HAS there ever before been three generations of the same family directly involved in an All-Ireland final?
Even if Birr fail in their attempt to win a record fifth club senior club hurling title on Monday, history will surely be made by the Whelahan clan. As with the four previous occasions when they emerged as victors, the team is coached and trained by Padjoe, the patriarch. His much-decorated son Brian, wing-back on the GAA’s Team Of The Millennium, will captain the side from centre-forward, while Brian’s teenage son Aaron is on the bench, having made his Leinster championship debut in 2006.
But wait. There are also another two Whelahans on the Birr team, two who tend to be overlooked whenever the Birr dynasty is being discussed. Barry is a midfielder, a former county player, and one of the hardest working hurlers you’ll ever come across. Simon is a forward and a free-taker par excellence, a veritable dynamo who, over the years, has more than played his part in Birr’s annual steamrolling job on everyone else in Offaly (You want dominance? Birr has won eight of the last nine Offaly senior titles). Big brother Brian is fully appreciative of all that work.
“Simon was corner-forward in 1995 for our first All-Ireland title, then he went back to the backline for a while and was there when we won our second, in 1998. He was always the main organiser in the forward line; he was the leader, took the frees and did a huge amount of the scoring.
“When Simon ticked, the forward line ticked; over the last couple of years he’s had some very bad injuries.”
And Barry? “Barry does his own thing in the middle of the field and works very hard for the team. He had a great partnership with Johnny Pilkington in midfield for years but I think he’s enjoying his hurling beside Rory Hanniffy now: he lets Rory do a bit more running than he does! Rory is a bit different to Johnny; Johnny was very much a first-time hurler, he was also one of those guys who always stepped forward when something needed to be done — he’d pop up with a massive solo run or a goal. He was always a fantastic leader and now Rory has stepped up and is doing the same thing.”
While Brian has gained most of the onfield recognition, however, the man who really keeps it all ticking over is Padjoe.
An outstanding hurler, he played with both Offaly and Leinster and was a multiple winner of Offaly senior titles with his native St Rynagh’s and played in two of the first three All-Ireland club finals (beaten by Roscrea in the first final, 1971, lost to Cork’s Glen Rovers in 1973).
Padjoe’s wisdom has been applied to devastating effect with Birr and even after a two-year sojourn, his return to sideline duties at the start of the 2007 season has again proved fruitful.
“I suppose it must have something to do with me, hasn’t it?” he says, with that impish grin. “We took over at the start of the year, Finbarr Spain, Billy Mullins — Brian’s father — and myself, and we decided we had to build a new team, change the whole thing around after what happened in Portlaoise last year, and we’ve done that.”
Portlaoise last year was the Leinster club final against Ballyhale Shamrocks and a 1-20 to 1-8 hammering. The memory still rankles.
“To see a team that had won four All-Irelands throwing in the towel with 20 minutes to go, that hurt a lot of people in the club. I met the club secretary afterwards and he asked if I’d come back. ‘I’m away from it now,’ I said, ‘And enjoying the break,’ but he came back to me and came back to me. I changed my mind one Tuesday evening here. We sat down and discussed the changes. We hurled Loughrea one evening down in Killimor — we play a lot of Galway teams — and that’s when we started making the switches. We put Niall Claffey at full-back, Paul Cleary up front, Dylan Hayden to wing-back, young Watkins, only 19 was on the other wing, Rory (Hanniffy) to the middle of the field, Brian to centre-forward — we changed the team around completely.”
Matches, says Padjoe, are the secret ingredient in preparation.
“I was at an awards ceremony a few weeks ago and David Kennedy was there, the Loughmore-Castleiney centre-back. He told me that come Christmas they didn’t know how to train, what they should be doing — we’ve been through that (Loughmore were beaten by Portumna in the semi-final). Games are the secret, and hurling training. We had 16 players all year for the Offaly championship, then we took 14 more from the intermediate panel for the Leinster championship so that now we have 31 in training. That means we can have full matches, we play a lot of 15-a-side in training and that brings fellas on.
“But David couldn’t believe the games we got after Christmas. We played nine games. We played Wexford, Laois, Dublin, Kildare, the Guards and Carlow. We won them all except Carlow but I put out two teams that weekend, I wanted everyone to get a game.”
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