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Pitch split sums up Ferrybank confusion

IT'S one of the GAA's most hotly disputed patches of territory, hurling's version of the Gaza Strip. A resilient minority claim it was Kilkenny's from time immemorial before the Elizabethan conquest altered the Gaelic map of Ireland. The majority - Waterford and proud - have logic and the forces of progress on their side.

Welcome to Ferrybank on the northside of Waterford City, where today's All-Ireland semi-final meeting between Kilkenny and Waterford will re-ignite ancient feuds about the settlement's true hurling identity and pit the loyalties of father against son in some households.

Trying to unravel the true historical and geographical identity of Ferrybank can draw you into a maze with fresh confusion at every turn. Ferrybank play their hurling in Waterford, but on the map half the parish is situated in Kilkenny.

These days the majority of the population support Waterford but for elections, planning applications, and refuse collections are deemed to live in Kilkenny. The geographical situation of the Ferrybank GAA club grounds sums up the confusion. The controversial county boundary runs right through the Ferrybank pitch with one set of goalposts situated in Kilkenny and the other in Waterford.

And there's no point looking to Divine inspiration for an answer to the dilemna. Drive through the suburb north of the River Suir this weekend and you will see both Waterford and Kilkenny flags diplomatically draped from the front of the parish church where the PP is Fr Crotty, brother of former Kilkenny hurling great Mick.

Former Waterford hurler Shane Aherne grew up in a Kilkenny hurling household in Ferrybank but says that as he was playing all his club hurling in Waterford and growing up in what was part of Waterford city, his allegiances were 100% with Waterford.

"The old urban areas of Ferrybank are all in Waterford. Even in the newer estates that are officially located in Kilkenny, a majority of people shout for Waterford. If you go down to the pub the night of a Waterford win in the Munster Championship the place will be packed. Go down the night of a big Kilkenny win and it will be just the same as usual.

"If Waterford had 28 All-Ireland titles and Kilkenny two, there wouldn't be too many Kilkenny men in Ferrybank," says Aherne, who found himself on the Kilkenny side of the border when he bought his own house. All the modern estates in the parish are situated on the Kilkenny side of the county line. The irony, though, is that as more Ferrybank people find themselves officially resident in County Kilkenny, the traditional support for the black and amber is on the wane.

Even the diehards will concede that they are now firmly outnumbered. The old family ties don't have the same resonance anymore for children who see themselves first and foremost as city dwellers. The revival of Waterford hurling since the mid-1990s has also propelled the rise of the Deise identity.

"Fifty years ago we would have been in the majority but we are outnumbered now," admits Jack Burchill, a Kilkenny loyalist who conducts historical tours of Waterford city.

"Most of the old families in Ferrybank would be Kilkenny families but as the area becomes more surburban, it becomes more Waterford. We call them the 'white settlers'. They have gained an acre here and an acre there over the years. Personally, I would see Kilkenny as my county and Waterford as my town," says Burchill, who in a typical Ferrybank anomaly, is Shane Aherne's first cousin.

Since the 1950s, Ferrybank has been definitely located in Waterford for GAA purposes. Until then, junior teams came and went in the parish, some playing in Kilkenny and some in Waterford.

Loughlin 'Locky' Byrne, one of Ferrybank's most famous hurlers, won Leinster and All-Ireland medals with Kilkenny in the 1930s, but also played on the Waterford team that won the county's first Munster Championship in 1938. He managed this by being a hurling nomad who at various stages played club hurling for Mooncoin in Kilkenny and Mount Sion in Waterford.

FIFTY years ago Ferrybank was just a village, with a population of less than a thousand. Today, the population exceeds 4,000 and to the objective eye, Ferrybank logically appears to be part of Waterford city, even if it is isolated on the north bank of the Suir.

The identity crisis starts when you trace the area's history back to the 19th and early 20th century when people from rural south Kilkenny started to move to Waterford for employment in the city's factories, docks and railyards.

They tended to settle in Ferrybank and brought their hurling lore and traditions with them. The only problem was that the 1898 Local Government Act updated and confirmed 17th century county boundaries that located old Ferrybank in County Waterford.

Prior to the Kilkenny migrants' arrival, there was already a settlement dating back to the 18th century and connected to the rest of Waterford city by a timber bridge. Go back further to the 16th century and there are documents confirming a decision by Henry VIII to grant land north of the Suir to Waterford Corporation.

The River Suir runs serenely through the debate. The Kilkenny people in Ferrybank claim that before Elizabethan map-makers invented Ireland's county boundaries, the River Suir was the natural boundary between the two tribes north and south of the river.

Irish ways and Irish laws in the form of diocesan and parish boundaries are a far truer reflection of tribal identity, runs the diehards' argument. But if that is the case, the Waterford people in Ferrybank retort, all the GAA's county boundaries would have to be drastically revised, based as they are on the arbitrary decisions of English map-makers brought in to carve up the country after the 16th and 17th century conquest.

Progress and the NRA in the form of a new motorway could eventually resolve the Ferrybank y question.

Waterford City Council planners are currently working on a proposal that would alter and expand the city boundaries north of the Suir. The proposal would see large tracts of land between the River Suir and the new ring road around the north of the city come under Waterford City Council's jurisdiction.

This land includes the parish of Slieve Rua, the club of former GAA President Paddy Buggy, who play their junior hurling in Kilkenny. If the Ferrybank experience is any indication of the resilience of the Kilkenny hurling gene, the planners may have to go through a tribunal to get their way.