Barnhall celebrate reaching 50 not out

Joe Schmidt and Trevor Brennan will be on hand at 50th anniversary gala dinner

Joe Schmidt and Trevor Brennan will be the guest speakers at MU Barnhall RFCs 50th anniversary gala dinner on Saturday, June 22nd, so celebrating one of the more remarkable success stories in these largely difficult times for club rugby.

MU Barnhall are a boon story, and their 50th season has been the best in the club’s short history by several yardsticks.

Their firsts, captained by number eight Tom McKeown (who has played 176 AIL games and Barnhall’s last 135 in a row) won Division 2B of the All-Ireland League with 18 wins out of 18. In doing so they became the first club to achieve this feat in the AIL since Terenure in 2014-15, when they also won all 18 matches.

Their second team won the Metropolitan Plate. Their Womens’ team won the Leinster Womens Division 3 title, and hence have also been promoted. Their Under-18.5 team won a League and Cup double. Their Under-14s won the Premier League. Their Under-13 Bs won the Youth Plate and their Under-13s won a prestigious international tournament in Terenure.


"That level of success is unprecedented in the club's history," says long-standing club stalwart Kevin Corcoran, who has been with the club since the outset.

Their team of the 90s included five Burke brothers, who occasionally played on the first team together during their rise through the Junior ranks. Eoin was scrumhalf, Conrad the outhalf, with a back three of Declan, Paul and Brendan, the left-winger who played for Leinster and went on to have a long professional career in Bedford and elsewhere in England.

Barnhall are one of many community based clubs for whom the AIL was a godsend, opening up a route into the senior ranks. The club earned senior status in 1999 after winning the Leinster League and the ensuing round robin competition, so securing a place in Division 4 of the All-Ireland League.

Having been in the third division of the Leinster Junior league just four seasons previously, in 1999-2000 Barnhall duly completed their fifth promotion in six years to AIL Division 2. In 2001-02, they narrowly lost out on promotion to the top flight when finishing level with UL Bohs but lost out on a points’ differential of 13. They remained in the upper echelons of Division 2 before gradually falling away and were relegated back to Division 3 in 2008.

Barnhall roamed between Divisions 3, 2B, 2A and 2B again amid the League’s various reconfigurations before winning 2B this season to secure a place in 2A, the third tier of five, next season.

One of the biggest turning points in the club’s history was forming a strategic partnership with NUI Maynooth, or Maynooth University as it is now known, in 2009. As a result of the ensuing programme, roughly 40 to 45 boys and girls, ranging in age from 18 to 23, are on scholarships with the university.

“It’s been a massive benefit to the club,” says Conrad Burke, the outhalf in that initial rise through the ranks. “We don’t have a leading Leinster school as a feeder to the club. Our two nearest schools are King’s Hospital and Castleknock College, so we’ve always had to develop our players in house. Our scholarship players have enabled us to field consistently strong under-20s sides and the great thing is that many who have graduated have remained within the club.

“After that squad which won five promotions in six years and knocked on the door of Division 1 began to retire and break up, we discovered that we didn’t have the strength in depth needed. But now the club is on the crest of a new wave. What we’ve done with our underage and youths rugby, as well as with the scholarship system, means we are in a much stronger place now than we were back then.”

They have also prioritised investing in their facilities, ploughing €250,000 into their three pitches at Parsonstown, in addition to the pitch at the University.

“They’re like snooker tables, with state of the art drainage systems, and we’re putting in new floodlights,” says Burke. This will augment their clubhouse, gym, bar and function room, and they recently added two changing rooms for their girls and womens’ teams.

Barnhall were voted Leinster Club of the Year in both 2014 and 2017, “and for such a young club that’s quite rare,” says Burke.

They have achieved this honour on the back of having over 900 active players, from a club membership of over 1,200. The club have a sizeable catchment area of 100,000 people, taking in Lucan, Leixlip, Celbridge, Maynooth, Adamstown and beyond, to towns like Straffan and Ardclough, and their reach extends to Palmerston and Ballyfermot as well.

They field 24 teams over all age groups, including six girl's or women's teams, and last season Grainne Carroll was the club's first female president. Amongst the 24-plus teams are a Special Needs team, known as the Barnhall Buffaloes, which plays tag rugby. Last season they each met with the Pope at the Vatican after a club sponsored trip to Rome.

Barnhall have seven Rugby Development Officers, who have helped introduce rugby into schools such as Salesians in Celbridge, Coláiste Chiaráin and Confey College In Leixlip, and Coláiste Cois Life in Lucan. In total, the development officers are working across a total of 24 schools.

The club supply five Leinster administrators and nine referees, which they reckon to be the most of any club in Ireland.

Barnhall field boys teams from Under-7s, 8s, 9s and 11s, and then 10s and 12 in both boys and girls. They have boys and girls youth teams from 13s through 14s, 15s, 16s, 17s and 18s - ie every year in boys and every second year in girls.

“This means that all the boys and girls are getting plenty of games alongside and against kids their own age,” says Burke, although finding opponents can be problematic. “Other clubs have struggled to field teams at under-18s, which is quite sad.”

As well as their Under-20s, MU Barnhall also have an Under-23 side, which is designed to provide an outlet for products of the Under-20s who don’t progress immediately into the firsts or seconds teams. Effectively they are the club’s third side, who generally play on Friday nights under lights in the University, and in addition they have two ‘social sides’, ie a fourths and fifths teams, for adult players who don’t have time to commit to training twice a week but wish to continue playing.

This season, MU Barnhall also had four players - all home-grown - on the Leinster Youths team, as well as Holly Leach on the Leinster Womens Youths team.

Neatly completing a cycle of half a century, Eddie Fitzgerald - a co-founder of the club along with Martin Fahy, Seamus O'Byrne, Andy Lyons, Pat Hession, Bobby Fallon and Tom Whelan, and captain on the original side of 1969 - was this season's president. Fitzgerald - Director of Rugby for many years and known within the club as 'Mr Strategy' - helped set up the scholarship programme with Maynooth University.

“Later this year, the club will also be publishing a book to commemorate their 50th Anniversary,” says Corcoran.

Every jersey worn by every team in the club carried their centenary crest, and their tagline is ‘Investing in the Sons & Daughters of our Community through Rugby’.

That Brennan will be one of the guest speakers at their Centenary Gala Dinner on June 22nd, at which Liam Toland will be MC, is hardly surprising.

“Trevor has never forgotten his roots and has always been a great supporter of the club,” says Corcoran. “His family are still heavily involved in the club. His brothers Ronnie and Errol, and his dad Rory, are regularly at games.

"It's also great to see former players like Conrad, who coached the Under-18s this season, and Ronan Browne staying involved with the club.

Over 1,000 people are booked to attend on June 22nd, including Ulster and Ireland prop Marty Moore, who began playing with the club, and Eve Higgins, the 19-year-old rising star of the Irish Women's Sevens team, and Orla Fitzsimons, a former player with the Irish Women's team.

As well as being a fundraiser, the Gala dinner is also a means of making the club realise how proud they should be of their achievements to date.

“As a club, we’re still quite young,” stresses Burke. “We need to change our mentality and start believing we actually are a big club.”

For further information on MU Barnhall’s 50th Anniversary Gala, contact Conrad Burke at:

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times