The Easkey team that won the 2022 Sligo Hurling League.
The Easkey team that won the 2022 Sligo Hurling League.

The remarkable rise of the Easkey hurlers


By John Harrington

Back in 2018, Sligo club Easkey fielded an adult senior hurling team for the first time in 35 years.

It took them just three years to win the county senior championship in 2020 and they made it back to back titles last year.

On Saturday, they’ll hope to ink another memorable chapter in the club’s recent history when they contest the inaugural CúChulainn Cup Division 1 Final against Tooreen of Mayo.

Such sudden success is hugely admirable, but perhaps not that surprising when you consider just how dominant Easkey were at underage level before fielding at senior in 2018.

They won six Sligo U-14 Championships from 2011 to 2016, six U-16 Sligo Championships from 2013 to 2018, and six Sligo minor championships from 2015 to 2020 as well as U16 Connacht Club titles in 2013 and 2015 and All-Ireland Féile Division 5 and Division 4 titles in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Three wise men deserve the lion’s share of credit for the club’s emergence as the dominant force of Sligo hurling – Michael Gordon, Tom Evans, and Padraig Hallinan.

They nurtured this generation of players through the underage grades and still coach and manage them at senior level.

"It all came really from a demand from parents and a decision by individuals to drive the thing,” Tom Evans told GAA.ie

“A lot of the parents came to us and said they wanted their kids to experience hurling. Another factor, it just so happened at that time, that we had an awful lot of talent. Every area will experience this at a certain time where a lot of good, talented kids come through at the same time and we had that.

“We also have very good coaching. Michael Gordon is our coach here and he's probably one of the best coaches I've ever met.

“Every year we were producing three, possibly four very good hurlers. County standard hurlers coming through every year. They are now all just coming to maturity. The last of them would be turning 20 this year. And the oldest of them would be 25. And the core of them would be 22/23. So, yeah, it's been a great adventure for us.

“We have a guy called Rory McHugh who I think would walk onto any senior team. Andrew Kilcullen is shooting the lights out. He's scoring at least 15 or 16 points in every game. He'd be the envy of most tier 1 counties.

"Then we have a very, very strong support cast around them. Any one of them on their day could be a match-winner.

“Because the average age of our team would be only around 22/23 we're still very much in the development phase. How far we can take it, I don't know yet.”

Sligo star Andrew Kilcullen is a leading figure for Easkey/St Farnans.
Sligo star Andrew Kilcullen is a leading figure for Easkey/St Farnans.

Evans was Sligo Hurling Board Chairperson at a time when he admits “things were bad”, but the vista is very different now.

Sligo won the Lory Meagher Cup in 2018, the Nickey Rackard Cup in 2019, and are now very competitive in the Christy Ring Cup.

Easkey have been hugely influential in the Sligo team’s rise the prominence, supplying roughly half of the entire county team panel.

The standards they’ve set in the county have forced other clubs to up their game, and the benefits are likely to be felt in the coming years.

“The underage structures are starting to take shape really well, and not only in our club, though we would see ourselves as leaders in that," says Evans.

“The other Sligo clubs are now starting to cop on. The underage here in Sligo was neglected in most clubs for years now suddenly is very, very strong. There's eight or 10 teams in the U-13 Leagues and Championships here and there's only a point or two between the whole lot of them and it's a very good standard.

“We're the leading club at senior level at the moment, but it's much more spread out at underage. In six or seven years time you will see a Sligo team which will cover the whole county really. We're going to have to make the best of it while we can.”

A strong emphasis on underage development has paid off handsomely for Easkey/St Farnans.
A strong emphasis on underage development has paid off handsomely for Easkey/St Farnans.

Saturday’s CúChulainn Cup Final against Tooreen will be a good barometer of just how far Easkey have come as a club.

Last year they lost the Connacht Junior Club Final whereas Tooreen won the Connacht Intermediate Club Final so at that stage the Mayo team were a level above them.

This Easkey side is developing very quickly though, and they’re relishing the chance to test themselves against a club they have huge respect for.

“We're really looking forward to Saturday to see where we are against a very good Tooreen side,” says Evans.

“We know each other fairly well, they'd be the nearest hurling stronghold to ourselves. We play them in challenge matches about three or four times a year, but we've never had anything at stake before.

“In the round-robin phase of this competition they beat us by a few points but we knew we were both through when we played. This time there's a cup on the line so that should really bring it out of both teams.

“If we lose it just shows us where we are and what we have to do. If we win we're probably a little bit ahead of where we thought we were. Tooreen were very unlucky not to win the Intermediate Championship semi-final last year against Naas. Outside of Galway, they are the flag-bearers for hurling in Connacht.

“Talking to them privately, I think they're delighted to see some competition coming up at their level in the province so they can look forward to meaningful games in Championship down the road.”

Easkey clubman, James Weir, lifts the Nickey Rackard Cup for Sligo in 2019.
Easkey clubman, James Weir, lifts the Nickey Rackard Cup for Sligo in 2019.

Meaningful matches are what its all about for up and coming clubs like Easkey/St Farnans and that’s precisely what a cross-county competition like the CúChulainn Cup provides.

Evans has seen enough from it in its very first year to be convinced it’s the engine that can drive the growth of hurling in the developing counties.

“Yeah, I actually think this could be the secret to closing the gap in the northern counties. We can't go on the way we are with situations like just two teams in Leitrim.

“Most likely this year in Sligo it'll be ourselves and Naomh Eoin again in the county Final and in Mayo it'll be Tooreen and Ballyhaunis. We have to get away from that. We have to get more meaningful competitions and this is the perfect one.

“We're 100 per cent behind it and we can't encourage it enough. The more weight that's thrown behind this the better, because there are a lot more clubs that could have entered it and would have improved their standard if they had.

“We want to be coming up against the Slaughtneils and the Antrim clubs eventually and have a really proper Division 1.

“I think you could easily have five or six divisions in this competition to cater for all the different standards and it would bring hurling on hugely in the same way the Táin Óg League has at underage level. That has been a Godsend to us too, we've gotten great use out of it."

Saturday, July 30

CuChulainn Final- Division 1

Easkey v Tooreen HC, Connacht GAA Centre Bekan, 4pm