Retired Bishop of Killaloe Willie Walsh helped coach St Flannan’s College to five Harty Cup and All-Ireland titles and is as passionate as ever about his old alma mater as they bid to win a first Munster Colleges crown in 15 years, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
PRESCIENT words in the first flush of success.
St Flannan’s had just won the Harty Cup for the ninth time and everyone connected with the victory had landed back in the college grounds on the edge of Ennis for celebration that hadn’t been seen since the school’s big breakthrough in colleges hurling in 1944.
It was a first win since the late 1950s and bonfires blazed, with the players carried shoulder high by supporters from the gates to the door of the school.
“It was a major thing, the big breakthrough and the famine was over,” muses Walsh, as he runs his finger through the team picture that hangs in his hallway.
“The captain Leo Quinlan, Cyril Lyons, Martin Meehan and Barry Smythe; John Moran and Jarlath Colleran, who have both passed away. We didn’t play particularly well, we were so tense it affected us, but Smythe was outstanding. I remember Tom O’Riordan writing about him ‘belting the ball down the field without catching it’, just the ball in the air and hitting it.”
All the successful teams Walsh was involved with are there and framed — five Harty Cup and Croke Cup winning sides between 1976 and ’87. “1979 captained by Gerry McInerney that was the first all-Clare team, just like this year’s team is all Clare,” he remembers. “1982 and ’83 when we put titles back-to-back and the ’87 team that was the best one we had.
“I’ve always taken a special interest in the Harty teams and always to get to the matches,” he continues from his own personal journey and relationship with team and college that’s been running for over 70 years now.
“I missed the semi-final recently against Templemore,” he admits, “but at the quarter-final against Tulla, I thought the standard was very high on both sides.”
That day in Cusack Park the Bishop Emeritus was one of the first down from the stand to congratulate the management that includes All-Ireland winners Brendan Bugler as coach and Tony Kelly as maor foirne after the famed Ennis nursery sealed a first semi-final appearance in nine years.
Walsh’s presence on the periphery of all things St Flannan’s hurling provides a link between the present and a glorious past that he did so much to frame during the job of journeywork in hurling life stretching back eight decades.
“That tradition is always there with and never leaves you,” admits Walsh, “because anyone who went to Flannan’s would look out for the Harty team and how it’s doing. There’s a buzz about the Harty team. “I still meet Paddy Rodgers from Scariff who won Harty and All-Ireland titles in the 1940s and every time he talks about St Flannan’s as if he’s back in the school.”
WALSH’S unique view comes as a former pupil, teacher and a coach. And, although he left the teaching staff after 25 years in 1988 he never strayed too far — at first he was attached to Ennis Cathedral, then the bishop’s residence in the town, before retirement in 2009 brought him back to the school, or as near as makes no difference.
He lives across the road, just 20 yards from the gate and the site of many Harty Cup bonfires, while just a few pucks beyond that you have the hurling field.
“The Harty Field,” he says by way of qualification, “that’s where you’d wanted to be once you went into the school. There was a huge prestige to it and to making the Harty panel”.
Walsh felt that pull of the Harty field when he came to Clare for the first time in September 1947.
“That’s how long ago it was,” he smiles, “but even before that I’d seen the Flannan’s team in the All-Ireland final earlier that year against Roscrea in Thurles. I was shouting for Roscrea and in fact at that time I was booked into Roscrea, but my parents changed their minds and I found myself in Flannan’s in the autumn.
“Very quickly after arriving you were aware of hurling’s importance. The very sight of Jimmy Smyth lording it around the place, not only on the hurling team. He was a huge man and I heard of him before I came to St Flannan’s. He was the hero.
“It was his last year and Flannan’s were going for a five-in-a-row and got to another final against St Colman’s that went to three games. When the replay finished level I know that Flannan’s wanted to play extra-time but Colman’s didn’t. Colman’s won the third match to win their first title and it was Smyth’s last match with St Flannan’s.
“Back then it was a huge expedition going to matches. We didn’t have a bus and a group of us who happened to have a few bob got together and went to the matches in a taxi. There were seven or eight of us in the taxi going to Thurles. It was up to yourself to go to the match if you could afford it. I wanted to go because to me the Harty players were giants of men.
“There was a strong Tipp thing in the school that time and that fed my interest too because there was a division between the Tipp and Clare lads.
“I remember in ’49 Tipp and Cork played a very tight championship match and we were listening to it on the radio inside in the study hall. We were cheering for Tipp and the Clare lads were cheering for Cork and there was an incident at the last minute.
“It was a draw, but we thought that Cork had won, so we were very annoyed with the Clare lads.
“Then that autumn Clare were playing London in the All-Ireland Junior final in Ennis, with Jimmy Smyth on the team. We went to the match, but a group of about 20 of us from Tipp shouted for London that had about five Tipp lads. To put salt into the wounds London won.
In a stricter regime their hurleys could have been put into permanent storage, but the fact that Fr Maxwell was himself a Tipperary man, who was silently praying for London win, meant normal life resumed a few days later.
“We were out on the field again,” remembers Walsh, “and trying to make the team, but went five years between ’47 and ’52 before winning another Harty. That’s a lifetime when you’re a young hurler.
“In ’52 I had the extraordinary experience of being a sub on the Harty team against Limerick CBS for the first round, but was replaced on the subs from then on by my brother John.
“After that I went to Maynooth and missed the wins they had in ’54, ’57 and ’58, but was back in the school in ’63.”
BY the end of the decade it would fall to Walsh and fellow Tipperary man Fr Seamus Gardiner to pick up the Harty Cup baton after a barren spell stretching back to 1958.
“We got to a semi-final our first year in 1970,” he remembers. “That was Joe McKenna’s team. North Mon beat us by two points and Joe would still talk about a ball coming down out of the air in the last few minutes when we were two points down. He pulled on it and connected, but it went a foot wide.
“Even then you could see McKenna was going to make it big. John Callinan was another who was going to make it — he was very small then but had all the skill. I’d have guessed too that Colm Honan and Ger Loughnane had it. Ger was very determined but wouldn’t have had top skill, while Sean Hehir would nearly have been too determined out on the pitch.
“We got to the finals of ’71 and ’72, but Farranferris were too good. Fr Michael O’Brien, who I knew in Maynooth — Mickey G as we called him — used a lot of running and hand passing and had a touch of the modern game. We just weren’t prepared for it.
“But you learn more from when you’re beaten, than when you win. We learned as we went along. Seamus went to coaching courses in Gormanston College. They were run by Des Ferguson, John Hanly and Fr Tommy Maher, so we would have picked up a lot there and we came back stronger.”
It meant that when St Flannan’s eventually came in from the cold it was in circumstances strikingly similar to this year’s journey back to the final.
In 1976 they bridged an 18-year gap; on Sunday they’ll be hoping to end 15 years in the wilderness; De La Salle, who were their opponents 44 years ago, had never won a title, just as CBC have no title to their name going into battle in Mallow this afternoon.
“There was a lot of pressure,” remembers Walsh, “to get over the line, but to finally win it we would have evolved our game. We still would have done a lot of ground hurling and it was drilled into them all.
“When I was a student there was very little encouragement, in fact people would get given out to a lot, for rising the ball. As for short puck-outs, there was no such thing.
“We had six forwards to six backs — every one drilled to ‘mark your man, mark your man’. Neither the backs or the forwards left their position much and there was very little open play. We would have worked an awful lot on tackling. Seamus worked with the forwards and I worked with the backs.”
That Harty breakthrough came in Bansha — those bonfires blazed and from there St Flannan’s contested an unprecedented final eight finals over 12 years under Walsh’s watch en route to topping the roll of honour with 21 titles with their last win in 2005.
“The games that stick in my mind most were the battles against the Mon in the early ‘80s. We played them in the Harty final two years in a row and then the first round the other year.
“We won the finals narrowly, one of them after a replay and they beat us once, but at the end of it we had two Harty and All-Ireland titles and they had no title. They were great battles and it showed you the thin line between teams.”
And the secret to this remarkable run that played a crucial part in Clare’s 1990s uprising — ten of those who played in the 1995 All-Ireland final had Harty and Croke Cup medals?
“There were no prayers,” laughs Walsh. “I remember the story of one year Tipp were going down to Semple Stadium, past the Cathedral in Thurles someone said ‘we’ll go in and say a prayer’ but the trainer Paddy Leahy is supposed to have said ‘no, we’ll bate them fair’.
“We were the same, we didn’t say any prayers. We’d beat them fair.”
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