My Club: Noel Connors - Passage
My Club: Noel Connors - Passage
In this week's My Club feature, we speak to Waterford defender Noel Connors about his club Passage.
By Arthur Sullivan
Passage GAA is a GAA club, primarily concerned with hurling, based in the small fishing village of Passage East in east Co. Waterford.
The village of Passage East is situated on the west bank of Waterford Harbour, and is situated directly across a narrow sound of water from Co. Wexford, with the small village of Ballyhack connected to Co. Waterford by ferry.
Historically an area of great significance, Passage East was one of the landing sites used by Strongbow during the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1170.
Not known historically for success in hurling, Passage GAA had a strong team in the 1990s when, led by Seán Cullinane, they reached Waterford senior finals in 1993, 1994 and 1997, only to lose on each occasion, to Lismore (0-8 to 0-7), Mount Sion (2-13 to 1-11) and Ballygunner (2-17 to 1-14) respectively.
They have returned dramatically to the fore over the last decade, winning promotion to the Waterford senior hurling ranks in 2007 and winning a first-ever Waterford Senior Hurling Championship title in 2013.
That 2013 final win over Ballygunner was the culmination of years of gradual progress at the club, and they are now seen as one of the top contenders in the county.
Noel Connors is already one of Passage's most famous GAA sons, although former Waterford forward Eoin Kelly is also a clubmate, having switched from Mount Sion to Passage back in 2007. He was on the team that won the Waterford SHC in 2013, scoring 0-5 in the final.
Connors and his brother Thomas are both current members of the Passage and Waterford senior hurling panels, as is Patrick Walsh. Noel and Thomas' cousin Owen is also a prominent member of the Passage team. Noel's father, Noel Senior, also hurled with Passage and Waterford in the past, while former Waterford defender Seán 'The Rock' Cullinane is a legendary figure at the club, having hurled with the adult team for over 20 years.
Cullinane's final game for Passage, fittingly, was the 2007 Waterford Intermediate Championship final win over Dungarvan.
The location of Passage East in Co. Waterford, just across the sound from Co. Wexford
Q: Where is Passage itself and what's the place like?
A: Passage is a very small, remote location and the easiest way to describe where it is is to say it's close to Dunmore East Co. Waterford. It's one of the stranger places you're likely to come across, we have wild goats on hills and things like that! But the big thing about Passage it's that it's a fishing village. A small one, but we're right on the sea. There's a ferry that goes across to Wexford, which is probably not even a quarter of a mile across the water. So you could nearly puck a ball over to Ballyhack in Wexford. It's a beautiful place and it's entrenched in GAA.
There's a small village of maybe 200 people. Then there's a small primary school of about 80 children or even less. We have a shop and a post office, not much more than that. But it's steeped in GAA, steeped in fishing and there is great community and camaraderie there. If anything happens, people will rally around. A prime example was the tragedy of the Bolger brothers who drowned while fishing (Passage men Shane, Kenny and Paul Bolger died in a fishing tragedy in June 2013). When that terrible thing happened, the community did as much as they could to help the situation as best as possible.
Q: What's the set-up like at Passage GAA club itself?
A: We have a fine set-up in that we have a nice juvenile pitch and then one other pitch for the adults. In 2010 or possibly a little earlier, we built a ball alley which is essentially an arena, which is a fantastic for practice. We have dressing rooms of course, and beyond that then there is a meeting area. So it's a traditional type of set-up, nothing like some of the huge things you would see in some of the superclubs around the place.
Q: How are you going at the moment and what's the aim for 2015?
A: The aim is to win back the Waterford Senior Championship. Nearly all the fellas who won it in 2013 are still there. It's a case of keeping the head down, staying focused and trying to do as well as we possibly can.
Q: Given that Passage East is a small place, has it been hard to compete at the top level over the years?
A: Traditionally, we would have been quite weak underage and even when it came to intermediate and junior, we were struggling for teams. When I was growing up, we were playing in the 'C' Division and we were struggling at that level too. But fortunately in recent years we've had quite a lot of good people involved. Everyone has rowed in behind each other, put in a massive amount of effort and we have reaped the rewards. The majority of our teams now play in the 'A' Division, and we are competing very strongly at senior championship level. Last year we were unfortunate to lose in a quarter-final and the year before that we won it. And we are hoping to win it again this year with what is a young and hungry team.
Conor Carey (left) and Thomas Connors, Noel's brother, after the 2013 county final win
Q: What are your memories of your earliest days with Passage?
A: My father, also Noel, was definitely the man who brought me down to the field first. He played senior hurling with Waterford when he was younger but he broke his arm or his hand or something like that so he gave it up, but if you came into our house when we were young, you would have seen that hurling was everything. I have an older brother, who is 18 months older than me, and he's on the senior panel as well. For years, it was always me and him pucking around out the back with our father, and we still do it to this day. Every time we go home, we take out the hurleys and have a quick belt around. It's a fantastic thing.
But as a club, we're comparable to the likes of Glenmore where there are very strong families who drive the club. In Glenmore you have the Heffernans and the O'Connors, and we would be similar in Passage where there are quite a few families who over the years have been heavily involved in the club - mine would be one of them. So I was fortunate to be brought up in that environment and that's probably the main reason why I am playing inter-county hurling today, my upbringing and my introduction at a very young age to the game in Passage East.
Q: When did you first break on to the adult team at Passage and how were the club doing at the time?
A: I started playing intermediate hurling with Passage East in 2005 when I was 15 at corner-back. Then we won the Waterford Intermediate Championship in 2007. We struggled at senior level for a few years and that was always going to be the case - it's extremely difficult to come up from intermediate in Waterford and compete because the Senior Championship is so competitive. There are only 12 senior teams, and most of them have a chance of winning the title every year. That's great in itself, but it makes it hard for intermediate teams to break through and keep your senior status. So our main aim for the first few years at senior was solely survival but in recent years, it's become our target to win the senior championship and to kick on.
Q: What are your memories of the 2007 Waterford Intermediate Championship win?
A: I started the final at wing-back. The match was against Dungarvan and I think we won by five or six points. But interestingly, a huge amount of work went in at Dungarvan after that and now they are competing at senior level, after going up three years after us. Now they are competitive at senior level, they got to a semi-final last year and they actually beat us in the quarter-final. They have a brilliant underage structure and I think the moral of the story is put the work in at young ages and build it up, no matter where a club is at the present time. Try and make it enjoyable for kids rather than simply about winning matches.
Q: In 2013, Passage won the Waterford Senior Hurling Championship for the first time in your history, a huge achievement. Had you been knocking on the door?
A: I think so. There were a group of young, very honest lads that came together at the same time. The age profile of the team was made up of fellas aged 19-22 and the majority of lads would have played in that 2007 win. Everyone continued to work hard together and develop, and everyone was focused on getting to senior and actually eventually winning it. Of course you can't ever really know if you will win it, but it was something that was in that group's mind, that we were going to win it at some stage.
Eoin Kelly and Passage manager Peter Queally celebrate the 2013 win
Q: What are your memories of the 2013 campaign?
A: It was a rollercoaster. We started well but then we got beaten in what was, I think, our last group match. That loss focused us a lot and made us realise that there were things we needed to do if we wanted to win. So we came back with a lot of resilience and had learned more from that defeat than if we had won it. We refocused and put our shoulder to the wheel in terms of training and everything else. We had a great manager at the time in Peter Queally - he's still involved. So we put the head down and worked very, very hard and got to the final.
In the final itself against Ballygunner, things worked out. We had a quick rally towards the end of the game, I think we got six or seven points towards the end of it in quick succession and that sealed it.
Q: Given how small a place Passage East is, and the fact that you had struggled for a long time in the past, it must have been a huge deal to actually win a Waterford Senior Hurling Championship?
A: It absolutely was. We have been fortunate at the club in recent years in that there has been a significant increase in numbers of kids getting involved and taking up the games in Passage East. But I can remember when I was young, when I was 10 or 11, I was playing U14 or U15 because there just wasn't the numbers. I can remember being thrown into the back of cars for matches even as young as seven or eight! When you look back now you think, 'Jesus, what was going on!', but that was just the thing to do back then. And that was just tradition, we didn't have the numbers but we had to field teams and we got there in the end.
It was so enjoyable, so worthwhile, and there were so many good people involved that a lot of lads my age maintained it and stayed with it. I'd say a few have left but we kept going and we all still enjoy it. We haven't lost too many people, which is fortunate.
Q: What other players from Passage have played with Waterford over the years?
A: Currently there's myself, my brother Thomas and Patrick Walsh, another player who has been on the panel in recent times. Then there's Eoin Kelly, former Waterford hurler, and Seán Cullinane, 'The Rock'. He's actually minor manager this year and he was a selector with us a few years ago. Then at underage level, there are a lot of players involved. I think we have three with the Waterford minors and then another group with the U21s. That's quite unique because that would have been unheard of for Passage as recently as a few years ago. We would have been fortunate to have one player on a minor, U21 or senior Waterford team. So that's fantastic, and there's another group coming up again at U14 and U16 level who have been winning grade 'A' titles in Waterford. So we are competing and we are now getting players of Waterford inter-county standard at all the age groups, which is ultimately a testament to the work that has been done by people at the club.
Seán Cullinane, Passage legend, and Peter Queally, the man who would manage the club to the 2013 Waterford SHC title, celebrate a Waterford's win in 1998