One of the most remarkable sporting achievements accomplished in Kilkenny was registered by gallant, fearless St Martin’s, writes Barrie Henriques.
The winning of the county senior hurling title in 1984 was something when St Martin’s (Ballyfoyle, Coon, Muckalee) came from back in the field to down all conquering Ballyhale Shamrocks.
More significantly, the men from the hills went on to capture their one and only All-Ireland club championship. Such days for minnows are rare in any sport, but for the St Martin’s men it was pure theatre, as they walked up the steps of Semple Stadium in the Spring of 1985 to collect the Tommy Moore Cup from the President of the GAA, Paddy Buggy from Slieverue.
Their heads were swimming in pools of joy. Their fans - meaning all Kilkenny - were delirious. There was a thing about the St Martin’s lads that welded them to their thousands of supporters. Their honesty, probably their physique, their collective resolve, their obvious passion, their naivety in a sense, their pride in the fact that they were stout representatives of their parish, and their unyielding disposition were factors with which Kilkenny hurling support could identify.
They represented more than Coon, Ballyfoyle and Muckalee. They were ambassadors for Kilkenny hurling, once the destination of the Tom Walsh Cup had been decided. There were no players with super-star allure. The media were not hunting them down for the usual innate hyperbole.
Neither television cameras, nor any other such implement were visible around the parish. The lads of St Martin’s went about the requirements of winning games that had an end game of being crowned Leinster and All-Ireland champions, with dedicated care to detail. There was as little fuss as possible.
The success story that was St Martin’s winning the All-Ireland club title in 1985 is truly astonishing.
How did it happen?
Who were the pioneers of the historic journey?
What drove them, and who were the drivers?
There was no elixir of youth. There was no ‘fairy Godmother’ lurking in a Rath with magical potions, or magic wand. We petitioned two warriors of that era, Anthony and Mikie Maher to help us in our endeavours to find out how an unknown band of honest, decent men from an agricultural background could win the All-Ireland title for the first time of asking.
It was a feat never before achieved and only equalled last year when St Thomas’ from Galway managed to win the Galway and All-Ireland titles. With great persuasion, and not too little reluctance, they acquiesced to our petition.
The outstanding club secretary of the time, Patsy Murphy was a source of great knowledge and inspiration for this scribe. I thank him for it.
It is a fascinating story, and one worth recalling 30 years down the road. Mikie Maher was a sturdy bulwark of a man on the half-back line, while his brother, Anthony met the biggest, toughest, strongest and hardest opponents as he manned the full-back line with great conviction and assuredness.
In 1980 your club came into the public notice when you were beaten by Ballyhale Shamrocks in the county final. That went to a replay. Yet four years later you faced the same all-conquering Ballyhale and took them out by a fine seven points. Why, or more pertinently, did that turn around happen?
“There were a number of factors at work here,”said Anthony as he tried to explain. “Going back a bit earlier, our parish won the intermediate crown in 1973 (Coon) and 1975 (Muckalee Ballyfoyle Rangers). There were plenty of good hurlers around.
“We all played with Coon up to and including the minor grade, and then some went to Muckalee, others stayed with Coon. We played the senior final against the Shamrocks as Mucklaee Ballyfoyle Rangers, but all changed afterwards.
“Influential people in the parish manoeuvred a unification of the parish in the early part of 1982, and so St Martins was born. Fr Loughry was a hugely respected and popular priest in our parish at the time. His finger I suspect was not too far removed from the deliberations. There were several names being bandied around, but eventually we settled on St Martin’s after our great benefactor and mentor, Fr Martin Ryan.
“There were some teething problems, one of which surrounded the club colours. Coon played in green and white, while Muckalee togged out in red and white. In a compromised move it was decided to wear a combination of the colours, so we had red with green trim.”
On the vexed question of local rivalry, the men remarked that it was never an issue.
“We grew up with all the lads around the parish. We played with them as minors, and (Mikie) even in our own house, there were two of us playing with Muckalee and two playing with Coon. That was replicated through the parish. (Anthony) There was never a problem in that regard.”
The vast majority of the players went to either Muckalee, Coon or Ardoo schools. The lads would have fond memories of their school days with their teachers, Master Tynan and Master Power (note the respect).
“Master Tynan,”Anthony opened, “would play hurling every day, and if the day was any way fine he would stay playing until his team won.”
Back to the more serious stuff of winning championships!
In 1980 the great breakthrough into the pantheon of senior excellence arrived. After a hectic journey, the men from Muckalee, Ballyfoyle Rangers charged into the county final to face the reigning county champions, Ballyhale Shamrocks.
The game went to a replay after a hectic drawn encounter. Muckalee Ballyfoyle Rangers scored 2-13. The Shamrocks grabbed 3-10. In the replay, the Shamrocks ran out rather easy winners by 3-13 to 1-10.
Things had changed when next the ’Rangers came to the big table in 1982. They were no longer the ’Rangers, but a much focussed St Martin’s. It was semi-final day against their old nemesis, Shamrocks, who incidentally had evolved from a three-way parish divide, that was telling.
The great Paddy Johnston had arrived.
stormed up field
In a keenly contested encounter, the reigning champions came through to face James Stephens in the final.
“It was so close that we well remember Jack Morrissey storming up the field with the ball, and from 30 yards out in front of the goal he threw up the ball to strike it, but the ref blew the whistle. Jack was so vexed that he hammered the ball out over the stands. He was not too delighted with the decision, I can tell you, and he was not alone.”
Water under the bridge! What did Johnston bring to the table we wondered?
“He coached us into keeping the ball as long as we could, and not give it away cheaply,” recalled Mikie. “He was also strong on wild hitting of the ball, preferring instead to place it to a colleague, or put it into a space where another lad could run on and collect. He was strong too on free-taking and repeating skills until they bored us to death.
“He got us to buy into his philosophy, and we did. We became a better team, and better hurlers,” he insisted.
“Another thing,” Anthony added, “he was always looking forward, and spoke of things like county titles. But for some reason or other, he would often couple those thoughts with winning a club All-Ireland. He worked on our heads with little things like that.
“It was the promise that if we worked hard that there was a county and club All-Ireland titles somewhere out there for us. He was a brilliant man.”
The season 1984 dawned with a particular poignancy for GAA people the World over. It was Centenary year, and that would have a certain resonance about it. A winning medal, trophy would be a one off, never to be replicated prize.
A county or club championship would have the Centenary prefix attached. Tom Neville, the former Wexford hurling star, replaced Paddy Johnston. He was joined by Billy Brett.
The road at home
In Kilkenny, the senior county championship was reduced to a 12-team competition, initially divided into two equal groups. St Martin’s played Galmoy in their first outing. They won. The Fenians fell in round two.
Thomastown followed a similar trail in the third game for St Martin’s. Glenmore brought the St Martin’s men crashing with a substantial defeat in the fourth round. As bad as that defeat was (2-13 to 1-6), it was compounded by a dreadful injury to Jack Morrissey, who, as events proved suffered a cruciate injury (“first time I heard the word,” said Mikie). That was to cost the club and him dearly.
However, a win over Mooncoin saw them head up their group, and qualify for the county semi-final. It was to improve still further. James Stephens were downed by two goals and a point in the semi-final (3-6 to 1-5) which set up a final against the Shamrocks.
The record books show that St Martin’s won the Centenary county final by 1-14 to 1-7.
Nobody would ever win such a medal again. County winners around the country were heavy in prep work for the Centenary club championship. The St Martin’s men were no less focussed.
Within a week, St Martin’s were striking out on a new, unknown adventure. Now they were being taken from the comfort zone of county Kilkenny. Their opening salvos were being struck in O’Toole Park, Dublin, against the Dublin Champions, O’Toole’s.
“Five busses struck out for Dublin that morning. The team and officials were on the lead bus,” recalled Mikie. “Our bus broke down at Carrolls of the Railyard. The supporters on the second bus vacated their bus, and we took it over.
“Now there were no such things as mobiles or things like that. Anyway, the supporters sorted themselves out eventually, and everyone got to Dublin.”
“That was a very tough game,” Anthony remembered. “The Dublin lads were not too simple (I love that expression). The sun was a serious problem for us in the first half, and there were a lot of lads guessing where a dropping ball should be.
John Moran outstanding
“John Moran had an outstanding game for us. My father always said that when John Moran plays well we would always have a great chance. We were not that well fixed at half time. We were still struggling close to the finish, but we came good in the end.”
At half time St Martins were in front by 0-8 to 0-5. Tight enough! They won by 2-13 to 0-13. Tom Moran and Richard Maloney grabbed the goals. Nicky Morrissey (a great friend), Tony Maher and Jim Moran were outstanding
Their next outing took them closer to home against Wexford’s finest, Buffers Alley in Athy. Doran was the name synonymous with the ’Alley, and Tony was the man at full-back for the Saints, Anthony (Tony) Maher.
“We won convincingly enough,” said Anthony.
They did too, winning by 4-12 to 2-8. Richard Maloney shot two goals while Johnny Brennan and Tom Moran got the others. Jim Moran was superb; Mikie Maher, Nicky Morrissey and Danny Coonan were excellent.
St Martins led at the break by 2-9 to 1-6.
Another rung of the ascending ladder mastered, a few more to go. A Leinster final appearance in Athy against a highly fancied Kinnity from Offaly beckoned.
Were Paddy Johnston’s words sounding prophetic?
Such was the density of the fog in Athy, it was totally impossible to see the action at one end of the pitch when standing at the opposite end. The game should never have started. It did, and what a result it produced for the Saints.
The Offaly champions - well embellished with inter-county stars (Pat Delaney, Mark and Paddy Corrigan, Johnny Flaherty, Ger Coughlan, Liam Carroll) - were doughty operators, and were well fancied. Why wouldn’t they with a sextet of experience like those above.
Cup on the bus
Tom Moran was the hit man in Athy, getting a superb 2-4. Johnny Brennan’s contribution of four frees were no less valuable, as were John Morrissey’s couple and Jim Moran’s long-range rocket. Jim and Tom Moran were great, but so too were John Morrissey, Danny Coonan, Patsy Moran and Johnny Brennan.
The cup was on the bus. One unbelievable, inconceivable trophy was on the dresser, and one still in the cross hairs. The fires burned. The flags were lashing in the Winter storms. Old men got a pep in their step, and some even believed that Santa Claus was more than a Christmas caricature.
Christmas beckoned, but better times were scheduled to make 1985 a marquee year for the parish.
There was no point in telling the St Martin’s lads that the sky was now the limit, when man had already walked upon the moon. They trained right through the Christmas period, even going to Conahy on St Stephens’s day for a work-out.
Ballycastle from Antrim were in the blue corner for the All-Ireland semi-final. St Martin’s had a home draw. Nowlan Park was undergoing redevelopment work so the secondary county ground, John Locke Park in Callan was the venue.
Never in history did such appalling weather visit this land as it did for the match that day. Parts of the pitch were flooded. The game still carried on. History will say that the Antrim lads, with their six members of the Donnelly clan, were downedd.
“They surprised us,” Anthony admitted, “and it put us to the pin of our collars to beat them.”
Having led by 2-7 to 1-3 at half time, St Martin’s came home in front, winners by 3-15 to 2-7. Eamonn Morrissey, Richie Maloney and Tom Moran bagged the goals. Team captain Johnny Brennan scored 0-4; Jim Moran, Paddy Lawlor, Danny Coonan and John Morrissey registered most of the points.
The parishioners of Coon, Muckalee, Ballyfoyle were delerious. They were on their way to Croke Park. ‘Twas like going to America for a holiday. Rig outs were being spoken of. Transport was being planned. Arrangements for travel home for the emigrant population was being scheduled.
Galway’s best, Castlegar – Connollys’ et al - and aided by Kilkenny’s Tom McCormack and Clara’s Martin O’Shea were in the opposing corner. If you could make any attempt at movement in Muckalee you were going to Croke Park, or to use the vernacular, Crow Park on St Patricks Day.
The Railway Cups were on as a triple header. The club hurling final set the tone of the rest of the programme. St Martin’s were slow out of traps. They were headed inside the opening six minutes by 1-3 to no score.
Tom Moran lifted the net from its stanchion with a free in the 12th minute. The Saints were away. By half time, the Kilkenny champions led by 1-5 to 1-4. They still led on the call of full time, but a great late goal stifled the bubbling roar in the throats of the Saints supporters to level the game.
Tom Walsh, Tom and Jim Moran, Paddy Lawlor, John James Dowling, Danny Coonan and Bobby Shore headed the St Martin’s heroes, among a superb band of heroes. It was on to Thurles the following Sunday to do it all over again.
The Saints made no mistake this time. They brought home the Tommy More Cup. They were the darlings of Kilkenny hurling for a while at least. They won by 1-13 to 1-10.
No team will ever accomplish what the St Martins lads did in the Centenary Year. The chance will never present itself again. Heroes among their fellow Kilkenny hurling folk, but they earned a status of legendary proportion never to be equalled, never mind surpassed among their own.
The panel of men who won the club All-Ireland were Bobby Shore, Jimmy Kelly, Anthony Maher, Nicky Morrissey, J.J. Dowling, Tom Walsh, Jim Moran, Michael Maher, Jack Morrissey, Paddy Lawlor, John Moran, John Morrissey, Eamonn Morrissey, Patsy Moran, Johnny Brennan (capt), Danny Coonan, Tom Moran, Richard Moloney, Tom Kinsella, Jimmy Kinsella, Joe Kelly, Jimmy Maher, Ray Teehan, Pierce Coonan, Pat Comerford, Tony Morrissey, Sean O’Neill, Martin Morrissey, Eamonn Breen.