Fifteen miles of countryside separate the towns of Gort and Loughrea in Co Galway.
For anyone living in between who wants shopping, secondary schools or socialising, you head south to Gort or north to Loughrea.
For sport, there is a choice of one: hurling. And for that you play for St Thomas’.
Aside from the odd pub, shop or school, by and large all that you see as you travel on the N66 between Gort and Loughrea are houses, sheds and farms. It’s a busy road, even if it is mainly local traffic. The two towns bookend St Thomas’ patch. How ironic, then, that reigning champions Gort and Loughrea should be the teams St Thomas’ beat in the semi-final and final to lift their first Galway SHC title?
A further quirk saw them lose in the opening round to Gort, while they drew with Loughrea in the pool stages of the revamped Galway championship. A draw with Gort in the semi-finals meant that five of the eight games on their way to winning the 2012 Galway championship were against the two towns.
You could understand St Thomas’ players if they felt that the biggest obstacles to them conquering the world lay in the two towns which hem them in.
It wasn’t always like that. Sunday’s thrilling 3-11 to 2-11 win over Loughrea may have been the first appearance by St Thomas’ — founded in 1968 when Peterswell and Kilchreest joined forces — in a county senior final but the area has a rich GAA legacy.
Way back in August 1884, Michael Glennon from Kilchreest was one of seven men, led by Michael Cusack, who met in Loughrea with a view towards forming the Gaelic Athletic Association. But the ageing Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Duggan, declined the offer to become patron if the fledgling organisation and he recommended they go talk to Dr Croke of Cashel. The GAA was formed in Thurles later that year.
Peterswell became the first dominant force of Galway hurling and had seven senior Galway titles in the bag by 1907.
But it was downhill from there. The Troubles left a mark, so too did emigration and after a junior title in 1954, things went further downhill and by the mid 1960s, they were at a low ebb.
That changed when the two parishes joined forces in 1968 and St Thomas’ was formed. Success was instant and an U14 title was won, followed by an U16 title two years later. Cyril Farrell, later to lead Galway to the promised land, cut his teeth as a coach by guiding them to junior title in 1974. They reached the senior grade in 1978 and made it to the semi-finals the following year but after that the main battle, not always won, was to hold on to senior status.
John Burke, the current manager and the father of six players who featured on Sunday, said the seed for Sunday’s success came in 2002, winning the U12 title.
“There was just something about that young bunch that made you think they could develop into something more and we said it to them. We told the 11 and 12-year-olds that if they stuck together, they could go places. And God they have,” he said.
That U12 team won the U16 title four years later, the minor two years after that and the U21 three years later, last year. The only blip came at U14 and they learned a lesson in preparation from that defeat.
“We were playing Athenry in the semi-final inside in Loughrea and we were well up for it,” recalls Burke. “But for some reason they played the national anthem before the match. It just threw our lads. They had never played a match before with the anthem and for some reason it stuck them to the ground.”
Their development has been aided by local schools being, as Burke said “hurling mad”, none more so than St Brigid’s VS in Loughrea where the manager and his sons all got their education. Indeed John Burke captained Galway to win the All-Ireland vocational schools title in 1982 and son Darragh did the same this year.
The lines can get divided. Young hurler of the year Johnny Coen of Loughrea and St Thomas’ first ever All Star David Burke both recently joined the teaching staff in St Brigid’s. Burke’s young brother Eanna, who came on as a sub on Sunday, is a pupil and so too is Loughrea’s Jamie Ryan, who also came on during the final. Indeed, between the two squads the school had 36 players on duty at Pearse Stadium.
John Burke’s biggest fear was that the underage progress would not be reflected at senior level and while he felt they might have to wait another few years — 25 of the 33 on the squad are aged 23 or under — he knew they were getting close.
In the last three years the team that knocked them out went on to lift the cup, with neighbours Gort pipping them by just a point in the semi-final last year.
“They went back training a few weeks after that loss. We said we were near and if we did the work, we would get the other side of that scoreline. They did the work, encouraged each other and have now got their reward. A lot has been made of my six lads being on it, but it is like one big family. Often there’d be 15 of them here in the house after a match, talking about it and looking forward to the next day. There are only about 200 houses in the parish and it is all about hurling.
“But we had to pinch ourselves when we woke this morning. It’s still hard to believe, it’ll take some time to sink in.”
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