Kilkenny's love for the game proves irresistible
Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny at yesterday's launch of the new website www.gaelicboots.com by the GAA and the GPA in Croke Park. photograph: david maher/sportsfile
Try as we did to uncover some hidden truth behind Ciarán Kilkenny’s decision to return from Australia, question the suddenness of his move home, even lure him into admitting some potential regrets, there is no breaking him, or bending the facts of the matter.
Here, simply, is a young man with an undeniable love for Gaelic games, the many glimpses of which he has already displayed on the field perfectly matched by the way he articulates that love off it.
Indeed Kilkenny, still only 19, speaks so eloquently about all this it’s easy to forget about his often ruthless competitive streak, now ready to resume itself with the Dublin senior footballers, when they host Mayo in Saturday’s Allianz Football League third round in Croke Park.
Kilkenny trained with the Dublin seniors last night for the first time since announcing, in early January, he wouldn’t be returning to Australia, thus cancelling his contract with the Melbourne AFL club Hawthorn.
His focus in the short term remains Dublin’s defence of their All-Ireland under-21 title, but it’s clear senior manager Jim Gavin has big plans for Kilkenny this summer, and possibly even this Saturday.
What Kilkenny is sure of, at least right now, is that events of the past few weeks merely confirmed what he already suspected, that his heart, and soul, was long ago lost to football and hurling.
“As soon as I came back,” he says, “I had that great saga with my club Castleknock, against Kenmare, playing in Croke Park with the lads I grew up with and got to see how much it meant to all the people in the club, and how great the GAA community is.
“Even just the free-flowing flair that’s in the GAA, the end-to-end, the passion in the game, is phenomenal, that everyone out there is playing out of love of the game, and love of their county. And I just couldn’t hide my love for the game, and I’m glad I went to Australia, because it made me appreciate how much I cherish Ireland, how much I cherish the GAA.”
In theory, however, Kilkenny might well have discovered a love of Australian Rules football, had he stayed a little longer than just six weeks. “I think if I played any other game I’d always want to just come back to the GAA. Even a week before I was about to go, I said to my parents ‘look, I think I’m going to stay’, but they said I might as well give it a go, have no regrets.”
Was there perhaps a fear that he would never quite make it in the AFL? “No I thought I would have had a good chance,” he suggests, “because I was doing pretty well at all the endurance aspects, was in the top group, fitness-wise, over there. But at the end of the day I weighed it up, would I rather win All-Irelands, in football and hurling, titles with my club and college, and all these other aspects, or win the Grand Final? I was raised to win All-Irelands. That was embedded in me, the whole tradition of my dad playing, my cousins and everything.
“In Australia, I was designated with one team. I’d rather be with these different teams, and different connections, and trying to win all these things. And when I was out in Australia, because I wanted to do well, I was going to do extra kicking, and they kind of said ‘don’t go out and do that’.
Perfect my game
“But the only way I feel I can get better is go out and kick a thousand balls and perfect my game. So I’d rather play the game I love out of pure enjoyment, rather than it being my job.”
None of this is exactly a good advert for other young Irish players thinking of going to Australia, is it? “Well, just the whole professional lifestyle probably wasn’t for me, because I just enjoy so much playing just purely for the love of the game.”
Or maybe perhaps there was a little old-fashioned homesickness, too? “No, it actually wasn’t homesickness. I didn’t really miss my parents at all when I was out there.”
And those recent reports out of Australia that illegal performance-enhancing substances, even elements of organised crime, was creeping into the sport, was that anything to do with his decision? “No, I had no experience. The club I was with, Hawthorn, are very professional, weren’t dealing with any sort of stuff like that.”
So no one tried to push anything on you?
“No, no, just spuds and steak for me.”
So that’s it, really: Kilkenny still has ambitions to play senior hurling with Dublin too, should time ever afford it, and he’s already back with the under-21 hurling panel, but for now it’s nearly all football, the next big decision being where he goes to college next year – either UCD, Maynooth or St Patrick’s.
“Yeah this year is a year of reflection now, but one thing that I’d like to do is get an arts degree, in Irish and history, because I’m passionate about that too, and hopefully be a Gaelscoil teacher in primary school, embed the passions that I have to other people, look after a few Gaelic teams as well.”
You just can’t argue with truths like that.