Heady days again for Borris-Ileigh and for Kelly
Successful coach guides Tipp champions into Munster action against Cork’s Glen Rovers
Johnny Kelly (second left): “I think all the good of the GAA was encapsulated in Borris-Ileigh over the past 18 months.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
The carousel does not stop.
On Sunday evening, in the hazy, happy beginning of Borris-Ileigh’s reign as hurling champions of Tipperary, Noel O’Dwyer and Timmy Delaney came into the dressing room. Johnny Kelly got to spend some time chatting with them as the evening deepened.
O’Dwyer was a Borris-Ileigh All-Ireland medalist with Tipp’ in 1971, earning his Celtic Cross just before the Premier County would plunge into 15 years of All-Ireland obscurity.
Delaney was both manager and player when Borris-Ileigh had last reached this stage, some 33 years ago. Both men were vivid representations of just how fleeting and precarious these days of magical achievement can be.
“And what it meant to them was every bit as important as it was to the new generation,” Kelly remembers on a Wednesday morning when he is trying to align both his mind and his emotions. When a club makes a breakthrough after decades of falling short, then time bends in strange ways.
Listening to Kelly speaking, it is clear that since the final whistle in Semple Stadium on Sunday, the town of Borris-Ileigh has been caught up in one very long, magical moment which just happens to have gone on for about 72 hours and counting. There are worse ways to pass an early November.
Kelly’s fingerprints are all over the brighter stories of club hurling experiences along the latticework of Galway-Offaly-Tipp secondary roads and hurling clubs.
His record of success is exceptional and his role in helping to guide Borris-Ileigh towards Sunday’s win over Kiladangan is his latest contribution. Ironically, he has also spent time coaching Kiladangan, the losing finalists. He knew several of their players well. So much as he was hard-wired into the task of guiding his team, some part of him was enjoying the fact that Kiladangan’s players were rising to this occasion.
“In the minute when the game was over I was elated,” he says.
“And then I saw a couple of Kiladangan players I knew on the ground. And yeah, my heart did go out to them because it is not an easy place to be. I have been on that side of it. And you have to have empathy too. They have put everything into it and will be hugely disappointed but they can keep their chin up. It is a game at the end of the day and their own wellbeing would be high on my agenda anyway.”
Kelly is open enough to admit that he has “been in a bit of a bubble for the past couple of weeks”. The haphazard nature of the club championship season means that after 33 years of varying degrees of disappointment is followed by a week of absolute pandemonium.
No sooner have Borris-Ileigh been crowned champions than their next task – a Munster club semi-final against Cork royalty Glen Rovers – looms. By this Saturday morning, the energy of the club and town is channelled towards Semple Stadium at lunchtime tomorrow.
It would have pointless trying to even think about that on the Sunday and Monday (and even Tuesday) after their county final win. That moment needed to be properly celebrated and absorbed. Kelly called a training session for Wednesday night. But he can’t know how the team will respond to the strangeness of this week.
Anyone who even remotely followed the GAA season knows that this has been a unique time for Borris-Ileigh as a community.
Like many Tipp towns, it revolves around the GAA club. The tragic deaths of three young people in close succession both challenged the hurling squad and, by extension, the community, in the most profound ways. The tragedies were experienced directly.
In May, Amanda Ryan, nee Stapleton, died after dealing in an extraordinarily courageous way with the shocking diagnosis of an incurable illness. Paddy Stapleton, the club senior captain, is her brother: Shane, the journalist and Cuala hurler is another brother and the Stapleton family is part of the Borris-Ileigh hurling framework.
As if that was not traumatic enough, John Ryan, a young hurler in the club, died tragically in the same month. Then in August, a team-mate Nicky Cooney also died in tragic circumstances. These elemental life blows made the fact of hurling and playing more challenging and also made the team’s progression through the championship even more meaningful and deeply felt.
As Paddy Stapleton noted after Sunday’s win, five people directly or indirectly associated with the club were lost to them since last August. It has been a year of extremes. Kelly is a terrific hurling coach and, as anyone who has ever spoken to him will testify, a wonderful communicator.
But the tragedies in Borris-Ileigh placed him in a different realm of experience. They were all just trying to figure a way through. For Kelly, the GAA has always been bigger than the mere winning and losing of games or technical excellence on the field of play. His time with Borris-Ileigh kind of illuminated for him why it is that these clubs and these places mean so much.
“I think all the good of the GAA was encapsulated in Borris-Ileigh over the past 18 months. You know, when we needed help early on to deal with those tragedies in the club, I picked up the phone. And within an hour and a half, Iggy Clarke and Justin Campbell had arrived down to the Borris-Ileigh dressing room and put together a talk for the young players in the club.
“And then you move on through the week and the pressure to achieve . . . we had some really great games against great teams – Séamus Callanan’s Drom and Inch, Kilruane and Eamon O’Shea and the management there. So all that is good about the GAA was evident in those occasions this year. And we are delighted.”
If Kelly has an enduring concern, then it is the rising trend of invidious online comment and abuse that is, he worries, becoming part of the GAA fabric. The stuff you hear coming in from the stands is bad enough but the anonymous critiques left on social media platforms can be poisonous.
He sometimes reckons that the authors of those messages and posts aren’t aware of just how devastating they can be to the players they are criticising – particularly younger players still trying to find their way as people.
“There is so much positivity within the GAA but there is this unfortunate aspect of anonymous people on social media platforms who can be quite damaging in what they say about young people.
“We are talking about 17- and 18-year-olds. We saw young James Devaney and he has got great exposure through a county final but as he gets older the pressure builds. And the last thing any player like that needs is negativity. Like, at the end of the day the GAA provides huge health benefits for people physically.
“But the other side of it is the mental wellbeing of young players is also awful important. And I feel that GAA clubs in the likes of Borris-Ileigh have a huge role to play in that. Sometimes I struggle because I see players and backroom teams getting targeted for unfair criticism or abuse from online trolls. And that is so damaging to the mental health of players – and managers.
“I have seen times when we are doing our absolute best and giving instructions and the amount of stuff we had to listen to was unacceptable. Even if you have success afterwards the abuse can still continue with personal grudges. But young players are coming through and they all need our help. Managers need to take the time to know the players and be their friend as best as possible and still retain the ability to control them in a fair manner. It’s a vital aspect of the whole thing.”
He is not referring specifically to his experiences with Borris-Ileigh but rather to his time spent working with all kinds of teams and grades over the years. Securing Kelly’s services as part of the Offaly backroom team seems like an immediately smart move by incoming manager Michael Fennelly. He has what Paddy Stapleton alluded to as a modern touch in his interpretation of the game “he dragged us into the 21st century” was Stapleton’s tribute afterwards.
But he also has many volumes of local knowledge.
“All of these places and clubs around North Tipp, Offaly, Galway where I am from are special places,” Kelly says.
“Coolderry, Borris-Ileigh, Kiladangan, Killimor, Kiltormer out the road from me are all special places. Portumna is my special place. My son and daughter play there and they are enjoying the game with their new friends.”
When Kelly talks about Borris-Ileigh, it’s clear that he is, in the best sense, slightly overwhelmed by what has happened. That’s not to say the senior team won’t be ready to put their best foot forward on Sunday afternoon against Glen Rovers. He will be coaching down the line from Glen’s Richie Kelleher, another quietly heroic figure of the national GAA scene. It should be a day and a half.
“You are talking about Glen Rovers and Borris-Ileigh,” Kelly says with anticipation. “That itself has a huge traditional ring to it. You are talking about the club of Jack Lynch and Christy Ring against the club of the Devaneys and the Finns and Kennys of Borris-Ileigh..these are names that stand the test of time. So I don’t know. You are back to brass tacks.
“The cold light of day dawns. And you have a game to play and you have a look at the opposition. This is a new generation of hurlers here in Borris-Ileigh. They are coming up against Glen who in Patrick Horgan have one of the very top forwards in Ireland for so many years and terrific hurlers through the field. This is a serious Glen Rovers team. But we are lucky to be there. We will do our best. And it is important that we do give our best . . .and see where that takes us.”