The Fenians - the real story

Pat Henderson, Fenians, at the Kilkenny GAA Convention in O'Loughlin Gaels.  (Photo: Eoin Hennessy/
In 1742 a notice appeared in Faulkener’s Dublin Gazzette. It read: ”that for the pleasure of the quality frequenting Ballyspellan Spa, there was very good fox and hare hunting, horse racing, dancing and hurling,” writes Barrie Henriques.

In 1742 a notice appeared in Faulkener’s Dublin Gazzette. It read: ”that for the pleasure of the quality frequenting Ballyspellan Spa, there was very good fox and hare hunting, horse racing, dancing and hurling,” writes Barrie Henriques.

There are two points that strike me about the announcement. Firstly, hurling was played as a competitive pastime, or it was certainly a social affair, and secondly, it was obviously played by people who qualified as socially acceptable members of the community, or even quality.

Like many other rural parts of the country, Johnstown and its environs was no different, even as far back as the eighteenth century. Rural life was defined by creed, possessions, power, money, stock - the four legged sort - the number of servants, the games played and the political party supported.

Makes you wonder, has anything changed in the interim?

So there was hurling of a kind in Johnstown some 142 years before Cusack, Davin, Dr Croke and the rest sat down in Hayes Hotel in Thurles back in the days. Another reference in the Gazette is also pertinent to our piece.

It is the mention of Ballyspellan Spa. It would appear that the rural life in Johnstown revolved around the great mansion at Bellyspellan, and its adjacent Spa. Whenever you listen to Johnstown people speak, they will always pronounce Spa with a kind of upper-crust accented Spaaw.

No hurling, but cricket instead

As with a vast number of estates around the country, the game of the peasants was far removed from hurling or Gaelic football. Rather regular competitive games were played between the finest, broadest and fittest of the resident landlord’s subjects against neighbouring landed gentry in cricket.

Cricket was the game brought to Ireland by the Planters. Kilkenny was one of the most desirable of locations for the new landlords. Being close to Kings County (Offaly) and Queens County (Laois), it was not surprising that the cricketing influence would have eventually manifested itself in Kilkenny.

In truth, Kilkenny was a significant cricket stronghold. The game lost its popularity locally around the 1970s’, although a fine crease (cricket pitch, if you like) is still maintained in Mount Juliet to this day. If you wish to know where the game was strongest, give a thought to the clubs who wore a prominent colour, adorned by a sash of a different hue - Mooncoin, Carrickshock, Tullaroan to name but a few.

We have, periodically endeavoured to chart the origins of Kilkenny GAA clubs, whose creation, for the want of a better word, was organised in the living memory of many, and whose instigators at the time are still among us, or at least some of them.

We have already completed two such stories in Windgap and the Rower Inistioge. This week we have ventured down to the famed Fenians of Johnstown.

The demarcation line for most of these clubs was drawn round about the time of the Parish Rule being implemented, and written into the Offical Guide of the GAA. Up to that time, as in other stories, there was a plethora of teams on practically every cross roads.

In Johnstown, for instance, there were teams in Johnstown village; in Crosspatrick out the road; in Galmoy; another a brace of miles away in Urlingford; even across the borders in Tipperary and Laois. In Johnstown there was a team called St Finbarr’s, and yet another called St Kieran’s. Sure there would have to be a St Kieran’s!

Dropped by one, play with the other

In truth, none of the teams in those times had a core element of solidarity. Often lads would find themselves dropped by one team, and within a week he could be playing against the team that dispensed with his services. There was no solidarity, no community bond, and consequently no pride or passion in one’s own place.

Such a symposium was not symptomatic of Johnstown alone. We found similar situations pertaining in the Rower Inistioge and Windgap. Doubtless there will be little or no difference either when next we visit similar locations elsewhere in the county.

However, back to the Fenians.

St Finbarr’s (Johnstown) had a good minor team between 1960 and 1963. They were beaten in the Roinn A county final by a super Mooncoin team after a replay in 1960. They nearly made it again in 1961. The late giant of hurling, Pat Delaney was on the county panel in 1960 (big news in Johnstown at the time) and Pat Henderson was on the winning team in 1961, playing at centre-back (even bigger news).

Willy Watson was on the panel. At the time, pundits forecasted a bright future for this band of young hurling activists. Punditry was premature, at least in the immediacy of the following few years. With Henderson, Delaney, Nicky Orr, Seamus Grace and Frank Holohan on board, a serious challenge for the Kilkenny junior hurling title was envisaged in 1966.

A serious difference of opinion led to the dissolution of the team, which culminated in the establishment of two junior sides in Johnstown, St Finbarr’s and St Kieran’s. The division of the forces was non-productive, even self-destructive.

However, the emergence of a fine under-21 team in 1967, drawn from both clubs, helped change things. Although defeat in the Northern final against Bennettsbridge, the team and performances inspired hope.

Animosity a stranger

The spirit engendered in that team, where animosity was a stranger, unity a binding force, and success the only ambition, proved the catalyst for greater things to happen over the horizon.

Was there any one individual, or episode that predicated the eventual amalgamation, we asked Pat Henderson, a former captain of industry at Kilkenny Design Workshops and the former Kilkenny hurling star and hugely successful county manager?

“To the best of my recollection there was no single issue in that regard,” he replied. “There was plenty of speculation about players leaving one and going to another, but eventually, common sense prevailed, and a general meeting was called . I suspect that nobody doubted for a moment that the best prospect of success going forward lay in the unification of the parish.

“Pierce Malone, newly arrived in the village, chaired the meeting. That was a master stroke in a sense, because he knew nobody in the village. He brought no baggage. He had no connections with anyone. It was an excellent CV for such an occasion.

“Everybody agreed that amalgamation would be to the benefit of all. The only question was how to devise an equitable way of the amalgamation where everybody got a fair shake, if you like.”

We wondered about the mood of the meeting. Were there any prejudices coming from any corner? Were there any kind of agendas? Were lads pushing for their own?

“As far as memory serves me, I cannot recollect any antagonism towards anyone really,” Pat continued. “But there was a gentleman present, Joe Drennan, not a GAA person primarily, but a sportsman specialising as a very accomplished cyclist, who made a most enlightened proposition to the meeting. He suggested that both sides select two from opposing sides (St Finbarr’s and St Kieran’s) and then nominating one of their own to form the original committee.

Astute proposition

“It was a very astute proposition, which took the heat, if there was any, out of proceedings. It was brilliant really, and with Pierce Malone as the nominated chairman, we had our first Johnstown Committee of seven souls.”

What a smart man Jim Drennan proved to be!

The six nominated were Paul Skehan, Michael Gannon, Paddy Henderson (Ballyspellan), James Ryan, Edward Curran and Pat Henderson. All but Pat and Pierce Malone have gone to their Eternal Rewards.

The committee agreed on the new club name - Fenians - the colours of blue and white, and that the weekly training alternated between the sportsfield and Dwan’s field. It was also agreed that the members of the St Kieran’s club provide nine roots of good ash to the new club. St Finbarr’s had already done so.

A new giant was on the way!

A new chapter in the annals of Kilkenny GAA had just been touched with the quill and ink. As the iconic Val Doonican often said; it took him 33 years to become an overnight success. There was always rich promise from the players in the area.

“In 1969 there was a very real opportunity to win the county junior title, and in truth, one of the teams in Johnstown, if they could manage to take a few lads from the other side, would have had more than a sporting chance to win the title,” Pat remembered. “In addition, the success of the under-21 team in 1967, when they all played together as a Johnstown team, also lent credence to the idea that a junior title was more than a probable ambition.

“So we really had a fine junior team together when we went for the title in 1968, played in the Spring of 1969. We had also got a few terrific younger players off that under-21 team like Nicky Orr, Fergus Farrell and Billy Fitzpagtrick,” Pat recalled.

One of the frequently asked questions would centre on the early days of players, and the influences exerted by mentors, with particular reference to local teachers. I put the same question to PH?

“I’m sure that some of our players came under the stewardship of some teacher, but there certainly was no nailed down such individual in our parish anyway,” he smiled. “We learned our hurling in numerous fields, or paddocks. Some lads learned their hurling skills against the gable end of outhouses, or on the road with other lads.

Tournaments developed talent

“A few went to St Kieran’s College, and maybe one or two, like myself, went into Thurles CBS. But I would have to say that the prominence of hurling tournaments did more for any of us than was acquired from other sources. At the time, the Kilkenny championships were knock-out competitions; one strike and you were out until the following year.

“Tournaments were brilliant, and the better we got, the more tournaments we were invited into. The quality and intensity of those tournaments was of immense value, both from a competitive viewpoint, and a learning curve. Our development as a team was built around tournaments in Durrow, Urlingford, Freshford, and going up into Offaly and Tipp.

“We would be playing against the likes of Camross, St Rynagh’s, Thurles Sarsfields, Rathdowney, Ballygeehan, Killenaule, Gortnahoe and many more. That was where we learned our trade. The more success we enjoyed in Kilkenny, the more invitations were delivered to our secretary.”

As the Fenians juggernaut roared forward from the late 60s and into the 70s, more and more players from the club were pulling on the black and amber colours. That was not always the case, however.

Opinion at the time would have you believe that you needed to get on board some of the marquee club teams like Tullaroan, Carrickshock, Bennettsbridge or Mooncoin to get a spot on a Kilkenny panel. St Lachtain’s (Freshford) kicked that trend for a few years early in the sixties, but by and large getting noticed in good company was key to enhancing your reputation.

Pat Delaney, for instance, was on the Kilkenny minor panel in 1960. Around Johnstown, that was “big potatoes”. Pat Henderson played on the All-Ireland winning minor team in 1961. He was acclaimed......among his own. Henderson was the first Fenians player to win an All- Ireland senior medal (1967).

“John Holohan did it in 1922, but he was playing for Tullaroan at the time,” Henderson said when he outlined the history.

Knew what was possible

As is often the case in post-amalgamation situations, the achievement of ambitions is seldom a rapid process. For reasons obvious at the time, such was not the case in Johnstown.

Over there, they knew what they had. They were well aware of what was probable. They proceeded to match promise with achievement.

As Pat Henderson - a man who chooses words carefully- said, it was not surprising that they won the junior title at the first time of asking. They had 12 of their under-21 players on board.

They couldn’t win the under-21 title that season. Strange that!

Or was it?

Having taken the junior title of 1968 - played in 1969 - the Fenians launched their ambitions into the choppy, uncharted waters of senior championship hurling. Surprise, surprise, they reached the county final. They suffered a disappointing defeat against the great James Stephens.

That final too was deferred until the Spring of 1970. Bearing in mind what had gone before, the Fenians hurlers just could not wait for the 1970 championship to commence.

They enjoyed a trouble-free run to the county final. There they faced their nemesis James Stephens - again.

The Johnstown lads vowed that this time round things were going to be different. They were!

Fifty-six years after the parish won the last title, Fenians of Johnstown returned to the Spa with the Tom Walsh Cup. It was a long road of highs and lows, but the win pasted over all of the tribulations. Everyone was delirious. They all wintered well after that.

Won four more titles

The Fenians went on to win four more titles, the last one in 1977. They were big boys now swimming with sharks in the big pool, but that concerned them not a whit. For Fenians hurlers it was no longer mandatory to go to “named schools” or join up with big clubs to get on to Kilkenny teams.

They had earned the right to dine at the top table; everyone had. They were never, to this day, to feel apologetic about doing so. Superb hurlers came out of every nook and cranny to adorn the blue and white, and the black and amber too.

It is not for this scribe to list individuals, but familiar names enhance the story. There were/are Hendersons, Delaneys, Delaneys, and more Delaneys; Fitzpatricks too, Ryans, Brodericks, Purcells, Powers, Orr, Walshes, Behan, Graham, and some.

So much has happened since that fateful evening meeting in 1968. Its influence and fall-out are still obvious. The Fenians of Johnstown reign.

As the famed Dick Grace remarked when asked his opinion about the attributes needed to be a good hurler: “Give me the full of a gansey, and the closest thing to a hurler after that would do.”

He would have had an abundance of talent available in Johnstown to meet the requirements of his hurling CV.