Hurling is a generation game for Borris-Ileigh's Kenny family
By John Harrington
Conor Kenny’s journey to Sunday’s AIB All-Ireland Club SHC Final is a fitting reward for his steely self-belief.
At the age of 20 he left his then family home in Celbridge, Kildare and moved to his ancestral one in Borris-Ileigh where he divided his time between his two grannies who still lived there.
He relocated with one mission in mind – to fulfil his potential as a hurler.
So, as you watched from a distance while he received his man of the match award after Borris-Ileigh’s All-Ireland semi-final victory over St. Thomas’, you could only admire the way he has chased down destiny.
“Yeah, he has more than justified that move,” says Kenny’s father Philip, who is a selector on the Borris-Ileigh team that will contest Sunday’s Final against Ballyhale Shamrocks.
“When he was a young fella and we were living in Celbridge we'd come down to Borris-Ileigh matches. Not too many now, maybe two or three a year.
“Borris-Ileigh weren't going hectic at the time but we'd always come down and he'd be saying to me when he was 16 or 17 that, 'God, I think I'd hold my own in there'.
I would kind of be saying to him, 'Look, Conor, it might look a bit different when you're in there'. But, in fairness to him, he was bull-headed about it, he was going.
“He left when he was 20 and had one year U-21 with Tipp when he came down. In fairness, Ken Hogan called him in straight away and he made the Tipp U-21 squad and played a few games.
“He just had tunnel-vision on it. There was nothing else.”
To excel in any field, you have to have a streak of obsessiveness, and that was certainly Conor Kenny’s relationship with hurling from a very young age.
“One story sums it up,” says his father. “My car was actually stolen in Celbridge one night. I woke up in the morning and the car was gone. I had to call the guards and everything.
“Conor was sitting down waiting to go to school and I couldn't bring him. He was around 16 and was inside in the room crying.
“I said, 'Conor, it's alright, we'll get another car, don't worry about it'. And he said, 'No, my hurley was in the boot'.
“That's all he was worried about, his hurley was gone. He didn't give a damn about the car!
“He always just had hurling, hurling, hurling, on the brain.”
Two years after Conor Kenny moved to Borris-Ileigh, the rest of his family also left Celbridge behind and joined him there.
His younger brother Niall is another very talented hurler and a key figure in the team that will contest Sunday’s Final.
For Philip, the experience of being part of the team’s journey to Croke Park has been made all the more special because he’s getting the share it all with his two sons.
"Yeah, it has, I have to say, absolutely,” says Kenny. “We're very close anyway as a family, I'd have to say. I'd get on really well with the lads, I'd nearly consider them my brothers as much as my sons. We have a great laugh together.
“We have a pool-table here in the house and we play pool together nearly every night. Any time we're going out after matches we're always in the same circle in the pub or whatever.
“We go to matches on a Sunday together when Borris-Ileigh are not playing. The three of us just bate off together in the car to a match and have good craic.
“It is extra-special, I have to say, no doubt about it, having the two lads involved.”
It’s no coincidence that Borris-Ileigh are back on the hurling map in a major way at a time when two Kenny brothers figure so prominently in their team.
Borris-Ileigh have won seven county senior titles in their history and on all occasions the name Kenny has featured prominently in those successes.
Before he moved to Celbridge via a four-year stint in England, Philip himself won three county medals in ’81, ’83, and ’86 as well as an All-Ireland club medal in 1987.
He was the hero of their 1986 County Final win over Kilruane McDonaghs when he scored six points from play on a day when team manager Paddy Doyle was canny enough to relocate him to full-forward where his speed proved too much for Kilruane’s veteran full-back Dinny O’Meara to handle on a hot day in the wide open spaces of Semple Stadium.
As good as Philip was and Conor and Niall are now, their forefathers earned even greater renown for their hurling exploits.
Philip’s father Phil, better known as 'Phibby', and his uncles Sean and Paddy won the club’s first ever county championship in ’49 and followed that one up with further titles in ’50 and ’53.
They were also famous nationally for their exploits together with Tipperary as members of the panel that won three All-Ireland medals in a row from 1949 to 1951.
The Kenny name has always been synonymous with great days for Borris-Ileigh hurling, so when Conor and then the rest of the clan moved to the village they were welcomed with open arms.
“Yeah, The Kennys would be a strong hurling name in Borris-Ileigh and they'd have a lot of cousins down here,” says Kenny.
“Conor was accepted into the parish great and so was Niall. You'd think they were born and bred here. Long may it continue.”
Borris-Ileigh’s county, provincial, and now All-Ireland campaign has been a real tonic for a tightly-knit parish that has suffered a lot of tragedy over the course of the past 18 months.
Such is the bond between the team and its supporters that there’s a real sense of them both drawing emotional sustenance from being on this adventure together.
“It's been absolutely unreal," says Kenny. "It's hard to just put it into words, really. You can see the elation in people's faces around the parish.
“When the crowd weren’t allowed onto the pitch after the St. Thomas’ match (All-Ireland semi-final), all the players just walked together to the stand and the cheering they got was unreal, the hair just stood up on the back of your neck.
“When we came back after that match we had the debate in management whether we'd let them loose, kind of, for want of a better expression.
“We said, right, okay, they can have a couple of pints back in our local, Stapleton’s, which is our spiritual home, really.
“So we all got off the bus and came in and they all got clapped as they came in along. They all two or three drinks, that was it, because they were physically and mentally shattered.
“The buzz was just unreal, just the expressions on people's faces, the elation, like.”
Much has been made of the raw passion that this Borris-Ileigh team played with in matches like that All-Ireland semi-final victory over St. Thomas’ and the Munster Final win over Ballygunner.
Their willingness to battle for one another and put their bodies on the line when winning dirty ball has certainly been a big part of their success, but Kenny doesn’t believe the more cerebral and skilful side of their game has also gotten the appreciation it deserves.
“It's fantastic when you see all the hard work they do in training then translated onto the pitch with a never say die attitude,” he says.
“We probably felt we weren't getting the credit for being hurlers as well though.
“We have some brilliant hurlers. At the end of the day we're the Tipperary champions and Tipperary are the All-Ireland champions and we've come through a tough campaign in Tipperary so we must be doing something right.
“It's not all spirit and attitude that has gotten us this far. There's a lot of hurling involved in it too. We've taken some great scores. I suppose we're a combination of everything.
“We also do have that hunger and work-ethic. It's something that we've probably lacked in recent years, that 'in your face' style hurling which is what we're doing as well allied to the hurling. That's what has brought us to where we are.”
They’ll go into the All-Ireland Final against defending champions Ballyhale Shamrocks as underdogs just like they did against St. Thomas in the All-Ireland semi-final, Ballygunner in the Munster Final, and Kiladangan in the Tipperary County Final.
Yet, just like they did on those previous occasions, the players and indeed everyone in the parish of Borris-Ileigh will believe they can win this match.
Tradition counts for a lot in Borris-Ileigh and has imbued them with a healthy self-regard that might occasionally irk some of their neighbours in Tipperary, but is a priceless asset if you want to develop a winning mentality.
Borris-Ileigh won the All-Ireland title in 1987 and they’ll see no reason why they shouldn’t just go and win it again.
“Yeah, there is something to that,” agrees Kenny. “I don't know what it is, exactly, but when you go into Stapleton's pub you're surrounded in there by Borris-Ileigh pictures.
“I'm sure it's the same in most parishes, but maybe in Borris-Ileigh they have a history of men from the parish captaining Tipperary to win All-Irelands and those pictures are blatant everywhere along the walls.
“I suppose if you kept looking at them for long enough you could see yourself in that person.
“I'd agree with what you're saying, there is a natural self-belief there. We wouldn't fear anybody.”