Dermot Crowe: 'Borris-Ileigh emerging from the shadows to dream big again'
In December 1986, the journalist Raymond Smith wrote a piece in which Babs Keating was said to be pinning his hopes of a Tipperary renaissance on a battery of players from Borris-Ileigh.
According to Smith, old enough to remember better times for his native county, the newly-appointed manager had earmarked promotion from Division 2 of the National League, then Munster and All-Ireland titles.
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Cork had won five Munster championships back-to-back and Tipp's last provincial win had been in Keating's playing days, over 15 years before. But Tipp, being Tipp, had a belief that anything was possible. In '86 they were surprisingly dumped from the championship by Clare. But that year the club championship provided a panacea, when Kilruane McDonagh's won the county's second All-Ireland.
The club championship has not been prosperous ground for Tipp club teams but this would be their most rewarding period. Roscrea won the first All-Ireland club hurling title and it took 15 years for Tipp to win a second with Kilruane's triumph. Later that year, they were defeated by Borris-Ileigh in the county final. After defeating Kilruane, Borris-Ileigh drove on to scale the province and then reach the higher summit on St Patrick's Day. And there it stopped.
Smith's words did not prove wildly out of step. After Borris-Ileigh won the All-Ireland, one of their number, Richie Stakelum, led his county to a long-awaited Munster title that summer in an epic final replay in Killarney. In his piece the previous December, Smith wrote of seeing Stakelum play "some storming hurling" during the second half of an eight-point National League win over Dublin.
It was partly on this evidence, and the exploits of Borris-Ileigh, that the case was being made for better blue and gold days ahead. The half-back line that winter's day all hailed from Borris-Ileigh: Ger Stapleton in the centre with Bobby Ryan on the left wing, and Stakelum on the right. The club also had Francis Collins in the middle of the field and Philip Kenny, star of their county final win, at right corner-forward. Aidan Ryan, recovering from injury and in plaster, missed the game.
Club and county doesn't always marry well but Borris-Ileigh would provide the captain, Stakelum, who led Tipp's Munster breakthrough in '87, and also the captain when winning a first All-Ireland since 1971 two years later, in Bobby Ryan.
Stakelum says that the sight of Kilruane stealing a march on them provided the jolt needed. "Kilruane, for us in Borris-Ileigh at the time, they were our nemesis," he says. "They were the dominant team in Tipp for quite a while. The fact that they won one the previous year was a huge, I suppose, kick in the arse to Borris-Ileigh but it showed that this could be done.
"We would have looked at Kilruane and seen that they got the absolute maximum out of themselves. They did not have a lot of very flamboyant players but, by God, were they a really serious tough and rugged outfit. Eamon O'Shea was different I suppose to a lot of players in that team, he was ahead of his time, in how he wanted to play the game and that, but Kilruane was the very essence of a club team, they were as hard as nails."
Borris-Ileigh had a gift for producing classy hurlers, but the motivation needed to last a full campaign might be lacking. Stakelum was a sub when they won the county in '81, the first since '53, and played in the county wins of '83 and '86. In '83 they were unlucky to lose a Munster final replay to Midleton. They made amends when defeating Clarecastle in Limerick three years later.
The Midleton matches convinced them that they could compete at that level. "That was a huge lift for us," says Stakelum. "But then, being typical Borris, there was beer and things that got in the way and it took Kilruane to win the All-Ireland club final to get us to come to our senses.
"Even early on in that championship in '86 Kilruane hammered us, they bet the living daylights out of us in Nenagh. We came around through a back-door system, but that was the lowest point for that team because it was an embarrassment. They wiped the floor with us, they made absolute dirt of us. That was a watershed. I remember Paddy Doyle of the famous Doyle family, he was brought in after that (to manage).
"You would have to say there was very little that that Kilruane team left after them. They won a number of county finals and the All-Ireland club, and if you wanted to model yourself on a team, well there was a crowd who got the absolute maximum out of themselves.
"Whereas Borris was different. It was easy come, easy go. The idea of scourging yourself and not having a jar, it wasn't really in the psyche. Now when we got serious, we would be hard to beat."
Aidan Ryan, Bobby's younger brother, was part of that 1980s expedition, one of the younger set. On Friday he was to be found at a ski resort in Austria with a group from Borrisoleigh that included the club chairman and treasurer and their families. Ryan was due back yesterday, the chairman and treasurer this morning, just in time for the All-Ireland semi-final against St Thomas.
A group from the parish heads over each year around Christmas and has been doing so for around 15 years. You book these holidays in advance. Nobody counted on Borris-Ileigh being in an All-Ireland semi-final in January. The club, after all, had to wait 33 years for their next county win after '86.
And so, from this ski slope an hour from Salzburg, Ryan takes us back to that time in the 1980s when the door finally opened in Munster to Tipp and, immediately before that, Borris-Ileigh conquered all and sundry. Heady days. He was 22 and a bullet on the field.
"I was brought on to the (county) panel in '85, played in '85 but did not make the first 15 in '86. Obviously playing with Borris and getting more exposure helped and then Babs went for a very young team and it was all about youth. If you think about it, in replays when games get tight and down to the wire, young legs help push teams over the line. Especially down in Killarney when we ended up in extra-time."
In the replayed Munster final of '87, after extra-time, they finally broke Cork's stranglehold, accelerating clear and winning in style. The famine, as Stakelum stated in his speech, was over.
"We had a couple of great stalwarts in Borris-Ileigh," says Ryan. "Like Noel O'Dwyer, he was our real team leader, our spiritual leader really and he was near the end of his career in '87. He was the only contact with the '71 (Tipp All-Ireland) team. When he stood up and talked everyone listened because he was a very good speaker but also because he had the Celtic Cross on his chest. He was able to command a huge level of respect as a result.
"It was rare Borris-Ileigh wouldn't have a decent team. Maybe commitment sometimes let them down. Won a county final in '81 and then didn't do anything in '82. We won the county final in '83 and didn't do anything in '84 or '85. We won the county then in '86 but we were always getting knocked out the following year."
There were other challenges that needed to be faced than just hurling or besting Kilruane. In 1988 Ryan, a carpenter, lost his job. "There was a downturn, there was no work, I was trying to find work. I was driving home from Dublin for training, I wasn't eating particularly well, because I was on a building site all day, eating sandwiches in the evening and trying to put in a full training session. So my form certainly dipped. And then once you have a bad day or two in the championship you start to question your own ability. We were beaten then in the All-Ireland final by Galway, I had a particularly poor game and two weeks later we lost the county final.
"I went to England to recharge the batteries and may not have returned. It was one of those things. I was over and there was money to be made, I was happy enough, but then my brother Tim died in April. Everything changed the day my brother died."
Tim Ryan died suddenly in his early 30s. He was due to marry that August. Aidan Ryan returned to Ireland and to the Tipp panel and won two All-Ireland medals, finishing his career shortly before his daughter was born in 1999. He played on for three more years with Borris-Ileigh but now lives outside the parish, near Cashel. He won the first of two county medals aged 18 in 1983.
"There is an awful lot of luck in sport as you know," he says. "There was a man there, Pat Maher, his son Philip and Seamus hurled with Tipp, and Seamus won an All Star. Pat hurled with Borris-Ileigh for about 20-odd years and I think he retired in 1980 and then they won a county title in '81. I remember coming on in '83 and you win a county final in your first year and you do feel a little guilty. After '88 we didn't get into another final in my time."
Of the team he won championships with, only Mick Cowan has passed on and the majority are within the area where they all grew up. Recently he was back there for a reunion and fundraiser for the current team. "It is great for the parish," he states of the latest success. "They have had a few dreadful tragedies - 2019 was a really tough year. Young people who passed away unexpectedly. It has certainly helped to bind them together. Being born and raised in Borrisoleigh, and my dad and grandfather came from here, it is great to see them back competing at this level."
Richie Stakelum played up to 1991 with Borris-Ileigh, a period of 10 years, then went abroad to work for a year and settled in Dublin where he became involved with Kilmacud Crokes. But the pull of home is still there, like a force of gravity.
"Obviously I am not living in the place and I don't be down as often as I'd like to but I would be at many of the matches and be close to what's going on and what's been happening in the village in the last five or six years in particular."
He talks of a group of people in their 30s from the area who decided to revitalise the community by developing the hurling field as the "focal point for the whole community".
They started to fundraise, built a second pitch, then a track, which drew people from all ages for walking and jogging activities. Then they went about building a community centre. That opened the night they came home after winning the county title. Every brick that went up emboldened them and deepened the community bond.
"I mean what has gone on there," says Stakelum, "has united a whole community, and the hurling field, the hurling club, is the epicentre of everything that is going on. Which is a classical rural Ireland thing. But here was a number of young fellas who took the lead and decided it wasn't going to go the way of other villages and just disappear.
"And that has been the recent catalyst to what is happening now. What has happened there has translated itself onto a whole load of young lads coming through. It is a story that can be told up and down the country, but the bond between the players and the community is incredible.
"The night of the Munster club final and the county final and to see when the team came back, the whole village was waiting inside in the community centre area, where the pitches are, but the whole place was down in that area. There is a lot of pride in the community. You didn't have to say too much about it. You just knew."
But of all the celebrations, including those he experienced as a player, he chooses the homecoming reception after Borris-Ileigh won the provincial club final in 2019 above them all.
"The night they beat Ballygunner was the night of all nights. The county final was wonderful but the way the Munster club final was won, people would say it was the best victory that Borris-Ileigh ever had. I remember back in our time we never had a win like that. There was never a match where the team had to go to the well as often as they did. And the manner in which they won it and the conditions were atrocious. The whole lot. I suppose it was consistent with the way all year in matches they could have lost."
Each win adds more coal to the fire. Stakelum talks of the money won on them when they took the Munster title because the odds were too generous to resist.
"A fella beside me got them at 4-1 at half-time," he says.
They are behind today's opposition in terms of experience but with Borris-Ileigh, motoring in high gear and enjoying the fresh scenery, anything is possible.
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