Strange kind of hurling rivalry between Offaly and Galway passes test of time

Leinster SHC semi-final: Galway v Offaly, 2pm ... The emergence of Offaly and Galway as hurling powers in the late 70s had a considerable element of interdependence.

Though the national landscape was dominated by Cork and Kilkenny at the time, results in the National League throughout the decade suggested that neither Galway nor Offaly were too far off the mark, and so it proved in 1980 and then 1981 when first the Tribesmen and then the Faithful County made their respective breakthroughs.

The frontier between the two bordering counties is narrow, but the closeness of the relationship was never more obvious than in the All-Ireland final of 1981 between them when Seán Silke of Meelick-Eyrecourt marked Brendan Birmingham of Lusmagh.

Silke’s home townland of Esker is situated right on the Shannon Callows and looks across the river into the Birmingham’s home turf.

Connections were cemented even further when Silke’s sister Ann married Alo Horan, brother of Pádraig, who captained that 1981 Offaly team. And if Horan’s club of St. Rynagh’s had their way, Silke would have lined out on the other side in that final.

“We tried to entice Seán to transfer over to us in Banagher. He was an ambitious young hurler and at the time he wasn’t getting a run with Galway, but in hindsight we were stupid to do it. He wasn’t for turning and he got his All-Ireland with Galway in 1980,” recalled Horan.

The bridge on the western frontier of Banagher town is the only cross point between the two counties and at times, relationships between the citizens from either side grew a little heated.

“There was fantastic mutual respect, and if there was any animosity, it certainly didn’t go too far or didn’t catch our attention,” said Silke. “Both counties were used to the role of underdogs, looking in at the big counties, so it was great to see the game spreading out a bit. That hadn’t really happened since Limerick emerged as a force to take on the big powers.”

On the field at inter-county level, Galway prevailed in the 1980 semi-final by just two points, but Offaly then took control of the rivalry, winning finals in 1981 and 1985 as well as in the 1984 semi-final. The 1981 loss was keenly felt in Galway as they let slip a seven-point lead in the second half, eventually succumbing to a goal from Johnny Flaherty, a native of Kinnitty born to Galway parents.

“Galway people often talk of that as one that got away, but we always felt that we could beat them. I remember hurling on Railway Cup teams with lads from Kilkenny and Wexford, and they always said that if you got close to them towards the end, you’d find a way to win,” said Horan.

Silke spoke of how the emergence of both counties had roots in the strong representation that they each had at the Fitzgibbon Cup.

“Our arrival on the intercounty stage coincided with a lot of our players coming to prominence at third level. We could compare ourselves against the best of the rest of the country and we saw that we measured up.”

However just as that metric heralded both counties’ ascension to prominence, so too it illustrates why tomorrow’s clash is likely to be quite one sided. Among the eight quarter-finalists in this year’s Fitzgibbon, 28 panel members were from Galway. Offaly had four, of which just one (Padraig Guinan of Drumcullen/UCD) saw any playing time in the knockout stages. Horan accepts that the signs aren’t good for the Midlanders.

“I’d be fearful, we’re at a very low ebb right now, ” he admits.

“Our guys are trying hard and doing their best but this Galway team is different. I fancy them to win the All Ireland — they have great players, their feet are firmly on the ground and I think they’ll be very hard to stop. I’d be happy enough with a 12 or 13 point defeat tomorrow, but I don’t think we’re going to come remotely close.”


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