BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS have packed a lot into their 37-year existence.<
They are joint top of the All-Ireland senior club hurling roll of honour alongside Birr with four titles; are one behind the magnificent Offaly club in Leinster crowns, on six, and are second in the Kilkenny senior championship behind Tullaroan with 13.
Tomorrow they play Dublin champions Ballyboden St Enda’s in another AIB Leinster club semi-final. The joint manager of the team, with former Kilkenny keeper James McGarry, is Michael ‘Mick’ Fennelly – who has been there since the beginning of the club.
He recalled: “There were always good hurlers in the parish but it was split, three teams – Ballyhale, Knocktopher and Knockmoylan. In 1972 a lot of the older generation got together, including my father, the Heaslips, Francie Houlihan, John Fitz along with a few more and formed the new club.
“We had two junior teams in 1972, won the junior county a year later, the intermediate in 1974 and so we were senior in 1975. We met The Village (James Stephens) in the semi-final of the county that year; three games it took to decide it but we were pipped at the post and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to us – we were too young that year, but we drove on from there.
“Our turn came in 1978, we beat Johnstown in the county final. They had a lot of county men on their team – Hendersons, Delaneys, Fitzpatrick, Watson, – so they were strong favourites. We were still only coming, but we won; that was the start of it and we never looked back.”
Over the next 14 years, Ballyhale Shamrocks went on a magnificent run, won nine Kilkenny county titles, four Leinsters, three All-Irelands, with Mick playing a full part in every game, albeit in a variety of positions.
“Ah, I played all over the field. I started off in the forwards, moved to midfield, then to the backs. I played every position except goalkeeper.”
You wonder though – even with all the Fennellys from that period, Liam and Ger especially, with Henry Shefflin, Cha Fitzpatrick and young Michael Fennelly (Mick’s son) now adding to that legacy, probably the most famous hurling son of that famous parish is a man who never played for the Shamrocks at all.
In the days when the three villages were still independent republics, Frank Cummins played with his native Knocktopher, but his work as a Garda brought him to Cork city in 1970, where he fell in with mighty Blackrock.
Frank went on to win six Cork senior titles with Blackrock, four Munsters, and three All-Irelands, the last of those in 1979 when, in a bitter twist, the Shamrocks were the victims.
Add Frank’s achievements at inter-county level with Kilkenny and Leinster – eight All-Ireland senior (one as a sub), six Railway Cup, four All-Stars, three National Leagues, one hurler-of-the-year – and, well, you get the drift. This guy was one of hurling’s greats. But, what if he’d never left? What would the fledgling Shamrocks have won then?
“Someone would lose his place anyway, that’s for certain!” Mick laughed. “He tried to come back a few times but it didn’t work out – he was winning championships in Cork anyway with Blackrock, so he was happy enough there. Aiden (full-back on the current team) is his nephew, a strong chap as well.”
No matter, they rapidly established themselves as a team to be feared, inside and outside the county.
Off the field too, the Shamrocks have grown, developing a fine new GAA centre on the edge of Ballyhale. “We had a pitch in Knocktopher, in the Carmelites. There were no dressing-rooms – we’d change in the cars, drive home to shower!”
Those improvements have been matched on the field also with a new generation from the Shamrocks again making a name for themselves, with four Kilkenny titles in a row plus two more Leinsters and one All-Ireland. Ballyboden, however, pose a real threat to any further progress tomorrow.
“Dublin are putting in a mighty effort with hurling at the moment, and a lot of those boys have experience with the county at senior and U21. They won three-in-a-row in Dublin this year, beaten in the Leinster final the year before last by Birr, so they’re knocking on the door. They also did the double in Dublin (hurling and football), so they’re not going to be intimidated by coming to Nowlan Park; they’ll give it everything, nothing to lose – we’ll have to be very careful, or we could get caught.”
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