Of all the signs and banners that have shot up along the Kildysart Road to celebrate the magical adventure of the local hurling team, the one by the Kellys’ front gate probably best encapsulates the boldness and historical nature of it.
‘2016 — the Ballyea Rising.’
It was here in this house some of the first and the most significant shots were fired. It’s here in this home where some of the key signatories of the Ballyea proclamation and revolution reside.
You can’t tell the story of the Ballyea Rising without Tony Kelly, and you can’t tell the story of Tony Kelly without his father.
Like Tony Kelly, Donal Kelly played minor and U21 for Clare and was playing adult hurling for Ballyea at 16.
“I played when we had nothing. Absolutely nothing. When we won the junior B county final in ’76, we had three subs and 17 jerseys.
“We didn’t even have a field to train in. The one that we would use, we’d have to put down two stones at each end for goalposts.”
In time, the club would secure its own field and identify it should be close to the local primary school. For Tony and his buddies, it would become their playground, street corner, the centre of their universe. Listening to them speak about where they sported and played, you’d think their golden childhood was in the 1950s, not the noughties.
They hardly ever watched television during the day. They were always outside.
“In the summer, you’d cycle up to the field at 10[am] and you wouldn’t come home until half-five,” says Tony Kelly. “We mightn’t even be hurling. We’d play rugby, football. We’d make up a sport.”
Up in the field they never seemed to tire, never seemed to get hungry. A water tap behind the dressing room — “how good or bad it was for you, I don’t know” — was all they needed to sustain them. At times alright if they called over to Jack Browne’s house beside the field, or Gearoid ‘Gudgie’ O’Connor’s on the other side, Jack or Gudgie’s mother would feed them all. Then they’d bolt out the door again.
There was a core group of them. Kelly. Jack. Gudgie. Joe Neylon. A few lads that are no longer hurling now: Eanna McInerney, Stephen Long, Vinnie Lillis. Paul Flanagan was a year or two older than them all but after a while, he’d fall in with them or they’d fall in with him.
They all brought something to the party. In Gudgie’s case, it was a sense of devilment, a wildness, a bite. He came from farming stock; often the rest of the gang would see him running through the fields, having just milked the cows at home. Long before he’d have to endure and navigate the Cratloe Woods as part of Davy Fitzgerald’s Clare regiment, Gudgie would lead out some of the Ballyea’s U12s’ more colourful expeditions.
“We brought them over to Ballybeg Woods one Saturday,” Donal Kelly smiles. “There’d be six on a team: five lads would be blindfolded and the leader then would have to bring them around without anyone breaking the chain. All six had to keep holding hands. ‘We have to go left here. Be careful here...’ Gudgie would listen to no one! You should have seen him after! He was torn alive! He’d go through briars, brushes and nettles to win. He just did not want to be beaten.
“A few years later, we brought them to Liscannor. Fergie said at one stage, ‘Right, we’re playing Sixmilebridge in this final next week. What are you going to do, Gudgie, when I ask you to do something? If I asked you to swim across that river, would you do it?!’
“‘I would!’ says Gudgie. And off he went! He jumped into the water and started swimming away!”
“If you didn’t know him,” says Tony Kelly of his Ballyea and Clare team-mate, “you’d be kind of looking at him, ‘I’m going to stay the fuck away from him!’ It’s like when you’re playing U12 when you’re maybe 10 or 11, you see a strong lad on the opposition, and you say to yourself, ‘Jesus, I don’t want to be marking him.’”
Jack Browne always had a similar fearlessness and cutting about him. Donal remembers an U12 match when he went down injured. Jack’s mother Joan, a nurse, was on the line, ready to give first aid for any of the team. But when her own son got a belt and she ran on, she was summarily dismissed. “Fuck off, Mommy! Fuck off!” A few years later, he broke his collarbone three weeks out from the U16 county final but any medic who told him he wouldn’t be able to play got the same answer as his mommy. He still lined out, at centre back, Seanie McMahon ’95 stuff.
Kelly relied more on finesse and fleet of foot. Fergie O’Loughlin used to place a huge emphasis on footwork in his coaching, having them up in the hall, darting around cones and fast-stepping through ladders, while at home he’d often do something as simple and basic as skipping rope, much to Donal’s approval.
At nine, himself and Gudgie were already playing U14D hurling, both scoring machines in the full forward line. One wet day out in Bodyke, Donal urged the selector to throw in a dry ball that would suit the two skilful little fellas inside, only for the selector to famously declare in front of his wife that he had no more balls, his balls were all wet.
Back then, Tony was one-sided, but by 11, he’d cop the value of being able to strike off his right as well. For hours, Jack Browne and himself would be up in the field hitting the ball back and forth to each other, left and right, left and right. Soon the two of them were hurling Tony Forristal for Clare, just like Paul Flanagan the year before them.
In 2006, they were all in the community hall the Sunday after Tony Griffin won his All Star and saw club president John McNamara cry. Before Griffin, no one outside of Clare had ever heard of Ballyea, and no one from Ballyea was really expected to play outside of Clare. Now when they went up to the field in the evenings, they could see an All-Star in operation, hoping that he in turn might see them.
When they’d be up there though, they reckoned the sessions weren’t as intense as their own training with Donal and Fergie with the U12s.
“No one trained harder than us, even at U12,” says Tony Kelly. “We’d train three nights a week, then play maybe two matches at the weekend. If we were going up to Galway on a Saturday, we might play one team at the far end of the city at 11am, then play another team on the way home at 2pm.”
At U14 they’d win Féile, going on to represent Clare on the national stage, losing only to the eventual winners, Castleknock, starring Ciarán Kilkenny. The real nemesis and yardstick though was Sixmilebridge. At U12, 14, 16, minor, U21, the two of them kept meeting in finals, league and championship.
“I don’t think we’d have been as good without the Bridge,” says Tony Kelly. “I remember playing them at U12 and Jamie Shanahan and Seadna Morey could hit the ball 70 yards left and right.
“That’s why you were up at the field. You didn’t hate them but there was such a tension between us that when you first got onto the Clare minor panel, there wasn’t a word spoken between us. I don’t know if that’s why Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor paired Gudgie and myself with two Bridge lads for gym work. After that we’d become the best of friends with them, but all the way up underage they made us better. You were training to beat them.”
Over the years, they’d share some mighty highs and experience some mighty lows. There was the thrill of winning Munster minor titles and Under-21 All Irelands with Clare, then the heartbreak two years ago of Gudgie’s father tragically dying on the family farm. For those few days, the same field that Gudgie used to dash through to make training was instead a car park to accommodate the thousands of well wishers who came from all over Clare to pay their respects.
Although well aware they’re the fortunate generation, the first to have hurled nothing but senior for Ballyea, that involved its own frustrations. For their first few years, they were continuously in relegation play-offs. In 2013, they’d make the county semi-final but the following two seasons failed to get past the quarter-final.
With Kelly, O’Connell, Flanagan and Browne all on the county panel, there was a nagging sense they were under-achieving.
Around this time last year the leaders of the old Field Gang — Kelly, Flanagan, Browne, Gudgie and Joe Neylon — called to the house of Robbie Hogan, their senior manager of four years, asking him to stay on for a fifth.
“I’d say his wife Catherine was shaking her head as we were coming in,” says Paul Flanagan. By the time they were leaving though, Hogan himself was nodding his head.
Why was 2016 the year it clicked? Luck, for one thing, maintains Tony Kelly; had they won the first round against Éire Óg rather than lose it, they might have played Cratloe in the next winners’ round and lost there, failing to get the momentum which they did.
Momentum has been a huge factor in their success. Instead of everyone being away playing football with their club or county, for the last few months they’ve been playing and training virtually exclusively for Ballyea.
“Even going out together after the matches has been massive,” says Kelly.
“I always knew [Clare and Cooraclare footballer] Pearse Lillis was mad. I didn’t know though he was that mad! And then you’re coming back the next evening into training, talking to other lads about how mad Pearse is.”
The last few months, they’ve played the best hurling of their lives.
In the drawn county final O’Connell’s hand was like a magnet; Time and time again the ball was drawn to him. Towards the end of the replay, Jack Browne made a catch as spectacular and as iconic in Ballyea folklore as Ken McGrath’s famous catch at the end of the 2004 Munster final. Kelly all through was Kelly.
For Flanagan, the final whistle the day they won the county triggered an enormous sense of relief. All those team meetings through the years urging lads to give more commitment. All those chats bemoaning how little they actually trained together, with so many fellas away with the county or playing football with some other club. All the texts to arrange to meet Robbie and to persuade him to give them one more year, one more chance. All the grief. All the hassle.... Just like that, it was all worth it.
For Donal Kelly, the struggle was even longer and greater, the win even sweeter. He thinks of someone like John McNamara, who passed away shortly after the 2013 All Ireland final. The same John who was tearful the night Tony Griffin came home with his All-Star. He cried when Ballyea won the U21 county as well. What would he have been like to have seen Ballyea win the senior county?
“For Ballyea to win the Canon Hamilton, I’d have been happy. Winning Munster I could never have seen in my wildest dreams.
“Look where we came from. For God’s sake, we didn’t know what hurling was! One year, we played in the Barefield tournament and Mickey O’Sullivan broke his hurley. He didn’t have a second one. Nobody went around with two hurleys in those days, no one playing for Ballyea anyway. Michael McNamara, who was county secretary at the time, went to his car where he’d some children’s hurleys in the boot. He came back with one and gave it to Mickey. It would barely have been up to his knee, never mind his hip.
“‘Sure that’s not a hurley!’ Mickey said. ‘That’s a spoon!’ We’ve come a long way since that.”
Donal continues to do his bit for the club. This past summer he took the U12s, with some help from Tony. On Stephen’s Day, he’ll be out on the Wren, driving Áine Cotter and her band of musicians around the parish in the back of a van, looking to raise funds for the club. Most years they’d typically get a fiver per house. This year, he reckons, they could get up to €20.
After all, it’s 2016 — the year of the Ballyea Rising.
Field gang fulfils its potential
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved