Declan Feeney wouldn't be able to give you a precise year but it was sometime in the 1960s, he knows that much. We're sitting on a picnic bench beside Na Fianna's front pitch in Glasnevin as school traffic goes up and down Mobhi Road hill at a 30-degree angle. "That pitch ran from the top bank to the bottom bank and the slope of it was no different to the road outside," he laughs.
Na Fianna was set up in 1955, breaking away from CJ Kickhams and putting all its eggs into its juvenile section. By the following decade, they were growing and getting somewhere but they needed to do something about their sloping pitch. Feeney was only a kid then but he remembers the year they ploughed up the field to get it flattened out.
“I remember people coming from all the houses all around and everybody picking stones,” he says. “They got the grass ploughed up and levelled and everybody that could move – kids, adults, girlfriends, wives, everyone in the area came and handpicked stones to make way for the pitch that’s out there now. They lifted buckets of stuff and carried them out to the side to be taken away. That’s what our founder members did for us.”
Feeney’s father Pat was one of them, the original 201 founder members. A while back, the two of them sat down one night to draw up a list of how many of them were still above ground. “He fell asleep halfway through,” Declan says. “But he’s still in touch with a core of them. And they are just great buddies. They’ve always been buddies.”
Tonight, Na Fianna play in their first ever Dublin senior hurling final. Declan’s son Peter will line out in midfield. Declan himself played for years and managed more teams than he could reasonably count. Pat was part of the group that got the whole thing started, who kept hurling going in the club when football was the only thing it was known for. Everything comes full circle.
“In our house, we used to be hiding hurls in the attic when I was a kid. Somebody decided that we’d bulk-buy hurls as a club so that there would be hurls for everybody. But the problem was that if you left them hanging around anywhere, they could be stolen. So in the attic in our house, nobody would steal them. I have no idea how many he bought – to a child, all I could see were bags and bags and bags of hurls in our attic.”
In the grand scheme of things, Na Fianna are a youngish club and any senior success they've had has been in football. They won a Dublin championship in 1969 and another a decade later. The glory years came around the turn of the century when the football team sparkled with names like Jason Sherlock, Dessie Farrell, Senan Connell and the Armagh duo of Kieran McGeeney and Des Mackin. They won three Dublin titles in a row and parlayed one of them into a run to the All-Ireland final in 2000.
But on the hurling side of the house, there was nothing to celebrate. There had been a good minor team that won a county title in 1981 and that group had more or less sustained the club single-handedly through the 1980s. They scrapped their way to four senior semi-finals but never made the breakthrough to a final. And after them, nothing.
Literally so, in the case of the minor grade. For 15 years between 1985 and 2000, Na Fianna weren't able to enter a team in the minor hurling championship. The hose ran out of water when their players got to 14, 15, 16 and they simply didn't have the numbers to field. There were years when they'd have maybe two or three 17-year-olds who wanted to play hurling and they had to send them up to Setanta in Ballymun to get them a game.
The people who took it on had a thankless job. Even on your best day, no matter how well you played in the 1990s, it was, 'Don't get hammered'
“It just died,” says Feeney. “It wasn’t for the want of trying. There were men who tried to keep it going but the area around us in Glasnevin probably died a death a bit in the 80s. Ah, maybe not died a death but it got old. There was a lot of emigration, people leaving with young families. That contributed to the loss of all those minor teams over the years.”
The turnaround came the only way turnarounds come. Quietly, grimly and oh-so very slowly. They started a nursery in 1990, they nipped and tucked and brought teams along. By 2000, they were able to put out a minor hurling team again. The seniors had stayed going all the while. But only barely. They were warm bodies in yellow and blue. But they weren’t a lot more than that.
“Something like this wasn’t even a dream back then,” Feeney says. “That you’d be in a county final? It was an ambition but it wasn’t a realistic dream. The ambition was to keep a senior team, first and foremost. The people who took it on had a thankless job. Even on your best day, no matter how well you played in the 1990s, it was, ‘Don’t get hammered’.
"And if we can win a couple of games and survive, that will get us through to the following year. And maybe somebody would come in the gate and help us. The men who took that lead with the minors – Ciarán Redmond, Jim Heffernan, Tom Ryan – they were on a hiding to nothing. There was no tradition. The tradition was gone and the team was nearly gone with it. So they were the mould-breakers."
Once they had that initial minor team going, it was like opening a valve. By the time that team started playing minor championship – a team that included, by the by, the current senior manager Niall Ó Ceallacháin – the numbers coming up behind had gone from a trickle to a flow. Success came in its own time, with Na Fianna picking up five Dublin minor titles in six years through the 2010s.
And all the while, the sheer weight of numbers all but demands that they keep growing in every way. Na Fianna is a huge operation now, in all codes. Feeney asked someone the other day how many teams are in the club and the answer he got back was 205. He can’t swear on a stack of bibles that 205 is exactly correct but that’s the ballpark they’re in.
The age profile we have in the senior squad is such that the need to get six or seven from one minor team isn't there any more. One or two will do each year
“Retaining players is the thing now,” Feeney says. “I have 60 under-12s. That’s just boys now. How am I going to keep all of them until 18? And after 18? I don’t know yet. I don’t know. We will obviously lose some because that’s just the nature of the beast.
“But if we can’t pull 20 out of that group that will be competitive at minor – never mind winning, just being competitive – we’ll be doing something wrong. And then all you want from that is to get one or two every year into the senior squad. The age profile we have in the senior squad is such that the need to get six or seven from one minor team isn’t there any more. One or two will do each year.
“We have five adult hurling teams at the moment. The fifth team is a social team, basically. But with our top three teams and probably even the fourth team in fairness, gone is the day of turning up on a Sunday morning and worrying in the car on the way there if we’ll have enough to field a team. That worry is gone. They’re turning up because they want to play, not because they’ve been pressured to stay at it.”
Win or lose against Kilmacud Crokes tonight, Na Fianna have come a huge distance and they will celebrate accordingly. This sort of day doesn't come around too often. Feeney remembers racing home on his bike from Croke Park in 1979 with his Na Fianna jersey on, cheering the cars carrying the victorious footballers back up Botanic Avenue.
He remembers too that maybe the best night they ever had in the club was after the footballers lost the 1998 final. It was their first final in a generation and they couldn’t have known that even better times were ahead so they made sure to get full value out of it.
“We’ve been to football finals and we’ve won and lost them. We’ve been to camogie finals and we haven’t won one yet. We’ve been to ladies football finals and we’ve won and lost them. But we’ve never been to a hurling final. And there’s only one first. Win or lose, this is historical.”
It’s live on television too, which matters more in Na Fianna’s case than you might think. That list Declan Feeney made of the originals who are still about the place, it wasn’t just idle doodling. They started a club 66 years ago to give the young people in the area a chance. Look what happened.
“What it means is all our founder remembers who can’t go because of Covid or are too old and too frail to go, they’re guaranteed seeing the game live,” Feeney smiles. “That’s huge for us as a club. They’re all going to see it. There’ll be a link from start to end.
“I’d say it’s nearly unique too. A lot of the clubs in Dublin are older than us so unfortunately their founder members are gone and probably didn’t get to see their club’s first final on TV. We are lucky to still have that link with the lads that are still around and if we can win and they can see it, brilliant. Just brilliant.”