Donncha Fahey: Tipperary and Waterford never a cut-throat rivalry

Donncha Fahey won an All-Ireland with Tipperary in 2001. He was always Tipp, he maintains, but geography would have let him hurl for Waterford too. Better placed than most then to trace the peculiar border intimacies that even saw the great Mick Roche slip from one side to the other.
Donncha Fahey: Tipperary and Waterford never a cut-throat rivalry

Donncha Fahey gestures behind his head, off right.

“It’s immediately County Waterford, once you go over the bridge,” he says. We are chatting in his office in Bank of Ireland on Main Street, Carrick-on-Suir. Fahey has been branch manager since December 2014. Although we are sitting in County Tipperary, over beyond is no further than the proverbial stone’s throw.

He elaborates: “On the border, like in Carrick, you’re going to have a nice bit of slagging during the week. I mean, the town here is pure divided between Tipp, Waterford, and Kilkenny. You’re never stuck for conversation, that’s for sure! That’s what makes it so lively.”

Donncha Fahey well understands the intimacies of geography. He hurled with St Mary’s of Clonmel, which lies 12 miles or so downriver from Carrick-on-Suir. A Waterford half parish, where the hurling club is Fourmilewater, runs right into the town bounds.

As so often when a river runs through it, the situation is complicated. Fahey sketches a local map: “The parents are about four miles out The Mountain Road, by the Golf Club, a townland named Lyreanearla. It’s a Tipperary parish, St Peter and Paul, running out into County Waterford.”

This spot straddles the divide between the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly and the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore. GAA-wise, Fourmilewater and The Nire crisscross with St Mary’s and Commercials.

Fahey is aware of similar situations in neighbouring counties: “It’s probably much the same as Galmoy, where half the parish is in Laois and half in Kilkenny. So they can hurl for Galmoy, and then for Laois or Kilkenny, whichever they choose. Then you have Moneygall, up in North Tipp, where they’re split with Offaly.”

His father, Larry, kicked football in Waterford with Valley Rovers, a forerunner of The Nire. “Valley Rovers, at this stage, are gone for years and years,” his son notes. “My mother is from Cork and the father is Waterford. He wouldn’t have had the say, anyway…! But he never said anything about Tipp, in fairness.”

Donncha Fahey merely inherited a situation: “Down through the years, there’ve been lads who went one way or the other. Benny Walsh, from Russellstown in Waterford, played with Commercials for years and years. His brothers Ian and Alan played for The Nire and Waterford for years.

“I don’t think there’s any formal agreement or anything, though. People opt themselves.”

Carrick-on-Suir witnessed similar twists. Fahey recalls the town’s most famous son: “Mick Roche, the all-time great, is said to have started off with [St] Molleran’s, out on the Waterford side of Carrick. The story is that the Waterford minors turned him down, back in the early 1960s, because he was supposedly too small. He went on, afterwards, to hurl with Tipp, and Mick Roche became one of Tipp’s absolute best. I suppose it’s like the lad who didn’t sign The Beatles…!”

The young Donncha Fahey was never tangled in his head. His mind and his allegiance were clear: “For me, I was born in Clonmel. I went to primary school in Clonmel. I initially went to secondary school in Clonmel, to the High School. Then I went to [St] Kieran’s [College], in Kilkenny, in third year. But I never felt other than Tipperary. Do you know that way? The issue never arose. I hurled Tipp U14, U16 and minor. So I never really looked the other way at all.

“I always considered myself Tipp. And if it didn’t work out with Tipp, I’d still be Tipp.”

Another life, Donncha Fahey could have hurled with Fourmilewater and Waterford. He is reminded of the road not taken every time he drives out the road to his parents’ house: “When I’m going out from Clonmel to where I grew up, there’d be Waterford flags all along the way. There are plenty of them up right now!”

He instances Liam Lawlor, a Waterford full-back in recent years: “His home place is a good bit closer to Clonmel than my own one. So I pass Liam’s home place any time I go home.”

Self-deprecating laughter accompanies this recognition. Anywhere interesting has its own cambers.

Fahey continues: “Liam started off with Clonmel Óg, the other club from St Mary’s in the town. But he transferred out to Fourmilewater, at whatever age, and eventually hurled for Waterford. I’m sure he was always Waterford, in any case.”

Fahey retains a neighbourly interest in this club’s fortunes: “It looks like Fourmilewater have a fine team at the moment. Jamie Barron, the Waterford midfielder, is excellent. Shane Walsh is still very good. They’ve run close to a senior final, the last few years. They might still do it.”

Tactics Talk with Donal O’Grady: How Tipperary can create space in a crowded Waterford defence

Another kind of GAA intimacy arrives when a club has one of its own on the county’s senior team. For all in Clonmel, Séamus Kennedy’s presence is whetting interest. A springer this championship summer, Kennedy has found his feet at wing-back. He is the first St Mary’s clubman to feature since Donncha Fahey.

“Séamus is top class,” his predecessor says. “He’s so dedicated. He’s a real modern hurler, able to play in multiple positions. He has that football background, too, with serious mobility to his game.”

There is a bounce to St Mary’s at the minute. As Fahey details: “Between Séamus and everything else, the club is on a high. We won Minor A last year for the first time ever. It was a huge boost, because Clonmel is known traditionally as a football town. Commercials have always been strong, and of course they got to the All-Ireland semi-final against Ballyboden last February.

“For us, the Minor A is a massive thing. We think there are a few real leaders among the young fellas on that team.”

Having spent nearly a decade in Dublin, the native returned. He enjoyed the spell, and his wife is a Dubliner (“I won that argument!”) but a hinge swung.

“I always wanted to come back down home,” he muses. “Always wanted to rear our children in the country. It’s just that bit better a way of life. Or so we think…”

There was no true return without going back to hurling. Fahey is entertaining on this swerve: “I played Junior B last year. Bad Junior B! The body wasn’t reacting like the mind. Lob it in high and take it from there…

“Ah, we have young kids, two daughters, year and a half and three and a half. It’s busy. But I’m still a young hurler for Junior B! There’s plenty of Junior B hurling in front of me.

“I’m back nearly two years now. Just getting settled, and doing a bit of farming as well. I will get involved with the club in the future but at the moment it’s just too mad busy.”

If anyone saw life at the opposite end of the spectrum to Junior B, Donncha Fahey did. Born in 1979, he was a highly promising young hurler, accomplished enough to spend three seasons with Tipperary both at minor (1995-97) and at U21 (1998-2000). He was Tipp’s minor full-back at 15 going on 16.

Experience at St Kieran’s College proved crucial. “I loved my time in Kieran’s,” Fahey emphasises. “I boarded and found it brilliant, academically as well.

“Just the contrast I found there. In Clonmel, there’s football, soccer, rugby, hurling. You’ve every sport up there. Whereas, the first morning in Kieran’s, everybody walked in with their hurleys. And I mean everybody…”

He stresses the importance of training in this environment: “You’re going at it with Mick Kavanagh, Henry Shefflin, Derek Lyng, Eddie Brennan. You have to improve, really. You’re marking a county minor, or the equivalent, all the time.”

St Kieran’s, with Donncha Fahey at centre-forward, unexpectedly beat St Colman’s College of Fermoy in the 1996 All-Ireland final. “We changed around the team for the final and just clicked,” he says. “Don’t know why… Colman’s were raging hot favourites.”

The effectiveness of this switch did not escape Dinny Cahill, Tipperary’s minor manager for 1996. Fahey wore the number 11 jersey as Tipperary beat Galway in that September’s replayed All-Ireland final. The following season, Fahey captained the minors from centre-forward to another Munster success. This time, they fell to a late Galway surge in the All Ireland semi-final.

1998 saw him placed centre-back with the U21s. Cork won easily in the Munster final. For all the promise, the remaining two years in this grade delivered but a Munster title in 1999.

Donncha Fahey was a senior panellist between 1999 and 2002. He won an NHL title at right corner-back in 1999, when Tipperary overcame Galway. He played no part in the tumultuous Munster semi-final with Clare, draw and lost replay. Championship wise, he came on for Michael Ryan, Tipperary’s current manager, during All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Galway in 2000.

But there was light. Donncha Fahey earned a Celtic Cross in 2001, subbing in at corner-back for Cappawhite’s Thomas Costello in the All-Ireland final. Galway were once more the vanquished. The boy from The Mountain Road had reached the summit.

“The ultimate for any inter-county player is to get a Senior All-Ireland,” he reflects. “To be the first man from St Mary’s really made that day extra special. Theo English, who hurled with Marlfield, outside Clonmel, won All-Irelands back in the 1950s and ’60s. Theo was brilliant, by all accounts. But St Mary’s itself had never got one, before 2001.

“Also, to be an All-Ireland hurler from a football town was important, and not just in Clonmel. It was a general boost for hurling.”

Still, that year etched a fine line: “I was struggling with an old hip injury the whole time, in 2001, and only got back onto the panel after the Munster final. So that was lucky…”

Tipperary and Waterford is not regarded as one of hurling’s fervent rivalries, push and pull across the decades. This pairing is of the quieter kind. Séamus Leahy provides a valuable perspective, offering that unbeatable combination of intimacy and distance.

The author of The Tipp Revival: Return to Glory 1987-1994 (1995), one of the finest books on the most beautiful game, Leahy has Tipp hurling history in his bones. He is of Boherlahan and Tubberadora stock. “The real old crew here in Clonmel would still consider me a blow-in,” he says.

Then the wryest laugh: “Even though I’m here since 1967…! 50 years, next year.”

Leahy relates personal experience: “I saw my first Munster Championship match in 1944. To be honest, I would still enjoy Tipp beating Cork over anyone else. But maybe that’s because of my age and because I’m not originally from the border with Waterford.”

He moves to adopted ground: “We were talking about it the other morning, coming out from early mass in St Peter and Paul. It would have been mainly Tipp people, but there were a few Waterford too. The Clonmel locals all said that they support Waterford if Tipperary go out.

It’s a different scéal, of course, when they’re up against each other…! But I do think Waterford get genuine support from Clonmel, after Tipp are gone.”

Leahy discerns another texture: “I don’t think the Tipperary-Waterford rivalry has ever been a cutthroat thing, in the way you’d sum up Tipperary and Cork or Tipperary and Kilkenny. Or the rivalry with Clare in the 1990s…”

Tactics Talk with Donal O’Grady: Waterford’s two options for dealing with Tipp’s puck-outs

Waterford, as a particular rival? Donncha Fahey never dwelled on the dynamic. “My head for remembering detail is not great, in any case,” he states. “Actually, the Waterford minors beat us in Fermoy in 1995, my first day out. I was marking Dan Shanahan and Dave Bennett. The two of them were in and out to me… Sure we thought we’d a great team, with plenty of lads from the year before. But Waterford went far better than us on the day.”

He winds the thought: “I suppose, whenever you get beaten by your nearest rivals, it’s always going to be a sore one. But it doesn’t ultimately make a difference what team you’ve played, because all you want to do is win. Of course, with Waterford, it was a bit like meeting your relatives.”

Life in Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir has left Donncha Fahey philosophical about this aspect of sport. He summarises: “Until two counties keep meeting on a regular basis, the rivalry doesn’t really kick in. Like Tipperary and Kilkenny did, over the last few years. They’ve kept meeting. The rivalry builds up.

“Tipp and Cork haven’t met regularly for a while. So that’s after dying off a small bit. But it’s easy enough, of course, to reactivate any rivalry. You just need the matches.”

Back in 2002, he marked John Mullane in the Munster final, a day when Waterford broke through with style to sweeping victory. Fahey’s gloss involves commendable restraint: “It was a truly big day, if not in the right way for Tipp people… Waterford just kept coming and coming at us. To be honest, they were far hungrier.”

He was on the bench when Kilkenny subsequently beat Tipperary by four points in a marvellous All-Ireland semi-final. On foot of that result, manager Nicky English departed.

So did Donncha Fahey. Although he was still only 23, that chapter had run out of ink. “Michael Doyle came in as manager for 2003,” he recounts. “But I didn’t feature. I lost form and was hurling badly.”

Admirably honest to end, he does not varnish the sign off: “I wanted to travel, to spend some time in Australia, which I did. But that wasn’t the reason I left. I just wasn’t hurling well enough to be there anymore.”

Fahey was embarking on the loop that would bring him back, at 35, to his home town, husband and father of two, bank manager and part-time sheep farmer. All during our chat, he has a likeable ease, quick to laugh at the incongruities and the beauties of what people choose. He consistently looked outwards so as to come more closely at home ground.

He instances Kilkenny, how fortunate it is that the city is so central in the county. “It makes everything fierce handy for organising,” he insists. He tilts his head and drifts off into a list: “Clonmel, Carrick, Cashel, Thurles, Nenagh, Roscrea, Cahir, Tipp town… There are a lot of reasonably big places in Tipperary.”

Thus a conclusion: “The geography is different in Tipp. But it’s good when something is genuinely different. The river can be a great divider in a way.”

Never more so than tomorrow in the Munster final, when Séamus Kennedy strikes his first ball, when buried within the Tipp roar will be the Clonmel shout.

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