Thursday 14 December 2017

Always commanding the Bridge

At 37, Niall Gilligan, isn't thinking beyond today's Clare derby, writes Dermot Crowe

Niall Gilligan
Niall Gilligan

Dermot Crowe

NIALL Gilligan has suggested Durty Nelly's as the meeting point, a centuries-old establishment in the shadow of Bunratty Castle. "There's a mad Newmarket man working there," he adds mischievously. In a few days Newmarket will be putting their county title on the line against Sixmilebridge. The clubs have a storied rivalry. More of that in a while.

But first Gilligan, who retired from county hurling in early 2010 having scored more championship goals, 21, than any other Clare player in history. The last year was a sorry finale, with relegation and a poor championship, then player unrest and a move against the management. He was getting on and the training had become an ordeal, all the more so once he married and a family life beckoned. A second child is expected early in the New Year. He farms and runs an auctioneering business but club hurling isn't nearly as invasive.

Gilligan isn't one for absolute declarations or finite plans – he likes it loose. Like the prospect of today being his last match, a grand exit from the stage; there's no need to tie himself down. He's not under oath or contract. "I play hurling because I like it, I like the social side to it. It keeps you involved within the community. It is there all my life. The way I look at it is, if my working life and home life let me keep playing and as long as I am enjoying it, I will keep playing away. Whether it is senior or intermediate or junior 'B' or whatever. After Sunday I don't know what I am doing."

Because of his prodigious career beginnings, it is strange in a way to think of him now, 37 years old, flying a flag at the other end. The iconoclastic hurler who came on against Dunloy in the All-Ireland club final in 1996 at 19, replacing the veteran of the time, club legend Flan Quilligan, is now making headlines for slowing time rather than speeding it up. Tadhg Keogh is the only other player with a county medal from their last successful Clare campaign in 2002.

The signs of seniority are plentiful. John O'Meara, the manager, was a member of the same forward line in 2002 and is two years younger than Gilligan. Brian Culbert is another relic from that forward line, now a selector, the same age as Gilligan. Pat Hayes, another selector, was there too in the middle of the defence. Same age as Gilligan. The oldest player after Keogh on the current team is 25. If Gilligan feels closer to the management then it makes sense and is no big deal. He's a sociable character and fun to be around and can mix it with the young lads too. But all that is decoration. He is there because, as he says, he wants to hurl and he still can.

When he was started in the 1997 All-Ireland hurling final against Tipperary, he hadn't played a full senior match for his club. He was, in a moderate way, the Shane O'Donnell of his day ("except I didn't score three goals, just the three points, and you didn't have Twitter so I didn't have thousands of women chasing after me"). Gilligan's selection, like O'Donnell's, proved a masterstroke. Like O'Donnell's, it was a surprise; he wasn't named in the official team. Like O'Donnell, he had a big impact on a key figure in the opposing team's resistance. Paul Shelley had been hurling up a storm. Tipp had gained a major foothold. Gilligan moved across on to Shelley, scored three points and the tables began to turn.

Those All-Irelands for club and county were never experienced again, although the club won the 2000 Munster title, before losing to Graigue-Ballycallan in a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final the following March. That ended a six-year cycle of Clare domination of the Munster club championship, bookended by Sixmilebridge triumphs.

Gilligan sees the irony in bidding for a county medal as an ageing forward in a year in which a fleet of young Clare hurlers pushed out the frontiers of the game with mesmerising pace and skill levels. For every Clare match he was in the Clare FM commentary box with Syl O'Connor, observing the county's reawakening. He had the Sixmilebridge under 21s this year and led them to a championship. Along the way they beat Ballyea. He saw Tony Kelly up close, the embodiment of the new generation.

"Like, Tony Kelly is phenomenal. Even seeing him with the Ballyea under 21 team, he was a joy to watch – well, on the one hand it wasn't good watching him against your own team, but you'd appreciate the way he plays. The speed. Like, two steps and he's over at the window (gesturing at a spot in the corner of the room)."

He watched the Clare matches and felt appropriately detached, as the role required, but when the All-Ireland final against Cork arrived it was like a typhoon. "I nearly collapsed. All their other matches you could read what was going to happen before it was going to happen. Even down in the Gaelic Grounds the day Cork beat Clare, you know, you knew it was over long before it was over. You are always told to stay composed but I lost the run of myself. I had arranged with my wife to stay up in Dublin that night (of drawn game) but I wasn't able, I was too drained."

The Newmarket barman, the aforementioned gentleman, arrives with Gilligan's lunch. His name is Mike Fawl and they are on first-name terms.

Gilligan: Did you put anything funny in that Mikie?

Mike: No, but you'll need it all by the time James McInerney (Newmarket full-back) gets his hands on you.

Before this, Gilligan has been talking of one of the flashpoints in the rivalry between Newmarket and Sixmilebridge in the early 1960s. The Bridge didn't win a senior championship until 1977, by which time their neighbours' dominance of Clare hurling had started to slide. After 1981, Newmarket failed to win a championship until last year, but in the 1960s and '70s they were almost untouchable.

"Players would get on great," says Gilligan, "but in hurling terms . . . (comparing it to) Celtic and Rangers might be a bit strong. Going back to the '60s and '70s, Newmarket were kingpins then and sure the Bridge never won a championship and they had to listen to them. And then the Bridge got on top and Newmarket were in the doldrums and I am sure they were rubbing it in.

"And there are different stories about the digging of the graves."

This is not as macabre as it sounds. No bodies of ex-hurlers are exhumed in the retelling of the story. "I grew up with that story," says Gilligan. "If you were in a pub you might ask an older lad about it and he'd only bark down to you, 'Shut up about that, don't talk about that'. There is mystery around all stuff like that.

"The story goes, that ah . . . this is the Bridge viewpoint on it. Our version. Newmarket didn't want to play a Clare Cup final in Kilkishen. And they objected and they didn't get their way and the match was down for Kilkishen and the night before four Newmarket lads went up and dug graves or holes in the field. A couple of Bridge lads found out about it and headed up early the next morning and filled them in and the game went ahead. But I think Newmarket have a different version to that story."

In his own playing time they only met once in the championship, in the 2002 county semi-final which Sixmilebridge won well. The rivalry lives through storytelling but it lacked a stage and relevance while matches were scarce.

He tells another story. The club chairman is Paddy Meehan who managed championship wins Gilligan enjoyed as a minor, under 21 and senior hurler. He has been involved in every club venture going. His father was Seán, a fanatical Bridge man.

"There was a cup final between the two clubs in the 1960s and Newmarket beat us. They (Newmarket folk) took his (Seán's) dog away and they painted him in the Newmarket colours. The dog came home anyway so Seán went out and he tried to get the Newmarket colours off the dog and he couldn't get them off."

And then?

"So he took out the dog and he shot him."

And the cat in Love/Hate thought he had it bad.

Gilligan recalls a time when Seán Meehan's health was failing and he being asked about Newmarket's growing prospects – by then their famine was nigh on 30 years. "He said, 'Well I hope I am dead before they win anything again'. And didn't he die about May of last year (Newmarket won the championship later in 2012)."

Time motors on. Flan Quilligan's son, Aidan, is captain of the team now. Gilligan is the Flan Quilligan of today. He doesn't feel it. He says nobody likes getting old. But everyone is mortal. A week before they played their first championship match this summer, a defeat to Clarecastle, he dislocated his elbow. The hour-and-a-half striving to put it back in is not among his career highlights. It made him think of the endline. But the county team's interests put the local championship in cold storage and he had ample time to recover and play an influential part in the club's run to the final.

What does Sixmilebridge stand for, he's asked. "They'd like to think the club has always been looked on as a country club. Even though the village has grown hugely during the boom. If you go through the team at the moment, they are all names that are going back generations. We'd really look on ourselves as a hard-working, grafting team. We had no-one that started in the All-Ireland final (Séadna Morey came on). More a team effort rather than any superstars."

Another county medal at 37 would be something to value. "All the success I had in hurling was before I was 26," he says. "2002 was the last county final we won. I didn't appreciate it maybe as I would now."

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