GAA: The Untouchables

DECEMBER 2003, the end of yet another highly-successful season for the hurlers of Kilkenny.

All-Ireland championship winners at minor, U-21 and senior level, narrowly beaten in the intermediate, National League title retained, two All-Ireland colleges titles won (St Kieran's and Castlecomer CS, A and B grades respectively) along with the Tony Forrestal All-Ireland U-14 tournament, with James Stephens taking the Féile na Gael title for good measure.

Their most recent success saw county champions O'Loughlin Gaels deposing Birr as kings of Leinster, and the Comerford-powered Gaels are now hotly fancied to win the All-Ireland club championship.

Practically a clean sweep of every honour the GAA has to offer at team level, it heralds a top-to-bottom dominance almost unheard of in any other sport.

Analysis? Instead, why not take a trip. It doesn't give the definitive answer as to why Kilkenny have joined Cork at the top of the senior hurling roll of honour, doesn't pretend to explain all that recent success, but afterwards, hopefully, you will have some idea as to why.

Start in the little village of Knocktopher in the south of the county, in Heaslips, a step back to an era when time wasn't such a taskmaster.

It's picture-postcard, old-style, ultra-traditional, half-door entrance, a couple of old-time shopkeepers who do things the old-fashioned way, personal, personable, without any of the trappings of today's super-consumerism.

Yet it's all very much alive, active. Behind the counter a gentleman, not too young, not too old, perusing a long list of figures, engrossed in his addition.

You wait, unwilling to interrupt the count, follow the incline of his head as he makes his steady and studious way down the list. When he reaches the bottom, you announce your presence, gently, so as not to startle.

"Doing a bit of addition?" He doesn't start, just glances up, smiles. In the world of Tommy Heaslip, having someone soft-foot into the shop, stand at the other side of the well-worn counter, is the thing most natural, done for decade on decade.

"I'm looking for a Denis Heaslip," you announce.

"Are you?"

"I was told by a fella called Tony Considine that if I was down this way I should have a chat with him."

The smile gets broader. "He's here alright, I'll get him for you." He walks the short distance behind the counter to a door on the right, disappears, shortly reappears with another gentleman, a slight, sprightly man with a spring in his step and spark in his eyes.

"Tony sent you, did he? Nice fella, good friend of Jack's (another Heaslip shop-keeping brother, in faraway Ennis)".

"He is, he told me if I was ever doing a story on Kilkenny hurling, start here."

Smiles again, notes the accent.

"You've come a long way on a foggy night."

"I have, from Cork."

"The city?" Tommy asks.

"No, from a small place you won't have heard of called Ballyhea."

"Ballyhea? I know it well," says Denis. "My aunt was a teacher there, I spent many a day in Ballyhea when I was young".

"What was her name?"

"Ah you wouldn't know her, she's gone a long time now, a Mrs Herbert, married to the local creamery manager, they built a fine two-storey house on a site they got from a man called Maurice Foley."

"I was brought up in that house. When we moved to Ballyhea in 1957, the Herberts were moving out, and my father bought that house."

Small world, but it got smaller. Just at the end of that conversation, there was a little commotion to my left. Turn, and there, sitting on the counter, Liam McCarthy, in all his shiny silvery glory.

Beaming broadly behind it, enjoying the doe-startled look on my face, Tommy invites me to look even further to my left. Standing there, waiting to collect the most coveted trophy in hurling, was Peter Barry, the brilliant Kilkenny centre-back.

All this within 10 minutes of walking into that magical little shop. Most surprising of all, Peter, normally one of the most reticent of a very uncommunicative Kilkenny team a point to which we'll return was willing to talk.

So, Peter, your take on why Kilkenny are so dominant these days. "I know people will scoff at this, but sometimes things just go right and that happened on numerous occasions for Kilkenny this year," said the ever-modest multiple All-Star.

"Every one of the teams mentioned above could have been beaten somewhere along the way, but the rub of the green went with us.

Having said that, things are going well for Kilkenny, but it's not by accident. The County Board has put the structures in place to allow this to happen, wonderful structures from underage all the way to senior.

Any year we start out, I know I'm going to be playing every weekend, provided of course that we're winning, with the county team and with the club. My calendar is mapped out well in advance, and that's very important.

"The structure is in place for games at every level, for training, and that's vitally important, especially for the young lads coming through. I'm not saying it's perfect, but we do have great support from the County Board at every level."

Can it last? The seniors completed the League/Championship double-double this year, back-to-back titles, can they do a treble-double? Can they even do a double treble, repeat the big three of minor, U-21, senior next year?

"I was only a year old in 1975 when Kilkenny again won the three All-Ireland titles (minor, U-21 and senior), and St. Kieran's also won the Colleges A All-Ireland, but we only won one in the next seven years. Because things are going well now doesn't guarantee success in the future.

"It could all end very quickly but as Brian (Cody, team manager) is constantly saying to us, and the players themselves recognise, you win what you can when you can.

"We're lucky enough to have won a bit this year and last year, but next year we don't know what's going to happen. The agenda will be exactly the same as it was this year, last year, the year before, when we weren't winning every match we played."

At that point Denis interjected, politely, asked if he could get us a bite to eat. Peter demurred, duty calling. The cup was on its rounds of the county, going from south to north, what more fitting point of collection than Heaslips of Knocktopher?

I crossed the road with Denis, into the bar/dining-room of Carroll's Hotel.

"Pat Carroll," Denis explained, "played with Kilkenny in the 60's."

Called the lady behind the bar. "Give this man a dinner Mary, he's come all the way from Cork," then turned to me, "I'll leave you alone now, nice to have met you."

"Now hold on Denis, if you go, I go, I'll walk out with you. I was told to talk to you, won't leave 'til I do."

He's a shy sort of a fella but he relented, stayed. He's not the sort of guy in whose face you push a micro-recorder, so we just chatted, no formalities.

As we waited for the food to arrive he spoke of Kilkenny hurling, of his own period with the Kilkenny team, the lows especially, all the county junior finals lost before success finally came in 1965, a young Frank Cummins, from just up the road, playing for Knocktopher.

There was also the high which was not, surprisingly enough, the junior All-Ireland won in 1956, nor the two senior All-Ireland medals won, 1957 and 1963, but the one lost, to Waterford, 1959.

In Kilkenny, Denis Heaslip has been lauded by many as one of the gifted, a flying wing-forward.

He speaks of the great players from his day, before and after, of the seven Fennelly brothers from nearby Ballyhale who, after the two neighbouring parishes had amalgamated to form the Shamrocks, back-boned the new club to nine county senior championships in a golden 13-year period.

Four of those brothers, Ger, Kevin, Sean and Liam, played with Kilkenny in one historic All-Ireland senior hurling final day in Croke Park, 1987; all four captained Kilkenny to All-Ireland glory at one level or another, Ger did it at U-21 and senior.

AS we speak and by pre-arrangement, one of those brothers, Liam, walks in the back door. Though you'd never know it to talk to him, such is his modesty, Liam is the only man to have been presented with the old and the new Liam McCarthy cups, captain of Kilkenny in 1983 and again in 1992.

Denis says his greetings and his farewells, but not without a parting shot. Despite all my protestations, he's paid for the meal.

"Typical of the man," says Liam, then notes the big box of Roses chocolates on the counter in front of me, also a present from the Heaslip brothers. "The moment I saw those, I knew you'd been in the shop." And he tells a story.

"When we were coming home from juvenile matches with cars full of kids, we'd stop at Heaslips; the kids would pile in, minerals, crisps, chocolates, the lot.

"How much, you'd ask; a fiver, always a fiver, though you knew there was seven or eight pounds worth. Same with kids on their own, bottle of Lucozade or some such, one euro, when in reality it was much more. That's the kind they are."

That's not separate from but integral to the whole story of hurling, and hurling people.

Every single person in Heaslip's shop that evening was a hurling person; the brothers behind the counter, the teenage girl who happened in, happened also to be a cousin of Henry Shefflin, the latest local star currently finding his own place among the elite; there was also the young girl who had her picture taken with Peter Barry (the camera appearing from nowhere, in the hands of Denis).

All those undercharged bottles of lucozade, of crisps, of chocolate, just oiled the wheels, propelled the hurling bandwagon.

From Carroll's of Knocktopher we adjourn, Liam and I, to Andy's, a hostelry in Ballyhale, where Liam attempts to unravel the mystery of Kilkenny's success.

"This is a golden age, no doubt about it. I'd put it down to the very professional set-up within the county.

"At the start of the 90's, the big three, Cork Tipperary and Kilkenny, won their All-Irelands, but then there was a drastic revolution and you had that fabulous spell when Offaly, Limerick, Clare especially, Wexford, all came into the reckoning.

"That really changed hurling, upped the ante for the rest, but I honestly believe that Kilkenny have now picked it up again, taken it on even further.

"It was a few years ago that the current chairman, Ned Quinn, came up with the idea of a development squad at underage, with the aim of winning the minor All-Ireland. He did the same this year with the U-21, wanted to win that title, picked his manager, went about it in a very professional manner, and won it.

"That happened very quickly, but the minor was planned out for two or three years. They upped the training big-time, very professional now with Brian in charge. He's the boss, whatever he says goes, within reason of course.

"It's not just the set-up, the players are very professional also, very disciplined. I do a lot of travelling around the country but I find in other counties we won't mention, after League games and even after Championship games, the players go drinking.

"Not here, they wouldn't be caught in the pub, don't mix very much at all. Even after winning two All-Irelands now, it's still the same, and that's part and parcel of it.

"Take Henry Shefflin for example. His professionalism is unbelievable, the number of frees he practices on the Saturday before a game is well known now.

"But there's also his dedication to fitness. I remember Christmas two years ago, I went for a walk down to the pub with a few lads in Ballyhale and this lad flashed by us, running.

"It was Henry, not even into the New Year yet, and he had already done 'the block', as we call it, about four miles up and down hills around Ballyhale.

"He came on that year and got hurler-of-the-year, but that's why. These guys would never be seen in the pub, even in the local. They wouldn't have that many friends locally to be honest, they just don't mix anymore. They're like full-time professionals."

But there's more, of course. We continue the conversation, the barman and customers now involved, and eventually Liam Fennelly pauses. "If you really think about it, Kilkenny have an awful lot of advantages. We don't have football to contend with in any serious way, so all the energies are channelled into hurling.

"Then there's the Leinster championship, we're usually more or less certain of qualifying for the Leinster final so we don't have to worry about going the qualifier route in the All-Ireland, and our own county championships can go ahead. Then there's the geography.

"Kilkenny really is the hub, the centre of Kilkenny county, and no player has to travel more than about 20 miles to training. That's a huge advantage compared to the likes of Tipperary and Cork."

"That's right," interjects the barman, "and even when players are away, it's usually in Dublin, only an hour or so away, and isn't the station right beside Nowlan Park?"

"Good man Paddy Grace!", laughs Liam, speaking of the former long-time Kilkenny county secretary, "he thought of everything!"

Many points made before we adjourn a few miles up the Waterford road to The Field in Mullinavat, run by recently-returned immigrant Johnny McDonnell, another former Kilkenny hurler.

Maybe this is the thing about Kilkenny. Everywhere you turn, every house you pass, every shop or pub you enter, there's a hurler, probably a county hurler, past or current. Every fertile field has had a ball belted around it, every parish has a club, a hurling club, every club has its quota of All-Ireland medal-winners.

"We went from Denis Heaslip's in Knocktopher, Pat Carroll's," Liam breaks down the short journey we've just taken; "up the road was the home of Frank Cummins (eight All-Ireland medals, seven on the field, as a midfielder), on the way here we passed Maurice Mason's house, probably the best club man ever for Ballyhale.

"The first six or seven county finals we won he was centre-back for us, absolutely brilliant. He was on the Kilkenny panel late on, in his 30's, but too late, didn't make it.

"Then you passed our house (four All-Ireland senior medallists), later there was the house of Jimmy Walsh, involved in those great games in the 1930's, he was captain of the team that won in 1932 and 1939, a famous win.

"Before that we passed Jimmy Kelly's house up on the left, he got the winning point in 39; then you had the Aylwards, Dexter played in the 20's, then you had the Darmodys, involved in the early 1900's."

And so on, and so on.

We could have diverted to Thomastown, past the impressive statue of the dashing Ollie Walsh, one of the finest keepers of all time, or over to little Bennetsbridge, to the little circle of houses with a collection of All-Ireland medals in the twenties, led by Noel Skehan with his record nine-medal haul; we could have gone to Inistioge, cradle to the great Eddie Keher, even the few miles up the road to Dunamaggin, home to the Hickey clan.

ON the wall in The Field, a photo, the Doyles of Durnane; Tom, Neddy, Dick, Mike, Fr. Andy and Fr. Jim, 19 Celtic Crosses between them (Liam is married to a grandniece). On that wall also a photo of the 1939 All-Ireland-winning team, with the unmistakable short and rakish figure of Paddy Larkin.

So there it is. We stayed in The Field 'til late, tempted by the creamy pint but sticking to coffee, served regularly and sweetly by Olive, wife of John; couldn't leave, held fast by the hurling talk, the craic, the arguments.

The ball never stopped, never hit the ground, no better man to keep it going than the proprietor himself. Johnny McDonnell is a character, though one of the less-than success stories in the county.

Long before there was Denis Byrne and his controversial transfer across the border this year to old enemies Tipperary, there was McDonnell. A big powerful player in the late 80's/early 90's, his face didn't fit at the time, so he transferred his allegiance to Ballygunner and Waterford.

"Ye were a great side," he says to Liam, who starred through that successful era, "but ye kept a lot of great hurlers on the sidelines."

Tinge of regret there, and Liam nods agreement. Like Byrne in the current day, McDonnell loved Kilkenny but loved hurling even more, knew he could play on the biggest stage, went for it.

Hurling, Kilkenny, Kilkenny, hurling. Hand in glove, synonymous. It's not that in Kilkenny they don't know any other sport, they do, follow the likes of Manchester United, Celtic, Arsenal, Chelsea, the Rugby World Cup, Heineken Cup, with the rest of us.

But they don't just support hurling, play hurling, follow hurling. They live it, everywhere, in every parish north, south and central, every gender, every generation.

Had Setanta been raised in Kilkenny, I was told, he wouldn't now be in Australia. He would have known other sports, he would have loved only hurling.

Maybe that's it.

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