Tuesday 17 September 2019

Passing on the torch along Ballyhale's unique path

Colin Fennelly will be hoping to help Ballyhale Shamrocks write another chapter of their success story
Colin Fennelly will be hoping to help Ballyhale Shamrocks write another chapter of their success story

Christy O'Connor

Last Saturday, the Ballyhale Shamrocks U-21s defeated The Rower-Inistioge in a South A Kilkenny quarter-final. At face value, the result means very little. Ballyhale are a superpower. The Rower were an intermediate club last year.

Yet with Ballyhale, the devil is always in the detail, where each kaleidoscopic granule enhances the unique picture of Ballyhale.

Four years ago, most of that group couldn't win a Minor C title. The Rower were Minor A champions last year. The comparative background histories of the groups were vastly different, but Ballyhale still have an incomparable status.

That group vaulted to another level because they are Ballyhale Shamrocks, a name that echoes through the hurling world with reverence, wrapped up in an aura and mystique.

On Sunday, Ballyhale are aiming to win a record eighth Leinster club title, which would eclipse Birr's haul.

The current starting team contains 37 All-Ireland senior medals and 16 All Stars. Even so, this year's crusade was particularly satisfying given that Ballyhale were considered past their best.

Yet 13 of the panel are U-21 and locally this is regarded as perhaps the club's strongest squad ever.

At the 2012 GAA Coaching Conference, the Crossmaglen Rangers chairman Tony Brady said: "The secret is that there is none."

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It is similar with Ballyhale. It is a small parish, a farming community comprising three areas, Knockmoylan and the villages of Ballyhale and Knocktopher. There is no longer even a shop in Ballyhale, just one pub.

The club still sit at the top of the All-Ireland roll of honour with five titles. Hard work and dedication sustains their excellence but Ballyhale's identity and winning mindset has been formed through a deep history of success and pride.

The end product is an enduring tapestry of brilliance stitched together by genetic inheritance and generational sinews.

"It was even noticeable to me when I was U-14 manager," said selector PM O'Sullivan. "Certain teams felt at a disadvantage when playing Ballyhale. That belief has always given Ballyhale an advantage in tight games."

In the GAA, family bloodlines flow from one generation to the next, passing on traditions and talent like heirlooms. Ballyhale have the richest gene pool in the country. Twelve of the 2014 starting team have direct family connections to past Ballyhale players.

Grasping

The club was only founded in 1972 but Ballyhale's success predates that mark, and understanding their history is critical to grasping who they really are, and where their winning mentality comes from.

Originally, football was the more popular game in the parish. The last Kilkenny team to win a Leinster football title, in 1911, was captained by a Knocktopher man, Dick Holohan, grandfather of Frank Holohan, who captained Kilkenny in 1986.

The first Ballyhale man to win an All-Ireland, in 1922, Pat 'Dexter' Aylward, is a grand-uncle of current players Bob and Mark Aylward.

There was a junior team in Knockmoylan at that time but when Carrickshock was formed in 1926 (not the same entity as the current club), it was founded in Castlegannon NS (in the Ballyhale parish).

Kilkenny's All-Ireland winning team of 1932 was initially captained by Jimmy 'Dux' Kelly of Knocktopher. Jimmy Walsh of Kilcreddy, Castlegannon received the Liam MacCarthy Cup when Kelly lost his place.

John Fitzpatrick, grandfather of 'Cha' was corner-forward for Kilkenny's All-Ireland win in 1933. Jimmy Walsh again captained Kilkenny to victory in 1939, when Bob Aylward, brother of 'Dexter', was a sub and Jimmy Kelly of Rosbualtra, also in Ballyhale parish, scored the winning point. The seeds the Shamrocks success were sown in the 1930s.

Carrickshock won seven county titles between 1931 and '51 but everything changed when 'Parish Rule' was introduced in 1954. Ballyhale and Knocktopher competed separately in the junior championship before coming together under the one name to reach three minor 'A' finals in a row between 1965-67, winning two.

Then the clubs went their own ways again but when Ballyhale and Knocktopher met in a South U-21 semi-final in 1969, Ned Fitzpatrick, Cha's father, was a Knocktopher midfielder marking a Knockmoylan neighbour, Patrick Holden, father of current Kilkenny senior Joey.

The farce concentrated minds. Fr Anthony Heaslip, part of a popular Knocktopher family, was central to the founding of Ballyhale Shamrocks.

Smouldering talent soon blazed. Junior champions in 1973, intermediate champions in 1974.

When Shamrocks finally won their first senior title in 1978, they exploded, winning five of the next six, including two All-Irelands as they developed a criss-cross style of hurling that teams could not handle.

Ballyhale went into decline after their third All-Ireland in 1990 until the next generation came through in the mid-2000s.

Cohort

Now, following further All-Irelands in 2007 and 2010, a new crew have begun to emerge, including Richie Reid, Brian Cody and two members of this year's Kilkenny All-Ireland minor champions, Rónan Corcoran and Darren Mullen.

Even though he was U-16, Mullen was man of the match in this year's All-Ireland Colleges final for St Kieran's.

The generational connections are everywhere. Reid is younger brother of TJ (and Kilkenny's new sub goalkeeper). Cody is a nephew of Henry Shefflin. Mullen's mother is Monica Fennelly, one of the famed clan.

The young players have class, talent and a winning mentality. And a huge pride in their identity.

"There is pride but also deep gratitude for our luck," said O'Sullivan. "It could stop happening any time. To say we are wary of Kilcormac-Killoughey would be a massive understatement."

Although this season's senior title was their 15th, the father of one player cried openly on the field after the county final win over Clara. The occasion held even sweeter given that Ballyhale won playing in their traditional style.

"The significance of that county final was that a generation of youngsters saw Ballyhale play the Ballyhale way," noted O'Sullivan. "It's not just an attractive way to play. It is a winning way. What they see is far more important than what they are told."

The young continue to follow an intimate route. For the 2007 All-Ireland final, Alan Cuddihy was a water boy. In 2010, against Portumna, he was man of the match. The torch gets passed along the unique path they have paved.

It is the Ballyhale way.

Irish Independent

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