On the face of it, the All-Ireland Junior Club Hurling final in Croke Park tomorrow needn't detain anyone for any longer than it takes to note the fixture. Dunnamaggin of Kilkenny will troop out against Castleblayney Hurling of Monaghan, the ball will be thrown in and a massacre will ensue. Dunnamaggin are 1-66 to win, the sort of odds to which the bookies could just as easily have added a zero, so clear have they made it that they're not chasing business on it.
And yet, all it takes is a little further inspection and the match-up reveals itself to be one of the GAA’s more glorious quirks, one that is essentially unique to this competition. The fine day’s work then president Seán Kelly did when extending the club championships to junior and intermediate has been noted many times but even he couldn’t have imagined it would one day see a Monaghan club in an All-Ireland hurling final.
Talk about two worlds colliding. Blayney are one of only five hurling teams in Monaghan, one of which is an amalgamation of disparate hobo hurlers from the north of the county. Figures published by the GAA during the week pitch the number of adult hurling teams in Kilkenny at 88. In Blayney, hurling is a lifestyle choice, the sort of oddball pursuit that might mark a fella out as an attention-seeker. In Dunnamaggin, hurling is life.
“It’s a religion,” says clubman and former Kilkenny player Seán Ryan. “If you don’t play hurling, it kind of excludes you from certain things. Hurling comes first. In our little parish, the local post office closed two weeks ago. The local pub is up for sale and the other pub sold about a year ago.
“The stuff you see on television about rural Ireland dying is all fact, it’s all true. Hurling is the thing that holds Dunnamaggin together. If you’re not hurling or you’re not connected to it, then all you’re doing is living in a house. You’re not living in a community. Hurling is the community.”
Hurling is not the community in Castleblayney. It’s something they’re trying on for size this week, as the town is draped in bunting and the novelty of heading to an All-Ireland hurling final has the place giddy. But nobody is pretending it’s anything beyond a piece of fleeting diversion. To call it more than that would be disrespectful, a sort of night-out declaration that won’t last the morning.
Fergal Rafter knows the score and on the whole, he's perfectly fine with it. Rafter is Blayney's free-taker and best forward and last year's Monaghan Hurler of the Year. When you grow up a hurler in a football county, you get your backbone early and you learn to stand straight whatever the weather. Nothing Blayney do tomorrow will change the place they wake up in on Monday morning.
“It’s no fault of anyone’s, really. It’s predominantly a football county. The reason that I stuck at it and probably anyone in Blayney too is that it does need a core group of lads driving it. If you have four or five who just want to keep it going, then you can bring other lads in along with them.
“There’d be a group of men in Blayney who would have been big believers in hurling and every Sunday morning we would have been hurling away because they made sure we were. That’s what you need in a town like Blayney where it could all fall away very easily.”
Rafter’s father is a Wexford man, a quantity surveyor transplanted to Castleblayney in the 1980s for work. “He wasn’t a big ball believer, it’s fair to say,” says Fergal now. “That’s basically how I started hurling. I had a hurley in my hand from about three years old or whatever. He would have hurled with Castleblayney when he moved up.”
For years, that’s how Blayney survived as a hurling club. There was an army barracks and a customs post and if it got around that a lad from a hurling county had landed in town, it wouldn’t be long before he was sent for. Martin Rafter got collared early on and over the years has filled every conceivable role in the place.
Current manager and club chairman Jimmy Lacey is a Kilkenny man who married into the town and got saddled with the same fate as time passed. As the border disappeared and barracks closed, the blow-in factor eased off and Blayney had to paddle ever harder to stay sailing. It wasn’t that they had to fight for their lives or anything, more that they had to convince young lads they were worth the bother. Indifference can be a far tougher foe than animosity.
“The drop-off from underage transferring through to senior is always huge for us,” Rafter says. “I know it’s a factor for everyone – every club has it, even in football. But in terms of bringing players through to play senior hurling, in general we would be doing very well to get more than one player out of a minor team each year. If you got two players staying at it and playing senior, you’d have done very well.”
A couple of new players a year to throw into the pot is nothing. Especially when you leak existing players no matter what you do. Club hurling in Monaghan is a private affair, played by five teams, first in a league and then in a league-based championship. Same teams, same faces, same games, give or take. And Castleblayney have won 15 of the last 18 championships.
“There’s very few teams to play when it comes down to it,” Rafter says. “For years, we played in the Armagh league and then we played in the Táin Ulster League as well. But there’s problems with that too. You might be playing a Donegal team and you could have a game on a Tuesday night up in Ballybofey and then you’d have to drive back to Dublin after it for work because there’d be a good few of us living in the city.
“There are struggles with it when there’s a just such a lack of teams around to play against. You have to venture further afield to get games of a higher standard. But that’s what you have to do. It’s a struggle but it’s just reality.
“From my point of view, it was never an issue. Hurling was always my first love. I just loved playing it. The little amount of hurling we played was never my favourite part of it but the bits that we did get, it was always great to get to play it. But there’s no doubt that for a lot of the lads that we lost along the way, not getting to play many games would have been a factor.”
Nobody has ever wanted for a game of hurling in Dunnamaggin. Growing up, you play for the club and you play for your school. Ryan remembers life in St Kieran’s fadó, fadó and being one of 60 lads trying to grab one of the 15 places going. It’s no different now to back in his day – of the Dunnamaggin team that lines out tomorrow, half a dozen have All-Ireland colleges medals with Kieran’s. It’s what you do and who you are.
The scale of what Blayney face tomorrow is there on the Dunnamaggin teamsheet, imposing as the Eiger. There's Noel Hickey with his nine All-Ireland medals. There's Canice Hickey, Willie Phelan and Seaghan O'Neill, all of them panellists under Brian Cody at one stage or another. Michael Cody and Ronan Coffey have played minor for Kilkenny in Croke Park in recent seasons.
Culture is a tidal wave. Kilkenny clubs have farmed the Junior Club All-Ireland competition since its inception purely on the strength of that culture. There have been seven different All-Ireland junior club champions from Kilkenny in 15 seasons; Cork clubs have taken five more.
The other three have gone to Limerick, Waterford and Antrim, hurling counties peopled by hurling folk, sooty and worn from clanking away at the coalface. There are no big dogs in junior hurling. Everyone is a scrapper.
At the same time, every pooch knows his place in the world. Dunnamaggin are the Kilkenny junior champions, a status that carries with it the mark of a coming team. Bennettsbridge won this competition in 2015 and within three years they were back in a Kilkenny senior final, only just giving way to Ballyhale last October. The roadmap is there for any club with the engine to carry them.
In Dunnamaggin, the underage scene has provided good hunting over the past few years and they will play intermediate hurling in Kilkenny this year locked and loaded with the fruits of it. They were relegated from that grade in 2017 but they made the best of a bad experience.
“With hindsight, it was brilliant because the orient express is up and running again in the club,” says Ryan. “There are a lot of really good players coming through at underage level. There are great young lads playing at under-21 and under-17 and hopefully they will go close in intermediate when it comes around this year. Junior hurling hardens you up, no question. And there will be a good bunch of lads heading to play intermediate now with experience under them.”
Short of an asteroid hitting Croke Park this weekend, they will do so as All-Ireland champions. For a small parish 12 miles outside Kilkenny city, it will go down as one of the great achievements in their history, when their very identity was cheered on the steps of the Hogan Stand. It will be Dunnamaggin’s day, one of the best they will ever have.
But it will be Blayney’s too, regardless of the result. The day when they went to Croke Park as peers alongside a Kilkenny team, as competitors, as challengers.
As hurlers, most of all.