From humble beginnings to Croker for Na Piarsaigh

In the 60s the population in Limerick’s northside was growing, and there was a sense those people would be well served by a new GAA club.

From humble beginnings to Croker for Na Piarsaigh

Noel Drumgoole, who played for Dublin in the 1961 All-Ireland final, and Mossy O’Grady were among those in the Ardhu House Hotel in January 1968 advocating a new club, and Na Piarsaigh were the result.

There was a junior team to fulfil fixtures, but from the start Na Piarsaigh were focused on underage development. With all those people moving into the area, the club felt a youth policy would bear fruit.

The influx benefited them in other ways, too. PRO Derek Giltinan can reel off the origins of the first few chairmen, for instance (“Noel Drumgoole was the first, a Dub, we’ve had three Tipp men, one Galway man, two Mayo men …”).

They were also conscious of the club being a community hub. The night we spoke in the premises an Irish dancing class thundered in the hall. Going back further, mass was said in the club when a new church was being built in the area.

“We had tennis here,” says former treasurer Bill Kiely. “Pitch and putt. Basketball.” “The one big thing Noel (Drumgoole) was against was underage drinking,” adds former chairman Timmy O’Connor. “That was the big sin as far as he was concerned.

“But it was a big social centre. New Year’s Eve would have been a sell-out, there were dances. It was a big part of the club. We had a bar licence from the 60s, too, which was unusual to have. We found a lot of what you might call country people, who might be more attached to the GAA than other sports, moved in here and fell in with the club.” (Kiely and O’Connor are proof of that themselves, as Dromcollogher- Broadford natives.)

Na Piarsaigh’s first notable success was in football, though, a minor title in 1972. They moved up the ranks and by 1982 they were still benefiting from that minor side, which backboned their county senior football final defeat against Claughaun.

Around the same time their future came into view with an U12 hurling title. They had already made a significant connection with the two local primary schools: Kiely was a liaison officer with the JFK Memorial, while another club member helped Christ The King. The famous Na Piarsaigh street leagues dovetailed with that work. Now clubs come from all over Ireland to see how they organise their numbers, but the beginnings were humble.

“We started off with 20 kids or so, now we have hundreds,” says O’Connor “That powered the hurling, obviously. The schools were doing work, promoting it at that level, and it all helped us — there were two schools who were competing against each other, but the kids were all coming in the gate to us then.”

Those kids were the players who won Na Piarsaigh an U12 county title in 1981 and reached a Feile final in 1983. They won the Feile outright in 1984, beating Toomevara in the final.

A huge win, says Kiely: “The emphasis began to switch then.” They won titles at U16 and a first minor A title in 1989. They collected half a dozen Feile titles and the expectation was that adult success was sure to follow.

The flow of players into the adult ranks certainly stiffened the junior side, who won the New Ireland Shield, a junior club-only competition in Limerick city, in 1979. That team won the junior city titles in 1980 and 1981 but after that progress was slow.

“There was a lot of talk that you’d become senior, but it didn’t happen that fast,” says Kiely. “Once we won the junior it took us three years to win the intermediate and become senior.

“We had a young team, a lot of them were the ‘83 Féile players who’d won U21 A titles in 1989 and 1990.” Limerick club hurling was strong then, however, and Na Piarsaigh found seasoned outfits like Patrickswell and Ballybrown in their way.

“Kilmallock the same, they had made it to All-Ireland Club finals and were hardy,” says Kiely.

“The clubs were going well, the county team was going well. We thought around 2002 we’d come through but Adare came very strong with the Foleys and a few more. They put a stop to us then as well.” By 2009, though, they had made it to the final. O’Connor was the manager: “It went very badly, we lost to Adare. 1-7 to 0-3.

“The team was young, the occasion got to them — there was a huge buzz around the area, huge excitement — but the occasion got to them, simple as.”

Still, that made the 2011 county senior title all the sweeter.

“There were tears in a lot of eyes that day,” says Kiely, “Fellas were over the moon. Absolutely. We had been talking for years about winning the county, and being the envy of the county, really, with all the underage success we were having... “

“They were doubting us,” says O’Connor.

“We were seen as a soft touch,” says Kiely. “Easy to get to. City team...”

“Softies,” says O’Connor.

“That’s gone,” says Kiely. “The team is resilient. They prepare well. They’re experienced.”

They are. This edition of Na Piarsaigh has won three Munster Club finals, after all.

“I think that’ll stand to us,” says O’Connor. “The razzmatazz shouldn’t be an issue today. Losing to Loughgiel, to Portumna in previous All-Ireland semi-finals, those were lessons they’ve learned.”

They keep strong links to the local community.

“It’s great to see what’s been done come to fruition,” says O’Connor.

“We had a business lunch with 50 tables, so people have supported us. We do an annual door-knock — we go around the area, most of the northside of the city, and we sell raffle tickets for the two All-Ireland senior finals door to door.

“Bill and myself live in the same area and the people know when they open the door to us what time of the year it is and why we’re there, ‘that’s the Na Piarsaigh boys, they’re back again’.

“We had a fundraiser one time that was a flower show, a bit unusual, and one woman was asking me if we’d had any more flower shows, because she’d come to the last one. That was her first time in the club but she had a link to the place because of that.

“We have a good lottery and Sweeney McGann solicitors are the senior sponsors — Shane O’Neill, the senior manager, is a partner there. Most of our teams would have their own sponsors and they’re very good, hugely appreciated. They’re all part of it.”

They’ll fill two trains this morning in Limerick and head north with confidence. Timmy O’Connor sketches one last picture of their progress.

“When we lost in 2009 I was the manager. I texted them the week after the game, and fellas were fairly down, as you might imagine. One of the water-boys texted me back, ‘feck the water, I’ll be out there hurling next year’.”

That water-boy was Shane Dowling. You might notice him today.

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