HURLING: From Gower United to Ballyea United

West Clare folk were always great supporters of the Banner County on their hurling journeys to Croke Park, but Friday’s All-Ireland Club final will be of special significance for those from the traditional football area, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.

THE bug, once bitten by it and you’re never shy.

That’s why some time over the next few days 89-year-old John McMahon from Gowerhass will make contact with home from Chicago….to talk about the game and the proud place that Cooraclare and wider west Clare has in it.

“He’s as passionate as ever about his hurling and he still comes home regularly,” says his old friend Pádraig Mac Mathúna, the former Oifigeach Gaeilge of the Clare County Board and long time operator of the Cusack Park shop.

McMahon was one of the trailblazers for hurling in west Clare – the founder of Gower United hurling team that literally shot across the Clare hurling firmament in 1945/46.

And made their mark too, as Mac Mathúna recalls. “They got to a county juvenile final in that first year that was played in Cusack Park,” he reveals, “and they surprisingly beat Tradaree on a score line of 4-1 to 3-0, but never got any medals because the secretary of the board Michael Hennessy wrote to them about the legality of their team. They had over age players.

“In order to get funds for hurleys that they purchased from Jimmy Conway in Larchhill in Ennis they founded a local dramatic society. They went around to various venues in west Clare with their three-act plays. The drama group lasted longer than the hurling team did,” he adds.

But it still lasted long enough to provide a link between the Gower United that plied its hurling trade in the lower regions of Clare hurling to the Ballyea side now going for All-Ireland gold.

“Documentary evidence, as Gaeilge,” says Mac Mathúna as he produces a copy of the Gower United list of players registered with the Clare County Board in 1946. “Liosta na n-imreoirí,” he continues, “and the third name down on list written by John McMahon is Tomás Ó Laighléis, Brisleach, Cuar an Chláir – that’s Pearse Lillis’ grandfather.

“It’s a great piece of history that John McMahon’s brother Michael found at home in the attic in Cooraclare when he was clearing it out”.

There were 32 names on the list, with founder member John McMahon and Martin Flaherty in Cooraclare the only two still living – living to see the grandson of one of their old team-mates win an All-Ireland they hope.

In order to get funds for hurleys that they purchased from Jimmy Conway in Larchhill in Ennis they founded a local dramatic society. They went around to various venues in west Clare with their three-act plays. The drama group lasted longer than the hurling team did.

“Wouldn’t it be remarkable,” says Mac Mathúna, “for that link from the ’40s to come on all the way forward to winning an All-Ireland”.

There’s your evidence, spanning eight decades, about what can be achieved when you’re bitten by the bug, when you put in the work and above all, when you carry that flame.

CARMEL Coughlan carried the flame in Kilmihil, as did Fr Peter O’Loughlin, while it wasn’t long after Anthony Daly landed back at Shaughnessy’s Cross in the late ‘90s that he was loading up the boot with juvenile hurleys.

Out of that and their work a little revolution rumbled. Hurling in staunchly football country – yes there were disciples of the big ball only that bristled a bit, but it was bah humbug to that.

“There was a group there who were just stone mad about hurling and they couldn’t get enough of it,” says Coughlan, the principal of Kilmihil National School.

“They just loved it,” recalls parish priest Fr Peter O’Loughlin, “and we had players coming from all over. From Shannon Gaels, from Cooraclare, from Doonbeg. The enthusiasm for the game was great at that time.”

They came to St Michael’s Park, the initial spark having been provided by Clare GAA Development Officer, Noel O’Driscoll, whose job of journeywork it was going around the county promoting the game.

“That was around 1997,” says Coughlan “and I said to myself I’d continue it on from what Noel was doing,” she adds.

“Carmel asked me to help her out and it started in a very low-key way,” remembers Fr O’Loughlin. “There was a little group from the school. We used to do the skills outside the school on the tarmacadam, where the carpark is.”

“We’d gather on Saturday mornings,” says Coughlan, “and I’d teach the skills. We took the silage tires and we’d be clattering up against them. We had lads like Niall Reidy, David Ryan, Alan Normoyle, David Griffin and Declan McSweeney in that early group.”

“Then you started getting a few from Shannon Gaels and Cooraclare when Anthony Daly came on board,” reveals Fr O’Loughlin. “Having someone like Anthony Daly really gave it the impetus to take it on from there. There was great interest and great support from the parents of that group of kids.”

“There was a great group involved in west Clare hurling at the time,” says Coughlan. “Christy McCarthy from McCarthy’s Bar in Coore did Trojan work and the West Clare Board did an awful lot to support hurling. You had TJ Shannon and Thomas Griffin from Coolmeen and Paddy McDonnell from Kilkee involved,” she adds.

“It’s starting them at a young age,” says Fr O’Loughlin, “and I knew that from Shannon, where you had players where there wouldn’t have been a huge history of the GAA in some families, but once you got them playing….once you planted the seed.”

Fr O’Loughlin knew from past experience that anything was possible. Back in 1981, after losing a Féile na nGael final with Wolfe Tones to a St Patrick’s team from Kilkenny managed by Brian Cody and Fan Larkin, both he and Ger Loughnane started again and came back to win the All-Ireland title in ’86.

Just over a decade later Fr O’Loughlin teamed up with Loughnane’s All-Ireland winning captain in Kilmihil for another journey. “When we started  going down the to the field the club co-operated greatly in cutting the grass, which was a new development,” he says. “They were very helpful at that time in keeping the grass cut, which you needed for hurling.

“I remember we had great matches with teams like Bodyke, while along the way we would have beaten clubs like Crusheen, Ballyea and Kilmaley on a once off and they developed up along to a fairly high standard where we were able to beat Inagh in a Minor C final.”

“They just wanted to play the game,” says Coughlan, “and we went with them, we gave them the opportunity to play. That was it. There was fierce enthusiasm and we had great fun,” she adds.

And as they went this enthusiasm filtered out from Kilmihil into outlying parishes. Eugene Flanagan and Johnny Keogh came from Shannon Gaels, Brian Golden came from Cooraclare, while David Tubridy flew the flag for Doonbeg for a few years.

“There were some fine players — I remember Paul Finucane was a brilliant young hurler, but that group didn’t continue for various reasons,” reflects Fr O’Loughlin, “but the love of hurling, the seed for hurling was sewn in that time.”

The seed that became the small acorn that was then picked up by Ballyea’s Dónal Kelly and has led all the ways to St Patrick’s Day.

“Donal was at my uncle, Michael Browne’s, funeral,” recalls Coughlan, “and it started from there….”

“We went to Daly’s,” recalls Kelly, “Carmel in and John Browne said ‘this is the school teacher, she might have a few hurlers for you’. ‘We have Martin O’Leary’, she said, ‘and Stan Lineen is always up in the field’.

“I’ll never forget it,” remembers Lineen.  “I was inside in school, in sixth class and it was lunchtime and we were getting ready to go into class again and Carmel said ‘can you step aside, I want a word with you’.

“I was thinking, ‘what’s she going to give out to me about now, I’ve all my homework done’. It turned out it was all about us going over playing hurling – myself, Martin O’Leary and David Coughlan.

“We won a under 12 championship that year, we won an under 14 – Carmel’s other son Mark started coming over, Allyn Dalton, a good few of us. There were nearly two carloads coming over from Kilmihil.”

And they came from Cooraclare too, with Pearse Lillis and Damien Burke starting out on a journey that now sees them follow in the footsteps of the Milesians’ first All-Ireland hurling man, Joe Considine, who played in the 1999 and 2000 finals for St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield.

“When he heard about the Kilmihil lads playing with us Edmond Burke, Lord have mercy on him, came over to Ballyea one night,” recalls Kelly. “‘Can my lad Damian play with ye’,” he said. I didn’t know who he was at all. Next thing Damian came – he was an outstanding footballer and took to it like water to a duck.

“He was mad for it. I remember the day we were playing in ‘Primary Game’ in Cork and the same day Damian was running up in Dublin – his father flew him down from Dublin that morning to play in the Primary Game.

“You’re only allowed one player from each school in the Primary Game – the same day we had Damian Burke from Cooraclare NS, Stan Lineen from Kilmihil NS, Martin O’Leary from Leitrim NS, Jack Browne beat Gudgie in a toss to represent Ballyea NS and Tony was there from Ballynacally NS.”

A journey for the west Clare boys that started in the carpark outside the national school and then in on the St Michael’s Park field, while decades before that when Gower United went from field to field – in Cooraclare’s Carhue home, in Quinlivans, Flahertys, and even as far away as Knockerra.

And the colour of their jerseys?

Black and amber, of course.

The black and amber is on its way to Croke Park now.



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