Through Gritted Teeth #2: Kilkenny hurling

There’s always going to be an element of the confessional to blogging, a function of the narcissism inherent in someone thinking anyone else would be arsed by what they had to say. I like to think I’ve kept the navel-gazing to minimum, but there comes a time when it just feels right to bare your soul, to expose your deepest, darkest secret for sake of a few hits. So brace yourself for the impact – I was born in Kilkenny.

This isn’t correct in a strict biological sense. I arrived in this world in Airmount hospital, and for years would point to what it said on my birth cert as rebuttal to my father’s gleeful introduction to strangers (“and this is the one who was born in Kilkenny”). However when it got to the point when I had to fill in the census form for myself, I had to face up to what Question 6 specifically asks: “Give the place where your mother lived at the time of your birth“. And the answer to that is where my father was stationed in the Gardaí at the time: Mooncoin.

Besides, would it be so bad to be from Kilkenny? You could live without the kneejerk hostility towards Waterford which saw them leave the N9 through the south of their county resemble little more than a boreen for decades, or the inferiority complex which sees them react with fury to any suggestion that the settlement on the banks of the Nore is anything other than a city – a state of affairs which some character, in behaviour childish enough to demonstrate that the apple has not fallen far from the tree, would exploit by getting his English wife to constantly refer to the place as a town when speaking to anyone from the Marble Town.

In what matters though, i.e. hurling, Kilkenny is where it’s at. It isn’t just the success, although being able to tap into that would obviously be great. You have to admire their collective devotion to our great game. The hostility within the county to anything other than hurling is a marvel. You could quote apocryphal stories of glass being strewn across soccer pitches as evidence this is a bad thing, and a former work colleague from Mullinavat once told me how, upon breaking his leg playing soccer, his father told him with a straight face that it served him right for his heresy. But the people of Kilkenny appreciate that to be the best requires a single-minded commitment to hurling to the exclusion of everything else.

Nickey Brennan summed it up in an interview he gave during the time between coaching their senior team and becoming President of the association. None of it, Brennan noted, came naturally. Kilkenny’s enduring success was the product of hard work and diligence at all levels. He referenced how Tipperary were the kingpins of hurling in his youth but they had taken their eye off the ball in the 1960’s to the extent that they didn’t win a single senior championship match between 1974 and 1982. For a small county – 21st according to Wikipedia, just below Waterford – to be so dominant is a remarkable thing, a tribute to the kind of doggedness that sees a hundred boys turn out for their Tony Forristal trials (something I learned from a former colleague of my father who wanted to know if I was “the Kilkenny lad”).

It’s not just that their success is a tribute to the people who make it happen. It’s what it tells us about the nature of the success in the GAA. Not only is it that money can’t buy it for you, but a small team can take on the counties with a larger pool from which to pick and come out on top, if you’re smart enough and dedicated enough. Not only can counties like Dublin struggle to produce the likes of Henry Shefflin, they can’t poach him when they don’t. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh siad – and you can do so safe in the knowledge they won’t sod off to a bigger county. Oh, how Everton fans must yearn for a system like that when Wayne Rooney buggered off to Man Utd.

Speaking of Wayne Rooney and Henry Shefflin . . . I shouldn’t need to elaborate on the difference between the two. And while the GAA is filled with anti-Rooneys – we’ve got plenty of them in Waterford – Kilkenny have a well-earned reputation for playing the game the way it should be played. It’s a reputation that has eroded a little in the Cody era where win-at-all-costs has come more to the fore, but I can’t think of any Kilkenny player of old who had a reputation for timber merchantry akin to (say) the Hell’s Kitchen team associated with Tipperary or the nasty reputation that Waterford got after the 1989 Munster final. You have to love how Shefflin considered not going to RTÉs Sports Person of the Year award ceremony in 2006 because he didn’t think he had a hope of winning it. Kilkenny’s hurling history is replete with characters of that ilk and you have to doff your cap to it.

So in answer to my own question, would it be so bad to be from Kilkenny? The answer is: yes, it bloody well would be. Simply put, I’m from Waterford, and a measure of my confidence in that sense of belonging is that I don’t need the Waterford hurlers to carry all before them to validate that belonging. I can salute their excellence without wanting to be them, accidents of birth be damned.