The skills honed at Féile still serve John McGrath well
By Kevin Egan
To most people, whether they think of Féile na nGael or Féile Peil na nÓg, they think of a formative event in the life of young athletes. Even more so, they think of the ultimate collective bonding experience, where a group of players from a club set out across the country – or possibly even from across the sea, east or west – join their peers in one area of Ireland for a festival of gaelic games, one where the matter of who wins or loses is only one aspect of a incredible sporting journey.
Less well-known in the midst of all that is the unique event which is Féile skills, which is a very different experience for everyone involved. The John West Féile events we all know and cherish are team sports, usually featuring three round robin games where teams have a small margin of error to find their stride in a new environment. There’s the weekend away with a host family, the parade, and any number of friends
For those who enter Féile skills, it’s like no other GAA event. Like handball, players stand or fall by themselves, but even on the court, if everything hinges on this next point, both players know it before the ball is served.
13 years ago, at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, John McGrath of Loughmore-Castleiney stood over a ball that was going to be the difference between being crowned National John West Féile na nGael skills champion and finishing up in the middle of the pack, and he didn’t even realise until afterwards.
“The last event of the day was sideline cuts, where you have four shots from different angles, all roughly 30 metres out from the goals. They’re worth 20 points each and while I missed my second last shot, I was tracking my score the whole way around and I had a feeling that if I hit the last one, I wouldn’t be too far away” is the Tipperary man’s recollection.
“It went between the posts and afterwards I think I won by five points, definitely no more than ten.
“On the day you went round in groups so while you’d know how you were getting on relative to the other lads in your group, there were loads of other groups at different stations, so you had no idea really how you were doing overall. I remember they called out who finished 3rd, then who finished 2nd, and it was mixed feelings when it wasn’t your name as I didn’t know if I was going to win, or to miss out entirely. I’d say there wouldn’t have been more than 15 points between first and a bunch of players, so that last cut made all the difference” he said.
Due to Loughmore-Castleiney promoting a dual culture in the club and thriving at both sports, McGrath was fortunate enough to see all sides of Féile during his U-14 ‘career’. The previous year the club won out in Tipperary and were hosted by O’Loughlin Gaels in Kilkenny, and while they failed to get out of Mid-Tipp in 2008, they qualified for Féile Peil na nÓg and so McGrath got to travel to Cavan for that year’s football event.
Then, as now, McGrath enjoyed plenty of good days as part of Loughmore-Castleiney and Tipperary teams. Just last week he fired a remarkable tally of 4-6 in Loughmore-Castleiney’s 4-15 to 0-21 win over Kilruane McDonaghs in the quarter-final of the Tipperary SHC, and hopes are high in the club that they can go one better than last year’s county final defeat.
Throughout all that, he remains incredibly appreciative of that dismal, wet Saturday afternoon in Portlaoise, and how it stands out as a unique achievement for any hurler.
“I looked on the trophy and they have the list of winners and the scores they got on it – mine was one of the lowest, so I’m putting that down to the weather on the day!” he quips.
“My father deserves a bit of credit, he brought a towel up for me to have on the day, I’d never have thought of anything like that!
“It’s completely different to anything I’ve ever done, so it’s really pleasing to look back on it and say that I was an All-Ireland champion at that age. My family came up to see it, Uachtarán CLG Nicky Brennan made the presentation on the day, and I remember that morning a member of Bórd na nÓg in Tipperary calling out to present me with a Tipperary jersey to wear on the day. Afterwards there were presentations from the club and from the Mid-Tipp board, so that was all really nice.
“Hurling has been very good to me, I’ve been lucky to be part of some great teams, but that day will always stand out for me, it was special then and it’s special to me now”.