Though they lost last year's Monaghan senior hurling final, it wasn't the end of the 2021 road for Carrickmacross. The journey continued with an adventure to the Ulster junior final where they eventually lost to Armagh's Craobh Rua. Barry Connolly believes that experience has been key to the progress of the team this season.
"We learned a lot," says Carrickmacross Hurling Club chairperson Connolly, "and I'll tell you what, we were missing a few lads last year due to injuries, and a lads being away, that we have this year. They've strengthened the team.
"Even during the run in Ulster, we had a few footballers come back training with us. We have one or two lads not starting who can come on - we've strengthened up the bench."
This weekend, Carrickmacross face Monaghan hurling kingpins Castleblayney hoping to gain revenge for last year's final defeat. 'Blayney have won five championships in a row, and 19 of the last 23. In 2019, they reached the All-Ireland junior final, losing to a Dunnamaggin team led by nine-time Kilkenny All-Ireland winner Noel Hickey.
The trip to the 2021 Monaghan final was Carrickmacross' first since 2005, a game they also lost to 'Blayney. The intervening years saw seeds sown at underage level which are now beginning to poke above the senior soil as the club aim to win their first championship since 1975.
"The youth are coming up, the numbers coming out are brilliant," says Connolly.
"The team that's in the senior final, I would have had them from U12 up. It's just about trying to keep them.
"You're losing lads to Australia. That's why we're only coming back now, over the last 10 - 12 years, probably five, six, seven of our starting team to Australia. That didn't help when you were trying to win a senior championship. We won a few reserve championships back-to-back. Last year when we got to the championship final, it was maybe a bit too early.
"It's a very young team. There's an average age of around 24 - 25. It's brilliant. There's only one or two getting close to their 30s. The rest are 18 - 21. The good thing about it is that it's not the old school hurling, they don't need to be hassling and harrying. It's all hurling with them."
Carrick's numbers are supplemented by players from football clubs in the surrounding area. Monaghan hurling's top tier has just four teams. Along with Carrickmacross and Castleblayney, there are Monaghan Harps and Truagh. All four are lined up along the N2 vein which runs through Monaghan. Hurling moths from clubs on the edge are drawn to the flame.
There was a time when imports from other counties - people who moved to the area to work in its numerous factories - also played but those days are gone.
"We have lads from Donaghmoyne, Latton, Killanny," Connolly explains.
"You'd be lucky to grab the boys from Donaghmoyne because they'd have a choice between Castleblayney and Carrickmacross. You'll find that Castleblayney have a few Donaghmoyne players as well.
"You have four clubs that you're gathering from, but you might only have one from each of those clubs. Most of them are Carrick players."
When Carrickmacross last reached the final in 2005, Connolly, along with Aidan Slevin and Brian Whelan, were on the team. Slevin is now team manager, and Whelan a selector. In a football county like Monaghan, hurling will always play second fiddle. A small few keep the hurling fire lit as the football wind blows hard.
"My biggest worry is keeping them. We do have an awful struggle with football," says Connolly about the club's young players.
"We're in a senior final. On Tuesday night, we were out putting up bunting and flags. Now everyone is talking about hurling.
"I played football up to minor. You were given a choice at that time, and it's still going on these days. We have four or five dual players, but only two dual players who are consistently with us.
"I was given the choice, and I preferred hurling. My young fella, he's 16 and he's done the same thing. He doesn't play football any more, he's a hurler.
"It's a fight all the time. Carrickmacross Hurling Club is separate to Carrickmacross Emmets Football Club. We do use the ground, but we paddle our own canoe.
"We're at a point now where we're trying to figure out if we could get a field somewhere. Could we do something on our own? We have two pitches in Carrickmacross, but you have ladies football, you have Gaelic football, you have rounders, hurling, and everyone is fighting to get onto the pitch for training and matches. That's our biggest fight at the minute.
"I've been with the club since I was a child, played county as well. What you'd find is that you're always on the committee. We have a very small committee.
"Brian Whelan is the treasurer, I'm the chairman, Aidan Slevin is the vice-chairman, David Butler who played with us for years is the secretary. Once you get roped in, it's hard to get out of it. Days like Sunday are when you appreciate it."
In the first round of this year's championship, Carrickmacross earned a victory against Castleblayney - 4-11 to 3-10 - which they'd love to replicate this weekend.
"Those two games against Blayney this year mean nothing right now," says Connolly.
"You can never write Blayney off. We need to focus on Sunday.
"We played three games [in the Ulster Junior Championship last year]. The games we played in the quarter-final, semi-final were unbelievable. One of the games went to extra-time. We got to a final against Craobh Rua, but we froze a bit. You'd look at those teams and say they might have been stronger teams than 'Blayney, but boys never thought that. It's just all in their heads when they're playing 'Blayney.
"I think we need one or two of these senior championships to give it that extra push, and for people to really believe in us. We've always been the bridesmaids, never the bride. If we get one over, we could get five over. That is where I think we are."
Carrickmacross play Castleblayney at 3:30pm on Sunday, August 28th in the Monaghan Senior Hurling Championship final at the Truagh Gaels grounds.
Featured image: Carrickmacross Emmets Hurling/Facebook.