If you’re in any doubt as to the value of the BOI Celtic Challenge and what it can do for the growth and development of hurling outside of the traditional big hitters, look no further than next weekend’s Lory Meagher Cup final.
Leitrim go in search of the county’s first-ever All-Ireland title and they will be doing so with no less than seven players who have progressed into the senior inter-county hurling ranks after taking part in the Celtic Challenge.
That equates to roughly 20 per cent of Leitrim’s panel and tells you all you need to know about the BOI Celtic Challenge and how it can benefit young, up and coming talent.
One of those Celtic Challenge veterans, Liam Phelan, descends from hurling royalty in the O’Rourke County in the form of his Kilkenny born grandfather, Paddy, who is credited as being one of the driving forces behind keeping the sport alive in Leitrim during the dark days. A passionate hurling family, Paddy and Liam are bridged by Hilary, Paddy’s son and Liam’s father.
In his father’s passing, Hilary has carried on the mantle of keeping the game alive in Leitrim.
“I am with the U15s, U16s & U17s. I’m also doing a bit with the seniors, I’m not coaching them but I’d be on the line as well. So we’re in Croke Park next Saturday week for the Lory Meagher final,” Hilary Phelan told Pundit Arena.
“Next Saturday also, the U17s are up against Cavan in the Celtic Challenge semi-final. On the Monday the U16s are out against Slashers from Longford and on the Tuesday we’re in Ballinasloe for a game, so it’s pretty hectic.”
Hilary is doing his duty for club and county just as his father Paddy had done before him. The late Paddy Phelan is widely credited as one of Leitrim GAA’s most popular figures.
“My father was originally from Kilkenny both he and my mother. They worked for Kilkenny County Council and then my father got a job with Leitrim County Council and moved up here. He was an absolute hurling fanatic, he would go to nearly every single match, I actually remember the 82/83 season particularly well he went to every single league game, every championship game but no matter what match was on whether it was a county final or a league game he would go to it.”
Paddy loved Leitrim hurling so much that he even pulled on the jersey for a National League game with Sligo back in the mid-90s, long after his own retirement from the game. Leitrim were short of players and the story goes that not once did Paddy Phelan hesitate to pull on the jersey.
“That’s absolutely true with a pair of trousers and a pair of shoes on but we also had a local barber play that day who togged out in a pair of desert boots.”
Forever fighting an uphill battle, Leitrim faced a huge task in this year’s BOI Celtic Challenge as they have only have one club in the entire county to pick from meaning that they are essentially a club team taking on county outfits.
“So we’ve no players from outside Carrick hurling club. We had only one player from North Leitrim last year and we’ve none this year so our whole team is made up of lads from Carrick-on-Shannon.
“At U14s, U16s & U18s we only have one club currently. All Carrick. There’s nothing coming from the north at all but they are trying, they are trying to build again from U13 up but really at the moment, Carrick is flying the flag so it’s difficult for the lads going out to play against sides like Mayo, Roscommon and Donegal who are picking players from a number of clubs. We’re essentially a club team taking on a county team.”
Carrick hurling club is the one huge positive to take from all of this. Not only are they flying the flag for Leitrim in the Celtic Challenge but they made history last year by becoming the first men’s senior team from the county to lift a Connacht title in either hurling or football.
“Carrick won a Connacht title, we beat the Galway junior champions Ballygar and then lost to Castleblayney in All-Ireland semi-final who then went on to run the Kilkenny champions, Dunnamaggin close in the final.
“But listen, things are looking positive, we might be low in numbers but in Carrick, we have teams all the way up and coaches for each team.”
Going forward, Phelan is well aware of the importance that the BOI Celtic Challenge has on the survival of hurling in Leitrim.
Without it, there simply wouldn’t be the competition that these young men need to grow and develop in order to follow those who have gone before them and progressed into the senior inter-county side.
“The simple fact of it is without the Celtic Challenge these lads would not have regular games at inter-county level. Getting the chance to take on teams like Donegal, Mayo or Roscommon in the year’s gone by they just haven’t had that.”
“This competition is brilliant and that’s exactly what it gives these guys… competition and the opportunity to go on and represent Leitrim and play their part in growing the game in the county and it’s a great honour for these young men. And also they are getting better and better and better which is great to see.”