BRIAN WHELAHAN is still a relatively young man in general terms. But at 36, in hurling terms — and especially given his length of service, his record at club, county and provincial level — we’re talking Methuselah.
It’s not just that Whelahan has been playing senior hurling with Birr for over two decades, nor that he played for Offaly at the top level for 18 seasons; it’s the length of those seasons. Eleven times he was won county titles and was beaten in another three deciders. Seven times those titles have been parlayed into Leinster crowns and four of those became All-Ireland club titles.
Just with the club alone those are 14 long seasons right there, a lot of mileage in matches and training. Add in the inter-county duties, the annual games with Leinster and you’re in ultra-marathon territory. And yet here he is again, not just a peripheral figure but at centre stage, as Birr once more head for glory against old rivals Dunloy in yet another All-Ireland club senior hurling semi-final.
The captain and centre forward is looking as fit, strong and fresh as if this were his first year all over again.
How does he do it? How does he keep going?
His father, Padjoe, is team coach. Surely he doesn’t expect his oldest son to do the same training as everyone else?
“And more!” he laughs. “The sessions have gone fairly well but it’s like this, when you’re part of a team you’re expected to do as much as you can. Obviously there’s times when you’re just not going to be able to keep up with the youngest of the players. They’re just able to keep going and keep going. But you do what you can and you push yourself to your own limits. I think that’s all that’s expected of any person in training, that they push themselves to the max that they can do.”
As to his own fitness levels? “Ah I’m not too bad — I think I could be a small little bit fitter. Conditions in January have really affected all teams. We don’t even have a field yet, never mind an all-weather field (the Birr complex is undergoing renovations) but we’ve been very fortunate that the clubs around have been good to us. Pullough, Ballingarry in Tipperary, Carrig and Riverstown have looked after us. Our great rivals St Rynagh’s have been very accommodating as well. It has been a bit of a challenge, not being able to train on your own field and maybe not getting a text until the night before or on the day of training that it’s in such a place or has been changed from one place to the other. But it’s a challenge that all the panel have enjoyed taking on because we never really thought we’d be here. We definitely never thought we’d be here a year after being torn asunder in a Leinster final (walloped by eventual All-Ireland champions Ballyhale Shamrocks).”
Hang on Brian — no all-weather facilities in Birr? Surely they should have capitalised on their success over the past 15 years, should now have a GAA complex to compare with the very best? Have Birr been tardy off the field?
“Well there’s always a counter-argument to that. That the clubs that you see with the big clubhouses and the all-weather pitches don’t necessarily have great success on the pitch.”
What of all-conquering football giants Nemo Rangers, Brian? “They had to sell their old ground to do that. There’s no way the Birr club is going to sell their ground, with the tradition it has. The first All-Ireland was played there — the first club All-Ireland as well (the club represented the county in the early years of the GAA); that’s not going to happen. Okay, we don’t have the training ground and we don’t have the clubhouse but we have a great tradition in this championship and that’s what we’re about — performances on the field. Development of the club, that can come later.”
Whatever about off the field, there is no questioning Birr’s credentials on it. After last year, however, and that loss to Ballyhale, there were those who spoke of the end of a dynasty. Hasn’t happened, however; with Padjoe back at the helm, Birr again won the senior county and also won the intermediate. Blending in a few of those lads from the second team, they have battled their way through Leinster, including a revenge win over Ballyhale in Nowlan Park, a win not in the least diminished by the absence of Henry Shefflin and Cha Fitzpatrick for the Kilkenny club.
Who sympathised with Birr when they lost to O’Loughlin Gaels a few years ago in Leinster, when they were missing some big players?
No-one, because in this game, sympathy wins you damn-all, and no-one is more aware of this than Brian Whelahan.
So now, heading towards his hurling pension, what advice does he have for all those youngsters (including his son Aaron, a panellist, close to the action) around him? “I’d be hoping they now realise what they need to do and what they need to reach to compete at this level, and if they want to progress onto county level it goes up a notch again. We have a very young team, a lot of young guys and this is a great experience for them — I just hope they appreciate it. Adding the whole lot up, I was very grateful to get another shot at this level of hurling. I am delighted to be captain of a team that’s back there again. We know Dunloy and while everyone knows our tradition in the club championship, their tradition is unbelievable.
“Gary O’Kane is their manager, we’d always have a bit of banter over the phone and the one thing he’s said about this team is that they’re probably the most determined and most motivated team that he’s ever been involved with in Dunloy. That’s a signal to me in itself that they have something going up there at the moment that will take a serious effort to break down because the teams that I played against in the past never lacked for anything. If he thinks these guys are even more determined, well, Clones is going to be one hell of a battle. They’ve claimed big scalps in Clones and I just hope that ours is not going to be one that they add to their belts.”
Paths to the semi-final
Birr 1-13 Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) 1-10
Birr 1-11 Ballyboden-St.Enda’s (Dublin) 0-13
Average For: 1-12; Average Against: 0-13
Dunloy 2-16 Ballycran (Down) 3-13
Dunloy 1-19 Ballycran 1-13 (Replay)
Dunloy 2-14 Kevin Lynch’s (Derry) 2-8 (Ulster final)
Average For: 2-15 Average Against: 2-12
How they fared in previous All-Ireland semi-finals
1992: Birr 2-9 Cushendall (Antrim) 1-6
1995: Birr 2-8 Kilmallock (Limerick) 0-9
1998: Birr 0-12 Clarecastle (Limerick) 0-11
2000: Athenry (Galway) 2-9 Birr 1-10
2002: Birr 2-12 Dunloy (Antrim) 1-11
2003: Birr 0-15 Athenry (Galway) 0-6
Played 6, Won 5, Lost 1
1991: Glenmore (Kilkenny) 1-18 Dunloy 1-10
1995: Dunloy 2-10 Athenry (Galway) 1-11
1996: Dunloy 2-13 Glenmore (Kilkenny) 0-7
1998: Sarsfields (Galway) 3-14 Dunloy 4-11
1998: Sarsfields 1-15 Dunloy 1-11 (Replay)
2001: Athenry (Galway) 3-20 Dunloy 1-10
2002: Birr 2-12 Dunloy 1-11
2003: Dunloy 1-14 Mount Sion (Waterford) 1-13
Played 8, Won 3, Drew 1, Lost 4.
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