Dick Bolger. Photo: Charlie Maher
In the pursuance of our little crusade to locate founding members of GAA clubs, still very much compos mentus, and still with more than a passing interest in the club they founded, we find ourselves in the delightful home of Micheál (the a fada is important) Roche in Ballyduff.

In the pursuance of our little crusade to locate founding members of GAA clubs, still very much compos mentus, and still with more than a passing interest in the club they founded, we find ourselves in the delightful home of Micheál (the a fada is important) Roche in Ballyduff.

He is one of two surviving members of the Rower Inistioge club which was founded around 1954. Sitting opposite Micheál - he is the father of the present Kilkenny dietician, Noreen - is the other founder, Dick Bolger, who also happens to be Micheál’s brother-in-law.

Long before Micheál married Dick’s sister Nellie they fought in the same hurling trenches for the honour and glory of the little parish. In fairness it is not really a little parish, because geographically it stretches out a bit.

It takes you from the Wexford border down at the Ferry Bridge back towards Thomastown over another famous bridge at Brownsbarn.

The “around bit” of the 1954 statistic is intriguing, and interesting. In the unification process we are talking about two elements of clear distinction, divided by a tract of land of more than five miles in distance.

Unlike Windgap, for instance, who had a clearly defined village and a tiny community of a few houses in close proximity, the Rower is more than a Tullahought. There are a number of houses and businesses in the hamlet, and while the Inistioge people would have a calling towards Thomastown and Kilkenny for their more serious shopping demands, the Rower natives would most definitely be pulled by the magnetic force of New Ross.

Even college going youngsters would follow the aforementioned routes in secondary school education, with St Kieran’s College and Good Council (New Ross) the stop off points.

Back in the time there were two separate teams in both locations. The Rower simply used the name of their little village, while Inostioge were affiliated as the Nore Rangers.

In the interest of clarity it must be stated that the brothers-in-law had allegiances in both camps around the time of the re-unification. Micheál was in the Inistoge camp. Dick was further out the road. Communication was difficult in those times.

There was probably one or maybe two telephones in the Rower, whilst the Inistioge end might boast of a couple more. Both ends of the same parish - and that was where the similarity ended - were little republics within the same confederation.

In point of fact, both had their own church and there was even a church in the middle. I am referring to that most serene, captivating little Kirk buried under the main road from Inistioge to New Ross at Clodiagh. Remember the name, and remember the location as they are central to our narrative.

Was the getting together amicable from the outset, given that such arrangements often times needed the wisdom of Solomon and the guile of Kissinger to reach consensus?

Micheál picked up the baton: “We had a meeting in March ’54 in the most central of locations in Clodiagh in Jim Lennon’s garage. Dick was there, and then we had Tom D. Lyng (Derek Lyng’s grandfather), his brother Paddy ‘Odlum’ Lyng, Martin Hennessy, Martin Walsh, Jim Lyng and Mick Murray. The meeting was very amicable and things were going well.”

But was the entire population in absolute agreement?

“There were a few dissenters,” Dick recalled.

“A few in our end (Inistioge) were not in agreement,” added Micheál, “and they formed a third team, Forest Rangers in opposition to the idea.”

Back to the meeting!

“It was going very well, but one individual found it difficult, and eventually the meeting broke up without any agreement,” said the Rower representative, Dick. “However,” fired Micheál, “Jackie Butler thought that it would be a great idea to organise a challenge match between the Rower and Inistioge to generate a bit of funding. The game lasted 12 minutes, and then one of the most memorable fracases in the history of the parish blew up. Inistioge were in front by eight points to no score at the time.”

“I’ll tell you though, that if there was ever a reason to unify the clubs, that match certainly underlined it,” Dick felt.

The aborted March meeting was re-convened before Christmas.

Did the season of goodwill and Festive Spirit contribute do you think to the ultimate outcome, we wondered?

“Maybe,” mused Dick Bolger. “There was fierce rivalry between both sides prior to that decision, so maybe a more inspired spirit was in the wings helping.”

A new club was born!

Let’s get this club organised.

“Martin Walsh was the first chairman,” said Dick. “Marty Hennessy was the first secretary, while Micheál there was the first treasurer,” he enlightened.

Now registered and affiliated to the Kilkenny South Board (two teams), the club was getting up a head of steam. But little matters like a home or two (given the location of both parties), colours and most importantly a name were still bear traps needing careful negotiation.

Some players elected to take their objections to the new development away from the new club, deciding to play with other clubs. But as the old sean fhocal runs, níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin!

The red of Nore Rangers and the green of the Rower were the compromised new club colours.

The Rower Inistioge was the new name. John Cottrell - Andy’s father - gave the use of a field, gratis, to the Inistioge contingent. Up at the Rower end they were spoiled for choice.

“Marty Butler had given the use of a field to the Rower lads for years,” they related. “Even after the amalgamation, that facility remained and then Willie Kelly offered the club a smashing field as well. The present pitch in the Rower was purchased from Dick Hennessy in 1984, while the pitch in Inistioge was bought from Tom McDonald in 1991.”

Given that the fifties were exceptionally difficult, and have oft times been referred to as the hungry days, servicing the needs of a new GAA club was more than daunting. One feels that it was no bed of roses.

Over to the treasurer: “It certainly was not a simple exercise, and even though activities were rather shortlived, we still had to compete. The championship was run on a knock-out basis; the clubs never provided hurleys to anyone; the most that was purchased were a few sliothair and the only expense incurred were affiliation fees, a bit of rent and registration.

“My first treasurer’s report to AGM was written on the back of a brown envelope. It cost £75 to run the club. Times surely have changed,” he smiled.

Both founding members would make the point that the proceeds from one “good” dance would service the club’s needs for a season. Hurling balls would be patched and stitched on a regular basis.

Have you heard of heelball and hemp? Your dad will tell you!

The club organised a number of dances in Tom O’Donnell’s hall in Inistioge. They helped raise finance. Another lucrative venue for dancing was Harney’s hall in Mullinavat, which was availed of by the new Rower Inistioge and others.

The first championship outing pitted the new Rower Inistioge club against Kilmacow. They won, and after a very competitive South championship they got to the divisional final against Knocktopher (6-5 to 5-4). Micheál was at number 3, while Dick was on the right of the halfback line.

The team and subs were - Tommy White, Jim Hynes, Micheál Roche, Johnny Langton, Dick Bolger, Jim Walsh, Willie Kelly, Eddie Bergin, Paddy ‘Odlum’ Lyng, Dick McGrath, Jim Dobbyn, Jim Mackey, Ned Drea, Tony Gray, Sean O’Keeffe. Subs - Michael Bolger, James Galavan, Markie Lyng, Paddy Kelly, Tom O’Mahoney, Tom Duggan, Joe O’Mahoney, Richie Hennessy.

It was a loss but it wasn’t bad for openers! f“There were great tournaments at that time, and everyone was dying to get invited because there were terrific prizes on offer,” Dick recalled. “In 1959 we were invited into a tournament which we won, beating Carrickshock in the final in Thomastown. We got a smashing gabardine overcoat with a belt from the Monster House in Kilkenny. That was the Winter sorted out for us.”

They both laughed. Life was simple.

It was said that a man with a good gabardine and Brylcream in his hair cut a fair dash with the ladies. The Rower Inistioge were on the market.

The big breakthrough came in 1963 when the Rower Inistioge beat Thomastown Rangers (5-5 to 4-3) in the South final. They took care of Galmoy in the county final. Galmoy won the initial game by 7- to 6-2, but the Rower Inistioge won a replay on the strength of an objection.

The second match was played in 1964, and the Rower Inistioge emerged victorious by 2-11 to 1-7. That historic win was the precursor of greater things for the Rower Inistioge.

“We had a smashing team that time,” Micheál remembered. “There was great interest and every man jack in the parish bought into the concept that we could do great things. I can remember the team as if we were going out tomorrow. Pat Kavanagh, Jim Ryan, Micheál Roche, P.J. Brett, Michael Bolger, John Walsh (capt), Eamonn Flood, Jim Grace, Dan White, Pudsy Murphy, Gerry Mackey, Eddie Keher, Michael Walsh , Martin Walsh and Fr Tom Murphy. Martin Kavanagh and Fintan Murphy were injured.”

In passing it was Micheál who informed us that Dick Bolger was the first man to bring an All-Ireland medal to the parish. When did that happen Dick? Modesty prevented him from making comment, but Micheál filled in the details.

“He played for Kilkenny in the junior All-Ireland final of 1956,” he told us. “In the final against London in New Eltham, the lamented Tom Ryall said in his book: “It was London who had the better of the closing stages in the second half. They led by two points, but Billy Costigan levelled matters just on the call of full time. Just as it seemed that there would have to be a replay, Dick Bolger hammered home the winning goal in injury time.”

The sixties were good for the Rower Inistioge. They were even better than good.

Four players from the club played on the winning Kilkenny All-Ireland minor team in 1960. P.J. Brett was at full-back. Alas, P.J. passed away a few months ago. Pierce Freaney played at right-half forward, while Fr Tom Murphy was at corner forward and Ollie Ryan at wing back. They brought tremendous honour and not too little glory to the parish.

We spoke fleetingly about the state of the game in those times, and how, or maybe, what it has developed into now.

“It was tough, and in some counties, it was over-stated,” said Dick Bolger. “Some lads in those times thought they were great lads if they could send a lad off injured. It didn’t matter if he had scored a few goals or points on him, as long as he could inflict an injury.

“It was often remarked then that some lads would prefer to be in a good row than win a match. Thanks be to God all of that stuff has gone out of the game. It is a magnificent manly, tough, hardy game, the best field game there is,” he insisted.

Brett and Freaney repeated the feat 12 months later. So many players from the club pulled a black and amber gansey over their shoulders subsequently to Dick Bolger starting the trend. An unbelievable number from the relatively new club donned the county colours, and with distinction too.

For instance, Mickie Lyng was the first Rower Inistioge clubman to captain a Kilkenny All-Ireland winning team, when leading the black and amber to victory in the under-21 final in 1977 against a lava-hot Cork side in one of the greatest deciders at that level.

Minor hurlers like Pat Dunphy, Mick Tierney, Pat Treacy, John Lyng, and many more, brought the golden Celtic cross back to Noreside. Many more were to follow. The record books have recorded the contribution of Rower Inistioge players to the Kilkenny cause.

Eddie Keher was perhaps the greatest of all. A legend!

But it is to recount, as best we can, and the last surviving founding fathers of the club can, their story of the Rower Inistioge which first saw light in Lennon’s garage in the month of December 1954.

Having won the right to play with the big boys at senior level - there was no intermediate championship in those days - an unprecedented challenge now surfaced. Would the new kids on the block fold under the pressure?

There were some big sharks now swimming in their pool. There was an armada of marquee hurlers coming over the brow of the hill. What will happen to the new lads?

Will they survive?

Where to, if they get a few heavy defeats? Can they stay senior? Questions, questions, questions.

The Rower Inistioge took out St Senans (Kilmacow) in their first outing. On the Saturday before the Kilmacow game, Dick Bolger was getting married. Being a selector on the senior team, it would be fair to say that more than his wedding day was on his mind.

“The photographer was bawling for the groom and I was around the back of the church trying to pick the team for Sunday’s match in the first round, with Micheál and the rest of the selectors,” he recalled with laughter. The Rower Inistioge stormed to the county semi-final against all the odds, where they gave a tremendous account of themselves against the mighty Bennettsbridge.

“We were going great, and were in with more than a sporting chance as the game went into the last 10 minutes,” Dick recalled. “But to the credit of the ’Bridge, they took us asunder in the last few minutes. I would have to say that the ’Bridge team that time was one of the all-time greatest club sides that I have ever seen.”

However, the New Year of 1968 heralded a new dawn for the men from the Rower Inistioge - the last outpost on the south-eastern tip of the Kilkenny hurling kingdom. Even sages, analysts and forecasters were not aware of what the future had in store, but by the end of that 12 months a brand new name was inscribed on the Tom Walsh Cup. It was the only time in the history of the Rower Inistioge.

From that time on, irrespective of what hurling fate had in store, the Rower Inistioge hurling people could enter the banqueting hall of the senior Kilkenny champions with heads aloft.

Before we left our guests we needed to know what the presence of a hurler like Eddie Keher meant to the parish. “It goes without saying that as far as we were concerned, he was the greatest hurler ever laced on a pair of boots. He started his schooling in our parish. His father, mother and sisters all lived, and did business in our village. As a chap, everybody knew who young Keher was.

“In the years that followed, they certainly knew who young Keher was. He was a living legend as far as most hurling people in the country were concerned. He certainly was to us in Inistioge,” said Micheál, “and he has lost nothing of his lustre.”

“People would often say that this film or that film put Inistioge on the map. They might even say that some obscure writer or artist put Inistioge on the map,” said Dick Bolger. “But there is no doubt in anyone’s mind living in our parish, that the one man who most certainly, and without any fear of contradiction most definitely did put the parish of Inistioge on the map was Ireland’s greatest hurler, in my mind, Eddie Keher.

“He established scoring records that only Henry Shefflin recently passed. What people forget is that the great Shefflin surpassed Eddie Keher’s records with a great number of matches. On the national stage Eddie was a magnificent ambassador for our national games.

“Better than I could talk all day about him, but when I say that any time I would answer Inistioge to the question of my origins, the listener would never fail to ask, do you know Eddie Keher. He mixed freely with Princes and Lords. He represented his profession and his sport with great character, and ceremony, but when the dust of time has settled, Eddie Keher will primarily always be an Inistioge man first.

“Our hearts burst with pride whenever people talk about him. He is one of us, and that will do,” he finished.

The name of Tommy Hayes came across our bows during the conversation. Being a schoolteacher, he was in the privileged position of being close to the youth of the parish.

“He was a superb man who did tremendous work for the club,” said Micheál. “After we won the junior title, Tommy won three Roinn A county titles for the club. That was a huge achievement for a small club in rural Ireland. He did Trojan work at all levels, including minor and under-21,” said the first treasurer.

After 1968 the club went close to winning the championship on a number of occasions. They lost two senior finals on the bounce in 1976 and 1977. They won two under-21 titles in 1971 and 1975.

They would have won more but for the arrival of the superb Ballyhale Shamrocks, they reckon. Alas, after fighting a few relegation battles, they eventually succumbed in 1987 when falling to Graigue Ballycallan.

And then 2013!

County, provincial and All-Ireland club intermediate hurling champions; county champions Roinn A minor; special junior, junior football - let the record books tell the tale of 2013.

Could you see it happening we wondered?

The answer was bordering on the negative, with a tinge of hopeful expectation.

Would you change any of it lads?

“I feel that I am still in an hypnotic spell,” said Dick.

“You couldn’t really write that script. I wouldn’t change a second of anything that happened. And I’m thrilled that we have an amazing bunch of young lads guiding the club, and continuing the great work that was started in ’55, and continued through the years by different volunteers. Long may it last,” Micheál concluded.