When Meath lined up against Down in the 1991 All-Ireland football final, no player from the Ratoath, Dunshaughlin, or Ashbourne clubs in the south-east of the county was involved. From nearby Dunboyne, another village pressed hard against the Dublin border, only Brendan Reilly made the grade.
Back then, clubs from Navan, or even further north like Kilmainhamwood (Brian Stafford), Gaeil Colmcille (Terry Ferguson) and Carnaross (PJ Gillick) typically provided the senior team with talent.
Fast forward to this year’s Leinster final and those four south-east Meath clubsaccounted for almost half the starting team, with two more players — both from theDonaghmore-Ashbourne club — on the bench.
It’s a basic numbers game, with just 4,411 people living in Ashbourne in 1991 compared to almost 13,000 at the mostrecent census in 2016.
Dunshaughlin, another thriving commuter belt town, was the Eircode area with the second-highest figure for new dwelling completions in Ireland in the second quarter of 2019, according to the CSO.
As for Ratoath, a sleepy village of 593 in 1991, it’s now home to over 10,000, a boomtown that found itself at the very heart of the Celtic Tiger explosion.
No surprise then that Ratoath, a junior club only seven years ago, are senior champions for the first time, succeeding Dunboyne in the position and supplying the county team with a steady stream of players. Donaghmore/Ashbourne, meanwhile, contested the 2014 and 2016 finals.
Naturally, not everyone in the county will be won over by the changing times and shifting demographics.
Andy Fahy, the Ratoath club’s county board delegate, perhaps touched on this with a lighthearted comment to delegates earlier this week when responding to a number of congratulatory messages about their county final win.
“I cannot express in words what it means to Ratoath,” Fahy said of the club’s senior triumph.
I thought nobody liked us but we were overwhelmed with the amount of messages, texts and phone calls we received from every club in Meath.
That general warmth towards Ratoath ahead of tomorrow’s first ever game in the AIB Leinster club SFC is warranted because while they’ve benefitted from a population explosion, they’ve also had to step up and respond to the huge extra numbers coming at them.
“We’d have in the region of 55 to 60 teams operating in the club now, and around 1,500 paid-up members,” said Fahy, who has filled just about every club position over the decades. “I remember going back to the mid-90s we were struggling to put out an adult junior team.”
Fahy wants to make something clear: he’s not complaining. As he told delegates at the county board meeting, he didn’t think he’d ever see the day the Keegan Cup ended up in the village.
But the extra numbers have also brought a volume of work down on the club that nobody could have imagined 20 years ago. Luckily, new grounds were purchased at Brownstown on the road to Dunshaughlin in the mid-90s and opened in 2004, along with a spacious clubhouse.
There was a significant seven-figure debt at one stage but that has been greatly reduced and a further 10 acres of adjoining land has since been acquired.
“When you’re dealing with the numbers there now, it’s a basic logistical issue of providing facilities,” said Fahy.
“Even though we have 27 acres there’s still enormous pressure for training facilities. You also have to maintain your pitches and treat them and that all costs money.
We’ll always be a club for the local community but it has to be run well too, like any good business and that takes time and effort from good people.
The 2016 census noted that 55% of Ratoath’s population are Dublin born. Davy Byrne, the former Dublin goalkeeper, is the senior football manager though their flagship team remains a homegrown operation despite the huge number of Sky Blues supporters now living in the locality.
Just two players from the county final panel — former Monaghan goalkeeper Shane Duffy and Donegal native Ciarán Ó Fearraigh, the captain — didn’t come through the club’s underage system.
“There’s families steeped in the parish and they have developed the club from the committee side,” said manager Byrne. “A lot of those names are synonymous with the village; the McGills, the McGowans, the Eiffes, they’re all there and it’s great.”
Where the club goes from here is anyone’s guess. Some of their players have won junior, intermediate, and senior titles in Meath in just seven years.
Tomorrow, they will play in the same Mullingar pitch where they won the 2015 Leinster intermediate final, beating Athlone.
Ratoath won the Junior B title this year too, underlining a depth of talent that will sustain the club into the future, and keep its committee members on their toes.