This is wonderful. This is different to anything that I or anyone else attached to the club has, or will ever have - ah yeh, and this is all about family.”
The much admired and popular Micheál (the fada is important) Roche, President of the Rower-Inistioge GAA club, who have quarried their way to the hallowed turf of Croke Park to play in the All-Ireland club intermediate hurling final on Saturday.
In a thrice I can see Marlon Brando, chewing a stick of celery, growling and like a mother hen, gathering his family round mumbling and gesticulating.
“Siamo arrivati a bastone con il paziente equino. Giuro su dio, siamo riusciti a vedere questa cosa. Noi siamo una famiglia.”
(We gotta stick with each other. I swear by God, we gotta see this thing out. We are family).
We are in the fabulous Community Centre in the hamlet of Inistioge. Michael Lyng and Richie Tierney are running like demented Usain Bolts around the place handing out tickets, collecting money, arbitrating on issues and readying for a fund-raiser to provide every advantaged facility their team will need for the Croke Park showdown.
There are more than Messrs Lyng and Tierney busy. There is an armada of female volunteers, all camogie women (Ann Lyng, Sandra Cullen, Ann Grace, Breeda English, Eleanor McGrath) doing similar jobs with tea, cakes and general hospitality.
You see, they are all in this together. The whole community! There is a collectivity about this All Ireland thing, and every walking, shuffling, foot soldier wants to do a bit. What is seldom is rare, and All-Ireland club finals are as scarce as hen’s teeth down Inistioge way.
These finals are an impossible dream for others. It has taken the Rower a very long time to get to this point. In the auspicious words of the Archbishop: “They don’t want to eff it up now.”
Micheál Roche is bubbling in the reflected glare of the now, and what is about to happen.
In truth Micheál, could you ever have envisaged the drama that is now unfolding?
“With my hand on my heart, I would have to say that if you had outlined what we now have some 12 month ago, I would have advised a change of medical practitioner,” he smiled. “This whole episode in our history is now very personal.
“It is about us, about a little community from a picturesque village running out on the premier stadium in the country to do battle on behalf of every man jack, born, living, or departed from our parish. It really has not sunk in yet, and I feel that it was the greatest development that the GAA has ever come up with to have the various club All-Ireland finals played in Croke Park.”
It will be an emotional occasion Mr President?
“For certain, sure it will for a whole raft of reasons,” he enthused. “It will be emotional for us ould lads who have been around, following the green and red for longer years than we would care to remember, but still delighted to be here nonetheless.”
But it is not as if your club was well represented on big Croke Park days. You had the iconic Eddie Keher, one of the greatest in history; you had the Murphys’, Kavanaghs’, Galavans’, Kennedys’, Lyngs’, Joyces’, Malones’, Cummins, and a plethora of under-age stars carrying the club honour, and doing so with distinction?
“Never to be forgotten their contributions, and the reflected glory that went with their exploits, but this is different,” Mr Roche assured. “This is family. Rower Inistioge people will get out of sick beds to get to this, because they will feel a connection.
“When you go to a big day in Croke Park, you come home and might say that you saw so and so there. This is different in that you will be better placed to name the people that you didn’t see there.”
You have been blessed with good health, and in being around when all of this is happening. I suggest that there will be a few tears when some remember the people who have not made it, but will still be there in another format?
“I’m delighted that you mentioned that Barrie,” came the reply. “On top of everybody’s list is a great Rower Inistioge man, who worked might and main for the club over a long number of years, Willie Kelly. Tom Fleming, a county final winner with Carrickshock (1951), would love to be there. He passed away a few weeks ago, at the age of 91 years.
“We think too of Marty Butler (a founder of the club). His wife, Maureen, is still hale and hearty, and will be waiting with increasing anxiety for news. She is now 93 years young, and still very much a Rower woman. Dick Lyng too will be remembered by many, as will the likes of Pat Tierney, John Walsh, Pudsy Murphy, Martin Freeman, Eamonn Flood, Michael Walsh, and Dan White.
A great year
“Former chairman, Toby Kavanagh will cross peoples minds too.”
John Dunphy, the club PRO, took us down the avenue of history.
“We won the junior title 50 years ago, and as a result, played in the senior grade for 25 years,” John reminded. “We matched that with a similar spell in intermediate grade before returning to senior last year.”
It really is a big deal for a club, John?
“That really is an understatement,” he smiled. “We have had a great year in Kilkenny, winning so much. The win in Enniscorthy (Leinster final) was probably the toughest encounter thus far, but winning in Navan probably put the hallmark on how the whole episode has lit up our parish.
“We were like an army in Navan. We won convincingly, but the sheer joy, pride and unity of purpose really shone there. Our busses, and an armada of cars were awesome, and you couldn’t but be proud of everything Rower Inistioge all the way up, and certainly all the way back, relishing the added bonus that our next day was going to be an All-Ireland final in Croke Park.
“We would have looked with envy, and a certain admiration, at the achievements of Kilkenny teams in successive Croke Park finals, and wished, and wondered would we ever get the chance. We have it now, and it is such an invigorating, warm feeling,” he told us with a beaming smile.
It has been a great journey so far, John?
“Ah sure it has been brilliant,” he said, the emotion dripping from his voice. “The atmosphere, colour and excitement in Enniscorthy alone was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. We are not greedy, but a little more would be lovely.”
We encountered the ‘terrible twins’, Mike and Dec Byrne, known far and wide as emotional, die-hard hurling men, be it in red and green or black and amber liveries. Never slow to offer opinion, the two were central to a Tony Considine feature in ‘The Irish Examiner’ last year.
What is this all about to you, Dec?
Looking to next generation
“It means many things, not least of which is the chance to take my six year old son Eoin (his mother, Mairead is a Shamrocks woman) to Croke Park where the team from his village will be trying might and main to win an All-Ireland title,” he said, making sure the next generation was going to be part of it all.
“Myself and Mick started hurling with the club when we were still in primary school. There were not too many headlines that time about our prowess, but anyway, we played with a lot of these lads growing up. Back in the mid and late nineties, we contested three relegation finals and a couple of relegation semis. We used get a lot of stick from cousins and uncles.
“Croke Park was a long way over the horizon then, but the vista improved enormously last year, and we had an unbelievable year. The cousins are fairly quiet now. Richie Tierney took us to the 1997 semi-final, and again in 2002, when the ’Boro took us out. We were again nobbled in 2011, but the feeling this year is so different.
“It is brilliant. It is not too often you get to where we are going next Saturday, so we will get the best value we can from the experience,” he smiled.
The treasurer of the club, Breeda English, in between dishing out Kimberley and Jaffa biscuits, delectable sandwiches and answering questions, joined up with us.
Being treasurer, this has not been acquired on a shoe-string budget Breeda?
“Certainly not,” she said, “but there has been a tremendous groundswell of support for the team within and outside of the parish. We thank all who supported us in that regard. We must also be very conscious that we are going to Croke Park not only as representatives of the Rower Inistioge parish, but all of the county.
“There is a big responsibility in that, but I feel that we will give a great account of ourselves as Rower Inistioge, and Kilkenny hurling ambassadors,” she smiled as she rushed off to dole out more Jaffas and Kimbos.
The other half of the dynamic duo, Mike Byrne came into the cross hairs.
How will you be travelling to Croker, Mike?
“I am honoured to be chosen as a member of the backroom team, which has a loose mandate of doing whatever needs doing in the way of servicing the on-field needs of the players,” he said, as proud as punch. “It involves delivering water, picking up and handing in replacement hurls and other little things.
“That suits me better than being up in the stand, because I am less than an idyllic spectator. In the stand I would be less than moderate, very edgy, more confrontational and I would not be adverse to giving an opinion if I felt it was pertinent.”
The wonderfully articulated Mike was quick to illustrate that this journey was not crafted on a whim of expediency.
“As Rower-Inistioge men we would be conscious of the contribution made by players who worked so brilliantly to keep us in the intermediate championship in bad times and good,” he said. “That should never be forgotten. To name a small few, I think of lads in my time like Michael Doyle, Nicky Kenny, Neil Lyng, and going back further, the likes of Richard Kelly and Richard Flood, who won very little, but worked tirelessly to keep us in intermediate.
“It cannot be overstated that but for the input of all of those former Rower-Inistioge warriors this Croke Park trip would never have been. And another element that I think is very important is the unity within the club. That is very important.
“We have a tremendous chairman in Jackie Lyng, and he sets the bar for everyone. That unity is replicated all through the club, both inside and outside of the white lines. You cannot put a value on that. It is ultimately what will make the difference,” he insisted.
The NOW moment
How do you see the end game?
“If we hurl to our absolute capabilities we will have a great chance,” he insisted. “This is the NOW moment. Yesterday is history, we will never have tomorrow. Now is the time, and that is the only element that we can address, and do something about.
“This chance might never come again, so it is mandatory that we grasp the occasion with confidence. I feel that the Kilkenny element is advantageous. I hope so!”
Our journey towards the South East of the county was not quite completed. Charlie Maher and I reined in the horses outside a watering hole called Ó Murchadha. Intelligent horses those!
You know sometimes when you are trying to find a place that would be an ideal back-drop to your quest. You would know that the minute you would walk into some of those places that you had made a poor calculation.
You would enquire about some issue, only to be met with a face that looked like a boiled haddock.
Not so inside the Ó Murchadha establishment. Fintan Murphy was lashing out the creamy (Guinness) and frothy (Heineken) liquid gold. No haddock faces here.
Pat O’Keeffe, Thomas Murphy, Chris Farrell and Mikey Walsh were imbibing. Hurling was the topic. Well, that and politicians pay. We got chatting to one of the great Rower-Inistioge players of yesteryear, Tommy Malone.
You will remember Malone of the fleet foot, and the juggler’s abilities. They will still say that Tommy was the only man who could run at full throttle doing a solo run with the ball on the handle of the hurley. He was good. He was better than good.
Fintan, it has been a long time coming? Now in the role of supporter, could you see this day happening?
“Yes and no to both questions,” he smiled, almost challenging. “Since 1988 the road has been uncertain. There were times when we despaired. There were other times that gave us indication to hope, and then others when we couldn’t read the script.
“But this last year has been magic. Winning the intermediate championship and going back up to senior was great, but I think that winning the minor Roinn A - first time ever - was as important. We have a grand bunch of young lads coming on and that has to be a good thing,” he added.
In your time Tommy, you could identify with what Fintan has outlined, because you were that soldier so to speak?
“Most certainly,” came the reply. “There were times when we were good enough to win the intermediate but we could never manage to get the full nine yards. There were times too when we went very close to getting relegated. But this is a different team.
“These lads won a county final playing badly, and while in other years we played bad and paid the price, this time they had the determination and focus to overcome their poor play and grind out an historic win, This is a great bunch of nice young lads, who are well able to hurl.”
Over the years Rower-Inistioge teams might have been accused of being chokers, for the want of a better pronoun. Not so this brigade, Tommy?
“Most certainly not,” he blazed. “In the game against Buffers Alley, we looked to be in trouble late on. They were a slightly better team than us, but we never showed the white feather. The two late points did the trick for us, and got us over the line.
“That would not have happened a number of years ago. Again against Thomastown, we looked to be in trouble early in the second half but we fought it out to the finish and came away with the right result.”
Tommy, you now have what you haven’t had for years - a good bench?
“I will not single out any individual at this stage, but I agree that we have a very respectable bench and every one of them is a good hurler,” he agreed. “Even the young lads have proved their worth.
“They are free spirits, and have the confidence to express themselves as they feel fit to do so.”
People are talking about the effect this journey is having on the parish, Fintan?
“When they came over the bridge the night of the county final there was a buzz, a very palpable buzz around the place,” he said with the delight of the memory shining in his eyes. “Everyone has bought into the drama, is loving it, and wants more.
“I think it is great. I know that there was an impromptu collection made around the parish to defray expenses, and I believe a five figure sum was realised. Does that answer your question?”
Tommy, this is the whole yoke, with the entire parish in the vanguard?
“Without doubt,” he answered. “Anything that is able to move will go to Croke Park.”
“There will be nothing left in the parish on the day of the match,” interjected Fintan.
“I think some will be bringing furniture, and anything else they can move to Dublin,” smiled Tommy Malone. Even as we spoke there was a distinct glint of anticipation in the air; passion, the joy of being alive, and the will to help out any which way is needed.
Only one team can win the All-Ireland club intermediate final on Saturday evening in Croke Park. For the sake of these lovely people, let it not be Kilnadeema-Leitrim.
You lads inside the white lines are the only ones can do anything about that challenge. Go get it!
From the Man in the South, ‘Let it be you’.