ON SUNDAY, the Cork hurlers will feature three Duhallow players on their starting 15 — Anthony Nash, William Egan and Lorcan McLoughlin — while Mark Ellis will be on the bench. For an area of the county better known for football, that’s a fair achievement, but it didn’t occur by accident.
Francis Kenneally (inset) of Kanturk GAA club explains how Duhallow developed into a hurling power. It was a case of overnight success after 30 years of effort.
“We had our U21s playing in the county championship as an amalgamated Duhallow team for a good few years,” says Kenneally.
“I’m going back to the early ’80s with those U21 teams. Aidan Walsh’s father Tom was a Duhallow U21 back then, for instance. We won the county U21 title in that time, and we’d have competed fairly well in the county senior hurling championship — this was a time when Midleton were going well with John Fenton and so on, and Duhallow would certainly have pushed them all the way a couple of times in the county championship then. All of that was probably a prelude to what happened in the last 10 years.”
Kenneally’s reference to a 10-year period is significant. While they’d done well with their U21s, hurling aficionados within the division knew they had to progress further, and that meant a significant step — for the clubs.
“The Duhallow hurling clubs came together at the start of the 2000s,” says Kenneally. “We went to the County Minor Board and asked if it’d be possible to put a Duhallow minor team into the county championship — the Premier Minor competition.
“We got the go-ahead from them and how it developed from there was that in 2002 we went into the Premier Minor League as well. That was a huge help, because it showed the players they were able for it, and obviously they were in far better shape going into the championship because they’d had league games against the same opposition.”
The fact that the clubs were driving the change, rather than having it imposed by the divisional authorities from on high, was “crucial”, says Kenneally. It meant the clubs bought in, and early success convinced everybody that they’d made the right move.
“In 2002 Duhallow won the county section of the minor championship, though they were beaten in the county final proper, and Anthony Nash was in goal — so there’s a direct link between that team, and that initiative, and the Cork team that’ll play on Sunday.”
They also benefited from improvement in two local schools, says the Kanturk club man.
“Going back further than that, we had two schools in Kanturk,” says Kenneally. “Coláiste Treasa being one and Scoil Muire being the other: Scoil Muire actually won a Munster Colleges B grade, and they went on to play Castlecomer of Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.
“Castlecomer had a very strong team, and they won, but it was still a huge boost to make an All-Ireland final, to achieve that goal. And it wasn’t just for the Kanturk club — the likes of Kilbrin, Banteer and so on would all have kids going to the two schools here. Aidan Walsh and the two McLoughlins went to Colaiste Treasa, then, and that school won the Vocational Schools senior hurling championship, and a lot of the credit for that goes to one of the teachers, Tom O’Connell — a Limerick man.”
WHEN O’Connell saw the talent at his disposal he instilled a tough regime which improved the players still further: “He brought them on hugely — for instance, he’d have them training at half seven in the morning before going to classes at all, and all of that started to raise the bar and standards improved all round, and again, the clubs benefited as well.”
Kenneally is keen to pay tribute to others who’ve worked to improve hurling in the north of the county: “A lot of coaching has gone on in the division too, and one of the main men there is Jim O’Sullivan of Castlemagner.
“I’m talking about someone who’s done huge work outside the Cúl Camps and all of that. He brought the likes of Seán Óg Ó hAilpín up for training sessions for 10 and 11-year-olds.
“I was talking to Tom Walsh, Aidan’s dad, the other night, and he remembers Aidan and Lorcan and William Egan and Mark Ellis, along with three or four others, being at one of the first of those training sessions Jim organised, when they were 11 or 12, and Seán Óg being there to help coach them. That was the kind of work that Jim did, and that’s helped in a big way.”
Duhallow haven’t reflected the improvement at senior club level in Cork necessarily, but many of their players are only now emerging from the Fitzgibbon-U21 grind, so that bounce in form may come soon. In the meantime there’s been plenty of improvement within the division itself.
“I suppose what it shows is that if people are committed, and there’s a focus, that there’s a lot which can be accomplished. We mightn’t be doing that well in the senior hurling championship, but we contested three or four U21 county finals in a row, so it shows the quality is coming through.
“The likes of Aidan, Lorcan and William have gone on to college and been very successful with UCC and CIT, so that’s raising the bar locally as well, you’ve the experience they’ve had there and they’re bringing that back too.
“The standard is higher now definitely within the division among the clubs. You can see that. Meelin and Kanturk will meet in the intermediate championship in a few years’ time, and we wouldn’t have dreamed of that ten years ago. Kilbrin are another team we’d expect to break through into intermediate as well. It’d be unbelievable if we had three teams at intermediate championship level, given where we were, but at the moment we’d expect to have them up there.”
They’ve improved their own standards, and improved Cork’s along the way.