Gaining respect in high places
It has taken Mount Leinster Rangers 25 years to become an overnight success, writes Dermot Crowe
IN the winter of 1996 Liam Dunne travelled to south Carlow to present a bucketload of medals to Mount Leinster Rangers. The year had been a pleasure ride for all concerned. Wexford enthralled the nation with their All-Ireland win and Liam Griffin's message that faith could move mountains. Mount Leinster, having won championships at all grades, saw the light that evening too.
The highlight would be the presentation to the intermediate hurling champions, but their special guest had his work cut out; a lot of medals had to be distributed and scores of hands had to be pumped. Not everyone was pleased with the decision to merge Ballymurphy, Borris and Rathanna in 1987 to form the Rangers, and there were efforts after it was formed to reverse the decision. In 1996 they finally felt comfortable in their own skin.
Eddie Byrne was club secretary at the time, but he had also captained the junior hurling championship-winning team. "We had a great year," he says. "I think that was the year the Rangers really kicked into place. We struggled at times but really gelled in '96; we won the intermediate and junior hurling championship, minor hurling, under 16 hurling, intermediate B football, junior B football, and minor hurling league as well. We had a fantastic array of silverware at that dinner dance."
People remember Dunne quipping about how the club colours made him feel at home, the red and black replicating those of his own Oulart-The Ballagh. They marvel at how far they have progressed and that Oulart are facing Mount Leinster Rangers in a Leinster senior hurling final. They are new but they are not overnight. It took ten more years to win a senior county championship. They lost senior finals in 2001, '03 and '05. Ballymurphy lost four in the early 1980s, so an impression of being flaky began to form. That was banished in 2006 and they have been in the last nine finals, recently completing a three-in-a-row.
Christy Ring once said he would watch the Carlow hurler Moling Morrissey play all day. Like anywhere else, there are hurlers here as good as in the most traditional hurling kingdoms, but national recognition is scant. Wexford is on the other side of the border, a few miles away across the Blackstairs, and south Carlow people cheered when Martin Storey, the current Oulart manager, raised the Liam MacCarthy in '96. Kiltealy, home of the Duffry Rovers, is at the other side of the mountains. The Kilkenny border is at the Borris end. People from that area tended to have a soft spot for the black and amber. With Carlow not setting the world on fire, you were not made feel guilty about spreading the love.
The only Carlow man to win an All-Ireland senior hurling medal, Mick Morrissey, came from the St Mullins club nearby. He moved to Wexford and was part of the team that won in 1955, '56 and he came on as a sub in '60. His nephew, Christy Kealy, was on the Mount Leinster Rangers intermediate team of '96 and is now a selector as they prepare to face Oulart in Nowlan Park today. Two years ago, Rangers won the All-Ireland intermediate hurling title. It has been a mad leap.
Carlow has six senior clubs competing in the championship and the Rangers have been in the semi-finals every year since 2001. Perhaps it was no surprise that they relished life outside the county so much. Even in their first foray into Leinster in 2006 they gave a good account of themselves in Parnell Park against Craobh Chiaráin. The next year they were neck and neck with Ballyhale Shamrocks with ten minutes to go. They went into the intermediate club championship for two years and won the All-Ireland. Last year, back in the provincial senior championship, they almost put out Kilcormac-Killoughey.
But 1996 is pinpointed by Eddie Byrne as pivotal. Ten years later he was county chairman and had as his "great pleasure" the task of presenting the cup after his club won the senior hurling championship for the first time.
Already, Tom Mullally from Glenmore was involved and the following year he would be in charge, and has been since. Kilkenny has been a pervasive and positive influence. Rangers have been taking part in their junior league and won it four times, but can't play any higher as their senior and intermediate competitions are tied into their championships. But the experience has stood to them and speeded up their hurling and increased the intensity of their play.
This is the club's 25th anniversary. John Coleman, another senior selector, was coming into adulthood at that point. He won a minor medal in their first year competing, along with fellow selector Christy Kealy, and continued to play up to 2005. He captained the team that played their first senior hurling final against Ballinkillen in 2001. The "wet Sunday" as he refers to it – an "unbelievably wet day, Ballinkillen adapted better, we were like rabbits in the headlights".
He was 30 the same week but the current side has some of the survivors of that first final. Mick Purcell, a teacher in Good Counsel in New Ross, came in as coach and their preparations moved on to a different plane. "The intermediate run opened our eyes to a whole new world," says Coleman. "One we don't want to let go too handy. It's great to be hurling the Kilkennys, the Wexfords and the Offalys.
"Mick Purcell is the most unassuming man you could meet. Mick wouldn't take praise for anything. He brought us to our first final. He opened our eyes to what could be achieved with hard work and commitment."
When the club was being formed they had to come up with a name. The juveniles had played together for some years but were referred to as Borris, the parish name. Various saints were put forward but it was hard to find one that didn't have a bias towards one piece of territory. So they looked up and it was staring them in the face. Mount Leinster, the highest peak in the Blackstairs, looming over this idyllic and unspoilt part of south Carlow.
"I was at some of those meetings," says Coleman, who is from Ballymurphy. "It wasn't unanimous (the amalgamation) or anything approaching it. The first five or six years was touch and go for a while. Which is understandable; some people find things hard to let go too."
Coleman has been a selector since 2007, when they retained the county title. By then Mullally had come from Glenmore to manage the team and is still there. "They (players) have so much respect for him, to a man," says Coleman, "and after eight years they are still, I wouldn't say in awe of him, but they will do anything he says and they are still listening to him. Tommy still has the respect."
Eddie Byrne, 55, has two sons playing, Diarmuid and Eddie. "We are after getting great mileage out of them," he says proudly of the team. "They brought us to final after final and won the All-Ireland intermediate title. And to be in a Leinster senior final, a grade 'A' competition, it is fantastic for a club in Carlow."
Eddie played in four senior hurling finals for Ballymurphy, losing them all. In the GAA's centenary year, 1984, they came closest. "People said we should have won that one, that is no good now. These lads don't know how privileged they are; we spent a whole lifetime without winning anything."
The win over Castletown-Geoghegan this year was their first in the Leinster senior championship, but didn't receive much notice. The win over Ballyboden made the main GAA headline of the day. "As the game went on we got more confident, seeing that those guys could be beaten," says Byrne. "I think the players had no doubt about it in their minds; they came out at 100 miles an hour and finished at 110 miles an hour – they weren't going to be beaten. On top of that, it was a fantastic game of hurling as well.
"We would have gone from a position, if you looked for a practice match, where no one really wanted to play you, to this year where top teams were ringing our mentors looking for matches. That is the respect our club has got over the years."
Byrne hurled for Carlow in the 1980s and lost a few All-Ireland 'B' finals to Antrim. He was a frequent name on the scoring charts. One year Wexford's Jimmy Holohan sailed past him, benefiting from a longer stay in competition. He regarded wearing the county jersey as an experience to be cherished. "Any day you played for your county was great. Your county has to be represented no matter what the standard is."
The last surviving member of the Carlow team that won the 1944 Leinster senior football championship, Ted Joyce, is a resident of Borris and the parish has a football tradition. But now hurling has the stage. Club PRO Patrick Kealy, Christy's younger brother, goes on a spin round the countryside, pointing out the homes of players and other places of interest. Passing Frank Foley's homestead, he recalls how the goalkeeper, the oldest on the team by a few months, made a vital save from Niall McMorrow in the semi-final.
He mentions Karl Lawlor, another great servant who was compelled to emigrate to Australia with his family a few months after winning the All-Ireland. If they win today they may dedicate it to Karl and looking around this beautiful part of the world you can see what a wrench it must be to leave it.
He recalls the homecoming on the Saturday night after they won the All-Ireland. The next day the Rathanna marching band came out to play. Pat Byrne, a local who won the Voice of Ireland, entertained the crowd. The club president, Aiden McGee, a former Carlow footballer, wasn't well enough to attend the final in Croke Park but he was present for the celebrations in Borris. "That was quite emotional," says Kealy, "it meant the world to him".
This year's annual dinner will be another bumper celebration with championships won at every grade from under 12s to minor, and the intermediate team also contesting a final. The seniors will have pride of place irrespective of how today pans out. They are only the second Carlow team to win a Leinster senior club championship match. The first to reach a final. Liam Dunne is not expected to hand out the medals if they win.