The GAA Gene - The Fennellys

The GAA is built on tradition, and there is nothing more traditional in Gaelic Games than great family dynasties.

Trace the history of any county team in Gaelic Football or Hurling and you’ll see the same surnames consistently reappearing as you move back through the decades.

In our series – The GAA Gene – we profile the families that have given outstanding service through the generations.

This week we focus on the Fennellys of Ballyhale, Kilkenny.

​By John Harrington

The Fennellys of south Kilkenny have always been gifted with stick and ball.

Today they are famous as one of the foremost families in the modern history of hurling, but previously they were cricketers of high renown. It might be difficult to imagine now, but Kilkenny was a cradle of cricket before it was a hurling hot-bed. Even after the establishment of the GAA in 1884, cricket continued to hold the upper hand in the county for some time and was at its peak by 1896 when there were 50 cricket clubs in Kilkenny.

At that time, the Fennelly family was as synonymous with cricket as they now are with hurling. Their original home-place was Stoneyford in the Parish of Aghaviller, just outside the walls of the Mount Juliet estate. Most people in the area worked on the estate back then, so it’s no surprise really that cricket was the sporting pastime du jour.

But as the GAA asserted itself, cricket in Kilkenny was steadily cannibalised by hurling, and bats were discarded in favour of hurls. The Fennellys quickly proved they were just as handy with ash as they were willow. They played with distinction for the local and long since disbanded Killarney hurling club, but it would be with Ballyhale Shamrocks that they would really make their name.

Kevin Fennelly Snr moved to Ballyhale with his young and growing family in 1959 and established one of the most royal lineages in the history of Kilkenny hurling. His marriage to Teresa Hoyne was always likely to produce some princely hurlers, because the Hoynes are a famous hurling family themselves. Teresa’s sister Annie married William ‘Bill’ Cody and is the mother of a current Kilkenny manager Brian Cody, so perhaps it is the Hoynes rather than the Fennellys and Codys who possess the true hurling gene.

Kevin Snr and Teresa Fennelly were just the sort of married couple you’d dream of moving to your area if you were the local GAA club chairman. They had seven sons - Michael, Ger, Kevin Jnr, Brendan, Liam, Seán, and Dermot – and all of them were seriously talented hurlers. When Liam Fennelly looks back on his childhood, it is that singular obsession with the game that overarches everything else.

Liam Fennelly takes on Tipperarys Noel Sheehy in the 1991 All-Ireland Hurling Final
Liam Fennelly takes on Tipperarys Noel Sheehy in the 1991 All-Ireland Hurling Final

“In fairness, hurling was all we did,” Fennelly told GAA.ie. “Hurling, hurling, hurling, hurling. It was every day at lunch-time and every evening during the summer. Every hour that was available, really, we were just playing with a ball and a hurl. It's probably no different in Kilkenny now. But hurling was the only thing back then because there was no such thing as television sports or nothing else."

When you throw a ball in between seven brothers, it’s probably best to quickly step back. There was no quarter asked for nor given among the Fennelly siblings as they honed and hardened their skill and strength off one another. You had to learn to stand your ground or else get out of the way.

“You can sing it,” laughs Fennelly. “It was a sure way of learning how to fight your corner. There was a group of us and there were a few other families around in that area as well who were more or less the same age as ourselves. Between everything and anything it definitely helped to toughen us. It was like Brian Cody's mantra - if you didn't win the ball there was no-one going to pass it to you!”

When Kevin Fennelly Snr moved to Ballyhale there were two clubs in the parish – Ballyhale and Knocktopher. They were bitter rivals, but Fennelly and a few other far-sighted locals recognised that an alliance would be a very powerful one. He played a leading role in bringing both clubs together under the Ballyhale Shamrocks banner in 1972. The negotiations required to do so were delicate in the extreme.

“They were indeed,” says Liam Fennelly. “It took a period of time and, now you've said it, there were some delicate negotiations. Naturally enough it went down well with some people and didn't go down well with other people. But that's the nature of it.

“They were two strong enough clubs. The two of them would have met in the Southern Final back in '69 which was played behind wire! They would have been bitter rivals, so the whole idea of Ballyhale and Knocktopher coming together would have been a controversial enough one.

“But as soon as it was smoothed over we won two or three U-21 Championships in a row so the talent was there and the new talent was coming through. The old and the new settled in very well together. Straight away there was success. And naturally enough that helped to cement the whole thing together.”

Ger Fennelly makes his victory speech after captaining Kilkenny to victory over Galway in the 1979 All-Ireland Hurling Final
Ger Fennelly makes his victory speech after captaining Kilkenny to victory over Galway in the 1979 All-Ireland Hurling Final

Ballyhale Shamrocks were a phenomenon, and not just because they would enjoy early and sustained success. The fact that they achieved this despite coming from the historically weaker south of the county also made them trailblazers.

“Down south in Kilkenny, any team would not have been known to win senior hurling championships," says Fennelly. "Rower Inistioge won one and one only back in '68, but there was no-one else down south that would have been successful. So I suppose we blazed a trail for the likes of Glenmore who came along after us and won five Championships as well. Before then south Kilkenny would have been known as the soft side of the county.

“It took us a while to change that because we wore white jerseys which was probably a mistake! We looked smaller than we were! So it took us a while to get recognised from a toughness point of view. Once we cleared that hurdle we managed to win a few county titles I suppose.”

Fennelly does a neat line in understatement, because Ballyhale would win a lot more than ‘a few county titles’ in the late seventies and early eighties. In the 13 years from 1978 to 1991, they won an incredible nine of them. The part that the seven Fennelly brothers played in this hugely impressive run cannot be overstated. They had developed an instinctive understanding from playing the game together all of their lives, and that synchronicity was what made Ballyhale Shamrocks such a formidable force.

“To be honest, it probably was,” says Liam. “We didn't probably notice that but there were four or five of us in the forward line so naturally enough without knowing it there was. When you look back now and see what we did in games with different flicks and so on, there was an understanding there alright. We would have been known back then for changing the style of hurling in Kilkenny. The fast ball and the quick ball around the forward line and the movement of it all was pretty fast.

“We probably would have been known for that and that probably came from the instinctive understanding we had because there were so many people involved from the one family and we were nearly all in the forwards.

Kevin Fennelly Jnr managed Kilkenny to the 1998 Leinster Championship and later managed Dublin from 2001 to 2002
Kevin Fennelly Jnr managed Kilkenny to the 1998 Leinster Championship and later managed Dublin from 2001 to 2002

It wasn’t just in Kilkenny where the Shamrocks held sway, they were also the dominant force nationwide in what was an intensely competitive era for the All-Ireland Club Hurling Championship. They won three All-Irelands in the ten years from 1981 to 1990. In that same period, no other club won it more than once.

“To win an All-Ireland club championship back then for a rural club was not seen nor heard of,” says Fennelly. “If you look at the stats, I think we were the first rural club to win a hurling All-Ireland. 1982 we would all count as our greatest achievement because we beat a St. Finbarr's team in the All-Ireland Final who had 14 or 15 of the Cork county hurlers playing that day. That means a lot to us, because in the club championship back in those days the Cork city clubs were very strong. So it would have been our greatest achievement.”

All seven Fennelly brothers played in those three All-Ireland Club Final victories, and all seven of them would also wear the Kilkenny senior jersey. Liam, Ger, and Kevin enjoyed the most success at senior inter-county level, winning three All-Ireland medals each, with Liam captaining two All-Ireland winning teams and Ger captaining one.

Their service to club and county goes far beyond what they achieved on the field themselves. Their legacy is also defined by the way they have passed on their love and flair for the game to another generation who are making their own history.

Michael (first) and Colin Fennelly (second) parade before the 2015 All-Ireland Final
Michael (first) and Colin Fennelly (second) parade before the 2015 All-Ireland Final

Michael’s sons Michael Jnr and Colin are the obvious standard-bearers having won a combined 12 All-Ireland senior inter-county medals and six All-Ireland club medals. Liam’s daughter Leann has captained the Kilkenny camogie team and his sons Jamie and Liam Jnr are stalwarts for the Mullinavat club. That’s just scratching the surface, because there’s a small army of other young Fennellys involved in the game in some way. So much so, that Liam can’t even put a number on it off the top of his head.

“Oh, Jesus! We've counted them, and I think there's forty-something of them involved,” he says. “There's a massive amount of them there. I know that because we were only counting the other day all the bloody weddings we'll have to go to over the next four or five years! I know four of them got engaged this year around St. Valentine's Day. Most of them are playing hurling or camogie or involved in some way. Michael's lads are probably the most involved, then my lads.

“My sister Monica, her two lads won the Colleges All-Ireland with St. Kieran's this year, Adrian and Darren Mullen. They're pretty active and they're pretty good. There's five boys in that family. Two of them will being playing minor with Kilkenny this year. So there are another few good prospects there. They look good. They're in Ballyhale. That will keep that club going anyway.”

Michael Fennelly Snr celebrates after managing Ballyhale Shamrocks to the 2010 All-Ireland Club Hurling title
Michael Fennelly Snr celebrates after managing Ballyhale Shamrocks to the 2010 All-Ireland Club Hurling title

Following in the footsteps of their famous forebears has not been an intimidating experience for the current crop of Fenellys. Colin Fennelly admits that he and his brother Michael grew up keenly aware of the family’s hurling tradition, but it never weighed heavily on them. They were more occupied by keeping up with their peers than worrying about matching the achievements of those that went before them.

“No, to be honest, it never did faze us because you always had great hurlers along with you growing up,” he says. “There was never that divide between you. At Michael's level there were so many players, they won so much at underage, and you're just trying to keep up with them, to be honest. You'd never get ahead of yourself or anything like that. Cha (Fitzpatrick), Michael, John Tennyson, all of that group, it was crazy the talent in that age-group. And you were just trying to get up to their standard really.”

“My father and uncles would try to keep your feet on the ground more than anything. They're great lads to stand in the background and urge the team on. They're all about the club, so they are. They'd never talk unless you looked for help off them. They'd always say the best of luck before matches coming up, but apart from that they'd never get involved or put their foot in where it's not wanted.

“They're very good like that. You'd see with some families that they're very intimate and in your face and it can be hard to be around. But they realise from their experience that it's better if lads are doing well to leave them alone because there's no point in changing anything.”

Leann Fennelly introduces President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins to her team-mates before the 2014 All-Ireland Senior Camogie Final against Cork
Leann Fennelly introduces President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins to her team-mates before the 2014 All-Ireland Senior Camogie Final against Cork

They haven’t needed their elders to set the tone because the current generation of Fennellys are just as competitive amongst one another. Colin admits having an older brother like Michael accelerated his own development as a player, even if it felt more like a curse than a blessing at times.

“To be honest, Michael absolutely beat me around the place when I was a young lad,” he laughs. “It was absolutely horrible and just made me an angry child, so it did! Ah no, it was actually handy too I suppose. You'd get a lot of pointers off Michael because he has that experience and knows the way things are.

“I had a lot of speed when I was young but he would have taken me aside and said, 'look, your speed won't be enough for too long. You have to improve on everything else'. Even when I came into the Kilkenny set-up he gave me a few small tips just to let me know what was going on and that was very helpful in my first year or two.

“A lot of the next generation of Fennellys, my generation, are girls. On the club camogie team five years ago there were probably around 13 Fennellys on the panel. There were just so many of them. A lot of them have moved on since, had to emigrate, or have had kids themselves. I have four sisters myself and they would have all played camogie. Margaret-Mary is the youngest and was probably the best, she was on the Kilkenny panel, but she's over in Australia at the moment.

“Then you have Lorna who's now over in the UK. Then my two older sisters are Ciara and Grace. They were on the Kilkenny panel at underage as well so. The six of us would have been outside when we were younger during the summer, hurling all day. I was one of the youngest so I was getting beat around the place by my older sisters as well as my brother!”

Michael Fennelly with his second cousin Brian Cody
Michael Fennelly with his second cousin Brian Cody

Colin can’t ever remember a day when he was told to go out and hurl, it’s just something he always did. Growing up in Ballyhale provided the perfect hot-house environment in which to grow as a hurler, but when he reflects on it he admits the Fennelly blood coursing through his veins has also given him a natural advantage.

“I suppose it has to be in the genes alright, that you do have that sporting background and it probably comes a small bit easier to you. Your parents push you on a lot too I suppose and help you out in any way possible. When you'd see how much my Dad just loves the club and what it means to him it would give you that bit of inspiration. It's probably after All-Irelands when you really see just how proud he is. It's not until then that you really notice what it means to him and what it did mean to him over the years.”

There’s no danger of the Fennellys of Ballyhale going extinct any time soon. The family tree is still blossoming at an impressive rate. Successive generations have now achieved great things and there’s every reason to expect the current one won’t be the last to do so.

“The strength of the GAA has been families, really,” says Liam Fennelly. “If you look through any successful club team, especially the successful rural clubs, clubs like Rathnure and Castlegar and ourselves, it's always a certain amount of families behind them. We let the next generation get on with it and they're making their own history, fair play to them. Hopefully they will continue to do that and there will be more to come after them too.”