The ties that bind: Kilkenny's generation game
"There's hurling everywhere," says Ned Quinn of county that leads the roll of honour
Colin Fennelly: the four-time All-Ireland winner’s extended family is steeped in the proud successful tradition of Kilkenny hurling. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Asked about the connections, Ned Quinn, retired chair of Kilkenny GAA, puts it straightforwardly.
“In the broader sense it is definitely passed down from generation to generation and it has served us well.”
He is talking about the inter-connectedness of the county team, which on Sunday takes on Tipperary, hoping to extend their lead at the top of the Liam MacCarthy roll of honour to seven, over Cork, with a 37th title.
In a way it is a reflection of the relatively small population of the county – still (just about) below 100,000 – and the strong traditions of hurling that so many of the players come from families with a distinguished background in the game.
That tradition and heritage means Kilkenny operate more or less at saturation point and Quinn says there are no unconquered worlds within the county boundaries.
I suppose it was fairly daunting at the start, looking at them, but once you step out onto the pitch, they’re team mates at the end of the day
“No, no. Kilkenny have a parish rule since 1954 and every parish has a team and a couple of parishes might have two teams so there’s hurling everywhere. There are also a number of what would have been considered football clubs in their earlier years, like Glenmore for example, and they have turned into strong hurling clubs.”
Even the rare phenomena of specialist football clubs, most famously Railyard, who top the county’s football roll of honour, are closely marked in their catchments.
“Railyard have a sister club in the same parish called Cloneen, which plays hurling just as Dunamaggin has a sister club called Kilmoganny, which is football.”
The most obvious family connection concerns the Fennellys of Ballyhale Shamrocks. Colin Fennelly is the brother of former Kilkenny captain and Hurler of the Year, Michael, now retired, and he has four All-Ireland medals with the county. Earlier this year in March, he won a fourth club All-Ireland and scored a spectacular goal in the final defeat of Galway champions St Thomas’s.
Road to the final graphic Hurling
His uncles Ger, Kevin and Liam were also All-Ireland winners with Kilkenny. Ger (1979) and Liam (1983 and ’92) also captained successful sides. Brother Michael captained the 2009 four-in-a-row team although a replacement in the final.
Hiding in plain sight is another branch of the family. Adrian Mullen is still only 20 and played for the county under-20s this year but also hurled sufficiently prominently in his club Ballyhale’s march to this year’s All-Ireland to be named Club Hurler of the Year.
He has gone on to have a terrific rookie year and in the shock win over defending champions Limerick, he scored four points from play.
“I’m the first of this family – Michael and Colin are my first cousins, on my mother’s side. She’s a Fennelly. I remember when Michael and Colin called down before All-Ireland finals, I hoped I could play some day and as a young lad I remember pucking the ball off the wall thinking of Henry – he was definitely one I looked up to,” says Mullen.
Mullen has been operating under some stellar managements this year with Henry Shefflin managing the club, DJ Carey in charge of the Leinster winning under-20s and Brian Cody directing the senior team towards what would be his 12th MacCarthy Cup as manager.
He specifically remembers the four-in-a-row in 2009.
“Michael was captain, so I said I had to go up to it. You want to be there as a young lad, looking at your heroes; you couldn’t miss them. It’s great to be from Ballyhale – they’re great role models to have as a young lads. I used to look up them, and am playing with them now.
“I suppose it was fairly daunting at the start, looking at them, but once you step out onto the pitch, they’re team mates at the end of the day.”
Among the club-mates is this year’s Kilkenny captain and Hurler of the Year front-runner TJ Reid, whose uncle Richie was wing back in the 1979 All-Ireland win. For a young player, it’s a bracing environment at club level but also a great hothouse with all of that expertise and tradition of success, as Mullen acknowledges.
“Yeah they’re very good, if you need some sort of advice you can come to them and they’ll give you a helping hand, if they need to take you down a peg or two they’ll take you down too.”
The remaining Shamrocks player, Joey Holden’s, father Patrick was on the first Ballyhale team to win the county title and followed it with an All-Ireland.
Aside from Ballyhale, there are other connections, none more steeped in achievement than Conor Browne, whose mother is Angela Downey, one of the great camogie players in the game’s history, who together with her sister Ann won 12 All-Irelands each.
His grandfather Shem Downey played on the Kilkenny team that won the 1947 All-Ireland.
Pádraig Walsh is a brother of Tommy, nine-time All-Ireland medallist and eight-time All Star and 2009 Hurler of the Year, and their grandfather is the late Paddy Grace, winner of two All-Irelands in 1939 and ’47 and long-serving county secretary.
Richie Hogan, another former Hurler of the Year, 2014, is a cousin of the legendary DJ Carey, All-Ireland winner, including as captain in 2003.