HURLEY in hand Paddy McDonnell makes the short hop from Kilkee’s Strand Line over the wall onto the beach. With the tide out, it’s a great day for a game.
There he meets another like mind in Mick O’Neill, originally from the Marine Parade but now garrisoned out in Querrin. O’Neill also has his hurley, and a few sliotars too. With that you get a sense that things are stirring back west once more.
This is football country and proudly so, but the fact remains from the annals and local lore that hurling was played here long before the big ball began to weave its charms through the fabric of town, country and community.
On this same strand – the sands of time may have shifted, but with people like McDonnell and O’Neill still carrying the flame, the flicker could be about to turn into something much brighter as hurling is finally welcomed back into the St Senan’s Kilkee family.
Hurling’s rebirth in Kilkee has begun.
There have been many incarnations down the years. St Kee’s, Kilkee, St Martin’s, Kilkee/Bealaha, right down to the names of 1916 patriots like Padraig Pearse, Sean McDermott et al that were used for the Strand League teams of the 1950s.
Now it’s St Senan’s once more as Paddy and Mick give their hurleys some air on Kilkee Strand.
WITH that Paddy opens his mind to Kilkee’s hurling past, because no one in these parts knows more about the game than this hurling blueblood who migrated into the Strand Line nearly 60 years ago with his hurley in hand.
“I came into the town in 1955,” recalls Paddy. “I was living three miles outside the town in Moveen. I had a hurley and I had an interest in the game and I used to be banging away on my own in Moveen,” he adds.
1955 was the year of another attempt to restore Kilkee’s link to the hurling world – a link that pre-dated the founding of the GAA by well over half a century.
“The tradition of hurling was always there in Kilkee,” says Paddy, citing records going back to the 1830s when the game was considered to be one of the highlight of the social calender in the west Clare town.
“It wasn’t like it is now,” says Paddy, “but the game was alive and well in Kilkee and every Sunday a game used to take place on the strand. It was a pitch-battle more than a hurling match, but every able bodied fella that was around used to take part. The way it was that there weren’t quite as many fellas finishing the game as started it.
“There was a Fr Comyns, who was the local curate, and he’d throw in the ball to start the game. He’d start and finish the game – throwing in the ball around 3pm and going down to the strand again just before the angelus at six o’clock and took up the ball.
“There was no goalposts in those days – the whole object of it was to go from end to end on the strand. Which ever team forced the ball up on the East End over the alley wall, that was a score and it was the same over at the West End. There was no togging out or anything like that – fellas played barefoot and in hob-nailed boots,” he adds.
It was this tradition that was finally put on an organised basis in the late 1940s – one that has experienced many peaks and valleys, rebirths and deaths in the intervening six decades and more until the latest incarnation these past few weeks.
“Even when there was no organised hurling in the town there were always lads playing the game,” says Paddy. “The first organised attempt at organising a club was in 1949. Before that there would have been challenge matches and lads from Kilkee would have played street league games against Kilrush.
“The fella who got it going was Sean Dixon – a brother in law of Mick O’Neill – who formed a club in 1949. He got a few fellas together and they drew up a constitution and called the club St Senan’s.
They played a couple of matches against Kilrush, but some snag arose. They were accepted into the county board but they didn’t play in any organised competition.
“Tom Haugh got it going again in ‘55 when when organised Strand Leagues. I played in the Strand Leagues in ‘56 and ‘57. The teams were called at patriots names – the final was always played on the old sportsfield up at George’s Head.”
So began the first tangible attempt to put Kilkee on the hurling map, first through the Strand Leagues, then affiliation to the county board after which the club’s juveniles reached final against Ennis Rovers in 1956 and reached a minor semi-final the following year.
“They only played one round to get to that juvenile final,” recalls Paddy. “They played Clonbony in the first round and beat them. They then got a bye in the second round are were to meet the winners of St John’s and Tuamgraney in the semi-final, but both of those sides got thrown out for playing overage players.
“In the minor the following year we beat Cahercanavan in the first round – got a bye in the second round and were beaten by a team called Clouna up in Miltown. I remember the grass was very long and we were beaten by 3-4 to 1-2.
“Tom Haugh was a great character and the real driving force in those years – he was a local barber on Chapel Street. He was the town sacristan and was a very popular man and was great at getting the young lads out,” he adds.
So began Paddy’s love affair with Kilkee hurling that would finally be crowned in Cusack Park in 1983 when he was corner-back on the Kilkee/Bealaha team that won the Junior C Championship final.
“I used to travel to Munster championship matches with Tom Haugh and his brother Martin and Ger Foran,” he recalls. “They were all hurling enthusiasts and being older than me, they used to mind me. I played football for Kilkee for a good few years before I went away to work, but if there had been hurling around here all the time I would nave never kicked a football,” he adds.
The promotion of the game collapsed again in the late ‘50s, only to be revived again in the early ‘60s when Marty Marrinan took up the baton. “It was in 1963,” recalls Paddy, “Marrinan, the freelance journalist, local publican, character, fierce hurling enthusiast and a man with a high profile around the county got it going.
“He formed a club called St Kee’s and a minor team called St Martin’s. That lasted between 1963 and ‘66. Various pieces used to appear in The Clare Champion when various people in the county board like John Hanly were brought down to present medals when the Kilkee team were declared north, south and mid-Clare champions.
“In other words Marty credited Kilkee with being champions of three-quarters of the county with the exception of the principle hurling area. That was Marty, but after a few years that game died again until the emergence of Kilkee/Bealaha in the early ‘80s.”
The highlights in those years was junior league and championship honours in 1983, with the legendary Mickey Martin bagging four goals in the championship decider. Then there was the participation in Féile na nGael for the first time in 1988 when the reached the final of their division against Roscommon side Padraig Pearses that was played in Cusack Park.
That Kilkee team included Denis Russell and Ger Keane.
A quarter of a century on, Paddy thought his “day was done, but Mick O’Neill is like a dog with a bone”.
His friend and travelling companion to hurling games all over the county and beyond wouldn’t say no and it’s why Paddy is back on the strand with hurley in hand.
Why hurling is coming back to Kilkee!
Above: Hurling fanatics Mick O’Neill and Paddy McDonnell jostle for possession on Kilkee Strand.