Seventh heaven beckons for a small parish never short of hurlers
Ballyhale were founded in 1972 and reached their first All-Ireland final seven years later
Ballygunner’s Stephen O’Keeffe is fouled by Mark Aylward and Patrick Mullen of Ballyhale Shamrocks in the All-Ireland Senior Club Championship semi-final last month. Photograph: Inpho
This Sunday Ballyhale Shamrocks go into action against Galway champions St Thomas in the AIB club hurling final seeking to extend their lead at the top of the All-Ireland roll of honour to seven titles. It’s a remarkable story for a club that’s actually younger than the championship itself, founded a year later in 1972.
In less than two weeks, the Shamrocks will mark the 40th anniversary of their first ever All-Ireland final, a fair achievement at the time for a club up and running just seven years and in only their fourth season in senior hurling.
A scan of the team reveals familiar names: Shefflin, Reid, Holden, Walsh, Phelan and especially, Fennelly.
In Jack Mahon’s history of the club championships. “For Love of Town and Village” the late Kilkenny PRO and GAA historian Tom Ryall said: “It is fair to say that that the rise of Ballyhale Shamrocks coincided with the coming of the Fennellys.”
One of seven brothers to win all three of the club’s titles between 1981 and 1991 – a feat their successors can surpass on Sunday – Kevin Fennelly, a future All-Ireland winner with and manager of Kilkenny, played in all of his generation’s finals.
“We won three under-21s in the 1970s so were used to winning and it’s the same with the present lads although they probably won a bit more at minor. But at under-21s we’ve had massive success; I’d say we’ve won about 12 titles.
“As a senior team we were in 12 out of 13 finals at a time when hurling in Kilkenny was really strong. It wasn’t easy winning county titles.”
Clubs from the county won half of the All-Ireland club titles that decade.
He recalls how the club emerged in the early 1970s.
“There were parts of the one parish and Knocktopher and Ballyhale had two teams. We also had two separate under-21 teams and junior teams, who met in the late 1960s in the junior southern final. A few people got together in 1971 and then a meeting was called.
“In the past, some Ballyhale players had hurled with Carrickshock. Jimmy Walsh, who captained Kilkenny in the 1931 and 1939 finals, was from Ballyhale and his son Pat was part of the group who with my father and others formed the new team.
“In 1972, we won the junior and then the intermediate. In the senior semi-final in ’75 we played James Stephens (‘over three enthralling games,’ according to Dermot Kavanagh’s detailed history of Kilkenny county finals) and they went on to win the final easily and then the All-Ireland, beating Blackrock in the final.
“We didn’t win until 1978 and went straight to the All-Ireland. Blackrock beat us by two points.”
That’s a fairly prosaic account of the Shamrock’s first final in which they trailed at one stage by 14 before losing by just two, 5-5 to 5-7. Oddly, the club’s six successful All-Ireland finals yielded a total of just eight goals whereas they scored five in that the initial defeat.
“In the end we nearly won,” says Fennelly. “There was a goal disallowed in the last couple of minutes that would have won it for us. But we didn’t deserve to win it. They were the better team all around – more experienced and with six or seven of the Cork team.”
Another member of that Blackrock team was fairly familiar. Frank Cummins, the great Kilkenny hurler, moved to Cork when stationed there as a garda. He was from Knocktopher and had won two minors with the successful parish team (called “Ballyhale”) of the 1960s.
“I had the pleasure of playing on Frank Cummins for about 10 minutes that day and I spent another half hour at full forward on another Kilkenny man, Conor O’Brien, who was from Bennettsbridge.
“It wasn’t that disappointing to lose it because it was our first one and we didn’t know as much about it at that time. From then on, we got back at it and reached the final again in 1981 and this time, we won – beat St Finbarr’s.”
That was the first and this weekend, potentially the seventh. The roll of the generations goes on and seven is something of a magic number.
“I’ve seven nephews involved on Sunday,” says Fennelly, “Mick and Colin and the four Mullens and Dermot’s young fella Kevin as well so we’re back to where we started in that sense. There were six of us in 1979 and by the time we won the All-Irelands Dermot was playing so there were seven.
“In the last one we won, in 1991 there were still seven of us in our 30s – the youngest was 30 and the oldest 39.
“For a small parish we were never short of hurlers. That’s the bottom line – for whatever reason I don’t know.”