Every now and then a GAA club realises they have in their possession a talented bunch of players that blitz the under-age ranks.
Eddie Connolly was one of a particularly strong set of players around the same age that wore the green and red of Loughmore-Castleiney through the under-age ranks of Tipperary championships.
The group blitzed the county minor A championships in both football and hurling in 2002 – and, five years later, provided the backbone of the senior team that claimed only the small, rural club’s second county hurling title, and a first Munster club senior crown. A natural defender, Eddie’s versatility meant he was corner forward during that campaign.
Already playing for the Tipperary senior footballers, he was also drafted on to the county’s senior hurling panel over subsequent years, before, in 2012, captaining the county to the All-Ireland intermediate hurling final victory over Clare.
The following year Loughmore-Castleiney would claim a historic double – the small club sweeping the football and hurling championships. However, one of the mainstays of the squad did not play in either final.
In the county hurling semi-final against Borrisoleigh at Semple Stadium, Eddie walked off the field at the end with a thumping headache, and later that evening was brought South Tipperary General Hospital, Clonmel. From there he was rushed to Cork.
A shadow was detected on his brain. Surgery was urgently required and alarge tumour was removed, with surgeons taking as much as they dared.
Eddie wasn't well enough to watch the club win their third senior hurling title, but had attended training a few days prior. "Wearing a big, pink woolly hat," recalled clubmate and former All-Ireland winner David Kennedy. "We had a good laugh at that. It lifted the mood."
When the club claimed the double a few weeks later, Eddie was there – and even togged out.
There was no need for any mention of Eddie in the dressingroom before either game. Both speeches, though, pointed to his influence on the panel.
The Tipperary senior hurling squad quickly filled the void of people wanting to help but not knowing how by organising a 6km charity run near Semple Stadium that December, with the proceeds split between St Luke’s Hospital, Rathgar in Dublin – where Eddie was being treated for brain cancer – and SuirHaven in Thurles, a cancer support centre run by the North Tipperary Hospice.
"I met Eddie when he and the Tipperary senior hurlers presented St Luke's with an amazing €20,117," says Deirdre Hughes of The Friends of St Luke's Hospital. "But that wasn't enough for Eddie – he went on to play in The Charity GAA Match 2014 and was an amazing help with the fundraising efforts both last year and this year, even though he wasn't well enough to play this year."
That charity game – the Professor Hollywood Memorial Cup – took place in Portlaoise in May 2014, and featured former intercounty players such as Fermanagh's Martin McGrath and Cork's Joe Deane.
All on the field had suffered cancer in some shape or form, but their battles were past. Eddie’s was still very much in the present, and he was back in St Luke’s for chemo the following Monday.
The 2015 edition took place last month was managed by Anthony Daly and Charlie Redmond. "Eddie was one of the first to contact us when we announced this year's match in Parnell Park to offer his support, but unfortunately he was not able to play," says Laois man Richard Poole, the man behind the tournament which is named after a well-known oncologist, Prof Donal Hollywood, who died from cancer at the age of 53 in 2013.
The last two years have been a whirlwind for Eddie, his family and friends, revolving around appointments – mainly chemo and radiotherapy – at St Luke's, Dublin. And, this summer, Eddie underwent a new form of cancer treatment in Spain.
To cover some of the costs, the Eddie Connolly Trust Fund has arranged a dog night in Thurles this Friday. The demand for the €10 tickets (under-16s are free) has been phenomenal, with extra marques already in place.
The players from the charity match also wanted to help out, and “Score4Eddie” was born – a nicer version of the ice-bucket challenge, but with the same objective. “His team-mates from that day, who all have battled cancer themselves, wanted to do something to show their support for him as they understand first hand what he is going through,” says Mr Poole. “Score4Eddie is the idea they came up with and thanks to so many great people who have taken up the challenge it has really taken on a life of its own. We are so delighted that people have come out to let Eddie know how much he is regarded up and down the country. He truly is a remarkably young man and we pray that he will once again win the battle.”
The idea is that videos are uploaded to social media, showing participants scoring a goal for Eddie – a wonderfully simple but wonderfully strong statement of support. Then, by texting the word Match to 50300 a donation of €4 is split between the Eddie Connolly Trust Fund, and the St Luke’s and St James’ hospitals.
The number of videos being uploaded have been steadily accelerating, and have spread across the Tipperary border, with several Kilkenny hurlers becoming involved in the campaign, as well as players such as Australian scrumhalf Will Genia and places as far as Melbourne, Australia and Toronto, Canada.
“We can’t thank Eddie enough for all he has done,” adds Ms Hughes of The Friends of St Luke’s Hospital.