Although the Gaelic Athletic Association was not founded until 1884, it is certain that gaelic games were played on an unorganised basis in many areas of the country for many years before.
In the northern part of county Kerry, the game of hurling was a long time traditional pastime, in an era when leisure time was less in vogue than today. Tough economic conditions allowed time for few other outlets, yet the burning wishes of hurling men and their competitive instincts ensured the playing of the ancient game when the opportunity arose.
Factual reports of early games are scarce. One report that does exist was penned by the Ardfert correspondent in the Kerry Evening Post newspaper in 1863 detailing a series of games played between Kilmoyley and Lixnaw.
The GAA took off slowly in Kerry but over time it grew and had many ups and downs through the years. In the Ardfert area, hurling was played but an organised club came much later. The game was played in little pockets of the North Kerry hinterland, in places like Lerrig, Ballyduff, Abbeydorney and of course the strand adjacent to Carrahane. Players from the area went to the famed Kilmoyley club of the time and achieved many county championship titles. The first championship in 1889 attracted only 5 teams. By 1891, Ballyduff as champions went on to represent Kerry with success in the Munster & All-Ireland series. Ba é seo an t-aon croabh iomána sinsir riamh a bhuaigh Ciarraí. However they did so with the assistance of players from Lixnaw, Kilmoyley, Ballinprior and Carrahane. The hurling seed was sown and it continues to prosper today in those same traditional pockets of North Kerry.
Since that time hurling has been strong in the Ardfert area. They competed under a variety of club names and won Kerry senior hurling championship titles under Tubrid , members played with the St. Brendan’s Divisional team comprising players from Ardfert, Ballyheigue and Causeway that won the championship in 1936, Banna , Ardfert [1949, 1952 & 1967] and St. Brendan’s [1975, 1986 & 1990]
The modern day club operates under the St. Brendan’s banner, wearing blue & white jerseys. In addition to the senior achievements above, they have won county titles at minor, intermediate, under 21 and junior levels as well as winning a host of under age titles. The Club also competes at all levels in North Kerry Hurling Board competitions.
20 years on from Hurling’s Biggest Shock (Denis Walsh)
Kerry’s hurlers recall when they pulled off the greatest championship giantkilling feat.
No footage exists. RTE didn’t send a camera. Neither team filmed the match for their personal use. None of the national daily newspapers assigned a staff reporter to cover the match. In the championship, games without mystery have no status. They exist on a to-do list, ticked off. Twenty years ago, on the last Sunday of May 1993, Waterford hosted Kerry in the Munster hurling championship and if anybody gave the outcome a second thought it was a slip of the mind.
What happened then couldn’t happen now. The modern hurling championship is disturbed occasionally by a tremor but earthquakes are a thing of the past. Not that they were common back then either. Kerry hadn’t won a championship match for 67 years. Initial reports had put the figure at 85 years because, basically, nobody had this data at their fingertips. It wasn’t an essential number to know. Anyway, it changed every year.
To appreciate how the earth moved you must remember the context: Waterford were not a serious force in the senior championship but a year earlier they had won the All-Ireland U-21 championship for the first time in their history and contested a minor All-Ireland final for the first time in 44 years. In a championship dictated by tradition and overbearing superpowers Waterford were anointed as the coming team.
Kerry? They had a brief recent history of honourable defeats in the Munster championship and that year they gave a sassy performance against Tipperary in the League quarter final. What did that mean for their chances? Nobody had agonised over that calculation. *
For that season they had a new manager, John Meyler. Over the last 20 years Meyler has been a familiar name on the management circuit but this was his first shot at a county team and he was revved up. He called his first training session for September 1992; five players showed up. By the time they played Waterford they had trained 120 times, reaching the kind of numbers that were part of the Clare mythology in the middle of the decade. Honing their bodies and drilling their hurling, though, was only half the battle.
“He was all business,” says Christy Walsh, a Kerry veteran by the time Meyler arrived. “He was a good man to go and a good man to bring us all together. He wouldn’t be lacking confidence. We weren’t too bad if we put our minds to it – but that would have been hard enough to do.”
Meyler’s ambition had a dogmatic quality which he was liable to express with the full force of his personality. One day that season they surrendered badly to Meyler’s native Wexford at the opening of a club pitch. He shut the dressing room door and let rip. By the time he finished a gallery had gathered outside. The new dressing room had a door but no glass in the windows. “Meyler delivers verbal tirade as hurlers routed,” ran the headline in the Kerryman newspaper a week later.
He reached them though: “He had a very big presence in the dressing room,” says DJ Leahy. “You’d go through fire and water for him.”
“He demanded more from the players and from the county board,” says Joe Walsh, full forward that day in Walsh Park. In fairness to the board they were sensitive to the hurlers’ needs.
In a county like Kerry absolute parity of esteem with the footballers was never a possibility but there were ways of saying you cared: the hurlers were fed steak and chips in The Brogue after training, just as the footballers were, and they were given as much gear as they needed. On the night before the Waterford match they stayed in the Clonea Strand Hotel and there was a long standing promise that if they won a match in the Munster championship the county board would send them on a sun holiday.
By comparison, Waterford were shambolic. Attempts at serious preparation were superficial and sometimes comical. Organisation was poor. Numbers at training oscillated in and out of double figures. One night the physio was asked to stand in goal for a training match. “It was all a bit lackadaisical,” says Brian Greene.
Meals after training weren’t part of the regime but one night that season a county board operative was despatched to the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and returned with a car boot full of snack boxes. It takes two teams to make a shock result and Waterford played their part.
The irony was that, before the championship began, Waterford Crystal sponsored suits for the panel, brushing up their appearance with a veneer of professionalism. Just as the Kerry players arrived into Walsh Park the Waterford players were being photographed in their fancy new clobber. “We were dressed up like dolls,” remembers Greene. Fondly.
Greene had made his championship debut against Kerry a couple of years earlier and they were lucky to get out of Tralee alive; Limerick had experienced a similar near-death experience in 1989. But there was no pattern to these performances. One good year didn’t simply lead to another. Kerry’s threat was always seen as notional.
That day, though, everything clicked. “Jerry O’Sullivan got a couple of points from the sideline that day that were unbelievable,” says Christy Walsh. “He was from a place called Firies. You’d be arrested if you were seen with a hurley there. You’d weep sometimes when you’d see Jerry lining up a shot from an impossible angle – he’d never pass the ball. But that day a couple of them went over.”
The scoring burden, however, was shared broadly. “JP Hickey, our goalkeeper, stood up and scored a couple of 65s, no problem to him,” says Joe Walsh. “They’re all at it in football now but we were doing it long before that.”
The crucial score came with only a few minutes left. Kerry had hauled themselves back from six points down when DJ Leahy addressed a free about 30 yards out to the left of the posts. Leahy had been on the Kerry team for 17 years, a star in galaxy faraway; he played on a Kerry U-21 team that beat Waterford in the 1979 Munster championship and on a Kerry team that drew with Kilkenny in the National League and when Munster sought Kerry players for the Railway Cup Leahy was always on their radar. But it wasn’t the good days that sustained him.
Anyway, he hit the free on a low trajectory; it zoomed through the air space above Joe Walsh and the Waterford full back Damien Byrne and lodged in the top corner of the net.
“Was it intentional?” says Joe Walsh. “You’d better ask him.”
“That’s a secret,” says Leahy. “I’ll tell no one that.”
“Joe Walsh is still claiming a piece of that goal to this day,” says Tony Maunsell. “Make sure you print that.”
That goal was the winner: 4-13 to 3-13 it finished. Only a couple of hundred Kerry supporters had travelled but at the final whistle they turned into a mob and colonized the pitch. The Kerry dressing room was packed. Through the sweat and the steam the vice chairman of the board Liam Cotter sang the Rose of Tralee, including the same verse twice. It was the kind of thing you might get away with in the early hours of a wedding. Meyler was in tears, like the father of the bride.
At the team dinner that evening the board chairman Sean Kelly confirmed the team holiday. Their championship run, though, ended two weeks after it started. Tipperary didn’t take any chances in Thurles. In the massacre was a back-handed compliment.
They had their day. One fine day.
This article was first published on May 26th 2013 in The Sunday Times and is reproduced here by kind permission of author Denis Walsh.