St Kieran’s still the breeding ground for Kilkenny greats

Secondary school contributed 12 of 26-man squad named for All-Ireland semi-final

Liam Smith gets goose-bumps now even recalling the moment, primarily because it was such a seminal turning point for St Kieran's College. They went in to their first round Leinster Colleges championship match in 2009 against St Brendan's Community School in Clonad, just outside Portlaoise, convinced they would win. Kieran's always expect to win but they were turned over. Again.

The previous year, Dublin colleges had dumped Kieran’s out at the same stage. After winning 15 of the previous 19 Leinster Colleges titles, a five-year hiatus without the Corn Ui Dhuill was considered an extended famine. A five-year gap without winning an All-Ireland Colleges title was also their longest stretch without a Croke Cup in over three decades.

Smith remembers meeting Tipperary's Eoin Kelly – who won an All-Ireland with Kieran's in 2000 – shortly after that 2009 loss to Birr. Kelly was enquiring as to what had gone wrong. Those within the college were already asking themselves those same hard questions.

“We knew we had good players, but we just weren’t getting over the line,” says Smith, deputy principal at St Kieran’s. “A good few of us put our heads together and asked ourselves ‘Where are we going with this?”

New direction

The Kilkenny culture is defined by honesty, humility and the highest standards and any drop in those standards is met with an inquisition, guided by the deepest soul-searching imaginable. Kilkenny and St Kieran’s would always trust that their way is the right way but a new direction is often required too.

St Kieran’s response to a mini-crisis was absolutely emphatic, with the College winning seven of the 10 All-Ireland titles on offer this decade. Kieran’s have won five of the last six titles but it would have been six-in-a-row if a young team hadn’t narrowly lost the 2017 final to a highly vaunted Our Lady’s Templemore side.

St Kieran’s now tower above every other college in the All-Ireland roll of honour with 23 titles, but their dominance has been unprecedented during this decade. The most titles the famed college had won in a single decade before was four, which they managed in the 1990s. Apart from St Flannan’s Ennis, Kieran’s have won more All-Irelands this decade than any other college has managed in their history.

“There’s no way in 2010 we could have predicted that we would win seven All-Irelands in 10 years,” says Smith. “But it was never about seven, it was always about winning the next one. When you’re winning, the young lads in the school start thinking ‘we can win this too’.”

Despite their consistent success, Kilkenny's modern history has largely been defined by their defiance, and their stubborn refusal to yield, to any team. The culture Brian Cody has cultivated has filtered down so deeply into the ground that it has enriched the soil like nutrients. And the harvests have never been more bountiful in Kieran's.

"The success of the Kilkenny seniors over the last two decades has left a remarkable legacy," says Adrian Finan, school principal. "We are the real beneficiaries, but that legacy has spread everywhere, to all schools and colleges in the county."

St Kieran’s though, remains the main breeding ground; 12 of the Kilkenny squad of 26 named against Limerick have All-Ireland Colleges medals; that number rises to 18 when including the extended panel.

Adrian Mullen is frontrunner for Young Hurler-of-the-Year but he first started making his name with St Kieran's; Mullen played in four All-Ireland Colleges finals, winning three. Mullen's older brother, Darren (also on the Kilkenny squad) was man-of-the-match in the 2014 All-Ireland Colleges final when still U-16.

Right to win

“All the players in the school are mad for hurling,” says Smith, who managed the college to three All-Irelands. “We don’t feel that we have a right to win it every year but one of our secrets is that we have so many good people involved who want to give back.”

Smith was a selector with the Kilkenny under-20s this year. Finan is involved with the Kilkenny minors, who play Galway in Sunday’s final. The squad is packed with a spread of players from schools around the county but eight attend St Kieran’s. And like their predecessors, they will turn their attention to more colleges glory in the famed black-and-white jersey after Sunday.

“There is a pathway there and winning at schools levels gives lads confidence,” says Finan. “They’re confident without being cocky. We enjoy the success but we never dwell too much on it. We have a strong culture in the school where it’s success for now and then you look forward to the next one immediately, whether that’s with us or with Kilkenny. The next one is always important to us, whenever that may be.”

The two entities have always had such a unique and symbiotic relationship because the St Kieran’s way is also the Kilkenny way. More is never enough.