Ahead of today's All-Ireland club semi-final at LIT Gaelic Grounds,travelled to Borrisoleigh and 'lovely fair Ileigh' to find out what makes Tipperary's champions tick.
“Where is he? Where’s Dwyer? This lime kiln is waiting for him.”
Bobby Ryan, Tipperary’s All-Ireland captain of 1989, seeks a brother in arms, someone with whom he shared a doubled fraternity. Noel O’Dwyer proved one of the county’s vital hurlers during the 1970s into the 1980s. He was good in Premier colours and Bobby Ryan was good in the same rig-out. But beside the point, the Tipp stuff, in a sense.
Before all else, they are Borris-Ileigh. Here is the democracy of men long intimate, slags and cuts that cannot wait.
O’Dwyer huddles in the back of a nearby car, smothered with flu and not anxious to be prominent because we recently spoke.
Yet he rouses at mention of this summons, ambling over into the crossfire. Ryan’s smile devours itself: “Here he is, the man who was late for everything on the field as well. The lime kiln has three goals scored at this stage.”
O’Dwyer counts as famously laconic, a Roger Federer of one-liners. Although mostly a forward, he often hurled club at centre-back to Ryan’s wing-back. “Late?” he parries. “More like holding back, knowing you’ll miss the next ball, and I’ll have to cover in behind.”
Ryan chortles, delighted, bouncing on his toes.
Timmy Delaney is no less pleased. Another native, he won an U21 All-Ireland final with Noel O’Dwyer in 1967 and was part of the defence when 1981’s county senior title arrived. Jerry Kelly, a grandson, operates as Borris-Ileigh’s current full-forward.
Delaney approves of cordite so dry on a late December afternoon. He had ordered a muster. Bobby Ryan is on the run, dropping by for a photograph, in a quick break from farming in Ballyroan.
His interlocutor cannot resist: “Hey, Ryan. I see you are driving a fancy car, a Merc no less.
You must be going to collect money. Would you not drop into Stapleton’s later and buy a round of drink, or at least get one for our visitor from Kilkenny?
Tomorrow sees Borris-Ileigh take on St Thomas’ of Galway in an All-Ireland semi final. But no one, least of all Bobby Ryan, forgets Ballyhale Shamrocks and Slaughtneil Emmets as the other semi-finalists.
He takes a couple of steps forward and clocks my club jacket, a Ballyhale one.
Ryan can return serve the finest: “Now listen here, Dwyer. There can be no buying of drink for spies! But I wouldn’t mind a few at the same time. But duty calls…”
Then the grooved intimacy: “Still, if I hung around with ye much longer, this fella [indicates Delaney] might start singing. And that would be bad news for someone!”
Off he heads, in streamers of laughter, the conversational equivalent of a schemozzle in the square.
Ileigh involves a gradual climb out of Borrisoleigh village. “Most of the parish’s acreage is in the hills,”
Delaney explains. The road soon finds a beautiful height, where you can look right across the plain, North Tipperary shading into Mid Tipperary.
“You can make out Thurles clearly up here, at night, the lights of Thurles,” O’Dwyer notes. Then he says, half in wonderment: “When I was young, the 1950s and ’60s, there were only two or three houses. Now you nearly have another village.”
The spot we reach retains significance because of a mention in ‘Lovely Fair Ileigh’, the local anthem: “At evening hours in the old kiln field/You will see the boys so bold.”
The original Ileigh team trained on adjacent grass. A slip road, eliminating a bad bend, made a triangular island of the kiln many years ago. There was no question of removing it for maximum convenience. Around here, markers of the past are treasured in that low-key country way.
Local rivalries form another touchstone. Nowhere important in hurling is far from Borrisoleigh or Ileigh. All-Ireland success in 1987 remains a jewel with cutting lustre. Roscrea (1971) and Kilruane MacDonaghs (1986), neighbours in North Tipperary, are the county’s only other winners. These facts sparkle.
“Toomevara won a whole heap of senior finals in the 1990s and 2000s [11 in 17 seasons, 1992 to 2008],” Delaney begins. “They were sick and tired of coming into Borris’, kind of thumbing the noses.
“After one of the latter ones, they did fall into Stapleton’s, thinking: ‘We’re going to really stir it on the Borris’ lads.’ So this Toome’ native goes: ‘Jeez, did you hear the latest slice of news up around the back of The Devil’s Bit? During the week, there was a big raid. Special Branch were there, and the Army, and they found a bunker.
Looking for arms… So they opened it, and it was full to the neck of senior medals.
“Bucketfuls,” adds O’Dwyer, mordant.
Delaney continues: “Anyway, we had a man at the bar, listening but not listening. He cocked his pint, took a swallow, and let fly a skimmer: ‘Ah yeah, ah yeah… But I bet they didn’t find too many club All-Ireland medals among them!’
“Isn’t wit an amazing yoke?”
That soft Bobby Ryan snig about one man’s singing? Some traditions are best maintained by levity. Matters of death are enlivened by vigorous life, same as ivy resents sunlight. Part of the savour in this part of the world remains Timmy Delaney honouring a parish or a club favourite with ‘Lovely Fair Ileigh’ at their funeral.
“I’ll tell you how it started,” he confided earlier, as we parked in front of Stapleton’s public house in the village square. “When we won in 1981, after 28 years of a wait, we all came back here. A glorious summer’s evening… That square was full of people. We were all up on an old lorry, and we were introduced one by one to the crowd.
“And the Chairman of the time said: ‘Now, before we part, Timmy Delaney will sing ‘Lovely Fair Ileigh’ for us.’ And I sang it there, off that lorry. You’d hear a pin fall.”
He elaborates: “And Biddy Stapleton of that great pub, the bed of heaven to her, she made her way up through the crowd, and there were tears running down her face. And she beckoned me off the lorry, and she said: ‘Timmy, will you sing it at my funeral?’
“I said: ‘Biddy, will you stop… It isn’t the time to be talking that way.’ ‘No, no,’ she says. ‘No.’
“She said: ‘Listen, we’ll meet ye after, beyond.’ So we went on the usual, with the cup, and we ended up in Stapleton’s, fairly late. And she said it to me again: And I said: ‘Biddy, if you’d like that…’ And she said: ‘Timmy, you’ll make me that promise here and now.’ And Mick Cowan was there and probably Noel [O’Dwyer]. And I said: ‘I will. That’s alright.’ We went home.”
The inevitable denouement: “And the years rolled by, as they always do. Could be 12 or 13 years, after ’81. But we were having tea at home, myself and Sheila, and Biddy’s daughter called, and you could clearly see she was upset. She came in, and sat down, and said: ‘Look, Mammy’s after passing away in hospital in Nenagh, and before she passed away she said to me: ‘Make sure and tell Timmy Delaney that he is to keep his promise.’
“And when words were precious, and time was scarce… I’m not saying it was her last breath. But isn’t it unbelievable the impact an old song can have?”
Among the day’s muster is Timmy Ryan, a driving midfielder when Borris-Ileigh took the 1987 All-Ireland final against St Anne’s of Rathnure.
This man’s home place in Knocknaharney lies just down the road, a snug and handsome farmhouse set into a swell of cover. His brother Fitzy, a gentle presence and thoughtful about hurling, has come out to enjoy the cordite. Mick Ryan, their father, won a junior All-Ireland with Tipp in 1930.
We move to Ileigh Church in Lismakeeve.
Paddy D’Arcy, the man who began the association of Borris-Ileigh hurling with a cockerel, lived here. His house, which doubled as a shop, is no more, with some of its stonework subsumed into the graveyard wall. During the 1940s, D’Arcy started bringing a cockerel to matches, ever before Borrisoleigh and Ileigh amalgamated in 1948 and seized, as Borris-Ileigh, three senior titles between 1949 and 1953.
“We had disappointing results, of course, along the way,” Delaney allows. “But the club, as a club, thrived from the start. There was unity, immediate unity. And then you had the glamour of players like Seán Kenny and Jimmy Finn captaining Tipperary to win the All-Ireland. And then you had Bobby [Ryan] in 1989 and Brendan [Maher] in 2016, doing the same.”
Timmy Ryan recounts history’s less glamorous side: “I remember Paddy D’Arcy for selling paraffin oil. I thought the whole place was an oil refinery… He had tanks all over the place.”
The nudge of the somewhat younger man, as he nods at Delaney: “In the days of the rationing, during the time Timmy was born, in the second half of the 1940s, when it was hard to get tea, Paddy always had some. He was always able to buy. People came from a long way away to get cigarettes. Couldn’t get them anywhere else.”
Fitzy Ryan expands: “You could say Paddy was a man ahead of his time. He used cut out photographs from the newspapers, individual pictures of Borris-Ileigh hurlers. He’d stick them on a rosette, and sell them.”
That quiet country puckishness: “Paddy used always say: ‘Seán Kenny is a fierce easy sell.’ But he wouldn’t be shy about making the opposite point: ‘Cripes… So and So is impossible to get rid of!’ His rosettes had their own pecking order.
“The house that used to be there was always attached to the church. Paddy worked for the priest. That time, a priest would be fasting before saying Mass. Paddy would have an egg boiled for him afterwards.”
His brother smiles: “He was a great character and nearly made the club. To be honest, Paddy wasn’t a great man for Mass, and usually attended it from the horse’s stable, down underneath. He used put the egg in the water when he heard the bell for the Consecration.
"Father Quinlan was fierce particular about his egg, not too hard or not too soft… After a while, Paddy got it worked out, thanks to the bell.”
We pass into the graveyard. “The church was built in 1758,” Timmy Ryan details. “You can see the date up there, above the door, set into the stone. It’s what they call a ‘barn church’. There is beautiful timberwork in the rafters.”
We move through for another photograph at a grave out the back. Interred are three locals, Fred Bourke, Martin O’Shea and Patrick Russell. ‘Lovely Fair Ileigh’ remembers them as well. Arrested on December 23, 1922 during the Civil War, they met a firing squad in Roscrea on January 15, 1923.
“They were only young fellas, 17 years of age, all of them,” O’Dwyer remarks. “The whole thing left an awful sour taste around here. The Free Staters were only looking for a few victims, a squaring up.”
Martin O’Shea wrote to family the night before his end: “I ask you to have no spite for those who arrested us. We forgive every one of them. We forgive those who signed our executions. We forgive those who are about to execute us.” He signed off looking upwards:
We hope to meet you all in Heaven.
There is the amplified sound of birds gifted by a clear winter day. “That issue would still be a raw one in certain places and in certain houses,” Timmy Ryan observes. “You’d always want to know where you’d be talking.”
Strong sinews come with sharp edges. The surge that formed the War of Independence and its tragic aftermath drew on the GAA’s brand of cultural nationalism during the 1880s. Never backward in coming forward, Borrisoleigh took up the traces.
First off, Timmy Delaney had driven us to the other end of the parish, to a farmer’s field in Rathmoy, his native townland. He knows the story of every house and every ruin thereabouts. Éamonn Corcoran, the former Tipperary star, is married to his daughter Deirdre and they built a home on the same road.
We turn right off the main road into Borrisoleigh. “This is known as ‘The Bog Road’ to everyone,” Delaney relates. “There was a bog in Rathmoy, back now to the early days of the Association. Quite a lot of people lived down there. You’d never think that now, the way dynamics change. There was a distillery at the time in Borris’, and the turf from the bog was used to fuel it.”
O’Dwyer interjects: “This is a kind of ‘lost in time’ scenario for me… I haven’t been down this road, I’d say, in 35 or more years.” He quizzes his friend on the occupants of all the houses, new and old.
Tipperary’s inaugural senior final took place in Rathmoy on July 24, 1887. Thurles beat North Tipperary by 0-3 to 0-0. The old Borrisoleigh club, founded in 1886, was beaten in a semi-final. You can stand on that field of play. The hills in the background, which some natives compare to the seven hills of Rome, still fringe definite ground.
Timmy Ryan was never here before. “I heard the real old hurling used to be between the estates,” he reflects. “You’re talking the 18th century. There could have been dozens of men working in a single estate. There wouldn’t have been any trouble in making a team, even if it was 40-a-side.”
He gestures over left: “I know there was a fierce big estate, Cooke’s, around Fortwilliam.” A gesture right: “They would hurl one of the estates over there. A ball would be thrown in at a mid point, and they’d both try to get the ball to where the opposition came from. That was the origin of the phrase ‘to beat them back into their own parish’, so far as I know.”
Delaney salutes historical perspective: “Isn’t it some work of imagination to think of the throngs that were here for the first county final? It was a short length of time after The Famine, when starvation was rampant. How in God’s name did they do it? There were 42 men out playing, 21-a-side. How did they have the heart, let alone the physique and the spirit, to come out and engage one another in such physicality?
“What I gleaned from reading a contemporary report inis the specimen of manhood described. They were ferociously athletic men, and I think the reporter made a great job of capturing that aspect.”
We find warmest welcome in Stapleton’s, landing after our cold idyll in Ileigh. Breda Cowan, the woman of the house, is Biddy Stapleton’s daughter. She it was who called to the Delaneys’ house that evening.
Mick Cowan, her late husband, is the only man gone from the 1981 team. “Wouldn’t he just love to be around for all this,” she says, glancing at his photograph on the wall, making tea, making generous.
All the walls in this famous premises are a temple to Borris-Ileigh, to Tipp. Photographs compress the decades. Seán Kenny has never died, forever strutting as captain before the 1950 All-Ireland Final, when Kilkenny fell by a point, strutting in technicolour. There can be no dead.
Pints and half ones, relaxed musings and conviction striking its flint. “One of the hardest but best lessons we ever learned was after 1977 county final,” Timmy Delaney affirms. “Borris’ were beaten in a replay we were widely expected to win. Len Gaynor came into the dressing room afterwards and said a few things that went beyond the usual decorums. Len said: ‘We don’t have yere natural confidence, the Borris’ cockiness. Ye came in expecting to sweep us away. Maybe ye should reflect on that.’
“There were lads at the time not happy with Len saying all that, especially in a losing dressing room. But time went on and we began to see he was correct. Cockiness alone is not enough.
We were ready to win when we won in 1981.
History presses and history, in some places, crushes. Borrisoleigh is no such place. They still embrace a big day like no other Tipperary club.
Tomorrow’s chances? Tradition should caution as well as embolden. Timmy Ryan emphasises All-Ireland semi-final experience in early 1987 against Ballycastle McQuillans in Semple Stadium when Borris-Ileigh were fortunate to progress.
“We got through by eight points,” Ryan recalls. “But that margin didn’t tell the truth. We weren’t right going in, and could have got caught..
“The Ballycastle team came in here, into Stapleton’s, after Thurles. I asked one of them about their aim in travelling down.” Then perfect mimicry of the clenched North Antrim accent: “He says back: ‘.’ The Galway men will be the same.”
Fitzy Ryan laughs: “A friend of mine, outside the parish, said to me after we got over Ballygunner in the Munster final: ‘The drink is suiting yere lads.’ You have to get the balance, but you can’t be afraid of celebrations either.”
Not in any year. A photograph survives of 1887’s senior final. Behatted men and behatted women regard hurlers arrayed on the pitch in Rathmoy, the seven hills beyond.
Shown this photograph, while we were standing at the spot, Timmy Ryan turned curious. He wondered if the tree in that image might still be there. A candidate stands on the relevant bank.
“It could be,” Ryan says. “You have to get right up close to a tree before you can really tell its age.”