’Small town, good hurlers’

They’re from different divisions and renowned traditional hurling towns, so it’s hard to believe this is the first time Kilmallock and Adare meet in a Limerick SHC final.

They both came late to the senior hurling top table, Kilmallock not winning their first title until 1960, Adare having to wait a further full four decades (2001). Having got the taste, however, Adare then went on to dominate that decade, won a further four crowns and now sit just four behind tomorrow’s opposition.

Still very much hale and hearty, Jimmy Melia was a member of that first Kilmallock team 52 years ago and that momentous day has not faded from memory.

“Actually we didn’t win the junior county until ’56, our first time,” he said.

“We had suffered a lot from emigration over the years. Kilmallock is a small town, very little local employment, so a lot of very good hurlers emigrated. It’s not a big parish either. Go out of the town towards Charleville, over the railway bridge and you’re in Effin. In the road a bit and you’re in Charleville. Go out the Bruff road and very soon you’re in Dromin-Athlacca, go out the Tipperary road and you’re in the Stakers.

“The only road where we have a little bit of a parish is up the Kilfinane road, beyond Ballingaddy. Most of the team comes from the town itself and it’s not a very big town in comparison to others. I always said, we’re a bit like Newtown [Newtownshandrum, across the Cork border]. We’re a small place but always known for having good hurlers.”

The reason Kilmallock finally won in 1960 is simple, the same reason Newtown burst onto the Cork scene at the start of the last decade and Adare did likewise in Limerick — timing.

“You had a great bunch of hurlers coming through at the same time, and we a very good trainer in Willie O’Brien. He must have trained Kilmallock for 20 years. Willie was in the Army in Limerick, lived over the Charleville road. He walked to the bus in Charleville in the morning, walked home again in the evening and then walked over to Kilmallock to train us, and no shillings in it that time I can tell you!

“You had Tommy Hanley, the goalkeeper, Mick Healon, Tom O’Donnell, Vincie Cusack, the three Gradys from the Cross o’Black just beyond the church in Ballingaddy.”

His own position? “I played corner-forward but mostly full. I finished in ’64, in my 30s, had a cartilage operation but I was a selector in ’67, when we won it again.”

If the win in 1967 was confirmation that Kilmallock had arrived in Limerick hurling, the ’70s was when they became a force. A hat-trick of wins, 1973, ’74 and ’75, this was dominance.

“You had Mossie Dowling and Bernie Savage on that team, Seánie Donovan, whose son [Domhnall] is playing for Clare now, Paddy Kelly, Tommy Hanley, Dominic and Nicholas Hayes, the Riordans Davy and John, Noel Flynn, then a fella from Tipperary we called Smithy, a great centre-forward, a bit aggressive which was what Kilmallock needed.”

In the early ’90s Kilmallock again became a dominant power in Limerick, won two more titles — ’92 and ’94 — but on each occasion then went one better, won in Munster. The big one escaped them, however, the All-Ireland title, though they did come close.

“The final we made (’92/’93) we were beaten fair and square by Sarsfields, but the one we didn’t make (’94/’95), we were leading Birr by five points in the semi-final in the last few minutes over in Thurles, they brought on a sub and he scored two goals to beat us.

“They went on to destroy Dunloy in the final – our semi-final was the final.”

Ah, the regrets, and Kilmallock have had a few.

“I’ve always said we lost more counties than we won. In my own time, ’62, we lost to Western Gaels at the Gaelic Grounds. We were leading by 11 points at one stage, had used the three subs you were allowed at the time. Jimmy Grady got knocked out in the first half, went off to get stitched but he was counted as the second sub when he came back on; we put on a third sub and after that Tom O’Donnell broke his collar-bone. Kilmallock brought in a sub but a fella called Bugs Nealon from Rathkeale brought it to the notice of the referee and we had to play the last 20 minutes with only 14 men – they caught us, beat us by a point.”

Which brings us to tomorrow — how is it going to go?

“You never know what’s going to happen in a final. Kilmallock have never beaten Adare in a semi-final or quarter-final – the last time we met them they beat us by a point. Adare are a team of huge experience, have played in so many county finals this decade – Donncha Sheehan and Stephen Lavin have five medals each, and Declan Hannon will take watching.

“Maybe we’re lacking a little bit of aggression, but if we play to our potential, we’re capable of winning. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”

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