A year starts like any other. Hurling set to dictate its rhythms.
Two friends take stock. Veterans now. The full-back and the centre-back. The staunch clubman and the star countyman. Both made plans. But life took over and ripped one set up.
One man would puck every ball. The other wouldn’t hit one at all. But both would play an integral part in an emotional year for Newport GAA club in Tipperary.
A year when a club pulled hard on ties it had begun to take for granted. And when the two men found different kinds of solace among their own people.
Theirs is a story of friendship and community. Of glory and, most important, of hope.
Newport are down intermediate 12 years. A town had grown impatient, its ditches full of hurlers with grumbles.
This year, Dinny Ryan, who hurled for Tipp in his day, took the job in his home place. Underage progress encouraged him, but something else gave him faith. He’d have Conor O’Mahony in the field every night.
O’Mahony first hurled intermediate for Newport in 2000. Still 15, he was helping out in a pub in the town one afternoon when the hurling manager pulled in outside and got him to sit into the car.
He’d already built enough reputation round the place to be thrown in against Templederry. In he’d stay. Through the breakthrough year of 2002 — when he played alongside Dinny in the final — and in 2013, when senior status was maintained.
He was laid up in hospital with tonsillitis in 2004 when they lost the relegation final. But that’s not what niggled him. Through all the years since, he knows he was a distant presence. An absentee hero. He had a sense of a debt unpaid. To the people who groomed him into the answer to Tipperary’s centre-back problems.
Who put him on the road to an All-Ireland medal.
“Over the last 10 or 11 years, I wasn’t there every Tuesday and Thursday. It was hugely important for me, after stepping away from the county scene, that I could give as much as I could to the club.” Of course there was a void to fill too. He only went to one Tipp match this year before the All-Ireland final, the Munster opener against Cork. Still a little too close to stand back and watch.
So he poured that energy into home. And even though he lives in Mallow, an hour, all going well, from Newport, he was always there on Tuesday and Thursday.
“Conor trained this year like he was still playing for the county,” says Tipperary county board secretary Tim Floyd, who never takes his eyes off his own club.
“It was the first year we got the full benefit of Conor,” Dinny Ryan says. “That was huge for us. Because he’s such an inspirational figure in the club and on the team. He just has that presence. When Conor is there and hurling well, everything seems to click around him.”
In truth, it hadn’t entirely clicked around him in spring and early summer. Newport struggled in the group stages of the county championship, though there is nearly always some kind of safety net in Tipp.
“We were hurling in patches,” O’Mahony says. “We were blowing teams out of it for 10 or 15 minutes and then we’d go out of games. And we’d concede leads, sloppy goals, things like that. We had belief but it was a matter of putting 60 minutes together.”
As his close friend Mike Coffey tells it, Paddy Jones’s plans were coming together. And he was a big part of Dinny Ryan’s. Regaining fitness, he’d played a challenge match or two and was ready to patrol the edge of the square, like always. Son number two would arrive any moment. Life was good.
One Saturday morning, like any other, Paddy and Marisa noticed little Evan — their 20-month-old — didn’t look right. An eyelid appeared to droop. His chest was wheezy.
A trip to the out-of-hours Limerick Doc brought a referral to University Hospital Limerick. And a nightmare began.
Evan had a large tumour growing in his neck, compressing his airway and pushing on a nerve that caused his eyelid to droop. He was rushed into the hands of the oncology team at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin.
After chemotherapy failed to reduce the tumour as hoped, a high-risk operation couldn’t be avoided. That worked well but joy was brief for Paddy and Marisa and new baby Ben. The biopsy showed Evan had a malignant Rhabdoid tumour, a rare cancer found in children under two.
Back home, they worried. Paddy had broke the news to Dinny Ryan and told him he was finished hurling, for this year anyway.
On the morning after the All-Ireland final, Conor O’Mahony sent a text to old friends. When the Tipp hurlers brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup to Crumlin, they knew the ward they couldn’t miss.
So little Evan charmed the country in his Tipp jersey on the Six One News, popping a sliotar into the cup, watched by the new champions.
It was a half-hour of respite for the family. “Paddy would have fierce interest in Tipp, and he really appreciated the guys making the effort,” O’Mahony says.
But it was becoming clear back home that a lot more had to be done for them. Evan would need to stay in Dublin for intensive chemotherapy and might have to travel to Germany for specialist treatment. Uprooting their lives to be at his side would be expensive.
So Team Evan Jones was formed.
There are other strands to the story. Supplying a quirk as behoves any border club, Newport had two county minors this year, only they faced each other in the Tipp-Limerick All-Ireland final.
“Cian Flanagan and Darragh Carroll have been a huge addition,” says O’Mahony. “They just seemed to mature quicker than we thought,” says Ryan.
There is the frustrating, back-loaded nature of club championships too. This year they’d planned for the business end, new fitness coach Martin Maher tailoring his programme to peak late.
“The thing fell asunder for us the last two seasons in September and October, when you need to be hurling well,” Ryan says. “This year we gambled that we wouldn’t go flat out early in the season.
“We were very confident in finishing our games strong,” says O’Mahony. “The last 15 minutes, our fitness levels were top notch.”
And there was one more wake-up call. The North divisional championship might be devalued currency these days, with just four teams in it. But defeat to neighbours Ballinahinch is never tolerated. And O’Mahony had to watch his fellow Tipp retiree Shane McGrath cavorting in delirious celebration of the tiny parish’s first title.
“To see how much it meant to Ballinahinch probably opened our eyes a bit. Because we won it for the previous two years and there was no issue made of it. But to watch them celebrate as they should — and deservedly so, they were the better team on the day — it probably hit home with guys, to say, look we can achieve more but we have to knuckle down.”
For all that, they bring it back to something more spiritual. To Paddy and Evan.
As Team Evan Jones kicked into fundraising mode in October, with many of the players on the committee, knockout hurling came week on week.
“We became closer,” O’Mahony says. “It definitely was a huge factor in bringing the whole club closer together, the whole team closer and the whole community closer. We said, let’s do it for Paddy as well, see if we can give him some bit of a lift.”
Ryan: “It inspired all the players to do more. It gave us a huge sense of drive and encouragement and inspiration.”
More than €50,000 has been raised, much of it on a beautiful October Bank Holiday Monday when more than 1,200 people set off walking and running around the town alongside Paddy and Marisa and little Ben in his buggy.
As they gazed out at the throng heading down Pound Street, Mike Coffey saw tears in more than one local’s eyes.
The week before, Paddy was in Dundrum for the final with Thurles Sarsfields. He was on the water and in the huddle at half-time, encouraging and cajoling.
On the field, Conor O’Mahony had dropped back to Paddy’s old position at full-back. “He was as good as we’ve ever seen,” Dinny Ryan says.
When they had done it, there were mixed emotions, O’Mahony says. “Every year you’re down adds an extra bit of pressure. There was relief. There was enjoyment. It was great to come back to Newport to see the crowd that was there. You could feel how much it meant to everyone. The whole community.”
There was one more day. Against Lismore, in Munster, maybe they left it behind. A lot of wides. “The Shanahans,” Dinny Ryan says. “The reputation that Maurice and Dan have, we probably didn’t believe we could beat them.”
It was easy to put that defeat in perspective. They returned from Fraher Field that evening to another benefit night, a barn dance. Paul O’Connell and Kieran Donaghy jerseys were auctioned. A community huddled close again.
Paddy Jones stood up and said thanks, stressed how overwhelmed he and Marisa had been by the support. Dinny Ryan reminded them that Evan was son of a man who fought hard for Newport over many years, that he was sure to be a fighter too.
And a club and a town reiterated a promise, that no matter how long the road ahead, they would do whatever it takes.
If you would like to contribute to the Team Evan Jones fund, visit, gofundme.com/teamevanjones or contact Mulcair Credit Union in Newport (account name Team Evan Jones).
Newport: Round by round
Newport 1-15 Drom-Inch 2-12: “After a slow start, we got into a good position where we were three points up but they equalised with the last puck of the game.”
“We hit 16 or 17 wides and ended up losing by a point. At the start of the year, we would have been maybe one of the top four teams looking at winning it. But we were slipping down the pecking order. People were giving out, but the management stuck by us.”
“We were lucky. We had been fairly stop-start, but other results went our way. We knew we had to win by six or seven points to go through.”
“Our get-out-of-jail card. We were two points down going into injury-time. Our bench made the difference. Jack Delahunty and Aidan Maloney. But we knew if we hurled anywhere near that again, we were out.”
“You’d think it was a totally new team. We were confident. Lads hurled well. I think guys had realised we have to work for each other and if you work hard enough, the rewards are there.”
“Same again, against the combination. Something had clicked.”
“We knew it would take a huge performance. It was their third county final in a row. We came out of the blocks fast, three or four up at half-time. But they came back at us and probably missed a few scores. Our goalie Mike Flannery made a huge save and we just drove on again.”