Sean Moran: Fifty years a-growing – All-Ireland club finals reach major milestone

Over the decades the senior championships have brought untold joy to communities.

Next Sunday sees a significant anniversary. It will be 50 years to the day since the first official All-Ireland club final. That season, protracted to the point that many of the competing 1970 county champions had lost their titles by the time it was over, ended with East Kerry beating Bryansford of Down to win the first football title.

The hurling would follow a month later and its anniversary will fall on December 19th, the date scheduled for this year's Leinster club hurling final at Croke Park.

It’s worth noting that East Kerry’s success won’t be repeated as divisional teams were fairly swiftly removed from the provincial and All-Ireland series.

Clichés aren’t difficult to find when looking at the club championship from ‘it’s the real GAA’ to how special it is ‘playing with the lads you grew up with’ as well as the more idiosyncratic, ‘they’d climb a tree to get after a fella’.


Yet all the well-worn phrases have the ring of truth. Intercounty championships may fuel national conversations during their season but once the big days are over, equally urgent talk starts in 32 different counties.

To the initiated, it’s a badge of honour to be able to discuss knowledgeably a range of county championships and have opinions on how the prospective winners might measure up against each other.

Despite cynicism at the stereotypical celebrations, the bunting hung everywhere and the children with their posters and RTÉ in the schoolyard, there is very little like it – apart from maybe the Tidy Towns – that lends such an air of pride to a locality.

My first experience of the phenomenon though was in the spring of 1990 when I visited Baltinglass in Wicklow, as they sized up the All-Ireland final against Clann na nGael from Roscommon.

It was dark and cold but there was palpable excitement about being in the an All-Ireland final – the only previous such distinction in those parts had been Wicklow’s junior title all the way back in 1936. They had the familiar club assembly of brothers, O’Briens, Murphys and Kennys and were trained by corner forward Tommy Murphy.

In the pub afterwards you could see not only their semi-final win over Castlehaven but Clann na nGael's defeat of Scotstown.

That semi-final was an unusual match in that Baltinglass scored all but one point of their total in the first 11 minutes and by half-time the whole 1-5 was in the bag. Their opponents, featuring All-Ireland winners Niall Cahalane and Larry Tompkins, managed only 0-6 in reply.

Awards event

What impact has it on clubs and their neighbourhoods? Well, to this day there’s a sign on the N81 welcoming people to Baltinglass, ‘All-Ireland club champions 1990’.

Martin Coleman, then club secretary, says that younger people around the club still ask about the day of the All-Ireland and that, before the semi-final, the pitch was thronged with volunteers from all over the county forking the surface to drain it in time for the match.

He also recounts how when at a women's football awards event, he met Cumann Peil na mBan president Micheál Naughton from Donegal and as soon as he mentioned being from Baltinglass, the recognition was immediate: All-Ireland club champions.

This is all timely because in recent seasons the All-Irelands have become far more of a preserve of clubs who are regularly successful. Previously it was almost as if the exertion of running all the way through to the following March left teams exhausted and retaining the title was unusual.

For a long time only UCD and St Finbarr's had managed it in football and for 40 years the only clubs who did it in hurling were Galway teams, who effectively had no provincial championship to negotiate – not to dismiss the achievement of Roscommon clubs Tremane and Four Roads who each won Connacht titles.

In the two decades since the turn of the century, however, there have been four back-to-backs in both hurling and football.

It’s not to disparage those clubs and the fine teams who have registered these successes but the championship works best as a shared experience or at least one that can be aspired to by as many as possible.

In that respect and perhaps surprisingly, the games are nearly equally accessible. Thirteen counties and 27 clubs have won the football All-Ireland with 10 and 26 the figures for hurling. There is also little in the split between multiple and once-off winners: nine and 18 in football and 11 and 15 in hurling.

In this context the weekend just passed has featured an unusual clear-out of established football clubs, which continued a season’s trend.

Top clubs

Football roll of honour leaders, Nemo Rangers, exited Cork in the group stages and on Sunday the second and third clubs, Crossmaglen Rangers and Corofin with six and five All-Irelands respectively, unexpectedly lost county finals.

That costs the Galway club a shot at extending their record three-in-a-row sequence, which was saved last year when despite losing their county title, they looked on as the club championships were cancelled because of Covid.

In Leinster coincidentally, the second and third clubs on the province's roll of honour, Portlaoise and Éire Óg with seven and five titles respectively, also lost county finals. Earlier in the season, the province's top club St Vincents were actually relegated in Dublin.

It's not exactly open season though, as former All-Ireland champions St Finbarr's, Dr Crokes and Austin Stacks in Kerry and Kilmacud in Dublin are still in the hunt for the time being.

Hurling is different with Ballyhale in hot pursuit of emulating Corofin's record sequence of three successive All-Irelands.

The addition of junior and intermediate All-Irelands has greatly expanded the horizons of clubs but the 50th anniversary of the first senior championships marks a great departure for the GAA, which has brought untold celebration into so many communities.