HURLING: Ballyea’s name is on the cup

Ballyea can become the third Clare side to scale the heights of All-Ireland club success on St Patrick’s Day.

MICHÉAL Nagle is a Ballyea old boy – a member of the 1991 Junior A Championship winning side long since relocated to Dublin where he works as a Garda Siochána.

And like many members of the diaspora he is heavily involved in the GAA, immersing himself in the Castleknock club that has made huge strides despite being in the shadow of heavy hitters like St Brigid’s and St Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh.

Being from Ballyea, Nagle would know all about hurling shadows – when he won that Junior A medal just over a quarter of a century ago the shadow of their fellow parishioners loomed very large as they were senior champions for the third time in five years that same year.

And with four more titles and a Munster club heading to the fishing village from then until 2005 it’s safe to say that Ballyea’s emergence from the shadows of their big brothers has been a slow burning thing.

But that it came in 2016 with that historic maiden county championship victory had a certain symmetry to it for the Ballyea boys and for the Clarecastle Magpies as well.

All to do with it being the silver jubilee year of  both those junior and senior championship victories of 1991, while Ballyea’s breakthrough illustrated that while tradition still dies hard in the GAA it still doesn’t wait around for any team.

This is Ballyea’s time, and their emergence, though flagged and anticipated for a number of years on the back of a production line that has produced Tony Kelly, Gearóid O’Connell, Paul Flanagan, Jack Browne and more, that has been viewed as an overnight sensation beyond the county bounds.

And that could said in Clare too, because first time champions always create that stir, while Ballyea’s achievement  since October when following up their breakthrough championship with a run to St Patrick’s Day has been extraordinary by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s been a roller-coaster – underdogs every day they’ve gone out since the county final, but it’s not today or yesterday that the belief has grown, both within and without Ballyea, that their name is already carved on the Tommy Moore Cup.

They weren’t supposed to win the county final, especially when Clonlara made their big move early in the second half to forge five clear, but Ballyea never said die and got back in the game and were unlucky not to win before making no mistake in replay.

So began their remarkable odyssey outside Clare – before them teams like Clarecastle, Sixmilebridge, Wolfe Tones, St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield and Tulla have followed up county championship success with reaching the Munster final at their attempt.

That Ballyea could possibly do the same seemed very unlikely when they were second best to Thurles Sarsfields for long stretches of their semi-final meeting in Cusack Park, but again their never say spirit brought about a sensational comeback and extra-time victory over the Tipperary champions that elevated them onto a different level altogether.

Coming back from eight points adrift with nine minutes to go was the stuff of legend – little Ballyea shooting down the storied Sarsfields with all their All-Ireland medals and history, just as their filleting of the even more storied Glen Rovers was in the final, while their display for the first 50 minutes against former All-Ireland kingpins St Thomas’ took the breath away.

There are no shadows in Croke Park and Ballyea are big news, with everyone in GAA-ville being exposed to this little pocket of Clare outside Ennis and all the romance that can wrap itself around the club championships.

Now, that it was nearly taken off them in those hectic final ten minutes as things threatened to turn horribly wrong is what can be the making of the Clare and Munster champions in Croke Park.

That they nearly committed hurling hara kiri in those closing stages was as good as an iced bath after a night on the tiles – it brought them to their senses very quickly and gave them plenty to work on ahead of their greatest test, whereas a thumping victory of St Thomas’ – they led at one stage by 12 points – could have led to them sleepwalking into the decider while being armed with the tag of overwhelming favourites.

It would  be a very dangerous combination, but one that was taken out of All-Ireland final the equation by their near meltdown and brush with disaster.

Cuala are favourites, Ballyea are underdogs as they have been in every game from the county final forth, while go back further to the immediate aftermath of their first round defeat in Clare to Éire Óg when they were in survival mode and you find the genesis of the strength in adversity that has served them so well.

That’s the stuff they’ll need on All-Ireland day when the tough questions are asked – if Con O’Callaghan continues to wreak a trail of destruction in his wake; if David Treacy is as unerring as he usually is from frees; and on the questions will go.

Thing is, however, Ballyea have always come up with the answers – Tony Kelly’s point from shed side of the field in the drawn county final after Stan Lineen did the donkey work; Martin O’Leary’s goal in the same game; Gary Brennan’s barnstorming run and goal against Thurles that unleashed something special; the tours de force from Tony Kelly, Gearóid O’Connell, Niall Deasy and many more; the swashbuckling play of lesser known players like Joe Neylon and James Murphy; the honesty of effort from everyone and the unity of purpose that has transformed Ballyea into a powerful force.

That’s the curriculum vitae of All-Ireland champions, but the fact that Cuala’s resumé is just as impressive is what makes this final so hard to call and has most commentators predicting the closest final in many years.

It’s four years since a final went to the wire, when St Thomas’ edged Kilcormac-Killoughey by just two points. Every final since then has been very one-sided, Na Piarsaigh cruising home to an 11-point win last year over Cushendall, Ballyhale Shamrocks whipping Kilmallock by 12 the previous year, while the last of Portumna’s four titles saw them ease home to an eight-point win over Mount Leinster Rangers.

This one will be different, but the combination of Ballyea’s bottle, ability to win close games and their name being written on the Tommy Moore Cup can get them over the line.

There are no shadows in Croke Park and Ballyea are big news, with everyone in GAA-ville being exposed to this little pocket of Clare outside Ennis and all the romance that can wrap itself around the club championships.

“In Dublin when people used to ask me where I came from,” remarked Michéal Nagle to The Clare People this week, “and when I said Ballyea, they’d say where is that, or else they’d say that’s in Cork. Even years ago at home in Clare when I’d say Ballyea, some people would think I was talk about the townland of Ballyea just outside Ennistymon. A lot of the time I just used to say I’m from Ennis.

“But now everyone knows where Ballyea is – I’m from Tiermaclane in Ballyea and they know where Tiermaclane is. That’s what  the hurling has done,” he added.

It’s Ballyea’s time alright – they’re mapped nationwide and as the black and amber marches on Croke Park this Friday hurling in that small pocket outside of Ennis will have come full circle.

It was 100 years ago that hurling in Ballyea rose from the ashes when a club was formed as a cover for the activities of Irish Volunteers that had been suppressed after the Easter Rising of the year before.

Out Darragh way, under the auspices of the Barrett brothers, Joe and Frank, they hurled, but they also drilled with their hurleys as Clare Volunteers showed the way for the rest of the country. Showed the way for ‘All-Ireland’

“Parades for drill purposes had almost a 100 per cent attendance,” remarked Joe Barrett in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History.

One hundred years on Ballyea’s parade will be the very same. And it’s time for them to show the way the rest of hurling country by winning the All-Ireland like Sixmilebridge and St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield did before them for the Banner County.


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