Sinéad Kissane: 'Club championships remind the rest of us about the true value and spirit of home'
When Tullaroan won the Kilkenny intermediate hurling final last month for the first time since 1988, Michael Walsh ran onto the pitch in Nowlan Park and saw one of his sons, Tommy.
This is Tommy Walsh of the nine All-Ireland medals with Kilkenny but this was his first time winning an adult medal with his club. You know what happens next because you've probably seen the video.
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Tommy and his dad end up hugging on the grass, then they get up and hold onto each other and cry like nobody's watching. The moment would catch your breath for the fierceness with which they show what their club means to them and what they mean to each other.
It doesn't matter if you've no ties to the people, the club or the county involved, seeing that kind of passion from the Walsh family would immediately get you involved. It reminds you that sport at its core is about being free of inhibition, about letting loose through flair or feeling, especially as so much of life can be about fitting into structures and making ends meat.
Because Walsh had such a successful inter-county career it would be easy to assume the same would follow for his club career. In the competitive jungle of Kilkenny club hurling, Tullaroan won the senior title in 1994 but were relegated in 2014.
The depth of their joy at winning the intermediate title and promotion back to senior last month was also because they came close in last year's final when they led neighbours Graigue Ballycallan by nine points toward the end of the first half but lost by three points in the end. But it didn't break Tullaroan, it brought them closer together.
So, is everyone as passionate about hurling in Tullaroan as Tommy Walsh is? "Ah, there's huge interest here," Tullaroan manager Jimmy Coogan said this week. "Tommy is a terrific human being, that's what I'd say about him. He'd do anything for you and he'd always have a word for everybody".
With their dad on the line looking after the hurleys, Tommy and his three brothers - Pádraig, Shane and Martin - will line out for Tullaroan in today's Leinster club intermediate hurling final against Seir Kieran of Offaly.
Of the 42 parishes in the diocese of Ossory, latest population estimates have it that Tullaroan is the fourth smallest parish with Seir Kieran the smallest (the 2016 census recorded the population of Seir Kieran as 466). There may not be many left at home when these parishes have their biggest day at Nowlan Park in today's finale. Who says Christmas only comes once a year.
Last weekend another Offaly club made history. Naomh Ciaran became the first club from the county to win an All-Ireland title at any grade in women's football with a 2-11 to 2-9 win over Naomh Pól of Antrim in the All-Ireland intermediate club final.
They were five points down with eight minutes left but they bent the game to their will as they scored 1-4 in the run-in to win by two points.
Naomh Ciaran is made up of players from Ferbane, Doon, and Shannonbridge. They completed their own five-in-a-row this year at county level before wrapping up Leinster and a first ever All-Ireland title.
When captain Eimear Flynn got over the initial shock of winning last Saturday, she was taken aback by how much it meant to everyone else supporting them and the numbers who turned out for their homecoming. Doon was effectively shut down for them with bonfires and fireworks with an even bigger crowd awaiting in Ferbane.
"People you don't even know and they know who you are, and they're congratulating you. So many people I didn't even know with tears in their eyes, bawling crying after the match because they were just so happy that we won," Flynn says.
"My dad was crying when he came over and that was just crazy to see. And all he said was, 'I'm so proud of you, I'm so proud of you'. They are moments that you'll remember for the rest of your life."
The heart of this Naomh Ciaran team can be found in the Kenny home. Star forward and dual player Kate Kenny scored 0-8 (0-4 frees) in the final, her brother Colin is the coach and their dad Mikey is the manager of the team. The Kenny household has become a gathering place for players.
"Nearly every day you could walk into that house and there'd be a Naomh Ciaran member sitting at the table. It's a cup of tea and a chat," says Flynn. "Most of the time we wouldn't even be talking about football."
What struck Flynn this year was the unconditional support they got from locals. "If we ever went out and had a bad game, the supporters would never have a bad word to say about you, they'd nearly feel sorry for you. They want to give you a bit of encouragement to get you going the next day."
An appreciation for what players put in has also stood out this year for Éire Óg footballer Paul McElligott. Last year the story of the season was Mullinalaghta St Columba's run in the club championship and their Leinster final victory. For every fairytale though there's the opposite at times. Mullinalaghta beat Éire Óg well in last year's Leinster semi-final with Éire Óg only scoring three points with three of their players sent off. Tomorrow week, Éire Óg play Ballyboden St Enda's in their first Leinster final since they last won it 21 years ago. Before every big game their manager Joe Murphy invites someone associated with the club to give a talk to the players to remind them of what the club is about.
"You always hear these clichés that there's more to life than football but in reality what we've experienced is that sometimes football is what gives people the spark or the lift they're looking for. It can be an escape from the real world," McElligott says.
What's unique about this year is that there's also a Carlow club playing in the Leinster club hurling championship final tomorrow when St Mullins play Ballyhale Shamrocks. Ballyhale's Michael Fennelly will also have a hectic weekend - he'll manage the Offaly hurlers for the first time in the opening round of the Kehoe Cup today and play for his club tomorrow.
The club championship has its flaws, but at this time of year there is a magic about villages, towns and parishes all over the country lighting up with the joy of the achievements of their own people. The club championships remind the rest of us about the true value and spirit of home.
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