It has been a tough couple of weeks for Irish hockey.
Both the Irish men and women’s teams lost out on Olympic qualification in two devastating final matches against highly-ranked international opposition.
But the signs are there that Irish hockey’s fortunes are improving, and the game is growing stronger. And this year, Kilkenny has enjoyed its share of success in both the men’s and women’s game. Kilkenny’s own Aine Connery certainly set the bar high in representing her country, but at home in the county, our local teams have also done themselves proud.
Two weeks ago, the men’s team won their league, and booked their place in the final of the Irish Challenge Cup. In the end, they lost out to Ballinahinch last Saturday, but it only takes some of the gloss off a stellar season.
The women’s team also had an outstanding season, transforming their own fortunes to become Southeast Champions and get to a Challenge Cup Final (they lost 4-2 to Botanic).
The men are disappointed with their cup loss, but they have now secured promotion to Division 2 of the Leinster League – a more challenging, more competitive league, where some of the country’s best ply their trade. They also intend to return to Belfield next year, to see if they can make it third-time lucky in the Irish Challenge Cup.
Men’s hockey in Kilkenny is a relatively recent phenomenon, however.
There are stories of a team doing the rounds in a pre-WWII era, but the club as it exists today originated in 1973, when male members of the Kilkenny Tennis Club challenged hockey players from neighbouring counties to games. It grew from there, and the club became a competitive entity as the Southeast League evolved into the Leinster League, within which the club now competes.
The hockey club’s home ground, and training pitch, is in the grounds of Kilkenny College – no coincidence, given the integral role that the school has played in terms of keeping hockey alive in Kilkenny.
While the same is not the case for the women’s side, the College, at a basic level, acts as a feeder to the club.
“Everyone on this team here today would’ve been through the College, or is currently in the College,” says team captain Eric Comerford. “Although, not everyone is living in Kilkenny, a few of us are in Dublin, or somewhere else. I try to travel down every Friday from Dublin.”
Many of the players come into the club at Junior level – around 16 years old, where the faster and more physical men’s game is a step up from schools’ hockey.
While most of the women’s team live in Kilkenny, many of the men are studying or working outside the county, and this is currently one of the issues facing the club as it looks to the future. Training, in Kilkenny College, takes place just once a week – on a Friday evening. This means that anyone living any distance away has a journey ahead of them each
Then of course, the matches are a commitment in themselves. Nearly all of Kilkenny’s opposition is Dublin-based, meaning all away matches
(every second weekend) are a full Saturday’s commitment. The bus leaves in the morning, and does not get back until evening. It’s a commitment that doesn’t suit everyone, but for those who can manage it, the club can be as much a social outlet as a sporting one. In recent times, the men’s andwomen’s clubs have made efforts to work together more, and to support one another – on and off the pitch.
Matt the Millers pub in Kilkenny City, who sponsor the club, has been the scene of many a celebratory occasion for both teams on weekend nights. The players are also grateful to team manager Elmer Dool, who has taken a hands-on role in improving men’s hockey in Kilkenny.
“He has put a huge amount into the club,” says centre-mid Lee Chadwick.
“He has given a lot of his time, in getting to the games, umpiring, organising the camps and fundraisers.”
The camps have been another success story of the year. The team have held skills and training camps throughout the year for kids and younger players interested in getting involved. As well as generating much-needed funds, it promotes the game on a different level and safeguards the future of the game in Kilkenny.