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 Dublin footballer Ciarán Kilkenny’s family tree, and its many sporting branches.
By John Harrington
Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny is one of the most complete Gaelic Footballers of his generation.
His ability to play to great effect in multiple positions and his potent fusion of speed, skill, strength, and selflessness have made the five-time All-Ireland winner and three-time All-Star a formidable foe for opponents.
When you see a sportsperson excel in their chosen field to the extent Kilkenny does, you often find yourself wondering just how they became so good.
How much of it is down purely to latent ability? How much can be attributed to the environment they grew up in?
Spend some time talking to Ciarán himself, and it quickly becomes obvious that he has benefited from both nurture as well as nature.
And the person that keeps cropping up the most in the conversation is his father John.
Ciarán reckons his own love of Gaelic Games and the native tongue is a gift from his father, and they share an interest too in family history.
Ciarán is well informed on that particular subject but recommends chatting to the pater familias if you really want to dig deep because, as he puts it, Kilkenny the elder “loves his history and is big into his genealogy.”
Ciarán wasn’t fibbing. A call to John leads to an hour-long conversation over the phone about the Kilkenny family’s GAA Gene, and his own belief that an ounce of breeding can be worth a tonne of feeding.
“If you look at any GAA player there always is another player in the past,” John Kilkenny told GAA.ie. “The nature will always kick in.
“I think if you look at any sportsperson you can trace other sportspeople in their family tree. There are the exceptions, but not too many in the GAA.
“Most county footballers and hurlers would have had an uncle or aunt who also played at a high level or something like that.
“In Ciarán's case, if you look right across the spectrum, there's players from both sides of the family.”
So, where to start when tracing Ciarán Kilkenny’s sporting DNA?
County Galway is as good a place as any, because it’s the home-place of both of his grandfathers, Patrick Kilkenny and Jarlath Corcoran.
You don’t have to trace too far from there before you make a connection with genuine GAA royalty.
Patrick Kilkenny’s sister Nora was the mother of one of the greatest footballers of all time - Galway legend Sean Purcell.
Commonly known as ‘The Master’, Purcell was named on both the GAA’s Football Team of the Century and Team of the Millennium at centre-forward, and is Ciaran Kilkenny’s first cousin, once removed.
He was an all-rounder who also played in defence on occasion as well as in attack for Galway and was famed for his speed, skill, strength, and selfless play.
Sean Purcell’s daughter Mary married former Dublin footballer and manager Tommy Carr. Their son is Simon Carr, Ireland’s Number One tennis player, and a second cousin of Ciaran Kilkenny.
Westmeath Ladies football star and 2018 U-19 Women’s International Soccer Player of the Year, Lucy McCartan, is another cousin from the Purcell-Kilkenny branch of the family tree.
And, as many would know already, Galway camogie stars Orla and Niamh Kilkenny are also Ciaran’s cousins.
Patrick Kilkenny, Ciaran’s Grandfather, hurled for Pearses Ballymacward in Galway and then with CIE when he moved to Dublin. He also won a winner’s medal in the Tramways League with Terenure which remains a Kilkenny family heirloom to this day.
John Kilkenny didn’t just inherit a love of hurling from his father Patrick, but also from his mother Brigid (Née Ryan), who hailed from Templederry in Tipperary.
“My mother was always proud of her Tipperary roots and wouldn't let us forget it,” says John.
“She'd bring us to Croke Park all of the Tipp games when they were going strong in the 1960s. She'd be getting excited and we'd be telling her to sit down!”
Her excitement never waned over the years. Ciarán himself has golden memories of Sunday visits to Granny Brigid’s house on St. Kevin’s Parade, South Circular road, where an apple tart was always waiting and quickly consumed while the Kilkenny clan watched a GAA match on the telly.
The hurley emblazoned with blue and gold and the dog following her around by the name of ‘Tippy’ testified to Brigid’s enduring allegiance to her native county.
There’s never been a lack of Ryans who hurled for Tipperary, and Granny Brigid’s tribe are no different, which is why you can add senior All-Ireland winner Gearoid Ryan and U-21 All-Ireland winner Adrian Ryan and to Ciarán Kilkenny’s list of high-achieving cousins.
The Stapletons of Shanbally and the Crowes of Garryglass who hurled for Tipperary are also relatives.
Ciarán’s father’s branch of the family tree clearly doesn’t lack for sporting foliage then, but what about his mother Mary’s?
It turns out there’s some impressive pedigree there too.
Mary’s Uncle, Dan Corcoran, is the Grandfather of Leinster and Ireland rugby fly-half, Ross Byrne, and his younger brother Harry who has also played rugby for Ireland at U-20 level.
That makes them Ciarán Kilkenny’s second cousins. He’s also related to their Leinster team-mate, Josh Murphy, through the same branch of the family tree.
Ciarán’s granny on his mother’s side, Patricia Corrigan, is originally from Kildalkey in Meath, and all of her brothers were noted footballers, particularly Johnny ‘The Crash’ Corrigan.
Incidentally, he’s the father of renowned chef, Richard Corrigan, who we can only presume was a better cook than a footballer himself.
How about Ciarán’s own parents, John and Mary? What’s their contribution to the already impressively deep sporting DNA pool?
Mary played camogie with Mucklagh in Offaly in her youth and was also a seriously competitive tennis player, a sport her son Ciarán also excelled in until he focused his energies wholly on Gaelic Games.
John’s sporting passion is hurling, and he was good enough to represent Dublin at all levels.
“I played minor in '75 and I played U-21 for a couple of years then,” he told GAA.ie
“I played a couple of times too with the seniors in the League and I was a sub once for a Leinster Championship match against Kilkenny.
“After that, I slipped out of it, I wasn’t at the level required for county, but I was a good enough club hurler.
“There was a sports article written once about minding mice at the cross-roads, this was in the Evening Herald years ago, and I suppose my role was sort of like minding mice at a cross-roads.
“You don't have to really hurl at full-back, you just have to keep your man quiet.”
His former team-mates with Kevins Hurling Club would tell you that John is underselling himself here.
His nickname, ‘Killer’, possibly gives a false impression of the sort of full-back he was, because, while he was formidably physical, he was also a very talented sticksman who could turn defence into attack with the quality of his delivery.
He was part of a generation of players who won consecutive Dublin Junior and Intermediate Championships with Kevins in 1978 and 1979, and reached the Dublin Senior semi-final in 1983.
John was also a talented footballer with Synge Street where he played alongside his neighbour, Dublin legend Anton O’Toole.
Ciarán Kilkenny was always likely to have a knack for sport considering the latent talent in the family genes, and from a young age he showed the sort of physical gifts that were impossible to ignore.
“His arms...he could propel an object a huge distance,” remarks John.
“I'd be on the beach throwing stones with him. You know the way you'd fire a stone, well his would just go whoosh, gone!
“He would have made a good discus thrower, but in Ireland we don't talent-hunt athletes the way they would in a country like China where they pick out a sport for you and don't have national games like we have.
“Hurling was always the first game and it's a pity he had to make the choice, but I don't think it was too bad a choice.”
Ciarán was never the sort of child that needed much encouragement to throw himself into sport, but it certainly helped his development that he grew up in a hot-house environment where encouragement and opportunity helped him realise his potential.
“When I was younger we were very fortunate where I grew up that we had a big green out in front of the house,” says Ciarán.
“All I did when I was younger was play on that green, football and hurling.
“Just constantly out there banging away with hurleys and balls and pestering my Dad to go out and play on the green and pestering whoever else I could too to come out on the green and practice with me.
“I'd go to football matches and hurling matches in Croke Park and watch games as a young lad. Go to Cúl Camps, training. All I wanted to do when I was younger was play football and hurling.
“My Dad sent me to a Gaelscoil as well to really immerse me in all of our culture and traditions from when I was a young age.”
Ciarán’s sisters Aoife and Katie don’t lack for natural sporting ability either.
Aoife was something of a prodigy even before Ciarán was, playing both football and camogie for Dublin until two cruciate injuries in quick succession prevented her from fulfilling her considerable potential.
As for Ciarán, he certainly grew up in the right place at the right time because Castleknock GAA club was established on his doorstep in 1998 when he was five years old.
The vibrant energy of the newly founded club and Kilkenny’s natural sporting exuberance was a match made in heaven from the very start.
“One of my earliest memories if of playing on these tarmac tennis courts and we'd have tires out on the tarmac and we'd be smashing hurls off the tyres,” recalls Ciarán.
“Then my other memory would be of this field called Tír na nÓg, really cool name, and I just remember starting off with the 'B' team there and I won a few catches and got put up to the 'A' team. I was four or five at the time. They're my earliest memories.”
Ciarán’s talent was further nurtured by some very influential teachers/coaches in both primary and secondary school.
Máistir Ó Brosnacháin and Antóin Ó Cleirigh were two of his earliest mentors in Scoil Oilibhéir where he starred on Cumann na mBunscoil teams in Croke Park.
His footballing education was then furthered by the tutelage of Barry Ó Raghallaigh and Eoin Mac Gearailt in Scoil Chaitriona where he won an All-Ireland Colleges Senior Football ‘C’ title as the team’s goalkeeper at the young age of 14.
Ciarán’s graph was a steady upward curve and its trajectory was also helped considerably by the guiding hand of his father John who was a constant presence during those formative sporting years.
Kilkenny the elder was a confidant as well as a coach, and the bond he and his son forged from sharing countless puck-arounds, training sessions, matches and pure love of the game is one that endures strongly to this day.
“When I was playing he used to say, 'Scoil Chaitriona' which is the name of the school he used to go to,” recalls Ciarán.
“If he said 'Scoil Chaitriona', it meant he wanted me to go for a goal. So, once I heard that, I was going for goal.
“My father was a massive influence on me when I was growing up.
“He still is a massive influence on my game. So understanding when I'm coming up to games. I'm very fortunate to have him.
“He’s always looking out for me. He’s kind of like a guardian angel. If I ever need anything he's there to do things for me, anything really, you know?
“It's good to have someone like that there for you.”
Of all the great experiences they shared, none was more special that the day Castleknock won the Division 1 Hurling Feile in 2007.
The achievement was a remarkable one considering Castleknock had been founded just nine years previously. Along the way they defeated storied clubs like Blackrock from Cork, St. Rynagh’s from Offaly, a Ballyea team starring Tony Kelly, and then Limerick’s Ahane in the Final.
John Kilkenny was one of the team mentors, and Ciarán performed so well that even at that relatively tender age he was already being hailed as a county player in the making.
“For us is was the best day of our lives,” recalls Ciarán. “You're young lads going down to a different environment, down to Kilkenny. We were staying in Callan and had great craic with the people in Callan that we were staying with.
“Then the whole razzmatazz of doing the parade in Nowlan Park with all the different clubs and playing the tournament and getting to the final.
“Before the Final, Brian Cody came into us and gave us a talk, which was inspirational.
“And then beating Ahane, an iconic club, comprehensively in the final was a special feeling and something that you really, really cherish.”
It wasn’t just Ciarán Kilkenny’s physical gifts that made him such a phenomenal sportsperson form a young age, his steely mentality shone through too.
Sport wasn’t just played for fun, it was played to be won. No-one escaped his desire to be the best, not even his father John.
“My Dad used to always beat me in table-tennis,” recalls Ciarán. “In France we used to go to this place called Argeles Sur Mer, and one summer I started getting the upper hand on him.
“I just started beating him and he couldn't beat me anymore. It was like, 'I've got him!'
“He'd be competitive, but he wouldn't be as competitive as me.
“I'm just too competitive for my own good. Whether it's table-tennis, golf, any sport. I'm just so competitive.
“Like, even table-tennis, one of the guys who's a nutritionist with the Dublin team used to play international table-tennis. I played against him and he smoked me.
“And because of my tennis back-ground I'd be quite good and that really annoyed me.
“It was before a (Dublin) game and I was like, 'No, never playing table-tennis again before a match again', because it took so much mental energy out of me because I just get too into it.
“Yeah, just too competitive.”
One of the occupational hazards of being a born competitor is that defeat can be difficult to stomach.
So, when Ciarán missed a free to level the game in the dying minutes of Dublin’s 2013 Leinster U-21 Football quarter-final defeat to Longford, he struggled to process the disappointment.
His Granny Patricia has always been one of his closest confidants, so Kilkenny decided there was nothing for it other than to hop on his bicycle and cycle all the way to Portlaoise where she lived.
“I was just so frustrated and annoyed after that game and I just needed a release, so I said I'd try to cycle to Portlaoise,” he says.
“I had a bag of balls on the bike as well and my iPhone to try to navigate my way to Portlaoise because you can't go on the motorways.
“It was like, 'See ye now lads', and then I was thinking, 'Jesus, how am I going to get there?’ I remember going the wrong direction at one stage and had to go back a bit but I eventually got there.
“I obviously have a really strong bond with my granny in Portlaoise. If ever I need some time to just get away I just go down to visit her.
“She wouldn't have be mad into the GAA but she's become mad into it ever since I got involved. She loves it now.
“And my aunties who wouldn't really have been involved in it have just got mad into it now too. So, it's really special to see that.”
He’s still only 25, so who knows just how many honours Ciarán Kilkenny will have won by the time he finally hangs up his boots.
Despite all he has already achieved, he remains refreshingly unaffected by his success.
He does the family name proud off the field as well as on it, and that’s what means the most to his father John.
“They have been very enjoyable years,” says John.
“It’s fantastic what Ciarán has achieved in sport and we're very proud of what he's done, but we're proud of all of our kids.
“Once they all behave themselves and be personable to people, that's all we're concerned about.”