Friday’s All-Ireland club finals have thrown up great match-ups. In the hurling we have two teams who are playing their first ever decider. Ballyea have caught a lot of headlines since winning their first ever Clare Senior Hurling Championship.
Their win last November to capture the Canon Hamilton Cup has been a long time coming according to fans of the game in the Banner county. For the past few years, sports writers had been tipping them as an outside bet for county honours just to see them fall at quarter or semi-final stage. This year saw the perfect storm of circumstances to allow them push on and make history. It wasn’t always like this for the small club.
Located just three miles from Ennis, the rural club have long been in the shadow of fellow parishioners Clarecastle. Founded in 1934, the inaugural committee sees a lot of familiar names to those currently leading the charge for glory. Surnames like Hogan, Kelleher, McTigue, Scanlon, Lynch and Carrig are as prevalent in the club today as they were 80 years ago.
For decades though, the club had limited success at Junior grade. The main problem they faced was a constant loss of their best talent to neighbors Clarecastle or Kilmaley. You couldn’t blame them. At the time, the only hope these players had of winning county titles was to move.
Such players include Stephen Sheedy, Colin Lynch and Dónal Kelly, father of current star Tony Kelly. When Tony Griffin was bursting onto the scene as a minor, he was advised to follow the same course. He refused and stuck with Ballyea. They won promotion to Intermediate in 1999 and Ger Loughnane called Griffin up to the Clare Senior panel. Griffin led them to the 2001 Intermediate title and new heights of senior hurling beckoned.
It was around this time that Ballyea National School principle Eddie Liddy took it upon himself to promote the game with the next generation. The buzz around the parish surrounding the club went into overdrive with qualification for the club’s first senior final in 2003. There they faced Clarecastle.
Three goals in the first 10 minutes killed the game as a contest. They were the difference come the final whistle. A bad blooded affair saw both Griffin and the aforementioned Sheedy receive their marching orders. The only players from that day that remains on the panel are Kevin Sheeehan and Paddy O’Connell.
The following few years saw the club teeter on the brink of relegation. All the while though, something was brewing at underage level.
The work started by Eddie Liddy in the school was beginning to bear fruit. Under the watchful eye of Fergie O’Loughlin and Dónal Kelly, a young group of Ballyea hurlers were making strides.
Success at U12 and U14, including the prestigious Féile title, followed. The commitment shown by teenaged Tony Kelly, Joe Neylon, Jack Browne, Niall Deasy, Gearóid O’Connell, Damien Burke and Eoghan Donnellan, and Co. was near professional. Dónal Kelly and O’Loughlin had, with others, gone out to the traditional football heartland of West Clare to spread the game and recruit new young players to the sport.
It clearly paid dividends. As happens with most mid-Clare clubs, a number of isolated players from West Clare joined Ballyea and boosted the underage club’s ranks. Many of those are now members of the current senior set up.
2012 was a breakthrough year for the club. The talented team of Ballyea men were coming of age and they landed the club’s first ever U21A title. People knew something big was on the cards. The 2013 All-Ireland for Clare introduced the once in a generation talent that is Tony Kelly to the wider world. His All-Star award complimented the 2006 award received by Griffin. Kelly’s Player and Young Player of the Year awards in the same year remains unique. Everyone started to take a Ballyea side, now comfortable in the senior ranks, as a serious prospect to lift the Canon Hamilton Cup.
There were a series of near misses with quarter-final and semi-final losses. The 2015 loss in extra time to Kilmaley was particularly painful seeing as they’d beaten them earlier in the year. They felt they’d left a good shot of a title behind them and resolved to go one better in 2016.
They’ve achieved more than they ever thought possible this season. Everyone associated with the club knows that this is now their one shot. Success for small clubs like Ballyea don’t come around often but when they do, it’s hard not to love them.
They’ve a team built around a core of childhood friends and some older heads. County footballers and hurlers along with a converted Kerryman in Pat Joe Connolly make this an eclectic mix of men.
There’s also the fact that, like most parishes in the West of Ireland, Ballyea have been hit with outward migration. This is most obvious in the fact that on Friday you’ll uniquely see brothers Niall (Cuala) and Aonghus (Ballyea) Keane in opposing dug-outs. Niall moved to Dublin a few years ago for work and transferred to Cuala just last year.
Ultimately, Ballyea will travel up the M7 motorway leaving the parish with not one speed-bump, nor one traffic light, nor one pub, hopeful that’ll they’ll return with one Tommy Moore Cup. There’s no reason to think that manager Robbie Hogan’s men can’t do just that!