In the latest of our weekly series, we speak to Cork forward Brian Hurley about his club Castlehaven GAA Club.
I never really understood the pull of the GAA - and its central role in Irish society - until I moved to Castletownsend. It's just impossible to imagine the place without Gaelic football.
By Brian Murphy
Castlehaven is a small, rural parish on the beautiful West Cork coast, around six miles from Skibbereen and 75km south-west of Cork city. The parish takes in the small fishing villages of Union Hall and Castletownshend.
With a thriving fishing industry and stunning scenery, the area is beloved by holiday makers, but it is fair to say that Gaelic football has put Castlehaven on the map.
"I never really understood the pull of the GAA - and its central role in Irish society - until I moved to Castletownshend," the journalist and former Ireland soccer international Eamon Dunphy wrote in 2012. "It’s just impossible to imagine the place without Gaelic football."
With a population of just over 1,200 in the area, Castlehaven GAA club pulls from a tiny pool of players and yet, over the last few decades, has become one of the dominant forces on the club scene in the Rebel County, winning five senior county titles, including the double for the first time in their history in 2013.
Founded in 1922, Castlehaven competed in the Junior B grade until 1969 before enjoying a quite remarkable transformation. Icons of Cork football Niall Cahalane, John Cleary and Larry Tompkins all wore the famous blue and white jersey in the 1980s and 1990s and remain heavily involved with the club today.
Brian is one of four Hurley brothers on the club's senior team, while he, Mark Collins and Damien Cahalane are carrying on a proud Castlehaven tradition by playing with the Cork senior football team.
Tell us a little about how you first got involved with Castlehaven…
My old fella, Haulie, would have been playing with Skibbereen because he grew up there and he moved out then with my mother to Union Hall. Shane, my eldest brother, is 29 and he is the one who started out with Castlehaven and then there’s Stephen so I followed in his footsteps at the age of about five or six. I started out playing U10s because there was no U8s at the time. I then started getting into it more and more. My first success was at U12 level when we won the West Cork Championship.
Niall Cahalane does huge work down there trying to get every young lad in the parish out. He knows all their names and if there is a birth in the parish he will be on the case straight away, bringing the young lad over training. Only for his work and the likes of James McCarthy the club wouldn't be in the strong place it is today.
Where exactly is Castlehaven and where are most of the club’s players from?
Union Hall, where I'm from, is six miles from Skibbereen in West Cork. You have the village of Union Hall and then Castletownshend as well and then you have the likes of Niall Cahalane who has moved up to Cork city but still bring their families down. You have the Collins family coming down as well from the city because they want to play for Castlehaven to keep the tradition that is there going.
Castletownshend provide a few players but it is mainly Union Hall and you might have a few transfers coming in as well. We have 1,100 people in the parish so we are doing very well for our size. Union Hall is a small fishing village with 30 trawlers fishing off a pier which I live straight across from. I know all the men fishing the boats and I worked myself for a time in Glenmar Shellfish, who employ a lot of the GAA lads and look after us well. Then you have a few farmers as well a bit further out the country.
Tell us a little bit about the club grounds…
We have two pitches. One in Union Hall village itself before the church and one in Moneyvollahane, which is in Castlehaven. Both have pavilions and the one in Castlehaven has a gym with lights. It would be a good pitch but it doesn't get too many games. We train in Castlehaven all winter and they are after building a new pitch out the back there in the summer.
Has the downturn in the fishing industry affected the club?
It hasn't to be honest. We lost a few to emigration – a few went to Australia and a few went to England and they have been a loss but we are still developing young players all the time and it is good to see them coming through and getting the chance at senior level. Hopefully it continues that way.
How important is Gaelic football to the people of West Cork and, especially, to the people involved in Castlehaven?
To be honest, we live and die football down there. Nothing comes before football when you think about it. You might not know a fella but he might come up to you after a game as if he knew you all his life. It’s that kind of way. I remember in 2011 when we lost the county final to UCC and there was a stage erected in the town for the homecoming. The whole place was full, there must have been more people on the streets than are actually living there.
Something that made me very proud was when we lost to Dr. Crokes this year in the Munster Club Championship and they clapped us off the field and that was great to see. I think it was an appreciation of just how much football means to us. We live and die for the game and it makes me proud to see that every young fella in the area is getting a chance to play and enjoy the game.
When did your own love of the game develop?
I first started kicking ball when I was a young fella on the pier in Union Hall or kicking it between the windows in my mother’s house. There wasn't much room to play with because the pier is just 20 yards across the road. I used to go over to the pier with the brothers and you might lose the odd ball to the water. But that’s where I learned how to play alright.
Is the GAA club the focal point for the entire community?
Definitely. You just have to look at what happens when there is a tragedy like we had when the fishing trawler the Tit Bonhomme sank two years ago. The whole club pulls together for the community. That was when the club came into its own to help the community. It was a special moment. Everyone from the farming and fishing communities and the football club pulled together. I was out there in the middle of it myself because I was involved with the Coastguard at the time. It has made the whole community a lot stronger and with the club we took a few nights off training and brought the skipper’s son over training with us to take their mind off things. The club is great in a situation like that and we have all learned and grown from it – as a club and a community.
Which Castlehaven players did you look up to when you were younger?
Niall Cahalane and Larry Tompkins were always making the headlines because they were top players. I’d always acknowledge John Cleary too because of the amount he scored combined with his work-rate. He was an absolute dinger of a corner forward. It’s always good to have fellas to look up to from your own club. I also have to give a mention to Paudie Hurley who didn't make it as an inter-county player in the end but did serious work at minor and U21 level. I always admired him growing up because he was a corner forward as well.
(Photo: Castlehaven manager James McCarthy with selectors Niall Cahalane, left, and John Cleary, pictured in 2012).
Do you remember playing in your first senior game for Castlehaven?
I remember it well. I was 16 and we played Ilen Rovers in a County Championship first round replay. They would be big rivals because they are only 10 miles away. I came on for the last 10 minutes and if I am right I scored a point. I have started every single game since, I haven’t missed a single one.
You have three brothers - Stephen, Michael and Shane – involved in the club and playing on the senior team at the moment…
The club is all about family and our club is extra special in that it is dominated by a few families – the Cahalanes, the Collins’s and the Hurleys. On the field, I have to put aside the fact that they are my brothers because when you go into battle everyone has to be your brother in a way. You have to look after each other, but if your brother got a dig you wouldn't be getting overly excited – you just have to get used to that.
But winning big games with your brothers that you grew up with makes it extra special. My dad may be from Skibbereen but I think he’s a transformed Castlehaven man now and he’s very proud of us. He says it to us after matches and he never stops asking us questions so I know he is very interested. With so many people involved, sometimes I just want to switch off when I get home, but we are a big football family and I’m sure my parents are very proud of the lads’ achievements as well as my own.
(Photo: From the left, Stephen Hurley, Brian Hurley, Shane Hurley and Michael Hurley celebrate after victory over Nemo Rangers in last year's Cork Senior Football Championship final)
You are too young to remember Castlehaven’s first county senior titles in 1989 and 1994, but have you any memories of the 2003 final win against Clonakilty?
I can actually remember it very well. I was there. I was absolutely mad about football at the time and had all the gear and made sure I had the exact same tracksuit as the team was wearing. My parents always looked after me and I was always spoiled in that way. It was an unbelievable game. I remember Niall Cahalane was up and down the field playing in midfield at the age of 39. He came off the field at the end and the whole place just rose to applaud him. Bernie Collins was instrumental in that game and so was Colin Crowley who is over in America now. It was a special, special day down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
And the current team has added to the club’s rich history by winning county titles in each of the last two years. It must be very special to add to the success that went before you?
If I was being honest, it was all put on a plate for me. Each step was laid out in front of us from John Cleary and Larry Tompkins who were in charge of various teams coming up along. Larry gave me key advice on what to do with myself and how to develop as a player. Then I was working with John for three to four years with Cork at U21 level and he gave me the extra incentive to push on and I always listened to him.
On top of that, Niall Cahalane has been there since I was 10 years old and I am still working closely with him. The three lads have been there every step of the way. The success we have enjoyed over the last two years has been great, but hopefully now instead of winning county titles we can push on and take the club to a place it has never been before – Croke Park.
You scored 12 points in the county final win over Nemo Rangers last October. That was surely your best ever day in a Castlehaven jersey…
It would have been that day alright, but it wouldn't have been because I scored 12 points, it was because we did the double. It was the first time the club have ever done it and what it meant to fellas around us was incredible. You could see elderly men running on to the field like they were young fellas. I remember turning around at the final whistle and I didn't know what was going on. Chaos. The last time I saw some of them in the town they needed walking sticks, but they threw them away that day! It was great to see.
Having lost to Dr. Crokes in each of the last two Munster Club Championships, is it a big ambition of yours to win a provincial title with the club?
We are getting closer every year but it is a learning process. Crokes were there before us and they had their own losing streak before finding out how to push on over the last few years. We have good young lads coming through at U16 and minor level and hopefully we can push on and become an established club and maybe come up here (Croke Park) and represent the club on St. Patrick’s Day.
In yourself, Mark Collins and Damien Cahalane, Castlehaven have three players on the Cork senior team at the moment. That’s a phenomenal representation for such a small club…
When you’re in the middle of it, it’s all go and you don’t really stop to take the time to think about it. When the season calms down and the pressure is off I might stop to think that, yeah, we have won two county titles in a row and we have three fellas on the Cork team. We’re in a good position. I think sometimes it’s like when Niall (Cahalane), Larry (Tompkins) and John (Cleary) were there in the past. We are the next in line now and hopefully we can be just as successful for both club and county and to put the name of our club back on the map.
Tales of Castlehaven-Skibbereen are legendary. Would you consider them to be the club’s big rivals?
You hear of people coming down from Cork to watch the games! In my opinion, though, the rivalry has gone out of it a little bit. Every team from West Cork is a rival now because we are all so close together. In the past, Castlehaven-O’Donovan Rossa (Skibbereen) was a massive rivalry. A year or two ago, I recall Eamon Dunphy talking on RTÉ about going down watching the games because he had a house down in Castletownshend. Sometimes it can be blown out of proportion. We played two years ago and it was a very close game of football and a clean game of football. They would be rivals, but there are plenty more teams gunning for us down there as well.