Dónal Kelly has been one of the driving forces behind Ballyea’s emergence as a force in senior hurling over the past couple of years. For this hurling prophet it has been a crusade and journey into the nooks and crannies of hurling country everywhere, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
THE madness. The glorious madness of the GAA.
“Hurling, hurling, hurling,” says Dónal Kelly, “and then there’d be more hurling, training, matches and trips away”.
The only thing that’s missing is his camán and sliotar, if he had them he’d be hurling away as he talks enthusiastically and lovingly about the game that consumes him. Utterly.
Instead of these tools of the trade he fishes out a few mementoes from his pocket, flashes another smile and says “recognise anyone there, have a good look.
“And what about this one,” he adds, when carefully opening out an old match programme on the coffee table.
“You remember it, I’d say.”
It’s the 2009 Minor B final programme — an A4 sheet folded into A5 with some famous names on it.
Tony Kelly, Stan Lineen, Paul Flanagan, Niall Deasy, Gearóid O’Connell, Martin O’Leary, Cathal Doohan and many more.
Fourteen in all who will be members of Ballyea’s All-Ireland final day squad that won that Minor B final against Tulla/Bodyke in Gurteen by 2-12 to 1-5, with 15-year-old Tony Kelly hitting 1-10 of their total, only for the title to be taken away from them in the boardroom.
Seven years on they remember that team in Ballyea… and well, well beyond Ballyea too.
“Ballyhea (sic) have come a long way since,” remarked Frank Murphy recently at the Clare v Cork National League game in Páirc Uí Rinn in a nod of remembrance to that minor controversy that went all the way to corridors, but not the meeting rooms, of the Munster Council.
“And they’ve come along way since this photograph,” says Kelly, “when we were up in Kilkenny for a tournament”.
Like the programme, Tony Kelly and Stan Lineen are there, so too O’Leary and Browne, Gudgie O’Connell and many more. “And Brian Cody,” says Kelly, “because it was the James Stephens Tournament when we got to the final where Na Piarsaigh beat us by a point. Afterwards Cody said ‘you can leave two behind, number four and six, we’ll take them”.
“Tony was one of them anyway,” I volunteer.
It’s hurling, hurling, hurling and of all the days, I remember the day we wentto two counties with the kids. We went to Limerick first and played Doon. Then we cut across to Tipperary to play Kildangan – Fergie O’Loughlin was training them. There was snow falling and we played with a reddish/pink hurling ball, it was Kildangan that had it.
“Noooo,” says Kelly, “it was Dara Crowe at four who had the game of his life and Gudgie at six. They were brilliant the same day and we had a great day down there.”
One of many days on the road — all part of the diet of hurling and more hurling as Kelly and his acolytes spread their hurling gospel and moulded what is now the golden generation that’s marching on Croke Park.
“We were in Waterford, Cork, Tipperary, Wexford, Galway, Limerick, Kilkenny. We went everywhere. You have to go out and play in different counties,” says Kelly. “Like Galway was different to Cork – in Galway they’d stand into you and flake you and they had to experience that too.
“We went to Wexford one morning,” he continues, “all the way down to Wexford where Clare were playing a league game. We left at eight in the morning and were back that night at half 12.
“I thought we’d never get home. We played the game below, then we brought them to Supermacs and then to the Clare v Wexford game. We met Larry Murphy the Wexford hurler at the match and he came down the sideline and he shook hands with everyone of the Ballyea lads, it was like young lads meeting Tony now. It was great for them. When we got home people were asking ‘are you absolutely mad’,” he adds.
The glorious madness.
DÓNAL Kelly had grown up when Ballyea hurling hadn’t got much. Indeed, you might say they had nothing apart from the few diehards to keep the club going, the enthusiasm of the players to keep the hurling flag flying in their part of the parish.
He was a teenager on the Ballyea team that won the Junior B Championship in 1976 and was still there 15 years later when they won the 1991 Junior A Championship.
“Growing up we had nothing sure,” he says. “To see where we are now, and to see where we were when I started,” says Kelly, “it’s just remarkable. I always remember Micky O’Sullivan the day we played over in the St Joseph’s Tournament.
“Michael McTigue was late getting over – he was always late because he was milking the cows. Mickey broke his hurley and of course there was no other hurley on the line for him until McTigue arrived with the county board hurleys. They were only juvenile hurleys and McTigue threw one out to him – Mickey roared back ‘it’s only a f****** spoon’. We just didn’t have the hurleys.
“When I went training it was over the road in McTigue’s field. It was small, there were rocks in in the middle of the field and there was a wall and when the ball would go out of the wall we’d no ball. We never had a ball, it was always going into the nettles.
“John Cusack, in fairness to him he kept the club going. Himself and John Mac, and Mike McTigue and Jackie Brennan. They kept the club going. They’d run a dance in Lissycasey Hall and they’d make £300 and that would run the club for the year.
“There was a time when we were playing in the Wexford colours. They were found in the boot of a car somewhere. Another time I can remember 13 of us in one car going to a minor match one night – I was in the boot of the Viva car with Brendan Longe. You’d get jail now for it. We were going in to play in Roslevan. That’s where we were and that’s the reality. It’s great to see where we could come from. Really and truly, it’s remarkable.”
There were landmarks along the way, even if there were also plenty of set-backs. The Junior A title that came their way in ’82, even if they had to do it all over again in ’91 and again in ’99 before they finally stepped up to the senior ranks in 2001.
“We were years trying to win the win the Junior A,” he says, “and I’d say we were past our best when we won it (in 1982). Pat Nagle trained us back then and Wax Guinnane also did his bit.
“We played in three Junior A finals that year,” he continues. “We were ten points up on Doora-Barefield inside in the Park and there was a torrential downpour and it was called off. We went to the ‘Bridge for the re-match and there was a late score to draw it.
“Then we went to Tulla for the replay and we were ten points down after ten minutes and came back to win it by 12.”
It would be nearly 20 years before Ballyea joined the senior ranks with that 2001 intermediate final win over Sixmilebridge in Cusack Park and by then Kelly had turned to coaching in a big way.
“I got involved with an Under 21 C team with Barney Lynch of Clarecastle and Johnny Hayes,” he recalls. “Colm Gavin was on that team and we beat Crusheen in the final and a lot of that team went on afterwards to play in a county final. It gathered a bit of momentum from there – winning the intermediate, contesting that senior final, winning a Senior B.”
All the way to this – what Kelly passes of as a miracle and it’s easy to understand why; the miracle journey from the obscurity of the nether regions and margins of Clare hurling to the biggest day of the club year that Kelly did so much to stoke.
“Liam Fitzgerald, Noel Coote, Gary Logue,Liam Fitzgerald,” says Kelly. “Those were the people who did the work, while Ronan O’Looney came in at minor and Michael Guilfoyle was there at 21.
“And you had Fergie O’Loughlin, because I always say there were three big things for Ballyea hurling – there was the Lenmac Tournament, there was Fergie O’Loughlin and there was Sixmilebridge.
“I had asked Fergie to come out after myself and Noel Coote had got it off the ground – he came at Under 12, the second year of the Under 12 and it took after that. Young lads know when you’re codding them, you’d never know with O’Loughlin, because every night he had a different drill.
“It was never about being able to run around the field – it was about quick hands, quick feet and hurl, hurl, hurl, hurl. It was all about the ball. I still think he’s the best trainer ever. Even with Gudgie and Tony, Fergie still takes them for speed training on the Saturday morning.”
The base camp for this revolution was the Lenmac Tournament that’s now consigned to history. “It was huge for us,” recalls Kelly. “We were beaten in the first year, but you could see it coming. We won it the second year. The team that was beaten the first year would have been Paul Flanagan’s team and they then got to the Under 12A final. They were beaten by St Joseph’s, Kieran O’Neill was over them, and they were better than Ballyea, but we had an awful lot of that team underage again the next year.
“We beat the ‘Bridge the following year well in the final and then beat then in the Féile (Under 14) after that. They beat us in the Under 16 and minor. There was good solid rivalry between us and the ‘Bridge, but we had to improve and we came back afterwards to win the 21.”
And the senior and provincial titles since then, of course, so much so that come St Patrick’s Day a core group the Ballyea squad will have played in every final from Under 10 to Croke Park.”
“For Ballyea to do that,” he exclaims. “You might expect it from Kerry or from Cork teams, but Ballyea.”
Still, Kelly knew from afar that there was something special brewing — that there was a Canon Hamilton in the club, even if he dared not dream beyond that into the territory that the black and amber now occupies.
“I always thought that we’d win a senior championship,” he says, “but it was provided that the football wouldn’t interfere. The football. We had Kilmihil, we had Cooraclare, we had Clondegad, we had Lissycasey.
“To get them all out of the way, and it’s a very hard thing to say and you don’t want to say it, but we would get the gain out of it and that’s what happened. When they [the football teams] did lose that’s what made it for Ballyea.
“We had them all together and they could train. Before the Éire Óg game I was up at the field several nights watching them train and they only had nine or ten lads and the majority of them were junior lads.
“There were four or five hurling with the county; there were two or three with the football and then there were the club football teams. It’s a miracle to do what we’ve done, because there were so many obstacles to overcome. To get the bond with the players number one, number two the football had to be out of the way, number three we got no injuries and number four we rode our look in a lot of games and we’d be the first to admit that.”
Yes it’s been some journey – not just in 2016 as it rolled into ’17, but over many years from the small peaks and gains of junior and intermediate glory through to the very summit of the game.
“You live for the day you’re in,” says Kelly, and he’s talking as much about those underage days in the Lenmac Tournament and beyond, or dodging the stones himself as he pucked ball in Mike McTigue’s field long ago.
“It’s hurling, hurling, hurling,” he says once more, “and of all the days I remember the day we went to two counties with the kids. We went to Limerick first, played in Doon and afterwards we brought the lads to the swimming pool. Then we cut across country to Tipperary to play Kildangan – Fergie O’Loughlin was training them. I always say to Stan (Lineen) you played in a pair of tights that day, you were so cold. There was snow falling and we played with a reddish/pink hurling ball – it was Kildangan that had it. We got back late again that night, but that’s the way it was, it was hurling, hurling, hurling and more hurling. I suppose we were mad. Maybe we were, but there is no one saying it now.”
A glorious madness.
Out of which All-Ireland winners are made.