Proud communities revel on big stage
Their counties might be lesser lights but Camross and Mount Leinster have form in club competition
Frank Keenan won 14 senior county hurling medals with Camross, a vast sweep by any man's standards. Great as that was, some hurlers in the parish surpassed him, retiring with 16. If you ask Frank, off the cuff, he is no longer sure which year he won his first medal nor his last, but they straddled three decades ending in the 1980s.
Later he went on to serve as manager after he retired and having won a Leinster club title as a player with Camross in 1976, he won one as a manager as well, 20 years later. He led the club to another county championship in 2007, ending an 11-year wait, and two of his sons, Damien and Zane, were on the team which recently won a record 25th senior title. Today they embark on the Leinster club title trail against Mount Leinster Rangers of Carlow. You will find Frank with the team's statisticians, observing play from up in the stand at O'Moore Park.
Camross draws its hurlers from a remote rural area at the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains. The game blossomed in the 1970s when many of the players worked in the local sawmills in Coolrain or with Bord na Móna. In '76 they defeated the reigning All-Ireland club champions James Stephens in the Leinster final in Carlow, a monumental achievement against a team packed with star names: Brian Cody, Joe Hennessy, Chunky O'Brien, Fan Larkin, Mick Crotty. The Camross captain, Martin Cuddy, was a hard and fierce competitor who went on to hurl for Laois, one of three brothers on the team. His cousin PJ, another Laois player, was just 18 and had three brothers also playing. Almost half the team were bearing the Cuddy name.
"We never minded the winter hurling," says Frank Keenan. "We always went out to do well in the Leinster Championship, we went in first in '71 and in '76 we knew we would be there or thereabouts; like, we never feared a Kilkenny team, once we got to a final we would always fancy our chances.
"Paddy Dowling hurled with five or six stitches, it will just show you the spirit we had in the club. He was cutting timber and the chainsaw came down on his shin bone the week before. They just put a plaster on it and got on with things. That would not happen today. You would be out for a month.
"That time every one was working every day and they were physically fit. We went down to the field and did our hour's training and that was it. Now you go to the field and it could be two hours, with drills and ball work and talking every half an hour. In '76 we were probably stronger men. It was mostly all labour jobs. There were a few lads sitting at the desk alright, not too many though (laughs)."
Today's opponents, Mount Leinster Rangers, won their county's only provincial hurling title four years ago. The traditional boundaries you discover in county hurling are less restrictive on the club circuit. Cuala won Dublin's first All-Ireland early this year. Na Piarsaigh won Limerick's first the year before. Limerick's last MacCarthy Cup was in 1973; Dublin's goes back to 1938. Loughgiel Shamrocks reached the summit in 2012, their second time to do so.
Tim Doran is a former Camross club secretary who has seen his parish make the most of finite resources. "Hurling is the main thing in the area," he explains. "Every family nearly is tied in." He estimates the population at being no more than 1,200. From 1959 up to 1996 they won 23 county titles. Over their history the club has won the minor championship only twice, including this year. They field four adult hurling teams, although football has only a token presence, with one junior side in competition.
At this time of year you need to be prepared to get your shirt dirty. "We suited that winter hurling you had in the 1970s," says Doran. "It is a different type of animal, the heavier pitches. I was talking to someone back a few months ago from Oulart-The Ballagh and they reckoned the reason they were not that successful in Leinster was that their team was too small. That's what happens. The winter hurling, the bigger, stronger man, in a lot of cases, wins.
"Like Mount Leinster Rangers, we would have played them a few years ago in challenge games, up and down, and they are a serious physical outfit too and suited to this time of year. You often found if you could get over the first round you have a roll going. We are coming off the back of not having won a county final for a few (four) years and celebrations and all. But it is five weeks since the county championship win.
"See years ago we were lucky, the forestry and Bord na Móna were the employers in the area that time. Lots of our lads stayed at home and they were doing manual physical labour. Where there were hundreds of men working years ago, you would be lucky if there was eight or ten now, it is all machinery now. All timber harvesting now and very little saw work or anything like that."
Mount Leinster Rangers, having conquered Leinster and reached an All-Ireland final, were stalled some months later in the semi-finals of their local championship by Naomh Eoin of Myshall. Today is their first reappearance in the competition since defeating Oulart in the Leinster final in 2013. After losing in Carlow the following year, most of the management team under Tom Mullally dispersed, with Eamonn Scallan, the former Wexford player, taking over for two years.
The 2014 Carlow county final was the first in ten years not to feature Mount Leinster Rangers but while they stormed through to the final in 2015, they were well beaten by St Mullins. It just didn't happen on the day. "In 2014, after getting to the All-Ireland final probably tiredness crept in," says Kieran Lucas, a team selector. "The lads didn't have any break."
St Mullins took over, winning three titles back-to -back, and defeating Mount Leinster Rangers in the last two. "In fairness to them, they had a greater hunger I suppose for success than we had," admits Lucas. "We weren't able to master them. We were extremely disappointed to be honest with you, particularly in 2015; even at this point in time we are struggling to figure out was there a bit of complacency on our part, because we had really trounced everybody at the league stages and the semi-final. And Mullins came and hit us with fierce determination."
Last year they defeated St Mullins in the earlier stages of the championships but lost to them again in the final, after finishing with 12 men. "To some degree," says Lucas, "we beat ourselves."
Camross and Mount Leinster Rangers come from similar landscapes. But the Rangers have had a slightly different history, more of a modern phenomenon, and they've benefited from close alliance with Kilkenny, employing their coaches and also participating in their junior league competitions, like many of the other Carlow clubs. This year Brendan Fennelly replaced Scallan.
"I suppose it freshened things up," says Lucas. "When you lose two county finals and you lose them to the same team it was extremely frustrating to be honest with you. I suppose we met Mullins in the county semi-final this year. It was a boost beating them."
They won by three points in a hard struggle. "The difference on the day, Chris Nolan's five points from play, that was the real difference between the two teams. That was a huge relief for us to be honest. If they had beaten us again I don't know where we would have turned."
Camross have only once turned to the outside for managerial assistance. Brian Whelahan had a couple of years in charge at the start of the decade but outside of that it has all been home-grown. Arien Delaney is currently in charge and was also there when they won previously in 2013. Tim Doran remembers the day they won Leinster against the odds in '76. "A wet day, I remember it well, but ah, look it, while they were a big team there was a lot of hurling and skill in them too. The golden rule is while you are at the top you try to win as much as you can.
"Oh God, the celebrations were huge. They would have been back in the village, either in Camross or Coolrain, that is where the two pubs were. Foot of the Slieve Blooms. Proud little community and proud of their achievements."
Only once before has Laois met Carlow met in the Leinster senior club hurling championship. In 1981, Portlaoise emerged from Camross' shadow in Laois and faced Naomh Eoin in Carlow, winning with ease, 5-10 to 0-5. Carlow club hurling now, though limited to five clubs in senior championship, is much more competitive. St Mullins, however, won just one match in their three years playing in the province, when overcoming Raharney of Westmeath last year.
Both teams harbour prospects of moving it a stage further than today's quarter-final. "We hurled a great county semi-final and our final wasn't as good," says Frank Keenan. "We went out of it a little but we are after playing some great challenge matches in the last few weeks, against some Galway teams. They are going well."
Keenan spent a couple of years in charge of Carlow, taking over in 1999, but hurling was not as vibrant then as it is now. "They have come on great in the last couple of years. The club scene is going very well in Carlow. I just got a call one night and I went down and met them and got the job."
Kieran Lucas says Mount Leinster Rangers hadn't much time to be worrying about Leinster while trying to get out of Carlow over the last three years. "We are certainly looking forward to the game on Sunday and getting back into the competition again. Camross are going to be formidable opposition, no doubt about it."
And club, in all cases, is fundamentally about family. If they win today Camross may dedicate victory to the late Peggy Mortimer who passed away on Wednesday night after a cancer illness at just 60. Her funeral took place yesterday. She was sister of John Carroll, a winner of four Railway Cup medals who played with Camross from 1969 to 1986, and also of Michael who took over from Martin Cuddy as captain in 1977 and led the team in the All-Ireland final with Glen Rovers. Peggy was Laois camogie player of the year in 1983 and won numerous titles with Camross.
A typical Camross family in other words, with more medals that they could keep count of and a lifetime's devotion to the black and amber.
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