St. Kieran - the Patron Saint of Kilkenny hurling
By John Harrington
The above photograph taken by Norah Flynn neatly illustrates how close to a religion hurling is in Kilkenny.
The hurleys belong to pupils of St. Kieran’s College who were attending mass in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Kilkenny City to mark St. Kieran’s day last March 5.
As natives or regular visitors to Kilkenny will already know, pupils of that famed hurling nursery generally carry a hurley and sliotar with them wherever they go.
Even in Kilkenny you couldn’t get away with bringing a hurley into mass though, so instead a forest of them quickly grew outside the main doors of St. Mary’s.
They were a fitting offering to Saint Kieran on his big day, because his name has become synonymous with hurling thanks to the College’s remarkable success at the sport.
They’ve won a record 21 Dr. Croke Cups (All-Ireland Colleges SH ‘A) and this Saturday will bid to win four-in-a-row for the first time in the College’s history when they play Templemore CBS of Tipperary in the Final.
That achievement would mean a lot to the current and past players alike, because St. Kieran’s College has always been very aware of the importance of its hurling history and tradition.
Hurling for St. Kieran’s is as much a rite of passage as it is a hobby, and something that has been handed down from generation to generation of some of the county’s most famous hurling families.
This year’s St. Kieran’s team bears testimony to that tradition. Kilkenny legends DJ Carey and Adrian Ronan won a Croke Cup together with St. Kieran’s in 1988, and now their sons Michael Carey and Tommy Ronan will contest one together on Saturday.
But while DJ and Adrian made their names as lethal forwards, a quirk of genetics means Michael and Tommy will line up beside each other in the St. Kiearan’s full-back line.
“It's funny how these things work out alright,” admits DJ Carey. “It's strange that both of us were pretty strong forwards at that time and now the two boys are backs.”
The current St. Kieran’s team are just the latest in a long line hold a torch that has been proudly passed down through the years.
The College’s reputation as a hurling nursery was first really established in the 1950s when the renowned hurling coach Fr. Tommy Maher began taking charge of the school’s teams.
The Dr. Croke Cup was revived in 1957 after a hiatus of eight years, and a St. Kieran’s team coached by Fr. Maher promptly won it.
The great Eddie Keher hurled on that team and won another Croke Cup again with St. Kieran’s in 1959.
He credits Father Maher with not just bringing hurling in St. Kieran’s to a new level, but hurling in Kilkenny as a whole.
“His influence was huge,” Keher told GAA.ie. “He revolutionised the game and it would be hard to explain to someone of a younger vintage to what extent he did that.
“He was the father of coaching. Coaching skills and devising best methods to execute the skills. He was a great motivator as well. He was a super guy, and not just for St. Kieran's but for Kilkenny hurling as a whole.
“Like, Brian Cody was coached by him too so his impact is being felt up to the present day. There's a string going right through Kilkenny hurling from his time when Fr. Maher began coaching the Kilkenny senior team, also in '57.”
That string first unspooled by Fr. Tommy Maher has thickened and knotted into the strongest of ropes as far as the hurling tradition of St. Kieran’s is concerned.
DJ Carey played in three Croke Cup Finals (’87 to ’89) for the College, but he’s convinced that hurling is on a far stronger footing in St. Kieran’s now than it even was in his halcyon days.
“It's great,” says Carey. “It's great to see the fields full in St. Kieran's with so many hurlers.
“The young lads have hurls with them wherever they go and even when they go to the toilet they're pucking the ball against a wall there and pucking it against a wall on the way back.
“Everyone seems to have a ball in their pocket and a hurl under their arm.
“When I was playing there wasn't nearly as many guys playing the game. If 100 went into first year, there might be 30 going for the first year's team.
“Now if there's 120 going into first year, there's probably 90 or more of them actually going for the trials.
“Not everyone is good enough to make it, but I would say there's three or four juvenile teams in St. Kieran's and probably the same at junior level and all getting some sort of games.
“A large amount of that enthusiasm for hurling has to be down to the Kilkenny team itself. The Kilkenny team and Brian Cody and those guys are such an influence on players. Young lads really want to try to be their heroes, it's as simple as that.
Carey will be a nervous enough spectator when he watches his son Michael play in Saturday’s Final.
In his own playing days it never really bothered him how hard he was hit or even if broke the occasional finger, but he finds now when he watches his own flesh and blood play he’s more concerned for their well-being than he was his own.
More than anything though, he’s glad they’re getting to experience the same buzz he did himself from hurling in big matches with St. Kieran’s.
His older son Sean won two Dr. Croke Cups in 2016 and 2015 with the College, so were Michael to win one this year it would bring the total in the family to five.
It won’t be easily achieved against a crack Templemore CBS outfit speckled with All-Ireland winning Tipperary minor hurlers, but on occasions like this the unrivalled tradition of St. Kieran’s and their experience of the big day is usually worth a few points to them.
“It does help without a shadow of a doubt,” says Carey. “But the slight disadvantage with this year's St. Kieran's team if there is one, is that this is a team that won juvenile but never really won an awful lot more on the way up.
“St. Kieran's are going for three in a row, but for the previous three years there was an overspill of seven or eight players from the previous year. This year they have just two players that won last year so it's very much a brand-new team.
“Having said that, in all the matches I've seen so far they've improved a lot.
“I honestly think Templemore are favourites. I've seen them playing twice, and they are strong. They're very strong.
“In Colleges Finals it's not always the strongest team on paper that wins, though. But they're a very good hurling team.”