Down bat off sectarian slurs as they aim to reach hurling ‘nirvana’

Manager Ronan Sheehan says everyone is welcome in the GAA

On the opening day of the national hurling league, Down hurling manager Ronan Sheehan was in powerful form as he returned to the Ballycran dressing room after conducting a few post-match interviews.

His team had been in bother against Carlow who took the lead going down the stretch before a late goal from Marc Fisher, in the third minute of time added on, snatched both points.

And then the players told him what they had listened to out there.

"Prods."
"Brits."
"Black b***ards."

Not the first time that complaint has arisen, but this time, as they saw it, they had a moral authority to raise a racket about it as they won the game. Sour grapes could not be a handy retort. So Sheehan sent out a tweet complaining about it and the reporters’ calls flooded towards his mobile. He said his piece and parked it then.

Issues of identity and nationality have always been important to Sheehan, the son of a Cork mother and father who came to teach in the bitterly divided town of Kilkeel. He has been involved in political activism and is strongly Republican.

You can't disentangle the GAA from history, because it is intertwined with history

An added layer of complexity is the make-up of the Down panel, with a significant number of players from the Protestant faith and unionist background.

Prior to playing Kildare in the 2020 Christy Ring final, Sheehan explained to his panel the history and significance of playing 100 years and one day from Bloody Sunday.

How does he tread that line without putting some players off?

“There’s always a chance to get in touch with your history,” he explains. “In many ways, that’s a shared history. Now you can views on the events that led to Bloody Sunday. But ultimately it is our history.

“Whether we like it or not, the GAA had a massive role to play in the formative years of the Irish Free State.

"You can't disentangle the GAA from history, because it is intertwined with history. The same way that you can genuinely believe that the GAA had a massive role to play in Civic Society in helping the journey that we need to travel on, in the island on our journey of reconciliation; to hopefully, in my view, reunification.

“Sport is a great unifier. Everyone is welcome in the GAA. Just because you are from different backgrounds, just because you may have a different narrative on what happened on this island, it doesn’t mean you cannot respect that narrative or talk about that.

“To try and avoid our history, to avoid learning the lessons of our history, will only mean we are doomed to the same failures of the past. We need to accept that there are two narratives on the island, two that are equally valid, they may not be narratives that everyone shares, but we are not mature enough to write a singular narrative yet.”

He continues, “These things are difficult, but it has never been a problem in our dressing room.

“While I would be very clear around my view of politics, and I make no apologies for that, at the same time I have family members involved in mixed marriages, I have many friends from the other side of the community who accept me for what I am, but know that I accept them for what they are as well.

Division One dreams

“I view everybody as someone when they come into that dressing room as someone who is there for Down hurling, who is there to do their best for the cause of Down hurling. Whether they are Catholic, Protestant, white, black, dissenter, doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t judge people by their politics or colour of skin. I judge them for who and what they are in terms of their person.”

This season, Down have surprised the hurling world that cares for Off-Broadway stories, but not themselves in beating Meath, Westmeath and Kerry.

It leaves them just 70 minutes and a Division 2A final against Westmeath away from the “Nirvana” as Sheehan calls it, of top-flight hurling. Playing the Waterfords and Kilkennys and Tipperarys, and even the prospect of facing his beloved Cork.

How big is that? Well, consider the greatest ever description of Down hurling, delivered by Hugh Dorrian to the late Sean McGuinness when he took over as manager in the late 1980s.

“McGuinness, have you any sense?” said Dorrian.

What really matters is what we do between these endlines and those sidelines. Everything else surrounding that is simply noise

He put his hand out and said, “Look, there’s county Down.” He cocked his thumb to the said and said, “and there’s the peninsula.

“And you see that nail on the thumb? That’s where the hurling is. That’s all you have. You’re not right in the head coming down here.”

It's not quite the same now. The game has spread beyond the thumbnail and now the senior team includes players from Ballela, Liatroim, Newry Shamrocks, Bredagh and Carryduff.

The last time they were there was the spell from 2005-07. Unmerciful trouncings were followed by a tight win to save their status in 2005 (Dublin) and 2006 (Laois). Eventually, the drop came and some lean times followed.

Under Sheehan, they have inched their way back up. Between the under-20s getting to an All-Ireland B final and his seniors, they are going into their fifth national final in four years.

His appointment in 2019 came from left field.

“I have no doubt there were a few around the county who were asking, ‘what are you doing, putting that eejit in charge?’ And I’m sure there were people looking for someone more high-profile or ‘better’,” he admits.

The first thing he did was recruit wisely. Diarmuid O'Sullivan could have his pick of coaching jobs, but instead committed to travelling from Cloyne to the Ards Peninsula to help out.

He has continued the theme, with former Tipperary and Dublin hurler Ryan O'Dwyer now their coach, while sports psychologist Des Jennings who worked with Armagh in 2002 helps them with their focus.

"On Saturday we were up in Portaferry and I told them to look behind them at a set of goalposts, and then look the other way at another set of goalposts. Look at the grass. It's green. It's going to be no different on Saturday," he explains. "What really matters is what we do between these endlines and those sidelines. Everything else surrounding that is simply noise.

“The one thing I would say is we will give everything we can to get over the line.

“And that would be us in that Nirvana state of reaching the pinnacle of what Down hurling could probably realise in terms of attaining Division One status. But at the same time, if we do take a setback and we are defeated, that the journey doesn’t stop.”

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