Sport Hurling

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Blessed to be playing a part

Damien Quigley is still involved withNa Piarsaigh simply because he loves it, writes Dermot Crowe

THE story of Na Piarsaigh hurlers is an anthology of diverse tales. Damien Quigley's voyage, he'll state more than once in this interview, is no more validating than any of the others, and he is happier talking about the club than his own place in it. But he's a natural draw for romantics. Aged 40, after a career blighted by injury, he has a county medal in his pocket that he could never have dreamt possible.

More than 17 years after he scored 2-3 in an All-Ireland final against Offaly, Quigley is now "very much on the periphery" as Na Piarsaigh flirt with provincial acclaim. He is anxious to play down his marginal role but it is a triumph of will and love within the wider narrative. Two years ago at 38, he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury that has required a few operations. Crocked, he watched the club being routed by Adare in their first county final that year and the men in white coats must have readied themselves when word went out that he wasn't prepared to retire but soldier on.

That is one part of the Na Piarsaigh story -- a man approaching 40 and after a spate of injuries refusing to surrender -- but only one part. There are the early founding fathers. Like Noel Drumgoole, the St Vincent's man who, while working and living in Limerick in the 1960s, helped establish the club down near the site of the Gaelic Grounds. The club is only three years older than Quigley and in January 1995, at a time when he was a Limerick All Star and a high achiever for his club, Quigley carried the remains of Drumgoole to its resting place.

This is one of his proudest recollections. A year after that, Quigley returned to Croke Park and played full-forward for Limerick on Ger Cushe but found little of the inspiration that seemed to magic his way in 1994. They were defeated again and Drumgoole had died before the club played senior a year earlier for the first time. What would he think if he were alive to see them now?

Na Piarsaigh isn't just Quigley's story, or Shane O'Neill's, his fellow veteran, friend and a playing member at 37, but theirs and countless others besides. Like the lavish new generation of hurlers like Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes who are driving the club into unforeseen territory. The county medal Quigley pocketed, having been given a few minutes at the end of the final against Ahane, has no rival in his ledger and will never be surpassed. There will be no higher currency. But he sees the way the young players have responded since and knows there is a yawning gap between how they regard it and how he does. When Quigley was starring for Limerick against Offaly, Shane Dowling was one. It is a little weird and yet it reassures him that all the time and effort is immensely gratifying. To play with these young ambassadors, he beams, is a pleasure. It keeps him young.

For the past two years he has coached the club's under 21 side. Seven of this year's team were on the Limerick under 21 squad that won a Munster title with some dazzling play but Na Piarsaigh's under 21s lost the county final to Kilmallock a week after the senior victory. A year earlier they stopped Kilmallock's charge for a fifth under 21 title in a row, causing a surprise, and that triumph is up there in Quigley's list of prized memories. They had won none of the underage titles up the grades and finally they came good.

This year the club won its third county minor title and they added championships at under 14 and under 16, placing Na Piarsaigh very much to the forefront of Limerick underage success. They have been in the last four minor finals. For all that, while they knew they had good players coming, Quigley says they could not have foreseen just how good or how quickly they would adapt. "You have to bear in mind," he says, "we were a club that never contested a senior final till two years ago."

That county final was a day to forget. Adare, assured and looking to win three in a row, had a bloodless victory, winning 1-17 to 0-3. Na Piarsaigh, damned by a reputation for being nouveau and flaky, scored only one point in the first half. Kevin Downes, a Leaving Cert student then, had their first from play after 53 minutes. "They murdered us," states Quigley unequivocally. "We got to the final on the back of momentum but we weren't ready for a county final and Adare ruthlessly exposed that."

A year after, they defeated Adare in the quarter-final -- something no team had managed in five years -- but Kilmallock halted their gallop in the next stage. A 13-point defeat landed another blow on their faith and morale. "The maturity wasn't there to deliver every day, there was still that bit missing," says Quigley.

It is there now. "We haven't lost a game in Limerick this year."

In the final they crushed Ahane, a name steeped in history in Limerick hurling.

What changed? Everything. Young players were growing and some were emerging. James O'Brien took over centre-back like it had been written in the stars. Paul Beary came in as a physical trainer and added a new dimension. Beary would have been on the team that won an intermediate title in 1994, one of the early milestones, and his own father was a founding member.

One of his kids is playing now so they are starting to build up a generational profile that most clubs take for granted. Players look up on the walls and see teams with their fathers in the photographs and soon their sons will be looking at their grandfathers. That Quigley has managed to stay alive as a player while this transition has taken place, having started hurling with the junior team in the late 1980s, is a small wonder.

Quigley made a late appearance in the county final and also had a late cameo against Crusheen in the drawn Munster final last Sunday, replacing his fellow veteran O'Neill. In his last match to start in the championship two years ago, he snapped his cruciate. In spite of a consuming job in banking and three children, he wants to hurl again next year if his body will allow. Why didn't he stop when he did a cruciate at 38? "I wasn't prepared to walk away on terms that weren't mine," he responds.

Did he come back because he held out hope of a county medal? No. "I had given up on the medal part. I knew we had a bit to go. When you get knocked down as often as we have over the years you learn to be pragmatic. I didn't see it coming (so soon). I was happy to just be hurling with the boys."

But there is no hiding the delight that it has come his way. "The best thing that has ever happened me in sport," he says emphatically. To come on in the final embellished the experience. For six weeks before the final he had been able to train without injury and for that he was grateful. As he was to their manager Seán Stack for offering him the chance.

"It was the pinnacle of my career. It meant so much, winning our first county championship, to so many people. I am never going to start again, but I still enjoy togging out, training. It was a great touch by Seán and I will never forget it. Never. Never." And then, as if checking himself: "But it is about the younger fellas. I mean, they built the gym."

The gym was a testament, he says, to the drive of the younger players who wanted a place to train over the winter. They built it with their own hands.

"What does that say to you about people? I played junior this year. Few games. With the senior team I am hanging on. But I love being around it, I love the crack."

He warms to this theme, to be on active duty with young lads more than half his age. "That's why I am playing, because they're there. You win things, you lose things, take the good with the bad, but what you get out of any sport, hurling in particular, is the friends, the bond is never broken. I am privileged to be on the field with those kids; not only are they talented guys but they are fabulous people and some are just kids, they're only 18. I know being out on the pitch with them, you can be a mentor and have a certain type of relationship but it won't be the same unless you are on the field, togging.

"I love training. There is no one reason why I still do it. I always think the dirtier, the shittier the night the more I like it, don't ask me why that is, the way I'm wired I suppose. I have a demanding enough job, you need to have an outlet to escape." He finished hurling with Limerick after 1999, having missed a year to complete accountancy exams, and for a few seasons he quit hurling with his club as well. After a series of serious injuries he decided to walk away. If he is honest he'll say he felt he wasn't receiving the protection players should expect and that the culture at that time in Limerick club hurling was too tolerant of dangerous play. Eventually he came back, at a time, he thinks, when Na Piarsaigh were trying to stave off relegation.

In 2004, he spent a year as a county selector with Pad Joe Whelahan but feels he didn't have the time to do the job properly or to enjoy it fully. More recently he was part of an independent three-man committee set up to find a successor to Justin McCarthy during Limerick's period at rock-bottom. "You can't be there involved for so long and then let it go. You care (about) the next generation; who is going to be their heroes? Thomond Park is down the road from the Gaelic Grounds and the Munster brand is run so well and is so strong and to compete with that you have to have your house in order. If I stopped playing for Na Piarsaigh in the morning I'd still be wrapped up in it. The same with Limerick; you'd be wrapped up emotionally."

He has no hesitation when asked to serve. "I am a passionate Limerick person. I felt I had something to offer. Maybe I didn't; I felt I did. Because I care, that is why I did it."

The personal disappointment of not winning an All-Ireland comes second to the loss for Limerick. "When Limerick win, please God we will, I will get an enormous kick out of that. Limerick people have been dragged through the wringer, we are used to not getting there, so when we do it will be all the sweeter."

Time has swept by. He is the only survivor from the Na Piarsaigh team than won the 1990 junior championship. All those playing comrades have gone. "They are laughing at us older players, O'Neill and myself, they are shaking their heads looking at us, but sure isn't that part of the crack?"

The day they put down back in the clubhouse after winning the county title will stay with him forever. What he describes as the "hard core" members were present and tears aplenty shed. But then, before long, they were back at training, and those young players were hurling as if the story had only started.

Their story. His story. Na Piarsaigh's story.

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