My Club: James Barry - Upperchurch-Drombane
In this week's 'My Club' feature, Tipperary hurler James Barry tells us all about Upperchurch-Drombane GAA club.
By John Harrington
The picturesque parish of Upperchurch-Drombane is nestled in the Slieve Felim mountains in the heart of Tipperary.
To get there, drive around eight miles out the Newport/Limerick road from Thurles, known locally as ‘The Line’.
Hurling has always hummed in the hills of Upperchurch-Drombane. A report in the Nenagh Guardian newspaper in 1842 detailed a hurling match played in the parish, and in the late 1800s a local team called the Ballyboy Rovers earned renown.
The Tipperary team that won the very first All-Ireland Final in 1887 included four Drombane men, Tom Carroll, Mick Carroll, John Leamy, and Ned Lambe.
Another Drombane man, Paddy Riordan, scored all of Tipperary’s total of 6-8 in their 1895 All-Ireland Final win over Kilkenny. That individual total is comfortably the highest ever scored in an All-Ireland Final, but it was done before official tallies were taken and so has never been authenticated in the record-books.
Fergus Moriarty, also from Drombane, was a team-mate of Riordan's on that 1895 Tipperary side. His nickname was ‘The 32’ because he was renowned as the best hurler in all 32 counties at the time.
A year previously, in 1894, Moriarty captained a Drombane team to the win the County Senior Hurling Championship, the first and only time a team from the parish has done so.
A combination of a relatively small and scattered population and the lack of an established home pitch held Upperchurch-Drombane back for much of their history thereafter.
A real turning point came in 1969 when, thanks largely to the efforts of local men like Jacksie Ryan, James O’Dwyer, and James Ryan, lands were secured from the Irish Land Commission in Ballynera, Drombane, and the club finally had a permanent home.
The club grounds have undergone a number of upgrades since then, most recently in 2015 when a state of the art clubhouse incorporating an indoor training venue was built.
Their victory over Ballybacon-Grange in the 1998 Tipperary Intermediate Hurling Final was a red-letter day for Upperchurch-Drombane, and since then the club has gone from strength to strength.
A vibrant coaching structure at juvenile level has delivered a steady stream of Mid-Tipperary and Tipperary County titles, and at senior level the club is now a force like never before.
The high-water mark in recent years was their progression to the County Senior Semi-Final in 2009, but the dream of winning a first senior Mid-Tipperary title for the club remains an unfulfilled one.
They reached their first senior Mid Final in 2009 when they were beaten by three points by Drom-Inch, and then suffered an even more heart-breaking one-point defeat to the same opposition in the 2014 Mid Final.
County honours were won though in the 2013 Johnny Ryan Senior Hurling Challenge Cup Final when Upperchurch-Drombane defeated Portroe.
Traditionally more renowned as a hurling club, Upperchurch-Drombane have also established themselves as something of a football force in recent years too. Last year they won both the Tipperary U-21 ‘B’ Championship and the Tipperary Intermediate Championship.
They also gave eventual All-Ireland Intermediate champions, St Mary’s of Caherciveen, an almighty fright in the Munster Quarter-Final when they led by six points at half-time before two goals early in the second-half dug the Maurice Fitzgerald managed Kerry side out of a deep hole.
Upperchurch-Drombane will be well represented on All-Ireland Final Sunday this year. James Barry is the Tipperary full-back, while team manager Michael Ryan and County Board Chairman Michael Bourke are also Upperchurch-Drombane clubmen.
For more information on Upperchurch-Drombane, visit their website www.upperchurchdrombanegaa.ie.
Q: How would you describe Upperchurch-Drombane to someone who hasn't been there before?
A: Upperchurch is on the Limerick road from Thurles. It's your typical rural parish. It's a real old Ireland parish. All we had growing up was the Primary School, the Church and the hurling field. I think that's probably why everyone was so close growing up in Upperchurch. Everyone is best friends with their age-group because all you have when you go home from school in the evenings was to go to the hurling field to watch the seniors train.
It's a close-knit parish, everyone knows each other. Everyone is there to support each other. There's massive work going on to develop underage teams. It's a typical rural parish.
Q: So the club is very much at the heart of the community?
A: Yeah, everything the community does is all based around the hurling club. All the functions and the dances. And the mass crowd would be the same as the hurling crowd. Everyone is very close-knit and that was great when we had a few underage successes coming up along in 'B' County Finals. The whole parish would turn out for the County Finals and it's great to have that sort of support behind you coming up along.
Q: Can you remember the first time you went down to the club field? Or any memories of playing juvenile hurling for the first time that stand out?
A: You'd always remember that as a young lad playing soccer behind the goals when the seniors were training. I don't think those years lasted long enough because when you get to 15 or 16 you're asked to go train with the seniors so things turn there fairly quickly.
I can remember going down and watching the likes of Mick (Ryan) who would have been playing senior when I went down to the field first. It was a fairly intimidating place to be watching the boys flaking each other.
Q: Your father Seamus played for the Tipperary senior hurlers as well. I presume he would have been a big influence on you?
A: I can remember him playing for the Tipp Masters (over 40s), I don't know if that competition is still going. I remember watching a few videos of Daddy playing intermediate against JK Brackens. I think he had been moved to full-forward at that stage because he didn't have the legs anymore for centre-back.
Yeah, a lot of my learning would have come from Daddy. He would have taken our U-8 and U-10 teams and we were lucky enough that we used to play an indoor hurling competition every Saturday up in Upperchurch and there used be good auld flaking in that. We learned the ground hurling rules before any hand-ball was introduced.
Q: What sort of underage success did you have coming up along?
A: In Primary School we got to an U-11 County Final that we were beaten in by Drom, so our first big victory came in the U-13 'B' Primary School County Final. We played St. Mary's of Clonmel in a County Final and won it after extra-time by two points. That was the first proper county medal we would have won as a group.
We went on to win an U-12 County Final, this is all in the 'B', and an U-14 Mid-Tipp Final. Our first big 'A' tournament would have been the Minor 'A' Mid Final we won. We had a lot of 'B' County Finals won which was important because we learned how to win which is a big thing. I think a lot of that was brought into a senior set as we got older.
Q: It would have been a big deal for Upperchurch to be successful in an 'A' competition as you were at minor level?
A: Yeah, it wasn't expected at all. We actually beat Thurles Sarsfields in the semi-final which was a shock to begin with and then went on to beat Moycarkey in the Mid Final. We got as far as the County Final as well which would have been unheard of. My father always reminds me that the only 'A' County medal in Upperchurch is the U-17 they won in 1964 I think it was.
Q: Winning the U-21 'B' County hurling title in 2007 must have been a massive moment for the club too?
A: Yeah, a lot of lads that came through my U-12 team would have been only 15 on that U-21 team. We would have mixed in with older lads like Mikie Dick (Ryan), Jack Ryan, and Leonard Purcell. That was huge because Templederry had beat us in a County Final two years previous so it was revenge. It was a massive night for the club to actually go on and win a County title at U-21 level. Five years later we won the U-21 again, so there's good young lads coming through, thank God.
Q: As you mentioned, you would have started training and playing with the senior team from a very young age. I suppose it's sink or swim?
A: When I was brought in first to the senior squad I was throw in cornr-forward. I remember in my first senior game I actually played with Mick (Ryan). Mick was full-forward and I was corner-forward, so I was well minded inside in the corner, there wasn't going to be too many any lads who were going to touch me with Mick close by!
Q: What age were you then?
A: I was 15 probably. I was literally brought on when the game was more or less over and was brought on to save me from playing junior. When I was 16 then I was put in centre-back so my corner-forward days didn't last too long.
Q: That's a lot of responsibility for a young lad. How did you find it?
A: You've no choice but to get on with it, but, yeah, it's tough going. Upperchurch would have always found it hard to win games up to then, but we were lucky then that the U-21 team that won that county title came along together and helped us get to our first Mid Senior Final in 2009. We had a very young team in 2009, I think our oldest player was maybe 27 or 28. We thought we were set up for the future, but unfortunately a lot of those guys then went travelling.
Q: It's been a real quest for Upperchurch-Drombane to win their first Mid Senior Final. You lost that Final in 2009 and another in 2014, both against Drom-Inch. How hard were those defeats to take?
A: 2009 was a great experience because it was our first one and, looking back, Drom were probably just better than us on the day. The sickening one was a couple of years ago in 2014. We got off to a terrible start, I think they went seven points to one up in the first ten minutes. For the rest of the game we had way the upper hand and got it back to a draw, but couldn't actually push ahead of them and they pipped us by a point I think.
Damien Young, their goalkeeper, got Man of the Match which tells you how much pressure we were putting him under. Our only aim in Upperchurch is to win a Mid Final so hopefully we'll get there in the next couple of years. There's a lot of good young lads coming through from the U-21s that won a County title two years ago so there's a lot of them after clicking into place so hopefully we can go one step further soon.
Q: It sounds like there's good underage structures there and quality facilities now too after a new club-house was built a couple of years ago?
A: I've been to a lot of clubs around Munster and Ireland at this stage, and the facilities we're after building in Upperchurch have to be the best facilities I've come across. We've a massive 60x40 hurling area upstairs in the clubhouse and Gerry Ryan would do a lot of work for us in the gym. Lads are getting into good physical shape, and that's important because I've found that at club level they're trying to replicate how physical lads are gone at county level. A lot has been done with young players to keep them injury free and that kind of stuff so they can progress well up to the senior grade.
Q: You mentioned you played alongside Michael Ryan when you made your senior debut for the club and now he's your manager with Tipperary. Do you have many memories of when he was hurling for Upperchurch in his prime or were you too young?
A: He was full-back and close to finishing up when my father was a selector for the senior team and I used to help out with the water. In one of the games he must have gotten a slap on the hand and there was a bone sticking out of the top of his finger. He just pointed to the full-forward and said, "You'll pay for that." And the bone still sticking out of his finger. He didn't look for any bandages, he just played on with the bone sticking out. That was my first impression of Mick the player. It stayed with me!
Q: When you're the only player from a relatively small club playing for the county team which Michael Ryan was and you are now, it must put a bit of extra responsibility and expectation on your shoulders. How have you found that?
A: I'm lucky enough that I live and work in Cork so I'm not around for the build-up to a lot of these games. It's big in a way, even to wear the jersey a lot of people from home would be very proud that you're there and holding your own. Especially after the last couple of games when I was happy enough with my own performance and you'd be talking to locals they'd be giving you massive support. Even in the local school, and with all the posters that are up around the parish. It's massive to go home and see that sort of support from your local community.
Q: When you play for Upperchurch then, do you feel any extra pressure to perform because you're the 'County Man'?
A: That kind of pressure, I think that comes moreso from me than the Parish. They just want you to slip in like any other player. But every inter-county player when they go back to the club expect themselves to be the Man of the Match or the stand-out performer. So it's players who put themselves under that pressure moreso than anything else. I do think that when it comes down to the last few minutes of a match you do need your County man to stand up and take on some responsibility.
Q: Were you always confident you could make the grade as a county hurler? Is it more difficult to have that sort of self-belief when you come from a smaller club?
A: No, I made all the Tipp teams coming up along. I would have played U-14, U-16, and minor with Noel McGrath. I played the whole way up along and I would have been centre-back. So you have that confidence knowing you're there, and then when you go into Thurles CBS that helps too.
Thurles CBS wouldn't have traditionally had a lot of Upperchurch lads on the team, but in 2008 and 2009 when we got to All-Ireland Finals, I think there was five Upperchurch lads on the team which would have been unheard of in previous years. It would normally be five Sarsfields lads. But Upperchurch had the best representation on those Thurles CBS teams so you know you have a good age-group then.
Q: You're not the only good hurler in your family. Your sister Anne was a serious player too. Did she knock you into shape when you were younger?
A: Yeah, Anne would still claim she's the best hurler in the family alright! She says she had to give it up because of work commitments. Yeah, it would have all come down from the father, as I say, but we were all sporting mad. So it does help when you have that environment. It can bring some added pressure too though because if you do go bad in a game then the pressure will be coming on from home that the father has won this medal or the sister has won that medal. I think I can safely say now that I've passed them out at this stage so the pressure isn't there anymore!
Q: So, what would be the ambition for Upperchurch-Drombane in the coming years? Many of the players that won the 2007 U-21 County title are coming to an end, but the club won another U-21 county title two years ago so those players are coming through. The team seems to be in a period of transition?
A: Yeah, it is. I'm probably the third oldest now on the team so you'd know you'd want to be winning in the next couple of years. A lot of the lads that won that U-21 county title two years ago are in their prime now so if we're going to win big with Upperchurch then it needs to be done in the next three to four years. There's supposed to be a very good U-10 or U-11 team in the club now as well, but by the time they get to senior I'll be safely gone at that stage, or maybe I'll thrown in full-forward!
Q: What would it mean to win a senior Mid-Tipperary championship?
A: Oh, it would be massive. The late Pakie Ryan (Upperchurch-Drombane Life President who passed away this year), it would have been everything he wanted. The other clubs in Tipp would look for a County, but all we want to do is win our Division. We're unlucky enough in a way that the three best teams in the county now are in the Division (Drom-Inch, Loughmore-Castleiney, Thurles Sarsfields). You might beat one of them, but it's hard to go on and beat one after the other.
Q: Do you still believe you can do it?
A: We'll get there.