Kieran Shannon reflects on Ballyea’s finest hour...
‘One of the greatest strengths of the GAA is that it can make ordinary places extraordinary. If you’d passed through Killeagh any other week of the year, it wouldn’t have looked any different from 100 other hamlets. But the achievements of Landers and Deane mean that, from now on, whenever Killeagh is mentioned, GAA fans will nod their heads knowingly and say ‘Ah yeah, Joe Deane and Mark Landers’ homeplace.’ ... Hurling and football keep the one-horse towns alive, practically give them a reason to be.’
Eamonn Sweeney, The Road to Croker (2004)
The same year Eamonn Sweeney wrote one of the most insightful books about the appeal of the GAA, myself and my better half, upon our engagement, left the big smoke of Dublin to escape the madness of its overheated property market and located to Clare.
It was quite the challenge in the early days to describe where we were now living. In the minds of friends and acquaintances, it was as if we had moved to the middle of nowhere and any explanation or set of directions of ours only reaffirmed the impression.
It wasn’t even your proverbial one-horse, one-shop, one-church, one-pub parish. With the Carrigs not yet having opened up their Costcutters store, there was no shop. There was no sign to signal the little hamlet you were entering. About the only landmark we could give was the little pub on the left across from us which looked like a house. If you blinked and missed it, as was often the case, well that meant you had gone too far.
After some time I found myself starting to say to friends with some knowledge of the GAA that we basically lived in Ballyea, Tony Griffin country. Then as the years quietly but quickly flew by and one man handed back the Clare jersey and another slipped into it, Tony Griffin country became Tony Kelly country. Last year then after his heroics in Croke Park against Australia, I could start telling people amenable to the big ball that it was also Gary Brennan country. As much as the place we had laid down our roots might have seemed a one-horse town, we could boast being the homeplace of both the best hurler in Clare and the best footballer in it too.
Now, after last Sunday, we can lay claim to something else. As much as the likes of Griffin, Kelly and Brennan have done for the place in terms of geography, putting it on the GAA map, they and a bunch of team-mates, neighbours and friends have now written it into history. Ballyea is not just our home but the home of the 2016 Clare senior hurling county champions.
My original homeplace of Douglas has had some magical nights, like in 1997 and 2000, as county intermediate football and hurling champions; everywhere you turned in the clubhouse, you were bumping into someone you might not have seen since your school days. But in as big a suburb as Douglas, the club is avoidable. In a place like Ballyea, it is not.
Every kid in my daughter’s class plays camogie on Wednesday evenings from April to October. My five-year-old son will come along and puck and run around on the side with his friends, in a backfield surrounded by a herd of cows traipsing in from a day’s grazing. With the kids playing and dads and moms conversing and in the main field an All Star like Tony Kelly coaching a boys’ underage team, just like his father Donal used to coach him and his buddies at the same age, it is about as different a life from what we’d have had if we stayed in Dublin’s city centre — and as about as rural and idyllic a setting as you can get in Ireland, 2016.
Of course there is more to life in these parts than the GAA. But it’s how it’s so woven into the rest of our lives that makes it different here than living in Cork or Dublin. At the schoolgates you’ll meet and greet your daughter’s mentors, the likes of Tom Burke, and Tony Griffin’s brother, Sean. The school receptionist, Susan, is married to former county chairman and club stalwart Michael O’Neill. On Sundays outside church you might greet and catch up with a Gary Brennan or a visiting Tony Griffin, ordinary extraordinary men. In Dublin or Cork I didn’t know the barmen, but over in the local here, you could be served by Michael Hehir, a friend who has managed the local football team.
Last Sunday night he was manic busy, serving everyone, because everyone was there, including Canon Hamilton himself, aka the cup. It was one of those wondrous, mild October nights that every parish in the country should experience at least once a generation, with a lorry-stage rolled out in front of the Local Inn.
It was a night with its own poignancy; the owner of that pub for decades, Eugene O’Connor, only passed away last Friday week at just 58. Eoin Donnellan, one of the mainstays of the team all year, had broken his neck the same day in training and has since been laid up in a hospital bed in Limerick. Both were mentioned from the stage in front of the whole community on Sunday night, and, in the case of Donnellan, just before the team ran out and tore into Clonlara as well. From a remove it might have seemed the old GAA and county final cliche, to do it for a loved local one that had just passed or an injured team-mate, but when it’s real and the reality of your parish, there’s nothing cliched about it.
The same with Raymond ‘Reggie’ O’Connor, your next-door neighbour, and a selector with that team, furiously shaking that cup on the stage in front of his own. Tony Griffin, in his rock-star leather civvies, on the pitch afterwards holding his own beautiful son Jerome, clasping hands with grey-haired, tearful men. The wonder of your own two kids, gazing up at captain Stan Lineen receiving the cup in the stand from Michael O’Neill, and then later that night seeing Kelly onstage manically leaping and singing about Niall Deasy being on fire. It was like everyone’s feet were off the ground. As if we were all floating. In a heaven. Where do we live? We live in heaven.
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