125 years later, Ballyduff’s All-Ireland victory sits as the backdrop to everything that now happens on their beautiful hurling fields, writes Paul Rouse.
A warm haze hangs over North Kerry. There’s silage being cut and hay baled. Cars full of bathers are heading for the beaches of Banna and Ballybunion.
Two boys walk down a narrow country lane. They have bags on their shoulders and hurleys in their hands. They carry with them the glory of their summer holidays – June is the distant past and September is too far into the future to mean anything.
The boys are laughing as they turn in off the road and into the gateway of Ballyduff GAA Club. They walk through the gate, stepping past the names of men they never knew.
The plaque with those names is a shrine to the meaning of what it is to be a hurler in a county dominated by football.
On it is the list of the hurlers who played for Ballyduff in the 1891 All-Ireland Hurling final – and won it.
That final – eventually played on Sunday, 27 February 1892 – in a field outside the Dublin suburban village of Drumcondra – was a truly unique occasion. The game had actually been fixed for the previous Saturday but was abandoned when four foot of snow fell in Dublin.
It was one more twist in a story that had seen Ballyduff claim the Kerry senior hurling title for the first time when they had defeated their rivals Kilmoyley in the county final.
In the fashion of the times, Ballyduff were allowed to pull from the other Kerry clubs to backbone their team for the Munster Championship. As it was, 13 players from Ballyduff were now joined by others from Kilmoyley, Ardfert, Ahabeg and Dromartin. It was a neat expression of the geography of hurling in north Kerry.
By the time they entered the Munster Championship, the country was in turmoil. Word of Charles Stewart Parnell’s adulterous relationship with Kitty O’Shea had been made public. The result was an unprecedented political storm as the Irish Parliamentary Party – of which Parnell had until shortly before been an adored leader – now split in two. Parnell lost control of the party and was bitterly condemned by the Catholic hierarchy who in the summer of 1891 ruled him as unfit to be a leader. As summer turned to autumn Parnell travelled Ireland and campaigned for his cause.
As that campaign continued Ballyduff were drawn to play Blackrock, the champions of Cork in Killarney on September 23. The Corkmen were hot favourites, but were destroyed by Ballyduff who claimed a 2-7 to 0-3 victory. They would now play the champions of Limerick – Treaty Stone – in the Munster final.
By the time that final was played Parnell was dead. He was just 45. He had exhausted himself in the process and his fragile health was vulnerable to the pneumonia which he contracted. On the day of his funeral, 1,000 men with hurleys draped in black crepe paper marched behind the cortege through the streets of Dublin.
It is not known if any of those hurlers were Ballyduff men. Either way, they did travel to Newcastle West to play Treaty Stone on November 1, 1891 in the Munster Hurling final. Special trains were run from Killarney to bring their supporters. The day ended in bitter dispute, with Ballyduff claiming to have scored an equalising point, only for the referee to claim he had blown the final whistle before it had landed.
The result was objection – and still more objection as the dispute leaked into Christmas – and then a replay set for Abbeyfeale on January 31, 1891 at the direction of the GAA Central Council.
The day ended in triumph as Ballyduff now won easily and were paraded back through town and onto the train for home by the Abbeyfeale Brass Band who played the ‘Conquering Hero’ as tribute.
The final against Crossabeg, the champions of Wexford, was hailed as one of the great hurling matches of its era. That a huge crowd turned up was due in large part to the fact that the game preceding it was an All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Cavan and the game after it was the All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Cork.
Essentially, the hurling final served the purpose of giving breathing space to the footballers of Dublin who went on to beat Cork.
The hurling final was 21-a-side and enthralled the crowd. The first half swung up and down the field and saw Ballyduff lead by 0-2 to 0-1 at half-time.
The second half of the game was stained by inevitable controversy as a goal claimed by the Wexfordmen appeared to have been struck by a spectator. The end result was that referee deemed the game a draw and extra-time was played.
It was now that the exertions of the Ballyduff men truly told. Jim McDonnell manoeuvred the ball into freedom some 30 yards from the posts and shot a brilliant goal. It proved the decisive score and Ballyduff claimed a 2-4 to 1-5 win.
The stories from this game have been brilliantly collected in the history of Ballyduff GAA club, having been researched by John White and compiled by the Ballyduff Hurling History Committee under the chairmanship of Jack Harrington.
They record how the players played in their bare feet and wore their everyday long trousers, as well as a grey jersey sporting on it a gold band.
They record, also, the extraordinary scenes that manifested themselves when the hurlers arrived home by train the following day to Lixnaw. The Ballyduff Brass Band played them home and all around Ballyduff fires blazed on the hills as a torchlight procession brought the players to a huge bonfire on the edge of the village.
The night stretched in front of them in celebration, and there was dancing and all manner of amusement until a very late hour.
Some 125 years later, that All-Ireland victory sits as the backdrop to everything that now happens on the beautiful hurling fields of Ballyduff. The club thrives because of the labour of the men and women who work for it year after year.
The fields they have developed, the way those fields are maintained, the ambitious plans for developing an indoor hurling area, the numbers of children who walk through its gates are testimony to a love of hurling that is regenerated through the decades.
It’s a love that draws boys and girls with hurleys up country roads on hot days, draws them past the historic days of those who walked before them, draws them into an unwritten future.
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