James Stephens proud to head the Féile na nGael roll of honour
By Kevin Egan
In the 50 year history of the unique celebration of gaelic games that is the John West Féile Peil na nÓg and Féile na nGael events, every club in Ireland has been touched by the magic of the occasion in one form or another. It could be the excitement around a parish as a club prepares to host visitors from some far-flung and exotic corner such as Derry, Drogheda or Dungarvan, or it could be the sense of pride and hope that comes with following your own club’s young players as they go on the road in pursuit of national glory.
Yet while the love and respect for Féile is shared across the board, there are some clubs that have mastered the art of preparing for it and winning it – none more than the James Stephens club in Kilkenny. The Christy Ring trophy, awarded to the Division One champions of Féile na nGael, has been won by ‘The Village’ a total of seven times, more than any other club.
With nine Kilkenny SHC titles, James Stephens are one of the more successful clubs in the Marble county, but not exceptionally so. Nine of the last 15 titles have gone to Ballyhale Shamrocks but a more accurate measure of the balance of power in the county is that in the last six years, four different clubs have lifted the Tom Walsh Cup, and six different clubs have competed in the senior county final.
This is a hugely competitive club environment, and yet somehow, when it comes to preparing teams for Féile, the Village are out on their own.
“Féile has always been a very big thing in our club, it’s treated with incredible respect” says Jackie Tyrrell, the nine-time All-Ireland winner who was part of the club’s successful team in 1996.
“It’s small and simple things that show you how the club values the players taking part in it, and that also helps the players to understand that competing in Féile for the club is an honour, and a huge opportunity.
“I still remember every member of the panel being presented with hurls from Raymie Dowling, who is a legendary name when it comes to making hurls around here. We would have had a panel of maybe 25 or 30 but you could only officially bring 20 players at the time, so just making that cut was a huge deal in itself,” he recalls.
Having lost out at the semi-final stage in 1995, the year when Sixmilebridge and Drom & Inch shared the trophy, the venue for the finals was Waterford, where James Stephens were hosted by Mount Sion.
They were hotly-fancied to do well. They swept through Kilkenny, and with ten players still on board from the previous season, they travelled down the N9 with no shortage of expectation on their shoulders.
After coming through the group, the club’s knockout games were against St. Vincent’s of Dublin (who Tyrrell recalls as by far the biggest team he had ever played up to that point) and then a final in Walsh Park against an Andrew O’Shaughnessy inspired Kilmallock side, where they prevailed by seven points.
“It’s amazing the things that stick with you. You had all the stuff that you might expect, things like the first night away from your family, getting to know the family hosting you, and then things like all the different names and the different shapes of hurls that you’d see from the other teams from around the country.
“It was treated like a club All-Ireland” says Tyrrell, who went on to win a senior club All-Ireland title in 2005.
“Even the trophy being named after Christy Ring carried its own weight. Now you walk into the clubhouse and the pictures of all the different Féile winning teams are up on the walls, and you still get that sense of pride in being part of it”.
There’s no doubt that James Stephens are a stronger, healthier club because of their Féile experience – but it’s no less true to say that Féile is a better experience because of the colour and passion that clubs like James Stephens, and thousands more like them, show for it every year.