Wednesday 13 December 2017

Dermot Crowe: Fallen giants restoring parish pride after wilderness years

Bennettsbridge’s Aidan Cleere and Darragh Weafer celebrate winning last year’s All-Ireland junior club title. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach
Bennettsbridge’s Aidan Cleere and Darragh Weafer celebrate winning last year’s All-Ireland junior club title. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach

Dermot Crowe

Nearly 25 years ago a hoofed goal from Christy Heffernan set Glenmore on their way to an All-Ireland senior final win and completed a meteoric rise. Eleven years earlier they were a junior hurling team. That St Patrick's Day in 1991 Ciaran Carey shot five points from play for Patrickswell but Glenmore held on to win by four. For a time at least they were the envy of all other clubs in the country.

They were good, very good. Aside from Heffernan and his brother Ray, they had the two O'Connors, Titch Phelan and Liam Walsh, all county men, and those were just the household names. There were plenty others admired the length and breath of Kilkenny. In 1995 they won another county title and added a Leinster, before winning Kilkenny again in 1999, their last. In a 13-year period they won five senior county titles, two provincials and an All-Ireland.

The new millennium brought a major readjustment and a gradual and inexorable fall from grace. In 2005 Willie O'Connor's final match for the club was a relegation final defeat to Fenians of Johnstown after which they were lowered to intermediate. They still produced good hurlers, only not as many, and two years ago they were relegated to junior, where they had last hurled in 1980.

There were underlying factors - decreasing family size being one - but injuries contributed and last year's All-Star Ger Aylward missed all of 2014 with an ankle injury. They bounced back in 2015 with instant promotion and that has led them on a journey through the province and into an All-Ireland junior final this afternoon. Aylward's latest serious injury, a cruciate ligament tear, has dampened spirits but their luck generally has changed for the better.

"In the 1980s and '90s we had three teams going, our second team won a junior final in 1991 and went up to intermediate - we had a team in intermediate and senior," says club secretary Frank Kirwan, who played in goal in the county-winning teams of '95 and '99. "It's a small parish, a rural parish. We were lucky. We used to have 35-40 training them times in the field. That was it. The team went on a slide, we just didn't have the players to replace those players."

They knew that their golden era was one of those you might never experience again. Some feel they could have won more, probably even another All-Ireland.

"There were 10 in my own family, not saying they all hurled or anything, but you had big families then in the '70s and '80s. I would say that was what drove the hurling. But three is a big family now," says Kirwan. "Johnstown beat us in the relegation final in 2005. It was a great match now, it could have gone either way. But we were sliding for a while. It was coming. Of course at the time it is devastating, there is no doubt about that. For all the supporters, players and mentors involved. But you have to realise too that Kilkenny is so competitive, you have to have decent teams to stay in each grade."

In today's All-Ireland intermediate final, Bennettsbridge will revive some memories of their own faded tradition, when they reigned supreme in Kilkenny through the 1950s and '60s. Between '52 and '74 the club contested 16 senior county finals, winning 11. They earned fame beyond Kilkenny playing in tournaments that were the club final competitions of their day. They played for gold watches and suits in places like Dunhill in Waterford, Knocktopher in Kilkenny and Blackrock in Cork.

Current club secretary Dick O'Neill is a native of Thomastown, the neighbouring parish, but has lived in Bennettsbridge for 36 years. As a child he went with his father to numerous matches involving the Bridge.

"As a young fella growing up in the '60s I would have been a great fan of Bennettsbridge hurling; I would have been at the tournaments they played in. We would have supported Thomastown and the Bridge. Crowds flocked to see them because of their style of play and the fantastic players they had. Five Bridge men brought home the MacCarthy Cup."

One of the five captains was Seamus Cleere, who had the honour in 1963 when Kilkenny defeated Waterford in the final, and Bennettsbridge had seven on the county panel. His brother Larry won seven county medals and has four grandchildren and one son, the goalkeeper, on the current Bridge team. Their decline was severe and landmarked by relegation to intermediate in 1983 and junior in 2001. These indignities were visited upon a club which has 47 All-Ireland senior medals shared among 17 of its former players.

Cleere now joins other former greats like Noel Skehan, Jim Treacy and Pat Lawlor at the local field observing this young Bridge team and taking delight in their progress. They face James Stephen's in their first match back up at senior this year and many feel they are capable of holding their own in their new environment. They won promotion from junior in 2014, having lost the previous two finals, and went on to take Leinster and the All-Ireland. A 29-match unbeaten run has seen them add intermediate titles in the county and province and they are favourites to add the All-Ireland against Galway's Abbeyknockmoy today.

The revival is appreciated by the likes of Cleere, who won six county medals before a cruciate ligament injury ended his career at 29, in 1969. After that he has mostly seen years of poverty. Like in Glenmore large families were contributing and the Cleeres had three on the team. But the well ran dry. After retiring Cleere got involved in the local juvenile section. In the late 1990s they were compelled to join with Danesfort to field a minor team.

"We went to Danesfort, we had to do something about it as we couldn't produce a minor team and we had nine or ten hurlers," he explains. "It was kind of a last resort. There was some resistance but we had no option; neither had Danesfort."

In 2011 they won a county minor 'A' title and that has been the springboard to their current run of success. The side is managed by the former Kerry hurler Christy Walsh, a long-time resident in Bennettsbridge. "Christy is an absolutely fantastic man," says Dick O'Neill. "He soldiered for a long, long time before he won anything for Kilmoyley, he got to a lot of county finals and lost them, and when he came to around 40 he couldn't stop winning county finals."

O'Neill is retired from teaching four years and had worked in Gowran, also helping the local team, Young Irelands, win the senior championship in 1996. They are one of a number of clubs who enjoyed that level of prosperity and are now hurling in intermediate grade. All clubs have had their ups and downs, even the best of them. The current revival in Bennettsbridge is appreciated especially by those who have seen the best and worst of times.

"It has had huge impact locally," says O'Neill. "Because we struggled to win the junior, we won at the third time of asking. Then we were very lucky, we went through the intermediate unbeaten, won a replay in the final by two points. When you win a Kilkenny championship it gives a team great confidence. They were on new ground and they just carried on winning. The parish is buzzing at the moment. The place is alive because of the hurlers' achievements."

The Bridge and Glenmore met in two county senior finals in the 1960s, the Bridge winning both, but their paths haven't crossed in a long time. Frank Kirwan was Glenmore chairman when they went down to junior in 2014, the same year the Bridge were going up to intermediate.

"I always felt we were good enough to stay intermediate," says Kirwan. "We had a lot of injuries that year. We got into a kind of a rut and couldn't get out. You know when you start losing, it's hard to get that winning mentality. They would have been hot favourites to come out of it (junior) anyway. They still have a long road to go. We are not superstars yet."

Kirwan makes respectful reference to their opponents today, Eoghan Rua from Derry, and anticipates that Glenmore may need a few years in intermediate before they are ready to move back into senior hurling. For now, though, they are relishing the chance to win an All-Ireland every bit as important to the current generation as the more prized senior medal was a quarter century ago.

Seamus Cleere speaks of the standard of club hurling in Kilkenny being unrelentingly challenging. In his time much credit for the emergence of the Bridge was given to their trainer Fr Patrick Nugent ("a Leix man"). "He was a great tactician. He had a Volkswagen car and used to bring it out on the hurling field on the winter nights and put on the lights and we'd go training."

Fr Nugent came to the parish in 1946 and by the time he departed for Ballacolla in 1961 he'd left his stamp. Ned Lyng, who came from the Rower Inistioge, was another big influence.

"Fr Nugent developed a team. He had every sort of player on it," says Cleere. "He had fancy players. He had tough players. Skilful players. Speedy players. He combined the whole lot. He was really a genius the way he put a team together. He would watch teams, he'd work out a system how to beat them."

Cleere's brother Liam was understudy to Ollie Walsh for several years and was succeeded as county goalkeeper by Skehan and James McGarry from the same club. On the current crop, Cleere is upbeat. "I will tell you what they have now, they have great skill and craft. They are a kind of a combination team as well; they work as a unit and they have speed which is essential in the modern day."

During the lost years they tried different things and none worked for any appreciable amount of time. Fan Larkin came out from the city nearby and took over the team for a while. But, like Glenmore, they had a small population and the hurling wasn't carried through to the next generation.

"The only thing that really stands out is that we never won a third on the trot," says Cleere of their heyday. "We won three or four doubles but we could never win the third. In the five we were beaten in, with the exception of '72 against Johnstown, when they beat us by 10 points, there was never much in it. That's the good thing about Bennettsbridge; we were never really disgraced, with that exception of Johnstown who were coming at the time. We were fading."

Frank Kirwan says Glenmore's feats of 25 years ago make little difference to the hurlers carrying the hopes of their parish this afternoon. "These are the new lads now and it is up to them to make their mark for Glenmore. They have to put Glenmore back on the map."

Life moves on. Liam Walsh is the only one of their county hurlers living locally; the rest have moved to other parishes and, in Christy Heffernan's case, to Waterford. But the graph for both Glenmore and the Bridge is moving in the right direction again. They've both found that long-lost pulse.

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