High-flying club minnows prove Ulster hurling is on the up
DESPITE all the harbingers of doom about the future of hurling, the small ball game in Ulster received a massive boost last weekend.
Not one, but two Ulster sides reached the AIB All-Ireland club finals at intermediate and junior level and if regular flagbearers Dunloy could do the unthinkable and make it past Portumna in next month's senior semi-final, the province would have finalists in all three hurling deciders.
Belfast dual club St Gall's now have a hectic schedule ahead of them after their hurlers pulled off a shock semi-final defeat of Connacht champions Tynagh/Abbey Duniry in the All-Ireland intermediate semis.
Eight of St Gall's hurling team -- Ciaran and Conor McGourty, Andy and Ciaran Gallagher, Anthony Healy, Karl Stewart, Sean McAreavey and Sean Burke -- are also on their football team which have already won the Ulster senior title and are lined up to meet Corofin in the All-Ireland semi-finals on February 21.
And the McGourtys and Stewart had already made a name for themselves as hurlers with the Antrim seniors.
Now over half of the St Gall's footballers are going to have an All-Ireland hurling final six days before their football semi-final and to put their hurling semi-final victory into context, the Connacht champions they beat included Kevin Broderick and Liam Hodgins of Galway fame.
Even St Gall's secretary Brendan Gallagher admitted their hurlers' progress, under manager Darren McKeown, has been a surprise.
"To be honest I didn't fancy us at all beforehand but the lads went into it with the right attitude," he said. "It means they are all going to be very busy in the coming month. They'll have to alternate training between football and hurling but we'll be careful to give them any wee breaks they need and it's certainly a great problem for the club to have."
The victory of Tyrone club Naomh Colum Cille over Sligo's Calry/St Josephs in the junior hurling semi-finals was an even bigger surprise.
Colum Cille are a young hurling-only club in the football stronghold of Coalisland, so reaching the All-Ireland JHC final is a huge boost to Tyrone hurling, according to Ulster Council's Hurling Development Manager, Jimmy Darragh.
"Colum Cille's victory is a terrific achievement although Tyrone, noticeably, also won the Lory Meagher Cup last season," he said. "I know they trained very hard in preparation and it paid off."
The Tyrone club include Rory O'Neill, who was selected as a Lory Meagher All Star last season.
"St Gall's are always very strong at hurling so their progress is not such a surprise," said Darragh. "They are good enough, really, to play Division 1 hurling in Antrim which they did up to two years when football became their bigger focus."
Ulster Council can take some of the credit for the rise of local clubs as four years ago, they organised an inter-club league which now includes 63 clubs in five divisions.
The two outstanding All-Ireland club semi-finals will take place on Sunday when Black and Whites (Kilkenny) play Blackrock (Limerick) in junior hurling in Tipperary town, while Kiltimagh's junior footballers play Emyvale (Monaghan) in Longford. The AIB intermediate and junior club finals are fixed for February 13/14.