“Whatever it was, I wish we could have bottled it,” Liam Fennelly says.
His voice is caught between memory and wonder. He is thinking of a dressing room, of a ferocious silence. Ballyhale Shamrocks are in Semple Stadium, waiting to take on St Finbarr’s in the 1981 All-Ireland club final.
“We were never as focused in our lives for a game,” Fennelly reflects. “I never witnessed it, before or after, in my whole career. Not with the Shamrocks and not even with Kilkenny.”
This statement is remarkable, in that Fennelly captained his county to a senior All-Ireland in both 1983 and 1992, having already won one in 1982. Yet that afternoon in 1981, when his club won their first All-Ireland title, abides like a first kiss.
“I remember heading up to Thurles in my little Opel Kadett,” he continues. “The whole way up, I didn’t open my mouth once to Joan [then girlfriend and later wife]. She often mentioned that drive afterwards.”
He looks over to Patrick Holden, former teammate and long a neighbour: “The concentration levels that day were off the charts. What would you say caused it?”
“Finbarr’s nearly had a Cork team of their own. Jimmy Barry Murphy, Charlie McCarthy, Gerald McCarthy, Con Roche, Ger Cunningham… But we didn’t mind.”
Fennelly resumes: “Everyone was there in the dressing room in plenty of time, and just staring. The game before it went to extra-time, and someone came in and told us. And we were still there, and no one saying a word. You could sense this vibration in the room.
“We usually had a lot of big talkers. But not one word out of us.”
Holden laughs: “We actually took down the door, on the way out.”
A companionable laugh, still in thrall to wonder: “We started knocking, to get out, knocking fierce hard. There was some poor fecker on the outside who opened it, and he got rolled over. Pure smathered… Charlie McCarthy was in the corridor, getting sick. We tore out.
“That day, it didn’t matter who we were playing. Really, we were playing ourselves.”
Liam Fennelly lined out full-forward, with Patrick Holden at centre-forward. Ballyhale Shamrocks beat St Finbarr’s by 1-15 to 1-11 in a riveting contest. Brendan Fennelly, an older brother, produced a day of days, scoring 0-11, including six points from play.
Nine years after the club was founded in 1972, Ballyhale Shamrocks were river deep and mountain high, planted on hurling’s foremost peak. This generation would gather another two club All-Irelands in 1984 and 1990. Seeds got sown and standards established. The ball was in the court where nature and nurture make eyes at each other.
“At that time, you made your own way up and your own way back,” Holden recalls. “I went with the father. Very different to now, when all the players are on a bus. We didn’t properly see each other afterwards until we got back home. They put us up on a lorry, I think, for a bit. It’s not a long drive up the village of Ballyhale!”
Fennelly offers the same gratitude: “In my memory, it was a very special day. The street was just black with people. I remember staring down at everyone, and they were the same faces but somehow different.
“We were the first country club to do it. Until then, over the ten years the competition was going on, it had been dominated by Cork City clubs. So it was something else for a small parish in South Kilkenny to get there.”
Tomorrow, Ballyhale Shamrocks seek a seventh title. Six victories place them top of this roster, two ahead of Birr and Portumna. St Thomas’, their opposition, are seeking a second title, six years after 2013’s inaugural triumph.
Every 21st-century team sent out by Ballyhale Shamrocks is linked by family sinew to the teams of the 1970s and 1980s. Sunday will be no different. Liam Fennelly has six nephews involved. “Colin and Michael Fennelly are Michael’s sons. The four Mullens (Patrick, Kevin, Darren and Adrian) are my sister Monica’s lads.”
Joey Holden is the third of four sons. Pádraig, an older brother, proved a key figure at corner back in the All-Ireland wins of 2007 and 2010.
“It can be hard to enjoy watching when we’ve a lad out there,” Patrick Holden admits, rueful in this smile. “You’d be in dread of them making a mistake that could cost the match…”
Thirty-eight years later, there is an obvious query. What goes with one parish, with its ability to keep producing standout groups, to keep those sinews intact? How does the Ballyhale project continue to thrive?
Holden stresses one aspect: “Looking back, that defeat to Blackrock truly stood to us. We were disappointed but we stuck together. There were no recriminations against individual players or the selectors. The club was young but we all had, even by then, a great loyalty to it.
“You need loyalty. You need downs to have the real ups, later on.”
He highlights a practical resource: “U21 is the Ballyhale grade. You could have a reasonable minor, and he becomes a good U21, and then he becomes a very good club hurler. There’s something in the Ballyhale water or in the Ballyhale DNA where this grade is concerned.
“The club has three minor A titles but nine U21 A titles. Is that unique? It might be, and I feel it says a lot about the way our hurlers develop. An interested 20-year-old is a bigger asset than an interested 17-year-old.”
Fennelly agrees: “Any time we win at U21, senior goodness is not too far away. The three in a row at U21 in 1972 to 1974 obviously led on to our first senior county win in 1978. Then you had a four in a row at U21 between 2003 and 2006, when the second swell of players arrived. That was obviously a huge factor in winning at senior in 2006, and then for the fourth All-Ireland in 2007.”
Since the present is always precarious, these men do not mention a two in a row. Last December, Ballyhale Shamrocks overcame O’Loughlin Gaels in a scintillating U21 A Final, putting titles back to back.
This dynamic is not referenced. To presume the present is to cramp the future. The parish way is severe and buoyantly negative. Praise the water as pure but note the glass as half empty.
To this end, Patrick Holden tells a story. His home place in Knockmoylan is nearer Mullinavat than Ballyhale. There appears a twinkle as he begins: “I went down to Mullinavat after we beat Ballygunner in the All-Ireland semi-final. Into the shop and met a neighbour.
“He says to me: ‘Ye’re savage good at hurling in Ballyhale for lads who know nothing about the game.’
“Says I: ‘How do you mean?’
“He says: ‘You told me they’d have it all to do against Ballygunner. And the same story about Naomh Éanna and Ballyboden in Leinster. Ye are obviously useless at predicting results!’
“I said to him: ‘We respect every opponent.’ It’s a simple equation. The players are not immune to what they hear in the shop or at the kitchen table. Hurling is too quick a game to readjust after going out in the wrong frame of mind.”
Then Holden provides the closest we will get to a statement of ethos: “You can’t be telling players they’re doing well or going well until the cup is on the table.
“Celebrations last about three days. The rest of the year is for telling them they have to get better.”
Fennelly augments in related terms: “It is pretty hard for a young hurler in Ballyhale to get ahead of himself, no matter how promising he is, given the players and the teams that went before him. It’s a fair advantage to have in developing serious players.”
Intimacies make club hurling, both in the camaraderie of teammates and in the rivalries fostered by a shared sky. While South Galway is a long way from South Kilkenny, there will be a click on Sunday afternoon. Joey Holden has a first cousin, Cian Kelly, on the St Thomas’ panel.
Ann Holden, younger sister of his mother Statia, was an excellent camogie player and won five senior All-Irelands with Kilkenny between 1976 and 1986. She married Cyril Kelly of Peterswell and settled there.
Another Patrick Holden smile: “I have been up there. It’s a rural club like ourselves, although a bit more spread out. I suppose there’ll be a medal in a Holden household, one way or another, barring a draw, on Sunday evening.
“But I think we’ll have to be a small bit selfish about it, in Ballyhale, this weekend.”