final and determined not to let a second chance pass. How big was it at the time? "Camross wouldn't have the same skill level as Ballyhale," says John Murphy. "It was a lot more physical. In fairness they would have come back at us at the end. Poor conditions, a bad oul' day in Athy. We were thrilled to win it. It was after that we went downhill.
"We got a lesson in Croke Park from Ballycastle, we took our eye off the ball. We had it in our head we were going to be in the final, that an Antrim team were not going to stop us. They were a good Antrim team, they would have had the Donnellys, Brian Donnelly, good players."
In 2000 the Crumlin players and mentors were invited to the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor to mark the 20th anniversary of their achievement. Four years later, at the age of 52, Canice Hennebry, their stylish wing-back, took a massive heart attack and died. Boggan followed in 2009; he was waked in the clubhouse. Another of their players, Paul Swinburne, died only two years after the Leinster win.
"He was my best mate," says John Murphy of Swinburne. "He died on the eve of his second son's christening in 1982."
Hennerby's passing was also extremely sudden and expected. He played on the team with his older brother Len. "Probably the best player on that team," says Denis Murphy of Hennerby. "Five foot seven. I'd say if he ever touched 10 stone it was the most. Born and bred in Crumlin, his father was a Kilkenny man. But a really, really good player. Played with Dublin for years and years."
The rest have grown older and moved on with their lives. Denis Murphy moved to Skerries in north county Dublin in 1982 and still resides there, actively involved in local hurling and camogie teams. John Murphy lives in Rathfarnham but still has an office in Crumlin. For three years in the last decade they both got involved in managing the Crumlin senior hurling team.
Did what they'd achieved make the task easier? "It didn't filter down to those guys," says John Murphy. "Not that it didn't mean anything but I am not so sure it was on their radar at all. That was an old team." He saw really talented hurlers fritter away, to never realise their full potential.
Working class areas are hard going, he admits, and he uses the comparison of Ballyboden where his son played for a few years. There the sidelines would be busy with parents and followers, whereas at Crumlin there were never the same numbers involved.
The day after they won the Leinster title Denis Murphy went into work and reckons that two people at most realised what he had achieved the day before. After the game ended John Murphy headed straight to the Meath Hospital. "Jack O'Sullivan was chairman of the club at the time, he was very ill, so after the game I brought the cup up to the hospital so Jack could see it. He put so much into the game in his time, he'd have your hurl in pristine conditions, well-oiled."
Noel Quinn, who was on the county under 21 team that reached the '72 All-Ireland under 21 final, later moved to Galway. Mick Reilly ("out and out Crumlin man", according to Denis Murphy) went to Kerry for some years where he and his wife ran a pub. He is back in Dublin now. Packie McCarthy, the centre-forward, moved to Leixlip and got involved in hurling there. Jim Kealy, a doctor and one of their forwards who was also on the Dublin under-21 team in '72, became involved with Bray Emmetts.
Denis Murphy kept playing until 1998, retiring from senior hurling at 40, after losing a third county final in six years. The one they should have won, he feels, was in '94, when Cuala defeated them, the final held up because of objections arising from Cuala's semi-final win over Craobh Chiaráin. "We played probably the best hurling we played since we won the Leinster championship that summer," he says.
But after 1980 it was never quite the same. They haven't contested a Dublin final since Denis Murphy was the last of that vintage to stop playing senior hurling in '98. As he puts it: "We never made the dizzy heights again." Cuala will have their best wishes in trying to reach the same altitude today.
Sunday Indo Sport