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PM O'Sullivan: Croker is as close as Ballyhale ever comes to the sea

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This bus, if anything could capture the essence of Ballyhale Shamrocks, must be the vehicle.

New bloom: Ballyhale Shamrocks celebrate victory in Kilkenny's SHC Final on November 5, 2006. Selector, PM O'Sullivan is second from the right at the back. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
New bloom: Ballyhale Shamrocks celebrate victory in Kilkenny’s SHC Final on November 5, 2006. Selector, PM O’Sullivan is second from the right at the back. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

Supporters, mentors, and U11 juveniles are going home. St Thomas’ have been beaten in 2019’s Club All-Ireland final. Light is the only element on the fade.

These juveniles got to hurl against their Galway counterparts at half-time. They are in high form, singing and messing, rocking in the swell of a licence that only triumph grants. Croke Park is as close as the parish of Ballyhale ever comes to the sea.

There are two types of love: what we understand and what we do not understand. Childhood is full of soft misunderstandings, adulthood replete with hard understandings. These youngsters do not question their own exuberance and time, thankfully, will never quite tell. Hurling remains that second kind of romance.

For lads and lassies, the local dream is so intimate as hardly to count as dream. All around them are people of whatever age, getting fuel and buying bread, who achieved everything in the game. I will be disappointed if some of last year’s U11s do not appear in a Club All-Ireland final around 2027.

People ask about the Shamrocks thing, about how the place keeps producing teams fit for summit. The 17 senior titles since the club’s formation in 1972, the restlessness and the relentlessness? How is it done? How does it keep getting done? Ballyhale, Knockmoylan, and Knocktopher three spokes of the parish wheel are the very definition of ordinariness.

Short answer? Children. And then children singing, close to a secret sea.

My vintage was a particular one. As of September 1971, we became the first junior infants group in the amalgamated school in Ballyhale, St Patrick’s NS. Previously there were two other schools in Castlegannon and Knocktopher. Now every four-year-old found immediate parish identity. Two torrents converged, via that foundation in January 1972, into the present day club’s glittering reaches.

We were young in 1978, when the first senior title arrived, and went on a bus with our parents to see matches in Leinster. The dream had begun, even for those of us never skilled enough for daylight lifting on the pitch.

The Shamrocks, with nine senior titles and three All-Irelands, slipped out of top contention between the early 1990s and the mid 2000s. I spent those years in England, a graduate student and then a lecturer. My playing days, enjoyed but never distinguished, were done.

Trips home were dominated by black and amber jerseys until 2003, when Ballyhale Shamrocks won the first of four U21 A titles in a row. Having lost to James Stephens in 2005’s senior final, they set their faces at 2006.

A twist of circumstances left me part of that season’s management group. I’ll never forget the half hour travelling home from town, pre motorway, senior final won, 10th title won. The players were exultant to point of frenzy, men returning from war, everyone still alive. We all stood up and caught hands, caught hands, as if we were a prayer group, recovering and hoping and no longer in need of hope.

More twists left me part of 2014’s management group, when a sixth All-Ireland landed. That team, with nine starters of 30 or more, represented the end of a curve. Last year’s success, as reaching tomorrow proves, involves a fresh arc.

Éamonn ‘Ned’ Moran was part of the 1971 vintage. We did a lot of hurling together. Affable and witty, he stood out as the best player in our class, save for Paul Phelan, who won two All-Irelands with Kilkenny in 1992 and 1993. Ned’s career proved brief, since work brought him to London in the mid 1980s. But he was forever over and back for big games.

Cancer took him in September 2017. A mutual friend, after the funeral, told a story that raked the gravel of his 50 years. Same friend had got him a ticket for the 2015 All-Ireland final against Kilmallock.

That day, Colin Fennelly scored a brilliant goal after 27 minutes and effectively decided the contest. Ned started to bucklep the length of the corporate box. He stayed bucklepping for several minutes.

The scéal came at half-time. He had put 50 quid on a double bet, odds of 50/1 or so, ever before a ball was pucked in the Kilkenny Championship. That bet: the Shamrocks to win the All-Ireland final and Colin Fennelly to score its first goal.

There is a framed memory of Ned and myself enjoying a drink in Irish’s of Knocktopher after that final. He was in mighty form, hardly able to speak for fear of ruining his smile. He never said a word about the bet. We were never close and we were never distant.

An awful lot of Irish literature, so called, is about the wearisome nature of the long familiar. I think that stuff is a lie (and the reason why John McGahern remains the only genius, in fiction, since James Joyce).

Middle age falls prey alike to sentimentality and cynicism. A heart attack last September should have finished me. One friend said: “You’re the one man hurling definitely saved.”

I was on the way, when I conked, to see Ballyhale Shamrocks and Clara in a junior championship replay. Quick thinking and calmness by Seán Holden, a strong friend in the club, kept me opinionated.

Now people are kind, enquiring after my health. “Not bad for a lad who was dead,” I say, breaking the meniscus, putting them back at ease.

Tim Heaslip, a founding member of the club, died last October. I attended his removal in Callan with my parents. Another Knocktopher native, knowing O’Sullivan form, offered vivid greeting in the car park of Molloy’s Funeral Home: “Here he is, here he is… The miracle man. What is it like on the other side?”

I surprised myself with firm reply: “Nothing to worry about.” Everyone laughed and the world resumed.

Seeing a 17th senior title, last October, was special. Seeing an eighth All-Ireland title would be still more special. I feel myself walking a posthumous life, a soldier on death’s spongy feet. But there is no fear.

My vintage was a particular one and not all of us are left. Cathal Cummins, Séamie Fowler, Ned Moran, Michael Voss, Deirdre Walsh… Nothing is surer than a lengthening list. We came in together and are going out at the speed of chance.

The U11s are up again tomorrow at half-time. The U13s play a challenge in the morning against Kilmacud Crokes. Then to Croke Park’s waves.

Come Sunday night, win or lose or draw, I will find minutes to put on The Polyphonic Spree: “Now you know you’re beautiful/You’ve always wondered/Now you know everything’s alright.” I will reckon being from Ballyhale, thinking on the names gone from sight, high above us all.