By John Harrington
Having already won the M Donnelly Wheelchair Hurling/Camogie National League title in September, Ulster will go for the double on Saturday when South East Technological University hosts the GAA M Donnelly Wheelchair Hurling/Camogie All-Ireland Finals.
Down native and Clann na Banna club-man, Ciarán Bradley, will be a key player for the League champions when they do battle against the other three provinces this weekend.
A recent enough convert to wheelchair hurling, in his youth he played Gaelic football for Clann na Banna until issues related to Spina Bifida forced him to hang up his boots.
“I think most people with Spina Bifida are in wheelchairs but I was lucky enough where I was able to play and compete up until U-16,” Bradley told GAA.ie.
“I had issues with my right foot when I was younger and I ended up having surgery in the latter stages of primary school. I was able to come back after that but wasn't as explosive as I would have been previously. I kept getting wee niggly things though and just had to quit eventually.
“Then, further down the line, I had to have a left leg amputation. Even though I always had trouble with my right foot I somehow managed to keep that.
“There were a lot of years I was on crutches and over-compensating on my left side and knock-on complications from that meant I had to get my left-leg amputated just after I was 18. That's 13 years ago now.
“I wasn't involved too much with GAA for a few years bar watching my local club. I think I just enjoyed myself too much after that rather than focus on the wheelchair sports side of things.
“It was only just before Covid that I saw about wheelchair hurling online and I went to a few sessions before Covid brought that to an end.”
Bradley kept training away during Covid and last year was finally able to play his first full season of wheelchair hurling.
“My first impressions were that this is a bit mad and I'm going to be useless at this,” he says. “I thought I had done too much drinking and partying to be starting at this age!
“But it was good. It was one of those things where at the start I was pretty awkward but I persisted and kept going and had a bit of craic along the way and I started to get better. I still wouldn't say I'm great, but I'll always try and I'll always leave it out there. Yeah, I'm really, really enjoying it.”
Munster have tended to dominate the Wheelchair hurling scene in recent years, but Ulster’s League success this year underlined that they’re a rising force.
“When we played last year in our first home round I think we were beaten in all three games and I don't even think we scored. Then we sort of gradually throughout last season got a bit better. I think we beat Munster in the last League round but they still won the League.
“It might have been a meaningless match for them but we took it seriously and were over the moon to beat them last year. That was just before the All-Ireland series and we ended up getting to the All-Ireland Final against Munster.
“We were glad to get there but Munster are the team you look up to because they're such skilful hurlers. Although we battled and tried they were just a lot better than us in the final.
“This year has been completely different, though. We topped the League all year and performed really well and any time we slipped up Munster slipped up too and we ended up winning the League and beating Munster in the last round which we were really happy with.”
Winning the League was a great achievement, but a natural competitor like Bradley, who coaches his club’s reserve senior footballers, doesn’t need to be told that the big one is the GAA M Donnelly All-Ireland Finals.
“It was good to win the League but, as the saying goes, Leagues are for learning and championships are for winning,” he says.
“Over the whole League campaign you can have a wee day off or maybe not show up on the day or get away with it over the period of the season.
“But the way the All-Ireland series works it's just one day and you need to win and get to the big final. And, once you get there, you obviously need to perform again.
“The good thing is that we have that bit of experience last year of getting to the final before so we know what it takes to get there.
“But you have to be wary too that every year is different and teams often get new people involved so you could play a team one year and the next year you play them they're a lot stronger.
“If you're too worried about Munster it could be Connacht or Leinster who surprise you and you just need to be on the ball for every team. Munster are in our main eye-line, but we're keeping an eye on Connacht and Leinster too.”