The GAA Gene - The Kennys
The GAA is built on tradition, and there is nothing more traditional in Gaelic Games than great family dynasties.
Trace the history of any county team in Gaelic Football or Hurling and you’ll see the same surnames consistently reappearing as you move back through the decades.
In our series – The GAA Gene – we profile the families that have given outstanding service through the generations.
This week we focus on the Kennys of Borris-Ileigh GAA Club and Tipperary.
By John Harrington
The Kenny family have always been synonymous with Borris-Ileigh hurling.
That’s why it’s fitting that two Kenny brothers – Conor and Niall – should spearhead the club’s challenge against Thurles Sarsfields in Sunday’s Tipperary Club SHC Final.
They returned to their family home-place in recent years having been born and bred in Celbridge, Kildare, and if they can help Borris-Ileigh to victory on Sunday they'll be upholding a proud Kenny tradition.
Borris-Ileigh have won six county senior titles in their history, and on all occasions the name Kenny featured prominently in those successes.
Conor and Niall’s father Philip, a selector with the current Borris-Ileigh team, won three county medals in ’81, ’83, ’86, as well as an All-Ireland Club medal in 1987, but the previous generation earned even greater renown for their hurling exploits.
Philip’s father Phil, better known as 'Phibby', and his uncles Sean and Paddy won the club’s first ever county championship in ’49 and followed that one up with further titles in ’50 and ’53.
They were also famous nationally for their exploits together with Tipperary as members of the panel that won three All-Ireland medals in a row from 1949 to 1951. .
Sean, who captained that 1950 All-Ireland winning Tipperary team, was known as ‘The Iron Man from Borrisoleigh’ and it was an apt moniker. Lean and muscular, he liked to show off these attributes by rolling up his jersey sleeves high past his bulging biceps.
Those muscles weren’t just for show either – there were few better practiced in the art of delivering a shoulder-charge than Kenny - while his other talent was for taking the fight to the opposition by driving down the middle of the field on a solo-run, a tactic that was rare for the times because its exponents tended to come to unfortunate ends.
Paddy wasn’t blessed with the same raw strength as his bull-dozing older brother Sean, but he more than compensated with stealth and skill and was also able to generate enormously powerful shots with his distinctive left-handed stroke.
Phibby was a classy stickman too, a trait he would pass on to his son Philip who would win an All-Ireland minor title with Tipperary in 1980 and a Munster senior medal in 1987, as well as those three county titles with Borris-Ileigh.
“I would have been steeped in it from a young age,” Philip told GAA.ie.
“My father was a hurler-maker too so you'd have all the hurlers from the area coming to his work-shop. He would have encouraged me along the way too with the hurling.
“What he and my uncles achieved with Tipperary and the club would have happened before my time, but you'd hear the stories and still be very much aware of it.
“Until my generation had some success that Borris-Ileigh team they played on were the last to win a county title so there was a long gap there.”
Philip Kenny’s generation equalled the achievements of his father’s by winning three county titles and then went one better by going on to win the All-Ireland Club Championship in 1987.
That looked an unlikely prospect when they were well-beaten in the North Tipperary Championship by Kilruane McDonaghs in 1986, but that defeat ultimately proved to be the catalyst for the greatest chapter in Borris-Ileigh’s history.
They would gain vengeance over McDonaghs in the County Final thanks in no small part to Philip Kenny who hit six points from play in a Man of the Match performance, and went on a run from there to the All-Ireland Final where they beat Rathnure of Wexford.
“We employed Paddy Doyle to take us over after being beaten in the North that year and he brought a new approach,” recalls Kenny.
“We took it very seriously, we beat Toomevara in a play-off game, and the rest is history.
“It was huge to go on to win the All-Ireland Final as you can imagine, and we're still the last Tipperary team to have done it.
“I was probably a little bit young to really appreciate it, but they were fabulous times, fabulous times.”
Kenny’s exploits with Borris-Ileigh earned him a call up to the Tipperary panel for the ’87 campaign as the Premier County ended their ‘famine’ by winning a first Munster title in 16 years.
Not long after that though, Kenny’s playing career with both Tipperary and Borris-Ileigh was over.
“They were great days really in the eighties, but I went off to England then in '87 after Galway beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final and gave four years over there before coming back in 1991,” he says.
“That was kind of it. My inter-county career was over at that stage, but I had no regrets.
“I went over with my wife now, and wouldn't change any of it. She's a nurse and at that time that was the only place she could get worse because there were no nursing opportunities in Ireland at the time.
“We came back and ended up settling in Celbridge in Kildare and that's why my two lads were playing with Celbridge all the way up along.”
Philip became one of the driving forces behind hurling in Celbridge and helped the club win their first ever county title in 84 years in 2005.
He was a selector that day, but an injury to the Celbridge goalkeeper saw him pressed into action between the posts himself and he kept a clean sheet in the victory over Coill Dubh.
His sons Conor and Niall would grow into underage stars for both Celbridge and Kildare, but Conor in particular was always ambitious about wearing the maroon of Borris-Ileigh and the blue and gold of Tipperary some day.
“Conor first got a call when he was about 17,” says Kenny. “He was used to going down to Borris-Ileigh for matches and they were on to him to transfer down. We talked about it a good bit and he eventually decided to leave it and we put it on the long finger.
“He went down when he was 20 then and stayed with my mother and my wife's mother and alternated staying between the two of them which was great because they were two widows. He was company for them.
“He always had it in his head that he wanted to hurl down there. He had the opportunity to play minor and U-21 football with Kildare but he just had tunnel vision on playing hurling in Tipperary.
“We then decided to move lock, stock, and barrel back down to Borrisoleigh two years ago so Niall came down with us then. The same as Conor, hurling was always Niall's first love too."
Conor and Niall aren’t the only Kennys to have played a role in Borris-Ileigh’s resurgent fortunes this year, Philip has been an influential figure too as team selector.
“It's been brilliant and to be involved with the Borris-Ileigh team is great, it's a nice way to get integrated back in,” he says.
“When you go away for a while, which I was away for about 20 years or that, you come back and the same faces are not there that you remembered.
“You sort of think they would be, but they've all moved on with their lives and gone here and there. To get back in with the hurling team this year as a selector has been great because you get to know all the lads again.
“There'd be a few social nights and you'd get to meet the parents of the players and things like that and it's like you were never away.”
Both of his sons have excelled on Borris-Ileigh’s journey to Sunday’s Final against Thurles Sarsfields in Semple Stadium.
Their combination of size, speed, skill, and clinical finishing makes them a nightmare to handle for opposition defenders.
Conor was a fringe member of the Tipperary panel from 2014 to 2016 but looks a more mature player now than he was then, so a recall seems inevitable in 2018.
Niall was a Tipperary U-21 panellist this year and if his graph continues to rise at its current rate then he’ll also be knocking on the door of Tipperary senior team manager, Michael Ryan, before too long.
Their case will certainly be strengthened if they can help Borris-Ileigh to the club’s first county title since 1986.
Confidence has never been something that Borris-Ileigh people have lacked, but the presence of two Kennys on the team-sheet has topped up their reservoir of self-belief even more than usual.
Conor and Niall’s return to the North Tipperary town has restored a royal lineage, and tradition has always counted for a lot in the Premier County.
“It's nice, in fairness, I have to say,” says Philip Kenny. “You'd be proud.
“There would be people in the parish who might not have seen my father or uncles play but would know the names obviously and it's nice to have that connection with the parish still.
“There's definitely a good feeling attached to it.”