In 1979 wonderful things happened in the little parish of Ballyhale. Our various school teams had a hugely successful year. Ger Fennelly, one of the heroes of our first winning school teams, captained Kilkenny to the 21st All-Ireland senior hurling title. And, oh yes, Henry Shefflin was born, writes former Ballyhale national school principal, Joe Dunphy.
People always ask me if I knew from the day a young lad came to school that he was a star in the making. No, of course, I didn’t. But I knew the families and had a fair idea that there would be plenty of hurling there. The Shefflin name, like so many famous names in the area, was definitely a hint of good prospects and the other side of the coin, Fitzgerald of Glenmore, meant a great deal too.
His uncle, Paul, had worn the black and amber at minor level. Henry was preceded in the school by older brothers, Tommy and John. They were on the victorious under-10 team in 1979 and were showing great promise. This was later abundantly clear as both starred for the Cats at under-age level and won All-Ireland minor and under-21 medals.
Younger brother, Paul also showed county class and captained the Kilkenny in the 1998 All-Ireland final.
But the achievements of these boys and all the wonderful young players that the parish produced were surpassed by Henry. Indeed, at this point, the deeds of the greatest players from all over Ireland to grace Croke Park or any pitch in Ireland have now been surpassed by this modest, unassuming young man.
You may ask again did I see this happening or did it surprise me? I’ve already answered the first bit but, to the second part of the question, no, it didn’t surprise me. Why? Because from the early days in the school I saw a young player of wonderful skill. He had the best of the combined qualities of his brothers. He had a great hurling brain. He had courage and he never rested on his laurels.
He was never loud or big headed and was always ready to listen and to learn. What more could you ask?
Henry Shefflin was great as a schools’ hurler. He played in four finals for us in Ballyhale, losing the first to Urlingford but later helping us back from Roinn C to Roinn A in successive years. When we won that marvellous competition, the Lisdowney Sevens, for the first time in 1992 Henry scored points from play, frees and sideline cuts to help us overcome a great Ballingarry outfit.
The late Tommy O’ Brien cheered us to the end that day and afterwards was loud in his praise of “young Shefflin”. He didn’t have to tell me but Tommy knew a good one when he saw him. With Henry on that Lisdowney Sevens was Aidan Cummins (pictured) who later joined him on the county senior panel in 2000 and is still a club colleague to this day.
These two, together with Bob Aylward, another fine hurler, have been long and great servants of the Ballyhale Shamrocks club. In the school itself he was the winning captain in the annual league. The opposing captain was his brother, Paul!
Their father, Henry (senior), whose land adjoins the school pitch, watched the game from across the ditch. Either way, he couldn’t lose, lucky man. Later that evening, like most other evenings, Henry and Paul had run down home from school, thrown their bags in the hall and were hurling in the Shamrocks pitch by the time I made my way home.
The cradle for most, though not all, aspiring young hurlers in this county is the Primary School, under the umbrella of Cumann na mBunscoileanna. The good work is carried on at second level schools and up through the grades. Long may it last.
He can bamboozle defenders
Henry’s great qualities, which I listed, have lasted to this day. His wonderful hurling brain sees him take up positions which bamboozle the best of backs and also gives him the vision to pick out a colleague with a defence splitting pass. His bravery remains unquestionable.
Not alone has he shown it on the field of play over the years, but the way he has come back from serious injury on no less than three occasions and continued to carry the flag at club and county level speaks so highly of the man. He has always been regarded, and rightly so, as an honest hurler who has never resorted to foul tactics.
It is not in his make up. And even at this stage of his career, having achieved a record breaking 10 All Star awards and nine All-Ireland senior medals, to add to three Hurler of the Year awards, five county senior championships and two club All-Irelands, he still pushes himself. He is often seen in the field in Ballyhale, a solitary figure, with a bucket of sliotars, practising his free taking.
Such is the man’s dedication and greatness.
But, above all his other qualities , I must mention two. Firstly, there’s his love of club and team mates. I know very well how much winning those county championships with his clubmates meant to him. But secondly, and above everything else, there is his modesty and his willingness to help his fellow man in any possible way he can.
In that sense the word “no” is not included in his vocabulary. Fame and achievements rest easy on his shoulders. But in Ballyhale they have to. Nobody is allowed rest on his laurels.
I have been privileged
Henry Shefflin is an ideal role model for all aspiring young players. He is a credit to his family, his school, his parish, his county and the GAA. I am very proud of all the great young players I have been privileged to work with, but especially of him, of his achievements but above all of the genuine humble person that he is and of the great example he gives.
He truly leads by example. Ballyhale, Kilkenny, indeed all of Ireland, has produced none greater. I am sincerely delighted to have played some part in his career and to call him my friend. Go mba fada buan e.