This rural village is under siege by a relentless volley of rain that will last long into the night. Five well-wrapped men stand in a semi-circle within the local clubhouse. They patiently wait, seeking shelter in the home dressing room. Upon entry a clear instruction is delivered: ‘Get back in your car and follow us.’
A short journey further up the road and then you are ushered in. A more suitable location has been found. Slowly they begin to unravel layers and pull a table into the middle of the room.
Chairs are distributed and two pots of tea are set in the centre. “Tis the only spot big enough that has heating too” explains local man John Cunnane. With that, they begin to tell the tale of Tooreen GAA, the county’s only hurling club, outlined by five clubmen in the back room of Ave Maria Nursing Home, Tooreen, County Mayo.
Tooreen is a tiny village of just over 200 people near Ballyhaunis. This Saturday they enter the uncharted territory of an All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final where they face Kilkenny's Ballyragget in Cusack Park. It’s an accomplishment that has been coming ever since they met and formed in 1957. Two members of that original party were a 14-year-old Michael Nolan and an 11-year-old Tony Henry.
Michael centre, Tony right.
An older and wiser Michael Nolan still recalls that first meeting with fondness. He’s been in the village his entire life, and seen the sport grow from idea to club:
I don’t know why hurling became established in Tooreen. It’s a football area. Michael Henry, Tony’s brother, he had the idea. He was away at school; came back and told us we would start hurling. He got to like it there and encouraged us to join up with him. All the lads did. We formed a club, the officers of that club were the lads themselves, no one was over 18!
Michael’s brother, Tony Henry jogged along after him that day.
My brother Michael started the club, when he was a young fella about 16 or so. The Christian Brothers came around to the schools recruiting lads to go to college and get educated. So, my brother Michael was 14 and he went off to Galway, with one other guy. I never heard him say much about the brothers, I don’t know what happened there. He only stayed a year. But during that time, he learned to play hurling and he learned music. He’s been involved in both since then. He came home at 15, but there was no talk about hurling in Mayo then.
He went to Ballyhaunis for work, to Lynch’s there, training as a mechanic. He used to cycle in and out with the other local lads and of course Michael on the way home was obsessed with this hurling. He’d tell the group of them, ‘we have to start a hurling team’ he was about 16 at this stage. ‘We’ll give it a go’ we said. At the very first meeting in 1957, all the lads were young. It would be unheard of now that 15 or 16s-year-olds would start a club, but Michael was on. We met and all paid our membership- a shilling!
The group was small but open to this novel game. Unfortunately, they had one major problem.
There must have been between 12 or 13 of us. We’d an issue from the get-go, nobody had hurleys! My brother Michael then got a deal, down in Gurtymadeen, near Loughrea. Imagine, this lad came down from Tooreen and put all his money on the table, £3.60 he had. He looked at them and said ‘how many hurls can we get for this?'
So that’s the first hurleys they got, a local man made me a hurley. It was some specimen, like a hockey stick slash baseball bat. All most of us had was boards, there were very few proper hurleys.
Now Tooreen’s games are some of the best attended in Mayo. They will bring a brigade with them on Saturday, while the team are set to travel to Limerick the day before. It is a world away from the experiences of that first team, as Tony explains:
The first match was against Swinford, all the lads traveled in a pick-up truck to the game.
The whole team went into a pick-up truck to get to Swinford, but there was a guard in Kilkelly in those days. So we’d to get out just before, walk through the village and get in at the far side. On we went then.
Michael interjects then. It wasn’t only the means of travel that were underwhelming. Their support was significantly reduced too.
The parents weren’t necessarily against it, but they definitely thought it wouldn’t last. Our village priest, Fr. Horan had the same attitude as well. He supported us, but he didn’t think it would catch on. We weren’t allowed bring the hurleys to school.
It was seen as dangerous. Sure they had never seen it before.
In the 1950s, there was a traditional pattern of life in rural Ireland. All these men were born there but inevitably graduated away from it. Yet Tony was an outlier.
There was 15 or 16 at the start. By 1960, all those guys that played on the first team were gone. Emigrated to England. One of my first games was under-14 against Belmullet in 1960. By the time I was 16, there was only two of the team left in Tooreen. I was one. The only reason we were left was that we went to boarding school in St. Marys., Galway. If we hadn’t gone to boarding school we’d be gone to England. Then there’d be no hurling. It would be finished. It survived because in summer, at the holidays we’d try arrange a bit of playing. Michael remained too!
I used to get after them and say 'we’ll have to arrange a bit of hurlin.’
This is a claim Michael accuses Tony of downplaying:
Ah you were the driving force. When you came home from Galway you near reared up on us to be playing!
Michael wasn’t long firing back:
Somebody had too!
From the offset, Tooreen was to be just a hurling club. That was their identity. There was lots of football clubs, some dual, but Tooreen were dedicated to hurling only.
Time and time again, the village demonstrated their dedication to the game:
All the guys went to England, but two of them used to fly home for certain matches. They chartered a little four-seater to come home for one of our first county finals, flew into Castlebar. The match was in Holymount. They used to fly over the village, t’was great excitement actually, near more than the game. They had to get a taxi in from Castlebar, tog out in the car and were just ready to go out on the pitch.
In 1966 Tooreen secured a historic County Final victory. In the crowd that day was Jackie Coyne. A part of the next generation, that success awakened in him the prospect of assuming the mantle one day:
They reached the senior final in 66’. The boys were playing, I went over as a spectator at the time and I remember there was a number of fellas from the local area playing but there was others that I didn’t know. They had been working in Ballyhaunis. Tooreen weren’t expected to win but they actually did. I remember feeling a great sense of pride, that a place like Tooreen could make headlines when it came to hurling.
So, Jackie joined. He took a leading role in the club and began to attend regular ‘meetings.’
Our meetings were held in a local shop, that was owned by Maggie and Austin Henry. They were very informal, 10 or 15 minutes about hurling and the rest was having the craic. She’d a television I remember, which was an added attraction. There was usually wrestling on. It was such a proud feeling. Tooreen had been famous for its dance hall, but now it is famous for something else.
John Cunnane is one of the many Tooreen players who went on to play county hurling. After he retired he coached the senior team, and is still heavily involved in the club. He credits the club’s success to the three aforementioned men.
With the two guys here and Jackie later on, you had a consistency of a core number of people that never went away. They remained enthusiastic all the time. You had the core people that were officers, trainers, managers, mentors, masseuse! They did everything. We were put on the map thanks to that, and that sense of pride hasn’t gone away since.
If anything, the only change now is the distance of the commute.
Our current captain is Jackie’s son. He in Australia. He is here now. He came back for the game. He was home for the summer and he’s back now for the semi-final.
Three generations of the Coynes.
There are undeniable highs and lows any club must enjoy and endure. Saturday may be the pinnacle of the club’s history, but John points out it has not been a straightforward progression.
Every club would think you deserve the success. We’ve had lots of barren years. When I was playing we won ten in a row. Then we lost two finals by a point and we won another scatter. After 03, we didn’t win for 10 years. We had stints where we couldn’t buy a match, could not win. Numbers then dwindled. Clubs are hit by emigration, nowhere more so than here. On top of that then, we lost our captain in a tragic car accident in Australia. His brother, Cathal, is on the team. That was an awful blow, to the community and the team. It really shook us.
In 2010 Adrian Freeman was traveling in Australia when he was killed in a car crash. He was just 24. His father, Seamus, played for Tooreen in the 1970s. Adrian was Mayo’s top scorer in the NHL two years in a row and had been awarded player of the year by Tooreen in 2009.
This is why a search of ‘Tooreen clubhouse’ yields no results on Google Maps and ensures one arrives 20 minutes late. It’s not the village name you should be searching for at all, it is The Adrian Freeman Memorial Park.
Tommy Feaney is a selector now. He coached Adrian and knew the team had only one thought post their Connacht final success.
This one’s for Adrian, of course. They came from Dublin first. He was a young lad, but one day I meet Jackie in town. Back then I wouldn’t have known Jackie that well, but he still pulled me over he said, ‘That young Freeman, he has it.’ He was so shy when he was a lad, but he just had the touch. Jackie said it ‘he’ll be a good one.’ Above everything, just a nice lad.
Since 2005 the Mayo county winners have progressed into the Connacht Intermediate championship. This is the first year any team from the county won it. Working with this team day in, day out, Tommy sees a drive like few before:
I think we all knew they could go that bit further. Every year we all meet. When we had a meeting this year there was definite belief in the team. We knew they could definitely win a county title and were well capable of winning a Connacht. There is belief we can go a step further now. It is a serious team there. It is the first year in a good while we have a panel.
Given his son is captaining the team, Jackie has only hope in his heart now. He’s proud enough of the club as it is.
Okay it’s a bit of a journey into the unknown and hopefully they will do the business but whatever happens what they have done this year is remarkable and well deserved. Everybody in the community is proud of them. What they have achieved is just... It has given people a sense of place and identity. A spirit and a passion.
Hurling has not always been welcomed in Mayo. Tooreen’s success has given the county a certain impetus, but Tony clarifies throughout there was resistance.
They did pull out the teams at one stage. They said at the time, hurling for Mayo was only catering to outside players. Now that was the case in places, when I played we won the league in ‘66. We played Armagh in the Division 3 final in Armagh and beat them. I was the only one from Tooreen playing that day. There were only two guys from Mayo on the team. All the rest were outsiders. There were no natives really until Tooreen got going.
But as Tony explains, this was the wild west.
Back in the day when we were started hurling it was all illegal players. There was a question mark over everybody. Sure. when we won a county final in ’63, that was our first day getting together. Myself and Michael went around the locality gathering anyone who was around and would play.
Michael: Ha! We had no training sessions.
This is an anecdote Tommy the selector feels should go unshared:
Jesus Tony be quiet, those medals will be taken back off you!
Michael and Tony know how it worked in the early days. They laugh when they remember sides they put out, or teams that they faced. Michael still bears a grudge about the 68’ final.
It was a team mostly made up of Galway lads, they were working on the Moy drainage scheme that the Corrib scheme had just finished. All the drivers and machinery moved to Ballina. So, they put in a team from Ballina and they just beat us. We lodged an objection and that went to the Connacht Council, I wouldn’t like to go into the details of that. Maybe that’ll be your book! But trust me, that team was made up of Galway hurlers!
Tony, first front left. Michael, third back left.
As the evening progresses, there is a gradual realisation that this was not an interview. Five gentlemen met and reminisced over a truly unique club’s journey, through good times and bad. One journalist got in the way as I pushed the recorder closer to whoever was speaking.
After generously giving up an evening to talk, it is finally left to John to contextualize this current team, and the journey they have undertaken.
A number of the lads have been coming for a few years. They won a Féile when Jackie was manager and they're probably at their peak now. Middletown who are in the other semi-final, we beat them in the final at the time. No doubt some of those lads were in that team at the time. We’re dead excited for our own semi-final, but it is a Kilkenny team.
Of course, there is that little fear. But there could be that fear in Ballyragget, sure who wants a Mayo hurling team beating them!