The establishment of ‘The Comp’, aka Tarbert Comprehensive in 1973, was crucial in shaping the life chances of pupils from North Kerry and West Limerick, in the parishes of Loughill-Ballyhahill (my own), Glin and Athea in West Limerick, and the Kerry villages of Moyvane, Lenamore/Ballylongford and Tarbert itself.
There I, and many others, were given the tools to succeed, in education and sport. This school catchment area softened the ideological effects of the county boundary line located between Glin and Tarbert, blending the green of Limerick and the green and gold of Kerry.
The Comp’s school sports teams drew from the rich Gaelic and athletic traditions of the region, winning provincial and All-Ireland titles.
The Rose of Tralee and the Listowel Races were our major cultural festivals. At the 25-year celebration of Kerry’s last All-Ireland ladies’ senior title in 1993, the team broke into the unofficial county anthem underneath the Hogan Stand, giddy with emotional memories as we walked onto the pitch at half-time in the 2018 final. “The pale moon was rising above the green mountain ...”
Congratulations arrived from both sides of the county boundary for my part in Kerry’s nine-in-a-row success and in our last Croke Park win. For those who live in county borderlands, sport is a tool for the expression of a range of identities. It is a reference point that both celebrates and rejects county boundaries and is important for those whose identities and sporting loyalties are more fluid.
As well as being ideologically attached to an adjoining county for historical reasons, ordinary day-to-day practices, in education, business and the sharing of music and culture, mean that county border people are intimately connected to one another in the present too.
Some of the Listons from West Limerick and North Kerry are indeed closely related. Me and the male Kerry full-forward of the same surname are not, however. Our Anglo-Norman heritage points to Munster as the familial ancestral home.
Ireland’s 32 counties were not always so. At one point there were 41, including urban administrative centres. Limerick was a functioning county by 1520 and so too was the liberty of Kerry. By liberty was meant a territory usually larger than a county that enjoyed autonomy, largely independent of the Crown and situated in peripheral regions. Not to be confused with the power or scope to act as one pleases.
But today’s county boundaries are now deeply embedded in Irish life, imperceptible to the outsider and especially nourished through Gaelic games. Competition between border rivals is emotive, not to mind between parishes, townlands and families split across these county lines. We have county flags, county colours, county anthems and even county associations within the Gaelic games family.
But there are local areas too, like the 13-mile stretch between Foynes and Tarbert, in which the lived experience blurs this dividing line. We find a distinctive cultural identity and a shared way of life, shaped by a connection to landscape and proximity to the Shannon Estuary. More of the picturesque route of the former North Kerry railway line ran through Limerick than it did Kerry, with a branch serving Foynes. There, families share musical traditions and culture, including mutual sporting allegiances. Not everyone acknowledges this when Limerick play Kerry of course, but local tradition and lore celebrates the success of both counties equally in many homes along this section of the N69 and inland.
Senior club and county football was not available in West Limerick when, as an under 16 player, I was encouraged to join my nearest club, Abbeydorney, located more than 30 miles away in North Kerry. This necessitated a nine-mile cycle along the N69 to Tarbert where Donal Sheehan travelled from Abbeydorney to meet me or, when the Liston family car was free, the parental investment of time spent driving, fuel, financial and emotional support that is the bedrock of youth sport. Playing basketball in Moyvane meant more of an uphill journey through Tullyleague Cross on the county boundary.
In time I graduated to a yellow moped that left me stranded roadside more often than not. By the time the Limerick Ladies’ County board was formally revived in 1991, the Comp’s ladies’ Gaelic team had reached the All-Ireland senior final twice, losing in consecutive years. I still bear the emotional scars of a valid point, not awarded, against Ramsgrange Community School in 1990. By then I was embraced by Abbeydorney and Kerry LGFA and mentored by All Stars. Being in the Kerry talent pool, I competed regularly against top players in club football and county training. Included in that group was Mary Lane from the Limerick side of Abbeyfeale, as well as school friends from Tarbert and Ballylongford. The Comp also attracted a newly-qualified PE teacher from Mayo who subsequently joined Abbeydorney and the Kerry ladies.
Sports coaching experts talk about talent identification and development and the hotbed effect. How does Kerry manage to produce such expressive Gaelic footballers? What explains their success in men’s and women’s codes? No scientist or coach can argue for genes at the expense of practice, or vice versa, especially not in the face of intricate patterns of living and loving across county lines.
The culture established within high functioning sports teams is important but so too is the selection of players. When exposed to good coaching and competition systems, those with the optimal physiological combination for sporting success can flourish. Those counties with greater participation numbers can unearth sporting potential that is then grasped by coaching expertise. This ensures that future prospective talent does not slip through the cracks. In some sports, genetics matter less and training matters more.
Many of these insights were already realised by county manager, Mick Fitzgerald, and All Stars like Margaret Lawlor (Slattery) and Mary Jo Curran who supported the 1988 Kerry under 16 panel, of which I was a member. Their presence on the coaching fields and match sidelines was a prism to young players through which they could visualise and achieve success, practically, by following in their footsteps.
In 1988, it was Mary Jo who spoke to me personally after the under 16 All-Ireland loss to Laois, bringing perspective through wise and supportive words. Months later, amidst the on-field celebrations of Kerry’s sixth All-Ireland title in a row, captained by Mary Lane, Margaret told me that I too would be in Croke Park one year later, this time as a player. Both were right.
This summer, Kerry stalwart, Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh, Munster’s Young Footballer of the Year in 2007, continued this tradition of giving back, taking time to support the minor team in their quest for success. Holder of numerous All-Ireland titles in handball, she also highlighted the now perennial issue of access to county training facilities for female Gaelic players.
Her teammate Lorraine Scanlon, daughter of Mary Lane, seeks to add another All-Ireland medal to the family collection today. Twenty nine years on from Kerry’s last All-Ireland senior success it is inconceivable yet plausible that such issues persist. Both GAA and LGFA county boards in Kerry do not need their respective central councils to take the next steps. They can and should be their own path-makers by putting into action their commitment to equality.
All players who don the Kerry jersey, from the N69 to the N71 and everywhere in between, deserve this.