Kieran Fennelly argues that Hurling epitomises what we are as a people.
My first memories of hurling fanaticism tread back to 2003, when a youthful and exuberant Tipperary played a Kilkenny team made up of players who were either facing the mortality of their age, or were inexperienced and unproven in the hot cauldron of battle.
Tipperary had a mixture of experience and the immature ruthless attitude to win, culminating in an All-Ireland two years prior to this encounter. The match was exciting, breath-taking, hard-hitting, and most importantly nothing could separate either side for the best part of forty-five minutes.
But like a ghost, Eddie Brennen, managed to get on the edge of the square and buried the ball past the great Brendan Cummins. Forty seconds later Cummins, like a man in front of a firing squad at the Bastille, pulled off five miraculous saves in a row from different Kilkenny players, only for Tommy Walsh to inevitably put the sliotar past the keeper.
The King himself, Henry Shefflin, then put a third Kilkenny goal in the net, ultimately ending the game as a contest. At this point it may be worthwhile noting that despite coming from a die-hard Kilkenny family with a name like Fennelly, we were living in Tipperary at the time, and at the naïve age of ten years, I pledged my allegiance to the blue and gold of Tipperary.
However in the last ten minutes of the game I did something that still makes my Father laugh to this day, and something he never lets me forget. Without missing a beat when Shefflin’s strike hit the net, I threw down my Tipperary flag, uttered a few obscenities and shouted “UP KILKENNY!!”.
As my Father said, “he brought up a stone-thrower and brought back a cat”. There are a rare few things in life that evoke the raw ecstasy of emotion like hurling, and I am forever in debt to those long gone men who gathered in Thurles on a cold winter evening in November to ignite the spark of the GAA. Not only did this ecstasy begin my long love affair with Kilkenny, but more importantly, with the game of hurling, which has set itself as one of the most prominent aspects of my upbringing.
There are pictures in my head that will forever remain. Henry Shefflin’s majesty can be epitomised by the reoccurring motion of a graceful throw of his shoulders, followed by the trademark hop on one leg and swivel of the other across his body. I can picture the stereotypical straight goal-line sprinting of “fast Eddie Brennan”, with his head down and knowing that there was one place that sliotar was going. I can picture Tommy Walsh leaping head and shoulders above men who were half a foot taller than him, like some sort of Kangaroo from Krypton.
Some people in this country may be tired of seeing these familiar pictures of brilliance, and understandably so, given the dominance of Kilkenny in recent years. But I for one am delighted to see the standard that the game has reached. Be it the relentless work of TJ Reid or scoring ability of Seamus Callanan, they have picked up where their respective predecessors, Henry Shefflin and Eoin Kelly, left off.
It is the passion and determination for the game that makes these wonderful encounters and mythical rivalries occur. Certainly the pride and passion in the jersey and desire to win is a phenomenal driver, but even more than that is the love of the game itself.
I remember in the middle of winter and in the depths of freezing temperatures waking up at six in the morning to go training before school. I remember heaping teaspoons of sugar into my cup of tea to bring myself into the land of the living. I remember dragging my gear and hurl from the car onto a pitch still covered by a blanket of darkness, and I remember not being able to zip down my jacket to train because my fingers were too cold to function.
I believe D.J Carey, a four time all-star and renowned Kilkenny great, said it best when he said going out to school in the morning in Kilkenny you had to bring your bag, your books, and your hurl, and if you forgot your bag and your books it wasn’t too bad, as long as you didn’t forget your hurl.
It is this life and love immersed in the art of the ash that creates true fairy-tale stories that people in Ireland will retell for generations to come. Hurling, and being a hurler to me, is a distilled essence of who and what we are as people, epitomised by the sound of a leather ball rasped by a wooden stick, whether it takes place in front of eighty thousand people at Croke Park, or by a couple of kids having a few pucs after school.
Kieran Fennelly, Pundit Arena