St Mary’s a hurling oasis in Tipp football country

They fetched up in Davin Park, Carrick on Suir on the Sunday before Christmas for the South U21 hurling final. The last day out. The last match of a magical year. In the past, St Mary’s of Clonmel might have approached such a fixture hoping for the best. These days they approach such fixtures – yes, even South Tipp finals – expecting the best.

St Mary’s a hurling oasis in Tipp football country

And lo, in this case their optimism was well founded. Bright day, good underfoot conditions, decent crowd and a mature, controlled performance. St Mary’s 0-14 Killenaule 1-9. South U21 champions for the first time in 28 years. The winners started brightly with four unanswered points, led 0-9 to 1-4 at the break and always had a slight edge thereafter. Ross Peters anchored a strong half-back line. Michael Boland made a sharp save from Killenaule dangerman Tom Stakelum at a crucial stage. Eric Walsh was lively at midfield and Michael Murphy a handful up front. If St Mary’s were four or five points, rather than merely two points, a better team, no matter. More silverware. “A dream end to a dream year,” as club chairman Kevin Leahy puts it.

Let us measure the dimensions of the dream. St Mary’s won the South U21 title. They retained the county minor title. They had a man on Tipperary’s MacCarthy Cup-winning team in September, the first from the club to pick up an All-Ireland senior hurling medal as a starter. They would have provided the captain of the All-Ireland minor champions had Gavin Ryan’s summer not been ruined by a hamstring injury. They honoured their South senior champions of 1981. They even brought out an updated version of the club history, first published in 1990. What’s the superlative of annus mirabilis?

They’ve never had a year like it. They may never have a year like it again but – and this is the point – that won’t prevent them trying. In fact, if St Mary’s are to truly punch their weight then 2016 must become the start of something as opposed to being a rud iontach in isolation.

That’s the task, the challenge and the ambition. For too long St Mary’s Hurling Club didn’t dare to dream. Now they can’t stop.

*****

Their backstory has nothing remarkable about it. Founded in 1929. Years of modesty in junior ranks in South Tipp. Rarely a sniff of silverware. Clonmel may be a big town but it’s also in the heartland of Tipperary football. Therein lay the problem.

Their world took a turn for the better in 1975. The breakthrough. St Mary’s captured the county intermediate title with a side that included five minors. Four of them – Paudie O’Neill, Vincent Mullins, Jimmy Ryan and Tommy Walsh – were part of the Tipperary U21 panel that took Galway to a replay in the 1978 All-Ireland final. A bunch of St Mary’s men wearing blue and gold. A palpable step forward.

For a quarter of a century, they remained a senior team, contesting four South finals during the 1980s, winning out in 1981 under the captaincy of Limerick’s Mossie Carroll. The quarter-final stage of the county championship invariably proved a step too far, however, and come the 1990s the club went into decline. By the turn of the century, they weren’t so much treading water as floundering. Fielding teams at minor and U21 level became a struggle.

A fightback was needed and it arrived just in time. A hardcore that included Jimmy Collins, John Carew, Noel Buckley, David O’Donnell, Brendan Cagney, Sean O’Sullivan, Peter Egan, Jimmy Ryan and the late Frank Maher helped to revitalise the juvenile section. Standards slowly went up and in 2009 an U16 team that featured Seamus Kennedy and Michael Quinlivan were narrowly defeated by Clonoulty Rossmore in the county final.

Seamus Kennedy (left)

Seamus Kennedy (left)

The tide continued to rise, lifting more boats with it. In 2012 St Mary’s reached the county minor final, a startling occurrence. They didn’t win that one but under the management of Tony Shelly they were minor champions last year and again this season. Last year’s victory served to break a glass ceiling, according to Shelly. “It gave the players a lot more confidence. We didn’t set out to win the county championship, just to reach the semi-final of the division. But beating Killenaule in the round robin, a really tough match where we were missing five lads, gave the players new belief. They went from strength to strength. And winning one county championship made it easier to make it two in a row this year. The players now had the confidence to take on any opponent.”

Sometimes the most modest ideas can be the best. Back in 2011 Brendan Cagney had the notion of establishing an under-10 tournament. It has become an annual event. Leading clubs from all over the country were invited, links were forged and return visits ensued. The upshot has been trips that have fired the imagination of the young hurlers of Clonmel and – critically – resulted in huge player retention. By way of illustration, this season St Mary’s fielded three U12 combinations, all of whom won their respective divisional championships.

The season was notable for St Mary’s for another reason. They finally got their very own front of house man.

They’d always had the highest hopes for Seamus Kennedy, of course. They’d seen how good he was as a Tipperary footballer. They’d long reckoned he could be equally effective as a Tipperary hurler.

He came in as part of a job lot with Steven O’Brien. Michael Ryan suspected that O’Brien, with his supreme athleticism, might be the one to make an impression first. Ryan was wrong.

In Brian McDonnell’s monumental Tipperary Star opus on the statistics behind the county’s All-Ireland win, Kennedy features again and again. Not heading any particular category but catching the eye across the board. Third behind Ronan and Padraic Maher in winning opposition puckouts. Among the top five tacklers. Fourth in terms of stick passes made. Second in terms of handpasses made. And so on and so forth.

In other words, Kennedy did his bit, over and over again. Ryan above all wanted men capable of winning and protecting their own ball. That’s precisely what the Clonmel man did. Padraic Maher could do the flashy stuff if needs be; Kennedy was merely required to play his position. He obliged handsomely - his All Star nomination an indication of just how handsomely. If Dan McCormack was the unsung hero in the forwards Kennedy was the unsung hero of the defence. And Tipperary’s triumph was founded on everyone in the boat using their oars.

St Mary’s hurling & Camogie club members Matt Barlow, captain 2015 County Minor winning team; Kevin Leahy, club chairman; Kyle Peters, captain 2016 County Minor champions; and Peter Egan, manager 2016 South Tipperary U21 champions. Picture: John D Kelly

St Mary’s hurling & Camogie club members Matt Barlow, captain 2015 County Minor winning team; Kevin Leahy, club chairman; Kyle Peters, captain 2016 County Minor champions; and Peter Egan, manager 2016 South Tipperary U21 champions. Picture: John D Kelly

“Great chap, great attitude and a great role model for the youngsters in the club,” says Kevin Leahy. “Seamus’s commitment, and that of his family, to St Mary’s is a huge asset to us.”

They now have a handsome shop window with an eyecatching exhibit in it. But Kennedy cannot be allowed to stand there alone. If St Mary’s are to do their job properly he must be the first of a platoon.

In demographic terms, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be, even allowing for the local football ethos. The 2011 census gives Clonmel’s population at 17,908, as large as that of Nenagh and Thurles combined. That’s a lot of potential young hurlers.

Some of them are being carefully nurtured in St Mary’s primary school, a small institution but a real hurling hotbed thanks to the diligence of Emmet Leahy and former Tipperary full-back Paul Curran. Then there’s the High School, which despite trojan work by a few teachers is not a real hurling hotbed. It is not a coincidence both Kennedy and Donncha Fahey, an All-Ireland medallist under Nicky English in 2001, went elsewhere for their Leaving Cert (Thurles CBS and St Kieran’s respectively).

Could the High School over time become a proven hurling nursery? That’s the hope within the club. They visualise a real urban force for the tapping, a kind of south Tipp version of Thurles. It is only 30 miles from Clonmel to each of Thurles, Kilkenny and Waterford. All of those places produce intercounty hurlers as a matter of course. Why shouldn’t Clonmel?

The traditional hurling families like the Peters (Willie Peters’s performance in the 1980 All-Ireland minor final is still talked of in Moynihans’) and the Ryans endure while newcomers to the town have added a breath of fresh air to the club. In the short term a return to senior ranks is essential, a task rendered more difficult by the fact two teams fall through the top-flight trapdoor in Tipperary these days, making escape from intermediate all the harder. Still, with a cohort whose best years are in front of them St Mary’s are at least well positioned to give it a shot.

“A number of these lads have the tools to go onto better things and they play a nice in-your-face brand of hurling,” says Tony Shelly.

A dream year. Now they have to ensure there are more dream years.

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