Ballyhale Shamrocks. A more formidable force you’re never likely to meet.
With seven All-Ireland titles already nestled in the trophy cabinet, the Kilkenny kingpins are an undoubted superpower of club hurling.
With household names such as Reid, Fennelly and Holden out on the pitch as well as the King himself, Shefflin, on the sidelines, it’s a scary prospect coming up against the defending All-Ireland champions.
However, while they may be a tour de force on the hurling field, sometimes life throws pain our way that no amount of success can numb.
That was the case for this great club as they buried two senior panellists in the past two years. In April 2018, the club suffered the tragic loss of Eoin Doyle who died in a motorbike accident.
They went on to claim All-Ireland glory in his memory last season but were hit with more tragedy back in August when panel member Eugene Aylward was killed in a car accident the night before their county quarter-final clash with Clara.
Back in 2011, two other Ballyhale hurlers, Seán Malone and Martin Duggan were killed on the same road as Aylward. That’s four men who’d still be hurling with the club if they were here today, experiencing all the success.
In many ways, these tragic events have galvanised Ballyhale. Having experienced so much tragedy, the players are well aware of making every moment count on the hurling field according to Joey Holden.
“Absolutely, sometimes it needs a harsh reality check,” Holden said at the AIB GAA All-Ireland semi-final media day.
“In Ballyhale, we’ve got enough of them to last us a lifetime but we definitely use them as a harsh reality check to live your life and enjoy your life and take stock of what you’re doing and make sure you’re doing it because you enjoy it. Lads are coming down to the field because they enjoy it. We have to continue that and make sure that’s what makes it easier for lads to come down.”
It’s a horrible situation but hurling has proved to be the one shining light keeping spirits high in the community.
“I suppose we haven’t talked about the success, it’s kind of the local tragedies that we’ve had now, four young lads, so we’ll never forget them in our thoughts but them four lads have certainly brought the parish closer because we hurl maybe to put smiles on some of the faces.
“Especially at this time of year, it’s an awful tough time of year for them families so if we can give them some enjoyment going forward, that brings so much to us.
“I suppose the special moment we took this year was against Clara the week after the incident, just to see that family clapping us off the field that was very special just to see the enjoyment on their faces as much as ours that’s what makes it really special.”
Of course, nothing is set in stone yet, Ballyhale face a huge challenge tomorrow in the shape of Ulster kingpins Slaughtneil.
While the South Derry club may not have reached the heights of Ballyhale’s success, they are a unique club in their own right having won provincial titles in hurling, football and camogie in recent seasons.
Holden sees lots of similarities between the pair but he’s under no illusions that Slaughtneil’s ultimate goal is to knock Ballyhale off their perch.
“Yeah, definitely a challenging game. They’ve won three of the last four Ulster titles so they’ve definitely commanded the respect for what they are doing up there.
“It was a couple of years ago, the football, hurling and camogie, they were on a savage run as well. Everyone bought into that and the phenomenal work they are doing over there.
“A small rural club, similar to ourselves and they just love it. Great community up there so we’re under no illusions that they’ll be looking forward to this having won a few Ulsters now, they’ll be looking for the next thing.
“They’ve got their enjoyment out of that, they are looking to the next big thing which is getting to a club All-Ireland final and we stand in their way and they stand in ours so it’s going to be hammer and tongs come the 5th of January.”