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Meelin minnows aim to scale new heights

MEELIN'S main claim to fame is that it is the highest village in Ireland -- 832 feet above sea level -- but its hurlers are hoping to put it on the map for a greater reason in Croke Park tomorrow.

Given that they are facing a Kilkenny team -- John Lockes, of Callan and John Power fame -- the team from the tiny north Cork village are undoubtedly the underdogs in the AIB All-Ireland junior hurling club final.

They form half of a classic Cork versus Kilkenny hurling double-header at HQ, as the intermediate final pits fellow Rebels Ballymartle against Noresiders Dicksboro.

But if anyone captures the fairytale nature of the All-Ireland club championship it is Meelin, who come from a non-traditional hurling area near the Kerry/Limerick border, best known in recent times for producing All-Ireland winning ladies footballers.

They won their first divisional title (Duhallow) in 13 years in 2009, only to be immediately dumped out in the first round of the Cork junior championship. Yet, last season they went all the way to the county final, where they beat a Cloughduv team managed by local hurling royalty, Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

Their subsequent odyssey to Croke Park has taken them over land and sea; past Effin (Limerick) and St Patrick's (Tipperary) in Munster before a trip to Birmingham, along with a 300-strong support, to face Lancashire's Fullen Gaels and then a semi-final victory over Barna of Galway.

The village -- which contains 200 houses, two pubs, two shops and a church with a three-foot rise between the entrance and altar -- is emblematic of so many rural communities caught in the vice-grip of the economic crisis.

Several of their players are now being tempted by the lure of work across the globe. Yet hurling has held the small community together and yielded some hope and joy in these tough times, especially with the prospect of playing in Cork's intermediate ranks for the first time in their history.

"Getting promoted to intermediate is really a huge thing for us, on top of reaching the All-Ireland final," explains club secretary Bridie Murphy.

"The average age of the team is 23 and like a lot of clubs we'd have a few lads who are desperately looking for work at the moment. But this success has been a huge boost and they'll probably stay at home until the end of the year at least because of the hurling."

Murphy is equally devoted. She has been club secretary for 22 years, but insists it's far from a one-woman show.

"We're a small community and if you ever need help you just send out a text and people get straight back to you," she says. "We've had a particularly good juvenile committee in the last 10 to 12 years, which has really helped develop our current team."

Yet in Cork hurling terms they are still minnows.

Apart from Bernie O'Connor (father of Cork stars Ben and Jerry) and Ned Brosnan, few Meelin men have even worn a Cork jersey and none of the current team have ever done so, even at underage level.

"That's why going to Croke Park is such a huge thing," Murphy adds. "We know we're up against it with any Kilkenny team, we'd expect a lot of them to have played there at some level with the county. This is completely new to us, but that's why it is such a huge thing for the club and our players."

Irish Independent