Cuala on brink of writing name into history in Leinster club final

Dublin hurling club built from ground up by passion of a small minority in community

Young Cuala supporters cheer the camogie team on. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Young Cuala supporters cheer the camogie team on. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

Further evidence of the evangelical streak lifting Dublin GAA may be found in the presence of Cuala in tomorrow’s Leinster club hurling final. Dalkey is more readily associated with dreamy vistas and celebrity residents than with winter hurling.

But all the signs are that the club has arrived as one of the key nurturing grounds for the crowded potential which the city is beginning to display at both club and intercounty level. Winning or losing what promises to be a gripping provincial final against Oulart-the-Ballagh won’t change that for Cuala but a victory would mark the arrival of an exceptional group of hurlers.

Since its foundation, Cuala has leaned towards hurling in its affinities but the consistency with which the club is now mapped in both hurling and football competitions in Dublin means that it is taking its place among the other sprawling, suburban city clubs that are flourishing.

Tomorrow’s game is a definitive meeting of town and country. The flags are flying in Dalkey, but in truth Cuala’s influence covers the entire Dún Laoghaire borough.

“There is this perception, I suppose, of Dalkey and the posh boys and all that,” says Des Cahill, the RTÉ sports broadcaster who also happens to be a Cuala lifer.

Posher schools

“And that is probably true to some degree now. We have 90 something teams and there are a lot of parents who are professional giving their time and kids going to the posher schools. But originally it was very much a working-class kind of club. It is an interesting thing about hurling in Dublin: it has become very much middle-class and southside game. It used to be northside clubs that dominated. Ballyboden have led the hurling revival for several years and other clubs have followed. But I do think the GAA’s decision to put money into Dublin has played a part in the overall revival.”

When Cahill was growing up in Monkstown in the 1970s, he was one of the few locals who would regularly attend Dublin matches. By few, he means two. By 1974/75 the Heffernan revolution was in full swing through parts of the city but Monkstown was blissfully unaware of it. “I used to go in with one other man, Frank Dargan, who was a young married man in his 30s. I was a teenager. We were the only two going. And everyone would smile at us. The two culchies in Monkstown, sort of.”

The point is that from that period through to the 2000s, there was nothing synchronised or organised about Dublin GAA. It had its strongholds: St Vincent’s in Marino, Faughs in Templeogue, Craobh Chiaráin in Donnycarney. But Dublin GAA was essentially a series of clubs whose experience was no different than any club in rural Ireland.

Cuala came about purely because a number of people living in Dún Laoghaire happened to love hurling. Each summer Tom Holden, a Mullinavat man, and his three sons, PJ, Mick and Vinnie, spent weeks visiting their grandparents’ farm in south Kilkenny. “In that household, John Sutton had played midfield for Kilkenny in 1957 and ’59. And in Mullinavat, it was all hurling.

“When you came back to Dún Laoghaire, if you were walking around with a hurl, you were a culchie and that was it,” says Vinnie. “Soccer was the game that everyone played then.”

The Holdens went to school in the local CBS and one of the brothers there, Joe Considine, was a player and a coach. A few guards from hurling strongholds were stationed locally. And there were a few hurling families like the Holdens who just loved the game. “They would go down to the local and have a few pints and hurling would be the conversation at the bar,” says Vinnie.

Mick McCadden of Monkstown Farm was among those who set up a street league with teams from Sallynoggin and Dalkey. It was nothing official or fancy: just kids ferried in cars to the local corporation pitch to play games. They didn’t even have a dressing room. They badly needed a pitch so they amalgamated with Dalkey Mitchells.

It shouldn’t have thrived but it did and with a small but strong group of players, Cuala won the U-15, U-16 and minor titles in the same season and all three Holden boys achieved the feat of playing on the Dublin minor team together in 1969.

Mick, just 14, was selected in goal and would go on to establish himself as a dual star who would become one of the most revered figures on Heffernan’s team as a dashing no-holds-barred corner back (Kevin Heffernan’s perfect tribute was phrased as a question: “How could anyone not like Mick Holden?”).

Mick’s sudden death in 2007, at the age of just 52, was made the all the more difficult to comprehend because he seemed to be the embodiment of irrepressible youth. But much like Cuala, the Holdens and Dublin was something that just happened.

“I had never seen the Dublin hurlers playing in my life and had no ambition to play for them or anything like that,” explains Vinnie. “You get picked and off you go. It was no burning ambition. We hadn’t even a junior hurling team in Cuala. There was no adult section. Then we got that going and won the junior in 1976 from a kind of standing start. And it has grown from there.

“If you asked me about Cuala in the modern day: there is no comparison. We were a gathering of fellas who loved playing hurling and enjoyed a few pints. It has grown into a magnificent community club.”

Holden feels that the transformation of Cuala from a contented if peripheral force in Dublin GAA into one of the city’s ‘superclubs’ was hastened by the organisation of the summer camps that brought hundreds of kids in the area under the Cuala umbrella. Colmán Ó Drisceoil and Denis Monaghan headed up the coaching, and Damien Byrne, the former Dublin goalkeeper, was, as Holden says, “the guru”.

Fresh and exciting

They used this system where the best of the kids in one age group would help to train the kids immediately below them. It created a sense of connection. “These camps went on for a month and the coaching was fresh and exciting,” says Vinnie.

Other things happened in tandem. Local kids gravitated towards Coláiste Eoin, a school with a strong GAA tradition. Parents became involved. As club membership grew, so did the need for more volunteers and more teams at each grade.

For lifelong members like Cahill, the expansion of the club was at once exciting and bewildering. He remembers the pride behind the effort that went into constructing a clubhouse in the mid-1980s. It was effectively built by the members: anyone who had a trade or who was handy did their bit.

“We were so proud of it that a lot of fellas spent the next six months drinking in it,” he laughs. “It was great fun. Lots of sing-songs and that. At that period, any time someone in the club had a wedding, everyone would be at the afters. The club is so big now that you really only know the people who are involved with the same teams as you. The clubhouse is nearly always booked for meetings. It is inevitable but kind of sad. You can’t have it every way. I used to dream: ‘God, wouldn’t it be great if we could get one or two minors on the Dublin team.’ We’ve probably had 20 over the last few years.”

Through his role with RTÉ and his passion for GAA, Cahill knows very well the struggles other clubs face to find enough youngsters – and adults – to field teams at all grades, not to mention the financial burden of just surviving.

“I can see that it is completely unfair. There has been criticism of it and justifiably on a lot of levels. But the flipside is that it is justified and made sense in the sense that it has got kids playing games. The coaches went to the schools and made the game exciting and coached it brilliantly. They made it exciting and the Dubs have become a big force.”

There is a vague sense of fear that Dublin’s intercounty strength may ultimately cause a withering of success – and hope – in other counties. That remains to be seen. Within Dublin, clubs have to grow in order to compete with the huge suburban forces like Kilmacud Crokes, Ballyboden St Endas and Na Fianna.

Cuala have made enormous strides in both hurling and football in recent years. Significantly, they won the U-21 hurling and football titles in 2010. Michael Fitzsimons has been part of Dublin’s All-Ireland- winning teams and Con O’Callaghan, a prodigiously talented minor, is likely to feature in Jim Gavin’s squad next year.

Prominent hurlers like the Schuttes and David Treacy represented Dublin at underage football before committing to senior hurling. One Leinster title since 1961 and no All-Ireland since 1938 is where Dublin senior hurling is at.

Underage coaching

Cuala won just their fourth Dublin title this year and their first in 21 years. Tomorrow in Carlow will mark their second provincial final appearance ever: they were beaten by 2-11 to 0-7 by Ballyhale in their debut during the 1989-90 season. So this is how far all of the underage coaching has taken them.

Vinnie Holden, who was in charge of the senior team for several years, makes the point that the links between the current team and the Cuala teams he played on are very strong. The Schuttes are his nephews. The Goughs, the Treacys, the O’Callaghans are sons of men who played with Holden. He thinks this is a terrific group of hurlers but doesn’t believe that success is that easy to come by. As it is, the current senior team has players who were taught the game elsewhere – Shane Stapleton is from Tipperary, Darragh O’Connell from Kerry, while Cian Waldren and Nicky Kenny are Kilkenny men.

“We probably have a rich vein of talent at the moment but we had that going back two or three years,” says Holden. “Mattie Kenny coming in as manager has really bolstered it. Dublin getting knocked out of the hurling championship early this year left the county players free to train with the club. Mattie has been a missing link really. The lads are talented alright, there is no doubt. But to keep focus and putting in the effort: the minute that drops then you don’t win any games.”

Tomorrow in Carlow will be racked with tension. Oulart, the Wexford champions, are hoping to break a zero for six Leinster final record. And they are coming up against a team that has been composed all year.

Cuala has a membership of 1,600, a figure that illustrates both its abundant health and hints at the organisational demands of just making the thing work. The senior team still has to travel to train – to Shankill, to Bray. The clubhouse means that the club revolves around Dalkey but the pitch is too small.

There are still many residents who will be uninterested – and perhaps even unaware – in Cuala CLG’s great leap forward and their quest for the Bob O’Keeffe cup. Depending on the result, several may be wondering about the commotion in the village tomorrow evening.

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