Perseverance pays off for Castlebar's hurling zealots
By John Harrington
His nerves mightn’t let him, but Tony Stakelum would be well advised to take a quiet moment to himself on Sunday to really appreciate the fact that Castlebar Mitchels hurling club are contesting a Mayo SHC Final for the first time in 21 years.
Stakelum is Castlebar’s long-serving club chairman and has put countless hours into ensuring the game has not only survived in the town, but is now thriving.
The senior team's presence in Sunday's Final is in no small part due to the sustained hard work of their Tipperary 'blow-in'.
A proud native of Holycross-Ballycahill, he married a Castlebar woman and has been living in the Mayo town for the past 25 years.
He was 36 when he moved there and like a lot of other exiles from hurling counties was persuaded to dust down long-dormant boots and re-kindle his playing career.
And when he finally hung up his hurley for good, he immediately set about doing all he could to ensure there would always be hurlers in Castlebar.
Hurling isn’t an easy sell in a town where football is king, but Stakelum and some fellow small-ball zealots had the imagination and drive to bring it to the masses.
“We started it in the year 2001, a programme called 'Hurling on the Green',” Stakelum told GAA.ie
“It's a summer-camp that we run. Originally it ran for six weeks, four days a week in Castlebar.
“The theory behind it was to get all the young people of Castlebar out.
“There are four or five green areas in Castlebar and we'd go from one to the other over the course of the week and arrive with three or four coaches and anyone that wanted to come out hurling, we'd coach them for two or three hours.
“That was how it initially started, but it got so big that we eventually ended up in the middle of the town.
“There's a place called The Mall, it's Lord Lucan's old cricket pitch, and it's a fine, big green area in the middle of the town and we've been there since, for the last ten years or so.
“We'd average about 100 kids a day in the summer-time and it's on every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and then on a Wednesday we have a club day where they call come up to the club.
“We've put a lot of work into the juvenile end of things. Most of these guys would have come out of that.
“It took a long time because they were fierce young when they started playing senior because we were all gone too old and a lot of us retired at the one time because we weren't able to hurl anymore.
“It took us a good while to get where we are because Ballyhaunis and Tooreen have been very strong.”
What’s seldom is wonderful, and when Stakelum talks you through Castlebar’s county semi-final win over Ballyhaunis you can still hear the excitement in his voice.
They played against the wind and with 14 men for the second-half and had to survive an injury-time free for Ballyhaunis that would have drawn the game, but doing it the hard way only added to the sense of satisfaction.
“It was a great day for the club and there's been great excitement since,” said Stakelum.
“Last Friday we had a quiz night to raise a few bob and we got 34 tables into An Sportlann which is the Castlebar football headquarters here in town and we raised about two and a half thousand euros on the night, which was great. There was a great atmosphere and buzz around the place.
“Our manager had an interview with Mayo TV and one of the local papers so people are now maybe hearing for the first time that there's a hurling club in Castlebar.
“It's all about getting that awareness out there and the rest will hopefully follow in its own time.”
Stakelum has a real grá for the history and tradition of hurling, which is hardly a surprise when you consider his own family tree.
His Grandfather hurled for Dublin in the 1892 All-Ireland Final and his father Bob was a member of the 1949 All-Ireland winning Tipperary panel.
Bob Stakelum also refereed the 1955 All-Ireland Hurling Final, and authored the excellent club history, ‘Gaelic Games in Holycross-Ballycahill’.
Bob’s first cousin Pat Stakelum is regarded as one of the true greats of Tipperary hurling, captaining the 1949 All-Ireland winning team and winning further All-Ireland medals in 1950 and 1951.
Tony is also related to Tipperary hurlers of a more recent vintage like Richard and Conor Stakelum and 1989 All-Ireland winning captain, Bobby Ryan.
He might be a long time away from his native Tipperary by now, but he still keeps very close tabs on the local club scene.
If anything, moving to a football stronghold like Mayo has only made him even more fanatical about hurling, and Castlebar Mitchels hurling club have benefited massively from his energy.
It’s been an uphill struggle at times, but the club’s presence in Sunday’s County SHC Final isn’t the only barometer of hurling’s increasingly vigorous health in the town.
“This year has been a great year because our U-12s were beaten in a County Final, our U-14s won a County Final, and our U-16s are playing in the County Final on Saturday,” said Stakelum.
“Our minors won a 'B' Final and our U-15s won a shield in the Táin Óg League up in Breffni Park this year. And our U-13s were beaten by Four Roads, who were very strong, in the U-13 Táin Óg League Final.
“This year we also started competing in the Galway Leagues at U-12 and U-14 level. Our U-12s won a Final and our U-14s got to a Final. It's all about playing games at that level, and it's great for our lads to test themselves against Galway teams and not to be just playing the same few teams in Mayo all the time.
“We have a successful camogie club as well and there's a lot of good work being done there too.”
Castlebar go into Sunday’s County Final as considerable underdogs against a Tooreen team stacked with many of the best hurlers in the county and gunning for a third title in a row.
It's a classic showdown between the haves and the have nots because.Tooreen are trying to win their 30th Mayo Senior Hurling Championship since 1966 whereas Castlebar Mitchels haven't won a single title since their last triumph in 1955.
The outsiders have left no stone unturned in their preparations. They've played challenge matches against Roscommon finalists Athleague and Galway Intermediate semi-finalists Meelick-Eyrecourt, and also flown home midfielder Darren McTigue from Australia for the match.
If they could pull it off and end the club's long senior county title famine, what would it mean to the club chairman who has given so much to the cause since he arrived in the town 25 years ago?
“Well, a few of us were just talking about that when we were having coffee down the town this morning and some of the lads said we'd just have to take a big, deep breath,” said Stakelum.
“Look, it would be a huge thing for us to win it. It would only be the Monday or the Tuesday before you'd really be able to think about what you were after doing. Tooreen will be favourites, obviously, but hopefully we can do it.
“If we could, it would be mighty. It would be like nothing on earth.”