Ballina Stephenites hurling goes from rags to riches
By John Harrington
Beating Moytura in last Saturday’s Mayo Junior A Hurling Final was a real Phoenix from the ashes moment for all associated with the Ballina Stephenites team.
Back in 2021 there was no adult hurling team in Ballina, and hadn’t been for the previous 10 years.
But then former Mayo hurling promotion officer, Adrian Hession, picked up the phone and rang former Ballina Stephenites and Mayo hurler, Gary Barrett, to see if something could be done about this.
Hession had a list of all the young hurlers in the town aged in their late teens or early twenties he reckoned would be interested in playing senior hurling, and Barrett knew a few “old dogs” in Ballina and Belmullet who might consider lacing a pair of boots again.
Thanks to their combined efforts 30 players turned up for Ballina’s first training session back in May 2021, and they’ve never looked back since.
Two years of steady progress culminated with Saturday’s dramatic extra-time victory, and the nature of the celebrations afterwards holds the promise of even better days yet to come for the club.
“It as a great day, a first county title for Ballina since 2007,” says Barrett, now a member of Ballina manager Noel Burke’s backroom team.
“The beauty of the day was that I asked the club’s juveniles could they play at half-time.
“We won the game in extra-time, dramatic enough stuff, and got the Cup and came down and the team did their usual 'championes' stuff, and then the team got in line for a picture and all the youngers jumped in and joined it. So it wasn't just the players, it was the players and youngsters.
“So, we've gone from rags to riches really in terms of not having anything at all to having a championship win with the current seniors along with the future in one picture. We've made a significant jump in a short period of time.”
Ballina’s rebirth is part of a wider resurgence of hurling in Mayo in recent years.
Back in 2019 there were just four senior club teams in the county, now there are 13. Four teams playing in the senior grade, five in the Junior A grade, and four in the Junior B grade.
Ballina made such quick strides that they actually begat another club, Gaeltacht Erris, who formed this year and played in the Junior B Championship.
“Because we did so well in the first two years, Belmullet actually started up their own club themselves and called themselves Gaeltacht Erris,” says Barrett.
“We had 10 or 12 Belmullet lads on our panel but they wanted to develop their own team which we didn’t mind at all.
“We lost a good chunk of our panel but we just felt that if it was for the development of another club, then they should go on and create their own thing for the betterment of the game in Mayo.
“That meant though we had a reduced panel of 26-30 this year compared to 40-plus in the first two years.
“So, we didn't just start up our own club again, we helped Belmullet get going again who were also in the doldrums for the same 10 year period that we had been.
“So, now we have two teams in North Mayo whereas four years ago there was none.”
What’s most encouraging from a Ballina Stephenites point of view is that they’re now building on some solid foundations.
Their underage structures are in rude health, with the participation numbers at all age-grades growing steadily ever year.
“I think we have 30-plus U-8s playing at the moment and it's similar at U-10 so the numbers are there.
“It's about keeping them in the face of so much competition as they get older is the challenge. Getting into schools and the usual things that people go after to try to get more numbers playing.
“It's very healthy at the moment in the younger ages, U-8s, U-10s, and U-12s. Our U-14s are playing a county 'B' Final on Sunday against Moytura again in MacHale Park.
"Then at U-16 and minor for now we're involved in an amalgamation with Ballyvary, and Caiseal Gaels who are based down in Ballaghaderreen/Charlestown direction, but the ultimate is to try to have our own teams across all the age-groups.”
A win like last Saturday’s is precious for all involved with growing the game in Ballina because it raises the profile of hurling and makes it that bit easier to sell in the face of competition from other sports.
It’s always going to be that bit more difficult to grow the game in developing counties, but Ballina have the bit between their teeth now and are determined to keep driving forward.
“There's different WhatsApp groups there for coaches all through the ages and at senior level and now we're trying to create a supporters club or development committee just for people who are not maybe directly involved with the teams who would like to contribute so we can capture everyone that's connected to hurling to try to develop it,” says Barrett.
“From the development side of things that would be trying to get into schools and do more coaching there and then have a fundraising side to it to try to raise some money so we could maybe contribute to help schools out with buying equipment and stuff like that .
“The immediate hurling community was the players and youngsters who were at the county final, but we’re keen to keep bringing more and more people both in terms of those who want to play the game and those who want to contribute in some other way.
“The Ukrainian youngsters in the area love it so much and want to be a part of it as well so we're trying to bring them in as much as we can because a lot of the Ukrainian families would have a lot of young kids around the same age and want to get involved so we welcome them with open arms.
“It doesn't matter where you're from, once you want to play our game that's all we care about and want you to do.
“We've built bridges with the football teams in the club as well. We go to their games and they come to ours. So we're trying to engage with the whole community.
“Not everyone wants to just play football so what we want to do is accommodate lads who want to play a bit of hurling or dual, the option is there for them now.
“It's more activity for them, it gets more lads out in the evening and more parents going to games and they're not just going to football games. It gives them a choice and that's all we wanted.
“We’ve also started camogie now as well due to the growing interest in the game at U-8 and U-10 level. They're going to various blitzes now around the county and mixing in with the other clubs who would have exisiting teams like Westport, Castlebar, and Tooreen.
“They're under the Stephenite banner as well, so hopefully we continue to grow as a club on the camogie front as well and will have a senior camogie team in the future as well.
“That would bring more kids in to the club, more parents joining, more membership for the club. It's all good between football, camogie, hurling, it will add to the membership of the overall club which helps to pay the bills.”
The Ballina team that won last Saturday’s Final includes some players in the twilight of their careers like corner-back Anthony Healy who won county senior titles with the club in 1996 and 2007.
Due to the 10 year period when the club had no senior team, Barrett estimates that 80 per cent of the panel are under 25 and the other 20 per cent are over 40.
Because of that age-profile, he believes a couple more years of consolidation will be required before they’re ready to make the leap to senior club championship hurling in Mayo.
He’s positive that they’ll get there, though, and optimistic that the club will go from strength to strength at all grades in the coming years because they’re now building on such solid foundations.
“At underage we're hoping to have Ballina Stephenites teams at all age-groups within the next three to five years, and within the same time period hopefully we'll be playing senior hurling,” he says.
“I don't know if we're ready (for senior championship hurling) yet because we need to get some younger lads in to replace the older lads who might be stepping away soon.
“The older lads might not play next year so we might be a bit weaker if we don't get new players in so we just have to analyse it for another year or two and build it more standard-wise
“We're definitely building on pure solid foundations now. Your foundation is your underage structures and we have lots of kids playing now and it was great to see so many of them so interested at the county final and mixing with the team. They’ll always have that in their head now.
“Even when we disbanded as an adult team we always had some underage teams and a lot of lads that came through the juvenile ranks played on Saturday but those juveniles had nothing to aspire to for a 10 year period because there was no senior team to go on and play with when they got older.
“Now though they can see there’s a team there and that makes a huge difference.”