Mount Leinster Rangers reach for the sky as they try to bring All-Ireland glory to Carlow

Despite the club having only formed in 1987, the hurlers from Borris parish have come a long way


Pat Hickey fishes a tightly-folded envelope from his coat pocket and flattens it out on the table. Inside are two columns of sepia, scissored and saved for the best part of three decades. The Carlow Nationalist of August 26, 1988. The headline says Mighty Mighty Rangers, the scoreline a gaudy 6-10 to 0-3. "That's it," he says. "That was our first championship."

As far as the story of Mount Leinster Rangers goes, this is Genesis. The game was the Carlow intermediate hurling final, the opposition St Mullins. Rangers were less than a year in existence at that point and in the team were each of the founding fathers. Kieran Lucas at full-back, Hickey himself at centre-back, Mick Murphy at centre-forward, Eddie 'Big Bird' Byrne at full-forward. The spine of the team, the spine of the club.

A year previously, there was no club to be a spine of. Or if you like, there were three clubs but there was no backbone connecting to the hip bone or to the shoulder bone. Borris parish had three clubs shucking away in the shadow of Mount Leinster with only husks and shells to show for their labours. Borris played hurling, Rathanna played football, Ballymurphy played both.

Between them they had players but only rarely had they teams. Hickey hurled for a Ballymurphy side that made it to four county finals in five years in the early 80s without winning any. By 1987, they were gone out of senior and most of the older soldiers had handed in their weapons. It was time.

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"The whole thing was going nowhere," says Hickey. "So I said at the annual meeting, 'Look lads, we're going nowhere. Borris is going nowhere, Rathanna is going nowhere. We're all the one parish, why do we not go in together?' The numbers weren't there. The pick was too small.

A vote
"No work, people going emigrating, unemployment bad, the whole lot. The good team we had in Ballymurphy got old and retired, the young people were leaving and it was just too hard to find 20 fellas to be the makings of a team. I said it to the boys and we put it to a vote. This was without knowing at all what Borris would have been thinking.

“We voted to go for it so then it was over to Borris to meet the boys who were over them. We called a meeting in Borris school, there was about 100 at it. We thrashed everything out, what colours to wear, where to play, everything. We’d no pitch, any of the three clubs. We were relying on local farmers to give us a field.”

That was the start of it. Within a year, they’d bought a pitch and won county titles at intermediate hurling and football. By 1990, they’d started winning ‘B’ hurling competitions at under-12 and under-14. Progress was slow and steady and not always straightforward.

Within a couple of years, a handful of survivors from the old Ballymurphy days wanted their club back. They wanted to set up a junior football team. Some of them were former team-mates of Hickey’s but he wouldn’t stand with them. It got messy for a while and the politics of it all needed sharpened elbows and thick skins.

“Ballymurphy went to the county board with a list of about 30 names of fellas who were going to play for them,” says Hickey. “I knew everybody on the list – there were fellas on it who were nearly in the grave. We had to fight for the Rangers. There was no future in going back – we knew that. Only for Eddie Byrne and Kieran Lucas speaking for the club at the time, you don’t know what might have happened. We wouldn’t be where we are, anyway.

“Ballymurphy were trying to put a wedge in. If they had been able to get a junior football club up and running, then there’d have been savage pressure the following year on the Rangers lads who were from Ballymurphy to go back there. If you’re living in the place, you’re in it every day, you’re going to mass in it. That’s hard on any lad.

"But we knew there was no future. We had to hold on to what we had in the Rangers. There'd still be a few lads that wouldn't go to a match. Or if they went, they'd be going to see you get beat. I would have played with them long ago. That's what we had to go through and that's the reason we're on the top today."

Constant presence
The top was a fairly abstract concept for a long time though. To be a constant presence at senior was job one and it took a good decade and more before they felt comfortable there. Reaching a county final was next and they got there in 2001. Though it ended badly – Ballinkillen beat them 2-10 to 0-4 – it was another step along the road.

All the while, they squirrelled away at underage and in the local school. Oulart-The-Ballagh manager Martin Storey tried to pay them a compliment in the lead up to the Leinster final by claiming that “half a dozen of them went to St Kieran’s in Kilkenny”. All it did was get their backs up, as none of them learned their hurling anywhere other than Borris Vocational School.

Two more county final beatings had to be endured before they finally made the breakthrough in 2006. When it came, Hickey’s son Willie was the captain. Another son James was there too. The team was filled with Coadys and Murphys – cousins of the Hickeys, all three families growing up a few hundred yards from each other.

More sets of brothers too as the years passed – O’Byrnes, Lawlors, Nolans, Byrnes. Eddie ‘Feathers’ Byrne, son of Big Bird, brother of Ducky. You know the way.

Some played at the time, some came along later. But everybody was there in Dr Cullen Park that afternoon in ’06. Wherever they go, whatever they become, nothing will match it. A day of days.

“A reporter said to me after beating Ballyboden before Christmas there that this must be the greatest day in the club’s history,” says Hickey. “But I would always say that no matter what we do, to win the first county final was the greatest achievement. Some of the top clubs in Carlow said we’d never win a final, that we were a soft touch in a final. We were after being beaten in three. We had to break that barrier and stop that talk.

“We went into Leinster that year but a Dublin team beat us. I couldn’t even tell you who it was. We didn’t prepare for it at all. It was all new. We were so happy to win the county that we didn’t care about Leinster. We spent a week or two drinking after . . .”

Bit by little bit, they straightened their back and planted their feet. They've been in every Carlow final since 2005, winning six including the last three in a row. A rule change at Congress one year allowed the champions from weaker counties to compete in the provincial intermediate championships. That sent them down to Nowlan Park in 2011 where they beat a Danesfort side with two freshly-minted All Stars in Richie Hogan and Paul Murphy. "Feathers cleaned Murphy that day," smiles Hickey. "Cleaned him."

Less abstract
An intermediate All-Ireland followed. Along with more Carlow titles. And more days out in Leinster where they demanded to be taken seriously. They came away disgusted with themselves two winters ago when they didn't beat Kilcormac-Killoughey. That spring the Offaly champions going on to win the All-Ireland.

The top became less abstract as they went. On the night of their win over Westmeath’s Castletown Geoghegan last November, they joked big and bold that the Paddy’s Day parade in Borris would have to be cancelled if they got on a run. The way it’s turned out, there isn’t a parade anywhere in Carlow on Monday. The whole of the county is heading to Croke Park to see if a first senior All-Ireland title in the GAA’s history can find its way to Carlow.

“You can’t let yourself get carried away,” says Hickey. “But I never thought I’d see this. Never.” Who could have?