Naomh Eanna's dramatic rise
By Michael Devlin
Naomh Éanna selector Padraig Cronin’s dream is for the Wexford club and his native Dr Crokes Killarney to be lining out in the All-Ireland Club hurling and football finals at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.
The Kerry man has been living in Gorey for 20 years, and has been at the heart of the club over a period that has seen them rise from Wexford hurling’s third tier to county champions
“I became involved as a selector underage and so forth, and I’m the secretary now for about 12 years. I’ve been involved since I came to the club, and I enjoy doing it so,” Cronin told GAA.ie ahead of Naomh Éanna’s Leinster Senior Hurling semi-final with Ballyhale Shamrocks tomorrow at Wexford Park.
The club’s rise has been meteoric. In 2012 they won the Intermediate A Championship, in 2015 the Intermediate title, and this year they've progressed even further to win the county senior crown, their first ever appearance in the final.
“Three is the magic number as they say,” says Cronin as he reflects on the trilogy of Championship triumphs that have bookmarked their journey in the last six years.
“We’d been very successful in underage through the years and had been competing at the top grade for a long time. We had always hoped that we would get to this level in seniors. When you get to senior first your initial aim is to stay and then to start building towards trying to win it.”
The Gorey club had been in the senior ranks before in 2002 but suffered relegation back down to Intermediate the following year. Then in 2011, the county board restructured the 24-team Intermediate championship. At the time Naomh Éanna were in the lower half, so they dropped down into Intermediate A, the third level of Wexford club hurling. Victory the next season ensured they didn’t stay there for long, and so began their swift ascent back up the grades.
A 2-11 to 0-13 win over St Martin’s in this year’s senior decider, aided by two goals from county star Conor McDonald, saw them win Wexford’s premier prize remarkably on the first go.
“We got to a senior semi-final last year, but before that it wasn’t until back in the early 80’s that we were last in a county semi-final, against Faythe Harriers. I think then we were actually seven or eight points up with 10 minutes to go, and we managed to lose.
“For this group of players going into Leinster, it’s unchartered territory. The bones of this group have been there since 2012, but obviously younger lads have come on board as well. Most of them are around 25 years of age, so they’ve set out together and got over each hurdle together. It’s completely new to them, but they’ve taken on each challenge and just got on with it.”
That hurling win came just a week after the club, with more-or-less the same players involved, won the Intermediate football championship in the county too. 30 players play both codes, with the selection team remaining the same as well.
“In football we’ve a panel of about 33 players, and 30 were involved in the hurling, so it’s the same group that are playing week-in week-out. It was a real commitment on the lads’ behalf and they really made a sacrifice to get to the level we’re at.
“We kind of put the football celebrations on ice. It was very tranquil, we came back to the clubhouse and had a bite to eat and went to a local hotel for a recovery session, and we were back training on Tuesday night. We left all the celebrations until after the hurling and we’d celebrate everything together.
And what celebrations they were. Thousands of supporters piled onto the streets of Gorey in scenes that Cronin will remember for a lifetime.
“Even walking down the town of Gorey that night, it was just unimaginable. The number of people that were out on the street, you dream about it, but you never think it would actually happen.
“The idea was that we’d drive down through the town, but the Gorey Pipe Band wanted to march us down. The scenes were unbelievable, it was one of those things that if someone told you it was going to happen, you’d say that’s a fairytale.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s clash with Ballyhale, one of Ireland's most successful ever hurling clubs, Cronin is in no doubt about the enormity of the task at hand.
“They’re the teams you want to be playing. Ballyhale are one of the powerhouses of hurling, certainly in Kilkenny and Leinster. They’ve been there and done it. When you see the list of players they have, TJ Reid, the Fennellys, even Henry Shefflin involved with them, they’re all household names.
“But they are the teams you want to be measuring yourself against and seeing how good you are. I know the lads just absolutely can’t wait for it.”