Hurling in counties outside the traditional powerhouses is an ember faithfully kept burning by a dedicated few.
In North Kerry - south of the River Feale and west of the N69 where eight senior clubs are located - that ember became a blaze which will never go out.
It is players from those eight who comprise the majority of the group which on Sunday contests Kerry’s first Joe McDonagh Cup final.
There is a handful of players from outside the big eight on the Kingdom's extended panel this year. If Kerry hurling is to really prosper, those clubs must prosper and the game must grow outside the North Kerry microclimate.
There are buds appearing in Kilgarvan, Killarney and Tralee but there are also those who feel the county board could be doing much more to help.
A HURLING OUTPOST
In Kilgarvan earlier this month, they erected a wall. It wasn’t designed to keep people out. It was about keeping them in. Build it and they will keep coming is the philosophy of John Foley.
Sitting seven miles from Kenmare and seven from the Cork border, Kilgarvan is most famous for being Healy-Rae country. Jackie Healy-Rae, father to current TDs Michael and Danny, won county hurling titles with the local club in the 1950s.
The village is also now home to a South Kerry club’s first hurling wall. It was partially funded by a grant and the club is still fundraising to pay the balance.
“In Kilgarvan, hurling would the first game, football would be second. That's unusual in Kerry but that's the way it is,” says club chairman Foley.
“When the first Kerry hurling championship was played back in 1889, Kilgarvan were one of the five teams that took part in it. There's always been a hurling team in Kilgarvan.”
Hurling being the priority is a common component with the North Kerry clubs but that is where the similarities end.
“It's hard to get funding for hurling in Kerry, especially in South Kerry,” Foley says.
“We're isolated in a pocket away from North Kerry. For them, there's North Kerry Championship, North Kerry League. It's only the county competitions that we can actually play in. We're near Cork and we play a lot of challenge games there.”
Despite their distance from the warmth of the hurling blaze in the north, the game continues to bloom in Kilgarvan. On the Kerry panel, they have Daniel Casey. He played a few minutes against Meath in the opening round of the McDonagh Cup.
Today was another great day for Kilgarvan GAA Club!
Kilgarvan GAA put up the first hurling wall in a South Kerry Club!
Our chairman John Foley and secretary JoAnn Murphy began working on this project last March during the first lockdown. pic.twitter.com/9dNGobbBnp
— Kilgarvan GAA Club (@GaaKilgarvan) December 3, 2020
In the last 12 years, they have won six intermediate county titles. That includes consecutive championships in 2018 and 2019. Had they made it three in a row, the plan was to take the step up to senior level but they lost to Tralee Parnells in the semi-final.
There is an optimism, laying on solid foundations, that Kilgarvan would be competitive in the senior championship. Last year, 10 of the club’s players were on a combined Kenmare/Kilgarvan/Dr Crokes team which won the U21 county championship, defeating a Shane Conway-led Lixnaw in the final.
Their senior team has an average age of just 22. Of Foley’s class in school, he estimates that 60 - 70 per cent emigrated but the exodus is no longer as substantial. People are sticking around.
Obstacles do exist. Kilgarvan is a dual club. On the Kerry minor teams which won five All-Irelands on the bounce, they had three players: Donal O’Sullivan, John Mark Foley and Gearóid Fennessy.
“For dual clubs in Kerry, it's very hard,” says the Kilgarvan chairman.
“You could have a football championship match one weekend and a hurling a championship match the following weekend. It's hard to give 100 per cent commitment.
“Pressure comes on players when they are in county teams. They'll be told they could play but they know if they do, [it'll hurt their chances].”
Stronger competition down south would also aid their development.
“There used to be three senior teams, in the past, down in South Kerry and you'd like to see it back that way,” says Foley.
“The three clubs that are there (Kilgarvan, Kenmare and Dr Crokes) it would be great if more was put into them to get them to that level. Then start other teams underage in South Kerry. You have to start underage and build your way up.
“It seems to be the same clubs that have been there for the last 100 years.”
Andrew Morrissey has a curious detail about his young Tralee Parnells teammate Tadhg Brick.
“I'm open to correction on this,” says Morrissey.
“He has a bizarre stat in that he made his National League debut before he ever played a senior hurling match with his club.
“Parnells only fielded a senior hurling team for the first time in 2019. Our first game wasn't until April in the North Kerry League. Tadhg had made his National League debut with Kerry in March.”
Tadhg Brick: The James Ryan of Kerry hurling.
Best of luck to the Kerry Hurlers in the Joe McDonagh Cup Final particularly our past pupils Tadhg Brick Tralee Parnells Dan Goggin Causeway Tomás O'Connor Crotta O'Neills Michael O'Leary Abbeydorney Brendan O'Leary Abbeydorney & Shane Nolan Crotta O'Neills @Kerry_Official pic.twitter.com/80WYpHQQdl
— CBS The Green - An Edmund Rice School (@thegreencbs) December 9, 2020
Head out the road from Abbeydorney or Ardfert towards Tralee and you’re leaving the hurling heartland behind. For a long time, a cold wind blew on the game in Kerry’s biggest town.
That began to change with the resurrection of Tralee Parnells in 2012. Last year, a century on from the club winning consecutive county titles, the reborn Parnells once again played adult championship hurling.
They beat Abbeydorney in their first game and reached the semi-final of the intermediate championship where they lost to Kilgarvan. They went a step further this year, defeating Kilgarvan in a thrilling extra-time last-four game, only to be beaten by Dr Crokes in the final.
“We were expecting it but it was probably a surprise package for neutrals and outsiders,” says Morrissey.
“For us, playing in a second year as an adult team, to get to a county final was massive."
Morrissey is a Nemo Rangers man now knee-deep in Kerry hurling and the lives of the those populating the Kingdom.
He presents the breakfast show on Radio Kerry and is also a hurling analyst for the station. He’ll be at Croke Park on Sunday providing radio commentary alongside Mike O’Halloran.
The Corkman came to Tralee in 2008 and started playing football and hurling with Austin Stacks. He still plays football with Stacks but has moved to Parnells for hurling.
“When I was finishing with the Stacks lads, I was one of the youngest there in my early 30s,” he says.
“We were getting that point where we were struggling to field a team.
“There's a few of us that call ourselves 'The Foreigners', blow-ins to the club. We were all there, day one, when the senior team first played in 2019. We're part of the furniture at this stage.”
Though Parnells have the odd player from Tipp, Clare and Cork, the majority of the senior panel have come through the club’s academy. Their catchment area is wide. The net brings in players from the town’s football clubs and the Tralee hinterland not covered by the North Kerry teams. Some travel from Dingle to play.
“We really are a very close bunch,” says Morrissey.
“What's weird about it is that almost everyone is from different clubs. You have Stacks lads, Na Gaeil lads, Ballymac lads, Castleisland lads, whatever. There's no moaning, no bitching, none of that.
“The [Tralee Parnells] guys who are in the Kerry U20 team (Tadhg Brick, Devon Byrnes and Darragh Reen), they are all fine hurlers who'd stand out on any pitch.
“Some of these guys are successful footballers as well. They've been in minor county football finals, some of them have been on the Na Gaeil All-Ireland [Junior] club winning team.
“These guys know what it's like to win and win big. They're competitive. These guys are not turning up to Tralee Parnells just for a bit of craic for an hour. They come because they want to hurl and win.
“I'm 33 and there are a couple of guys who are just 18. They have absolutely no problem pulling me aside saying 'You didn't do that right' and giving me a bollicking. That's the competitive edge that they have.”
20 September 2020; Luke Chester, left, and Brian Lonergan of Tralee Parnells in action against Patrick Crehan of Dr Crokes during the Kerry Intermediate Hurling Championship final at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
The Parnells base for the moment is the county board-run Caherslee GAA grounds. The development of their own patch, which the 200 academy kids Morrissey sees training on a Friday night could call theirs, is the long-term aim.
There’s also ambition to play in the senior championship. Morrissey and a few others discussed it ahead of the final against Dr Crokes.
“My own personal thoughts is that it would have happened,” he says.
“It's a huge step up. It's not like every other county. There is a gap there in the standard. It would have been a huge experience and massive for the club to take that step. You can play intermediate hurling and keep going, keep going but you'll never progress as a club.
“Hurling is a thing outside of North Kerry. Sometimes people forget that. I think the likes of Kilgarvan winning the intermediate championship [last year], Parnells getting to the final, Crokes winning it this year - they're no longer the quiet neighbours, they're becoming a bit noisier.
“It's going to be a big couple of years for Tralee Parnells. I might be retired by the time they get to senior hurling but it's definitely on horizon for this team. It probably will come a lot quicker than people thought.”
“This is a true story,” says John Lenihan, telling one he thinks it encapsulates the hurling situation outside North Kerry.
“I was involved with the Crokes U12 team. We had a fella that never played hurling up until a year before. I persuaded him - he was a good footballer, a good athlete - that he should come with us. He did and he played at corner back. His dad came to watch him playing in his first hurling game.
“I was with the Kerry development squad the following day. In the middle of the match, I got a phone call from the father and took it. He said, 'John, I'm 45 years of age. That's the first hurling match I ever watched in my life. I can't get over the skill of it’.
“This would not be uncommon.”
The lesson: If people are given a chance to experience hurling, maybe they’ll embrace. Lenihan would say too many - in Kerry and other counties - are not given the opportunity.
A Corkman who moved to Killarney nearly 30 years ago, Lenihan is manager of the Dr Crokes team which this year won its first Kerry Intermediate Hurling Championship since 2001. His sons Jack and Michael were on the team. Michael, who won an All-Ireland minor football title in 2018, is also part of Kerry’s McDonagh Cup panel.
90 seconds into a phone call with Lenihan and you’re certain of one thing: This man cares deeply about hurling. He’s the sort who wonders why it isn’t on the primary school syllabus.
“I would argue that at the moment, the kids in this side of the county are not given the chance to play one of our national sports,” he says.
“Hurling, as one of our national sports, should be promoted in the schools. A lot of Kerry kids never caught a hurley in their life, and might not over the next 10 or 15 years unless there is something done about it.
“That is the system at the moment. Something has to change because if it doesn't, it will continue going along. If you keep doing the same things, you will get the same results.
“I don't want to sound like I'm blaming the Kerry County Board but it's their responsibility to promote hurling, not blow-ins from other counties that happen to want their sons to play a sport that they played. That's the way I see it.”
2 September 2018; Michael Lenihan of Kerry celebrates with the Tom Markham Cup following the Electric Ireland GAA Football All-Ireland Minor Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Just like Kilgarvan and Tralee Parnells, Crokes have plans to make that jump to the senior championship. Winning that intermediate title has them at the head of the queue and recruitment has already begun in anticipation of promotion. Five guards on the panel have roped in another four or five stationed in the area. There’s an ex-Limerick minor among them. The club with the most Kerry senior football titles is on the verge of going where few from outside North Kerry have ventured in the last 20 years.
On the Dr Crokes panel which won the intermediate title were 13 players who began their hurling careers in the club’s academy. Lenihan says their journey was full of roadblocks. Persistence - by them and coaches - is what got them there. Crokes, he says, have just “five or six genuine dual players”.
“The county board, hurling to them is a threat to football. Very few people have the balls to say it,” says Lenihan.
“I can name about 10 players that have walked away from hurling in this county because they've taken it so far, met a stone wall and said, 'What's the point?'
“The answer is cooperation. It's not hurling taking over. It's hurling getting a fair crack at the whip. You look at Daithí Burke with Corofin. He plays senior hurling with Galway and is Man of the Match in the [All-Ireland club football final]. In North Kerry or South Kerry, if you're on the Kerry team, you don't even play hurling with your club.
“I think it's impossible now with the amount of training. The dual player is gone in inter-county. Teddy McCarthy, that'll never be repeated.
“There are very good footballers who are good hurlers as well but don't even play with their clubs. Why does nobody question that? Even the clubs in North Kerry don't question that. If they get on the senior football team, it's like they've reached the pinnacle and nobody should touch them.
“Of the minor teams that won the five-in-a-row, there were six [players] every year in the panel equally as good at hurling as football. Kerry need those dual players more so than of the other counties. They're not given the opportunity.
“It's not easy for them to play both sports. Look at (Kerry footballers) Gavin White and Micheál Burns - I know both of them and their families well.
“I'm doing a booklet at the moment in celebration of our win and I came across old photographs of when they were U13. They both played hurling with Mark O'Shea and my son Jack. They were excellent hurlers. Gavin White played hurling with the Kerry development squads as a dual player up to 15.
“They played hurling up until 15 but then gave it up. Of course they prefer football but it is a shame that they couldn't play an odd game of hurling with their club during the year. They are that good. It's one way traffic here. If you're on the hurling side of it, you're treated not as a second cousin but maybe a fourth or fifth.”
20 September 2020; Mike Milner of Dr Crokes, centre, and team-mates celebrate with the cup following the Kerry Intermediate Hurling Championship final against Tralee Parnells at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Before last month’s Nicky Rackard Cup final, Mayo hurler Cathal Freeman suggested “it should be attractive to GAA clubs to become full GAA clubs”.
“If you were a full GAA club,” said Freeman, “you have to cater for football, hurling, handball, rounders and Scór. We're a cultural and sporting organisation.
“I would love to see the GAA centrally place more emphasis on clubs developing in all aspects of what a GAA club is meant to represent and be. If you had something like an outline of what an ideal GAA club could look like [and then] an incentivised programme to reward clubs that attempt to get to that ideal level.”
That is an idea echoed by Lenihan, and it’s not the only area where he believes innovation is required.
“The reason they're going to do a split season for inter-county and club is because it was forced on them to do it that way. Now they see the benefits,” Lenihan says.
“If hurling and football can't coordinate week after week, maybe you could have three months of the year to run off the hurling competitions and another three months for the football competitions. Then would you see more people playing hurling in Kerry? I think you would.
“Let's come up with some fresh thinking. Just because we did it this way for the last 125 years doesn't mean we should continue to do the same."