More than just a family affair
St Thomas's have made light of humble beginnings to become a real force in Galway, writes Dermot Crowe
THE territory that swears allegiance to the red and blue of St Thomas's spreads from Kilchreest outside Loughrea for several miles until it blends with Peterswell, the neighbouring parish. Sleepy, sheepy, generally unaccustomed to noise and fuss, it experienced two notable events in 1968; only one had a lasting significance.
Before then Kilchreest and Peterswell were independent states. They soldiered separately in junior ranks, smitten by hurling but struggling to make ends meet. At times, Kilchreest were unable to field and their hurlers would play for Peterswell; on other occasions the dependency would lean in the other direction. Finally they decided they could not continue apart. They conjoined and announced the birth of St Thomas's.
The same year a film crew with a strong British cast arrived in the area to shoot scenes for Alfred the Great, a movie set in the ninth century. In a place with an economy entirely based on farming and with emigration a way of life, the business was welcome. "Oh it was a pure flop," says one of the locals in the Village Inn in Kilchreest all these years later. The film did not prove a blockbuster hit. Their hurlers didn't look like matinee idols back then either. That would take time.
Ber Forde is a founder club member from Kilchreest, a farmer and former player. Croke Park was a distant galaxy but they had to start somewhere. In 1972, Cyril Farrell took over their junior team and two years later they won the championship. "He left the county junior team at the time to train us here," says Forde. "We didn't win in '72 but we won in '74 with Farrell. We used to train at night, there were lights put up on the trees next to Smith's field. Three groups came from Cork, the Ruanes, Paddy Fahy and Andy Lynskey, and they drove back again after."
Farrell was in his early 20s but remembers it well. "The big thing was, first of all, we had no pitch to train on . . . we trained on the side of a mountain. We also trained on farmer Smith's field, it was nice and flat. We used to tog out in a kind of a barn for corn. There were no dressing rooms. We'd train on the hill on Sunday morning. They had a good squad of good hardy hurlers. Even then you had brothers. They were country people and passionate about it.
"Winning the county junior – we had a hectic night – to them it was the same as a senior. You have to say looking at them coming up the last few years, they had very good hurlers; the question in Galway was: were they going to fulfil their potential?
"They won some and lost some. If you look at their forwards, they are above average for a rural club. In Galway, lads would be tearing into them trying to upset then. If emigration doesn't hit them, they will be there for a good while."
For those pioneers travelling up from Cork 40 years ago to train, expenses weren't an incentive. "I will tell you how bad things were when we started off first," says Ber Forde, "we had no money. We ran dances to pay back our debts."
Seán Fahy is also a founder member of the club. "We were after getting a parish priest in Kilchreest who was a native of Peterswell, Fr (Matt) O'Connor, and he was a help in bringing the two sides together," he says. "We had a new teacher in Peterswell, Tom McGarry from Tipperary, who was very interested in hurling."
The first treasurer, Michael Coleman, is beside him, here 45 years later to see the transformation; his job would be a great deal easier today. Preparing for an All-Ireland costs money but their success has made fundraising a lot easier.
Another ex-player, Joe Callanan, is also looking forward to this moment that none could have imagined possible, when a St Thomas's team will take to Croke Park in an All-Ireland final. They recognise the stand-out quality of the players they have now. "They are very dedicated," says Callanan, "every one of them is at training on time. They're sensible. No drink."
St Thomas's reached the final of the intermediate championship in 1978 and ascended into senior, slipping back down to intermediate twice after but only for short spells. Anthony Cunningham is their most renowned player of recent vintage, followed by Richie Murray, who played in the All-Ireland senior hurling final of 2001 at 19. Murray is one of 18 who have brothers involved, with the Burkes boasting a gold-standard clatter of six.
The Cooneys supply three, though one is injured. Their mother and current club treasurer Mary came to Peterswell from Kilkerrin to marry Joe Cooney and they started a family. "Well, I had five. I lost my oldest daughter (Laura) when she was 14 in an accident, so we have Heather who is is playing with the county in camogie," Mary explains.
"Then there's Donal, who is the oldest boy, he had an operation on his hip on the 21st of December, unfortunately he missed the county final, he got injured the day we played Loughrea in the group stages. Then Conor, he's 20 and Shane, the baby, he's first year in college. They're quiet lads, they don't tell me much. I ask them something, all they say is: what do you want to know that for? All I do is the washing."
She says the most terrifying part of this journey was in Parnell Park the day they drew with Loughgiel Shamrocks. They looked beaten in normal time until her son Conor scored a majestic equaliser. "I thought we were gone. They were all cramping. How, you're asking, are they going to play another 20 minutes? It's been great. We were at our local school (in Peterswell) the other day, Bríd O'Donnell is a wonderful headmistress there, and the kids have a song composed. They have really gotten into it."
What is the song called? "I don't know. I know the first line: 'Kilcormac-Killoughey you are going down, the St Thomas men are coming to town'." She smiles while the men around her break into laughter.
Colm Burke, an uncle of the Burke lads, is quick to stress the rest of the squad are of equal importance. Nobody would dispute that. But to have six players from the one house in an All-Ireland club final, and their father John managing, is some going, a feature of the GAA in rural Ireland that has become virtually extinct.
"Really," says John Fahey, former hurling board secretary and local, "though Colm would be discreet about it, you have families who breed hurlers. There are slates gone on the roof of John Burke's house, gutters broken, I don't know how many windows have been replaced."
Aidan Barrett is a former club chairman. "John Burke's wife is from Oranmore, she is the driving force. I said to her one time, we were after losing a match, and I said, 'Cheer up Paula, it is not the end of the world – there is more to life than hurling'. 'Not in our house there isn't,' she said. She played camogie as well for the county and the six sons played hurling for the county at some level and the girl Deirdre and both parents. All of them have played. The Cooneys can match that as well, the three sons and the daughter played for the county. The Murrays too; all the Murrays."
Barrett has seen them progress from boys to men. "They were always special, they had natural skill and we forecast that time (at under 12 level) that we would be in county finals. And it came to pass. They came from good families, came from hurling families. They were minded. They weren't over-coached or anything, they had natural skill and developed up along.
"They are used to competing in finals. They grew up at the top level competing in finals even though they didn't win them all. It did them no harm. You don't have to win them all, to lose some of them probably put some character in them, it made a job of them."
Retired local school principal Gerry Daly had 13 of the players through school. "I'd know their families. They are very level-headed lads." Daly speaks of other local items of interest such as Lady Gregory, the Irish poet Raftery and the impact of traditional Irish music. Peterswell is the homeplace of accomplished musician Joe Cooley. None can match the fever and hysteria being whipped up by their hurlers.
In 1989, they made the senior semi-finals but lost to powerful Athenry opposition. In 2011, Gort defeated them in the county semi-final and in 2012 Gort beat them in the first match of the championship. They recovered and put out Gort in the semi-finals after a replay to reach their first final. It has been a series of firsts since then.
Another former chairman John Healy describes these as "great days, absolutely brilliant." John Fahey mentions confirmation day on the Friday before the final and that the priest is "getting worried" about their focus. "All the youngsters are also playing in the half-time game. That has become almost more important than the All-Ireland final. Look it, it is the dominant conversation. It might be the weather, or farming or bad fodder another time. The game is now the dominant conversation. Everybody is in good spirits."